Anatomy of a Novel Part 1: Learning to be kind

In this series of posts I’m going to be giving you a warts-and-all look at the process of writing my next novel, an Australian Gothic thriller tentatively titled The Dark Before the Dawn.

Ruins in Joadja, NSW. From here.
Ruins in Joadja, NSW. From here.

The first week of NaNoWriMo is over, and to be honest it’s been a bit of a bust for me. I have a grand total of 3685 words so far across one-and-a-bit chapters (i.e. practically nothing). Unfortunately this week I was struck down with a bad case of Murphy’s Law – everything that could go wrong did. Work went crazy, home life was hectic and getting up early to write suddenly became very difficult. The evenings and weekends have been spent alternately catching up on life admin and binge-watching episodes of Castle, because I don’t have much energy left right now at the tail-end of a very big year and it’s easier to watch a TV show about a writer than to actually be one.

Had this happened during my first crack at NaNoWriMo (the one that produced Greythorne), I’d probably be beating myself up pretty badly right about now. But I’ve come to value the NaNo experience not so much for the word count as for the things it teaches me about writing and about myself.

As I’ve mentioned before, last time around NaNoWriMo taught me discipline. I learned that if you just keep showing up day after day you’ll eventually get somewhere. But this time around I’m learning to be a bit kinder to myself. I no longer have to prove to myself that I can do it – I know I can. The proof is sitting there in boxes on my living-room floor. Writing a novel is hard – especially psychologically – but it’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And sometimes the shit hits the fan and all your best-laid plans get thrown completely out of whack, and that’s ok. I’m fortunate in that I’m not up against a deadline, so I have the luxury of sitting back and letting things unfold at their own pace. And given my perfectionist tendencies, this has all come as a bit of an epiphany.

One of the things I’ve been struggling with in those 3685 words is trying to get a sense of authenticity. It was only after I started writing that I began to realise I’ve fallen into the trap I’m always warning beginning writers about – I haven’t read enough of the genre I want to write. Looking back, I can see just how much nineteenth-century British adventure/horror fiction I’d read before I started Greythorne, and how that made it so much easier to tap into the tropes of the genre and make it sound authentic. Trying to transpose the Gothic themes to an Australian setting is proving much harder, because it’s the first time I’ve ever written anything set in my home country.

Throughout NaNoWriMo you get sent pep talks from experienced writers and, as fate would have it, this one popped into my inbox this week from graphic novel author and artist Gene Luen Yang. This is what he had to say about ‘writer’s block’ (which is a term I don’t much like, but I’ll rant about that another day):

Writer’s block can kick the wind right out of you. When I was just starting out, a serious bout of writer’s block would make me question my worth as a writer. Maybe the ideas weren’t coming because I wasn’t creative enough, or clever enough. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer.

Now I realize that I just didn’t have enough input. Your brain doesn’t generate ideas out of thin air. It generates ideas by taking what it’s already experienced and reshaping it in new and interesting ways. If you’re not getting good output, maybe it’s because you haven’t taken in enough input.

When writer’s block hits, do research. Flip through old photographs. Watch a documentary. Read a nonfiction book, preferably one that’s been out of print for years. Visit a place you’ve never been and talk to people you don’t know. Gather input.

This input-output equation makes so much sense to me, and reading this confirmed what I’d already suspected – I just haven’t read enough yet. I like to think of it a bit like music. I’m a pretty average musician – I play piano and euphonium and sing, and I love it, but I’ll never be a concert pianist or an opera singer. I have only a basic knowledge of music theory, but lately I’ve been dabbling in a bit of songwriting. I know the kinds of things I like, and occasionally I get lucky and hit on something magical, but I couldn’t tell you why it works. Compare that to  the jazz musician who’s had years of training before even starting to improvise. It’s only by knowing the rules that they can break them and go to incredible places. Writing is exactly the same. You don’t read the genre because you want to copy it – you read it to gain a knowledge of how things are done, so that you can then make conscious technical decisions to change them to achieve your desired effect. As far as Australian Gothic goes, I’m still just plunking away and occasionally getting lucky, so I’ve realised it’s time to go back to basics before I can even think about putting my own spin on it. So I may have only 3685 words but, with that realisation, I think I can still count NaNo a success so far.

And now I’m off to read some books.

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