On Writing A Debut Novel

I have come for your IMMORTAL SOUL.

It starts with a great idea. Well, sometimes it starts with an OK idea which becomes a great idea if it’s not murdered in the process. 

My idea was about a fake psychic, and what would happen if their phony predictions started coming true. Now all I had to do was make it into a book. “How hard can it be?” I said, with the optimism of youth [1]

This is the story of how I tried not to kill my good idea.  

Seized with the idea of creating something which will at best achieve some kind of publication and at worst entertain my friends, I take my blank notebook to a sunny spot in the garden.  Ready?  Set?  Write! 



How about....?  No, too derivative.  What if I...?  No, too pedestrian.  There once was a...  No, no, no.  Time has slowed to a trickle.  I manage to cobble together a few paragraphs, blood seeping from my fingers.  The words, once dancing happily around my head, look limp and useless on the page.  What am I doing?  In despair, the notebook is closed and shoved into a cupboard. 

The good idea, however, still sits at the back of my mind.

A few months later, I pull the notebook out again and read the scant amount of work it contains.  It’s not as bad as I thought.  It might even be salvageable.  I’ll have another go.  What have I got to lose?  OK!  Here we go.


Ummm.....  Hmm. 

A few disjointed sentences later, I throw down my pen again.  Who am I fooling?  I’m chronically untalented, and it’s a miracle I can spell my own name.  In disgust, the notebook is closed and shoved under a pile of laundry.

This miserable and unproductive pattern continues for several years, a hellish repeat loop of hope, despair, depression, and rejection until I tire of the blotchy pages hanging over my head and issue myself a challenge to produce a complete story by the end of the year.  Even if it’s unreadable pomposity, at least I can say that I wrote, no, finished [2] a novel. 

Round Two.  I start afresh, this time with research, figuring that if I’m going to write about a cult which disguises itself as an aromatherapy company, I should probably know more about both.  Lengthy Googling follows.  I ransack my shelves for an aromatherapy refresher when I can’t remember whether German or Roman Chamomile is the one that makes you fall asleep worryingly quickly.  Knowing my tendency to get overwhelmed with too much data, I give myself only two weeks for information gathering, then cut it off at the knees. 

Now well-versed in both carrier oils and mind-control techniques, I start to create my insidious organisation which preys on the naive and desperate, drawing them in with free health-related classes before sucking them into a world of non-existent illnesses and bogus cures.  It’s like writing a handbook: Lia’s Big Book of Cults.  I draw floor plans, designed to disorientate.  I sketch uniforms, professional yet seductive, evoking handmaidens of yore.  I write a company song, complete with nine rhyming verses.  The D.I.Y. Cult process brings a child-like thrill I had long forgotten: it’s my company—I can do whatever I want!  Treat fake disorders with a glockenspiel?  Sure!  Use dogs as therapists?  Why not?  I mull over which essential oils, pumped in via the air ducts, would keep employees both productive and docile.  In a matter of weeks, hiring protocols, treatment facilities, room designs, disciplinary actions, price lists, and a disturbingly large bank of coercion techniques have given rise to the corporation that will seduce and destroy my heroine.

Now to actually write the book.  The research was the hard part, right[3]?  It will need to start with a bang: the World’s Best Opening Chapter.  It must be perfect.  It must be exciting and gripping and un-put-down-able.  In the face of these expectations, all coherent writing flees for the hills.  I temporarily abandon the idea of World’s Best Opening Chapter in exchange for Opening Chapter, and figure I can always go back later[4].

Stagger through a few more scenes.  I have no outline, and only the vaguest idea of plot.  Am I suffering from writer’s block already?  Wait; does writer’s block actually exist?  Start to self-diagnose with techniques from the D.I.Y. Cult handbook and stop immediately.  Plan.  Need some kind of plan.  My sophisticated answer is to scribble down all of the situations I’d like to see my heroine try and get out of.  Or into, depending on the event.  There: my one-page plot, in no particular order.

Start.  Stop.  Start.  Stop.  The doubt is crippling and seizes my fingers as soon as it’s on the horizon.  Progress is Sisyphean due to my tendency to re-write and re-write and re-write the same paragraph[5].  I think of the book as shaped like a person; when someone asks me how far along I am, I realise I’m only half-way up the shins.  The fear sets in.  What if I can’t maintain a story for long enough?  How on earth will I stretch “..and then something else happened!” into a book, let alone a coherent one?  Why did I possibly think this was a good idea?  Each time I’m in the shower, I panic under the water at the size of the task ahead of me, and berate myself over and over for even considering ‘novelist’ as a vocation.  My fingers get so wrinkly it’s impossible to see my fingerprints.  (Strangely enough, I do not use this opportunity to take up cat burglary, though it would potentially be more lucrative than my writing career thus far.)   

I decide that blind stumbling will eventually get me somewhere as long as I keep going.  Force myself to tackle each scene in the one-page plot.  Am madly encouraged when sentences effortlessly flow, then panic that I’m actually unknowingly regurgitating something I’ve read elsewhere.  Potential plagiarism suits swim before my eyes.  Read back over the last paragraph.  Re-assure myself that I’ve never actually read the sentence, The statue looked as if it had been painted by a colour-blind palsy sufferer, and was shedding fistfuls of pink and green glitter over the Jaasmyn Empire stall floor” before. 

Wonder if I should actually consult a book on how to write, seeing as I have no writing friends whose brains I can pick[6].  Obsessively read Amazon reviews to see which title I should choose: On Writing always rises to the top.  Duly trot to local bookshop for purchase.  Read whole thing in one go.  Am surprised to find that Stephen King and I have similar ways of thinking.  (Who knew?)  The analogy of stories being “found things, like fossils in the ground” gives me an unexpected lift; the story you’re writing is the one you’re supposed to write.  (It’s kind of like believing in God; whether true or not, the idea of a safety net always inspires confidence.)

Keen to discover more useful writing advice, I go online only to find site after site crammed full of contradictory information.  One tip advises abandoning a scene mid-flow so you’ve got a great jumping-off point when you come back to it.  Try it out.  Promptly forget point of scene.  Disregard tip.  Unplug modem[7].    

Fully committed now, I write the way I assume other people with full-time jobs write: in between appointments; after turning down dinner offers; during lazy afternoons when the TV and couch beckon; huddled in front of the heater with the dog; on the kitchen bench while cooking dinner; late at night when I want to be asleep; and early in the morning when I want to be asleep even more. 

On the good days, I itch to get started, and then the words seem to fall into place on the page.  On the bad days, I itch to get started and then find the words won’t start with me.  On the really bad days, I don’t want to even look at the book, and feel saturated with guilt as a result.  Surely if I was a real writer, I’d love to write all the time, wouldn’t I[8]?  Repeating the mantra “don’t get it right; get it written” I jackboot through every type of day.  Me versus the keyboard, bashing away with one hand while the other covers my eyes, too frightened to look.  When I read back, I’m pleasantly surprised to find bits I like, and somewhat disturbed to see other bits I can’t remember writing.  Good Lord.  Have I discovered some kind of deep-writing zone where brilliance flows directly from my brain onto the page?  Wait, I’ve spelt ‘separate’ wrong.  Scratch that note about the brilliance.

Take a whole week off work to try and knock over the final act of the book.  Set myself impossibly high word count goals and feel devastated when I don’t reach them.  Stockpile snow peas so I can still fit into my pants despite constant snacking.  Develop seven-cup-a-day coffee habit, effectively adding six more cups to my normal daily routine, then wonder why I’ve started shaking so much.  During one conversation, thoughtlessly refer to writing as “the craft” and feel like killing myself.

I try not to worry about the fact that the book that’s emerging is not the one I was originally going to write as the characters seem to be doing their own thing.  Temporarily worry about sanity.  Check with Mr King, who assures me all is well.  Keep going.  Keep going.  Keep.  Going.  One night, after several glasses of red wine, I’m tempted back to the page and write expansively, lavishly.  The next morning realise that what I thought was an interesting insight into human nature reads like a Chicken Soup for the Soul moment.  Resolve to continue writing sober. 

Finally—finally!—the first draft is done.  Pulling my head out of the ground, I’ve lost all perspective on it and can’t judge whether a line is genuinely amusing or smugly self-congratulatory.  Initial exaltation gives way to despair.  I need a reader.  Husband not the best choice, working 14-hour days and allergic to books in general.  Friends have been very quick to say they’d love to read it; why not chance a few of them?  At least they’ll probably be kind when they tell me I should consider an alternate career.  Carefully printed out on a rickety printer and tenderly wrapped in a purple folder, the manuscript is given out to a select few.  I wait. 

No response. 

I wait a bit more.  Still no response. 

After almost a month, I voice a tentative query to each.  “Have you had a chance to...?”  The reply is the same each time: “Oh, sorry, honey, no.  [Insert excuse regarding work/family/limb removal making page-turning an impossibility.]”  I am crushed, but try to remain stoic.  The book is not the centre of everyone’s universe.  Or, for some people, even a small star on the outreaches of their galaxy.  One friend finally finishes it.  I’m delirious and desperate for feedback.  “How was it?”  “Good!”  Although better than “Total crap!”, it’s not quite the in-depth response I need.  Never have I been so keen for someone to tell me what I’m doing wrong.  Please, someone, read it—rip it to pieces!  At least then I’ll know where to start revisions.

My mother, a widely-read woman who is extremely efficient at nit-picking, steps up to the plate.  She critiques long and hard, picking up things my manuscript-addled brain completely missed.  As it mounts up, I wriggle in my chair, wondering when she’ll get to the point where she tells me to give it up.  She ends without advising me either way.  “Yes, but is it any good?” I finally ask.  “Oh, yes!” she says.  “It’s a real book.”  A real book.  I’ve written a book[9]!  “If only it were a worthy tome,” sighs Mother, when we discuss the chances of it winning that year’s ABC Fiction Award.  I don’t take it personally.     

Ready for the second draft, I start from the beginning, sandpaper in hand.  I hunt for self-conscious writing, for the phrase that catches and jags rather than slipping easily past the eyes.  Any quip that seems too self-satisfied: gone.  Any observation veering into windbaggery: cut.  I laugh at a few of the jokes, and then wonder if doing so is a sign of rampant egotism.  The story clearly hangs together better from the point where I started working on it daily[10]; it’s almost scary how much that habit improves your work.  Slowly, slowly the sketchy beginning is reworked, the dialogue scrubbed clean.  I agonise over King’s adverb-culling advice—“Kill your darlings”—and leave only the few I can’t bear to be parted from.

At 10 p.m. on the eve of my birthday, I sit back and stare at the screen.  It’s done.  The book is complete, the skeleton now intact and fleshed out without looking like Frankenstein’s monster.  Instead of cracking open a bottle of Champagne, I get to high-five the dog and then go and pick up an exhausted husband from work.  We get burgers on the way home, and I eat greasy fries in the knowledge that, although I exceeded my deadline a little (*cough*twoyears*cough*), the book is finished.  Now: to attempt to get it published.

... Wait; what do you mean, ‘synopsis’?

[1] Lesson One:  Optimism, whilst an admirable trait, is not as useful as hindsight.

[2] Lesson Two: There are apparently eleventy kabillion novels that never get completed.  It’s best to avoid adding yours to the pile.

[3] Lesson Three:  Ha ha!  No.

[4] Lesson Four:  It must be written before it can be re-written.  A simple idea to some, tremendously problematic for others, including me.

[5] Lesson Five:  Do not do this.  Really.

[6] Lesson Six:  It helps to be friends with other writers.  Or so I have been told.  (Note to self: make more friends.)

[7] Lesson Seven:  Do this.  When facing a deadline, the internet is not your friend.

[8] Lesson Eight:  Not necessarily true.  Fighting through the inertia often all that separates the finished books from the previously mentioned eleventy kabillion.

[9] Lesson Nine:  Even a) after you’ve written it and b) after publication, it may take a while for you to stop repeating, “I wrote a book!”  Other people will think you are strange.  Do not worry.

[10] Lesson Ten:  Like working out and filing tax receipts, it’s always better to do small amounts daily rather than attempt big chunks.  The big chunks will break both your brain and your hamstrings.  

(c) Lia Weston, 2010

This article was originally published on the Writing Novels in Australia website in July 2010.