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Starting Your Novel: The Weekend Dad by Alison Walsh

Article by Alison Walsh ©.
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When I was thinking about the idea of ‘beginnings’ for this piece, I did some research and found myself faced with lots of inspirational quotes, of the ‘step through the door from the past into the future’ kind. There were lots of positive-thinking affirmations urging me to turn over a new page and begin a new chapter in my life. But that isn’t quite what I had in mind. The beginnings I was thinking about were those first, faltering steps in writing a novel that, no matter how many times they are taken, seem to be full of anxiety and uncertainty. Even though I have been through the process a number of times now, I find that each time I sit down to begin a new novel, I develop complete amnesia about how I went about writing the previous ones.

Of course, you may differ, but I know that beginning a new novel has a certain number of steps for me. I can’t skip any of them, because, if I do, the novel won’t actually happen. I begin with procrastination. A little while after finishing my previous novel – and by ‘finishing’ I mean rewriting, editing and proofreading it, then waving it a surprisingly unsentimental goodbye – I feel a sense of liberation. Life seems suddenly full of possibilities: I make cakes, I walk the dog, I watch The Crown, telling myself that it’s basically research, I walk the dog again, I have coffee with friends, I go up to the Hellfire Club for a hike. If it’s summer, I wrap my togs in a towel and make the journey out to Seapoint for a swim. And so on. I tell myself that I’m having a lovely time, really, even if I feel that awkward nudge in the ribs that tells me I should be writing.

The next step after procrastination – which can go on for quite some time – is staring out the window. I go to my shed, I sit at my desk and I open my laptop. Then I stare out the window. I write a sentence or two in my notebook. I look at the sentence. I think, what the hell is that? I scribble angrily over it in blue biro.  I sigh. I look out the window again. I riffle through my notebook for the ideas or snatches of conversation I’ve been writing down when I think of them or hear them, and I examine them for inspiration. Suddenly, they all seem a bit useless. I close my notebook and sigh and look out the window again. I’ll take the dog for a walk, I decide – again. But this is not the same walk as the Liberation Walk. This walk is more focused, and I find myself mulling over ideas, ears and eyes open to anything of interest. Ideas pop into my head and I discard them, but I know that I’m tuned in because even a simple read of the newspaper or an overheard conversation seems suddenly particularly interesting and surprisingly random things make connections in my head. (Later in the process, I can read the paper from cover to cover without taking in a single word, so focused am I on the job in hand.)

OK, I think the next day. It’s time to get cracking. I go to my shed and I open my laptop… and so on. There is an awful lot of staring into space, a bit of scribbling in longhand, a lot of random reading – everything from Raymond Carver’s short stories to Graham Greene to Jojo Moyes to Helen Dunmore and – nothing. Stephen King said that ‘The scariest moment is just before you start’, and boy, was he right. I begin to announce to my family that it’s no good. I might as well just give up. I can think of absolutely nothing and if I do, it’s all rubbish. They nod their heads stoically and my husband reminds me that I said that the last time. Oh, if only I could remember.

This awful business of groping around in the dark seems to start afresh each time. My novel, The Weekend Dad, began with a scene in which two children were hiding under the bed in a holiday home in Wexford and seeing something they shouldn’t. For ages, I had absolutely no idea how this scene would connect to anything else, but then I went for a walk with a friend of mine, who is a poet, and who told me about a ‘gig’ she’d done, which involved administering ‘poetry therapy’ to people at a festival, producing a poem for them to soothe whatever ailment they had. Whilst I did wonder slightly at the advisability of this project, my mind began to turn it over as I quietly filed it away under ‘might be useful’. And indeed it turned out to be as a young man in his twenties emerged on the previously blank page, who was, as it happened, a poet. Hey presto. And once I had my poet, I had the beginnings of a story as I began to think about who he was and what his life was like now.

The next step for me is trying to get inside that character by exploring his or her voice. I’ll have a go at a few different perspectives, discarding ones that just don’t feel or sound right, until I get that ‘ah, there we go’ moment, when I begin to write in the voice of the person who will carry the reader through. My poet started out in the third person, but only when I discarded couple of chapters of this stilted version did he begin to speak in the first person, in the present tense and suddenly, I was going somewhere.

Now, this method might not suit you – I have a tendency to overthink things, to decide I’m going to write a novel of Tolstoyan complexity and daring, before I eventually discover that I’m writing more or less the same thing as I did the last time – oh, well. But no matter what you write, there will be a beginning to your novel. Beginnings are exactly that – the first steps, which will be followed by more steps, then a hurdle or two, then a reversal back to a certain point when you realise that you have lost your way or taken a wrong turning or find that your character is speaking in a different voice…  and so on, in my case, until I have a first draft.  I may not have a clue how to write each novel when I begin, but what I do now understand is that every novel is a process, and that the only thing to do is to accept it, from the procrastination to the staring out the window, to the scribbling, to the experimentation, to the writing and the rewriting and the editing. You can’t skip any step, because they are all part of this process. But whatever method you have – and it doesn’t matter what it is – the important thing is just to get on with it, as Neil Gaiman said, ‘You sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.’

(c) Alison Walsh

About The Weekend Dad:

Guaranteed to appeal to fans of Nick Hornby and David Nicholls, The Weekend Dad is a warmhearted novel about parenthood, family and new beginnings.

‘Would you like to see some pictures?’
‘I’d love to.’ After all, what father wouldn’t want to see pictures of his daughter? A father who was scared, that’s who.
I’m not a grown-up. I’m really not. I don’t have a job, or savings, or a pension. I don’t have a wife or a dog, a car or a house. But I do, suddenly, have a daughter.

Six weeks ago, Emmett became a father – to seven-year-old girl Misty. Leaving Dublin for London to bond with the daughter he never knew existed seems like the right thing to do, though he’s not quite sure how he fits into Misty’s life, or her mother’s. When Emmett knew Amanda they were both students. Today, she’s a successful career woman with proper plans for her future – and he’s a struggling poet, trying to connect with his daughter during their awkward weekend visits.
But then Amanda surprises Emmett with an unexpected proposition, and he finds himself with some big decisions to make . . .

Order your copy online here.


Alison Walsh has worked in publishing and literary journalism for a number of years. She wrote a popular and humorous column on family life for the Irish Independent for some years, and this was followed by a number-one bestselling memoir on motherhood, In My Mother’s Shoes. She is a regular contributor to the Sunday Independent books pages. Her previous novels include All That I Leave Behind and The House on Seaview Road. Alison lives in Dublin with her husband and three children. Follow her on Twitter at @authoralison or visit her website at www.alisonwalsh.net
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