Writing a novel: where to start?

I suppose I’ve learned quite a lot about writing a novel over the past few years. A long time before that I learned how to write sentences and string them together into paragraphs that followed each other and made sense. I can recall some quite good writing in my school years, and at university, but that was mainly explaining ideas, or recounting other people’s ideas. Writing a novel is different, as different as painting a full canvas is from doing a doodle in the corner of a page. I didn’t realise that at the beginning. I thought that writing full length fiction was not palpably different, just more of the same, and I was wrong.

Now I’m wondering if I can help others through some of the stages I have been through myself. Ideally, as many of the best writing courses do, you would take people through stage by stage, with time intervals in between for practice and reflection, watching the improvement as time goes by. But those courses are expensive, and require high levels of expertise and confidence from the ‘providers’ to reassure the clients they are not wasting their time or their money.

What would I have to offer, having written only three works of fiction so far, which I have published myself. The feedback has been good, and the sales tick along nicely, but do I really have something worth sharing? And given I’m a relative novice in this business, would anyone want to put themselves in my hands even for a little while, and pay for my help? The experience of writing may be slender, but there’s one thing in all this where my experience is deep and trustworthy: I know how to help adults learn. I’ve been in the adult learning business as a freelance education consultant for over twenty years, all round the world. Most of my clients have been educators, but very varied in style, age, nationality, motivation and potential. I’m pretty good at meeting these various needs, as I should be after all this time.

So, could the experience in adult learning make up for relative inexperience as a writer? I think it might just do so, and in a couple of months I’ll get the chance to find out. I’m planning a writing workshop, for a Saturday in January, at one of our local public libraries. ( For those of you who know Cumbria, it’s in Kendal.) I want to find twenty or so people and work with them for six hours, embarking on the very early stages of ‘Writing and Publishing a Novel.’ I’m not going to start with ‘how to write a good sentence’, heading instead straight for how to find a setting and some characters, give them life and write a story that readers will enjoy. Already ideas for useful activities that will meet this purpose are beginning to bubble up, drawing on many of the best activities I’ve experienced in my own learning so far. The starting points will be setting and characters: once we have those, things begin to take off. Tackling the thorny question of getting published may be a lot to take on in a shortish day, but I know it is of interest to most aspiring writers, and here again some practical advice may be helpful.

Now I need the publicity that will bring in enough people to make it work. We’re working on the website link, but it’s likely that most people will hear about the workshop through the local libraries and media. I do hope some people come: I really want to see whether the ideas in my head will stimulate potential writers to take the plunge as I did six years ago, and am so glad I did.

Slow snow falling on Friday

I wonder how much the physical circumstances of writing affect my thoughts. The last post, about ‘Flow’, I wrote in an apartment on the 14th floor of a condo building in downtown Winnipeg, as the traffic streamed into the city and construction workers on yet another new building across the street picked their way around in a gusty wind beneath a massive crane. I felt energized and quick, with movement all around me.

Today, now, I’m sitting in a silent space watching light soft snow falling into the Salmon River as it slides past a few metres from my window, on its way to Grand Lake, New Brunswick. Fat, fluffy flakes drift gently down, the river’s movement is almost imperceptible, and my mind has slowed down too. Maybe it needed to: the past three weeks have been full on. And for the first time in three weeks I’ve had space in my head for the book that had pre-occupied me for weeks before I started this trip, the one I’m writing, the first one of a new series.

Walking in the snow this morning I had a clear vision of one of the characters in my head, and was also convinced that this was a different image than the one that found its way into the first draft of Chapter 1 written over a month ago. Lots to change I thought. But then I re-read the draft, and there it was, identical to my current image. Curiously reassuring: the complexity I wanted to see was already there. Then I went to the character study of this person that I’d written and filed many months ago, and all the prior work and thinking suddenly filled my head as if they’d never been away. Over the next few days, exploring the Bay of Fundy before I finally head home, I have to keep the thoughts simmering gently. If it carries on snowing like this, I might even make a virtue of confinement and write some more. It’s a relief to get back to the real writing after so long away from it. The snow is reminding of a wonderful book by David Guterson called ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’. I hope I can achieve the sense of place and atmosphere as well as he did.

On the verge of downloading Guterson’s book and re-reading it, I hesitate. ‘Be careful what you read during your writing project,’ was advice offered on a writing course. ‘Beware of being influenced by someone else’s style and losing your own voice.’ Could that happen, really? Even if it did, I couldn’t stop reading while my writing is underway. And I choose books within the same genre as my own, using my inner critic to deconstruct them and inspire to do as well, or better, myself.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the man with the unprounounceable name, introduced us some years ago to the concept of ‘Flow’, defined in Wikipedia thus:

Flow, also known as Zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

This is what I want to think about today, sitting waiting for a cab to take me to the airport in Winnipeg and thence to Fredericton, NB, to start – hopefully – ‘flowing’ through next week. You would think that as a writer I would be extolling the impact of writing, making me feel fully immersed, etc etc. but during the past weeks in Winnipeg I’ve not been writing my fourth novel, I’ve been earning the money to publish it.

At least, that’s what I thought this work was for, but I’d forgotten what a challenge and a joy it can be to present ideas that are part of your life to other people. There have been times during this work when ‘flow’ exactly captures my state of mind. I’ve never done any extreme sports, but I think this may be the intellectual equivalent, using all your brain, senses and responses to get ideas across. No script, and several variables to juggle –  the prior knowledge of the group, the ways they learn, the ideas that interest them, time, lunch, the goals to be reached by the end of the day. You’re prepared, obviously, but what really prompts the words that come out of your mouth is ‘flow’, and when that happens you hear yourself making connections you didn’t even know were in your mind, remembering apposite facts and ideas from long ago and weaving them in, spontaneously.

That’s teaching. In my case it’s teaching adults. Subject knowledge is important only because it releases your mind from remembering things to the qualitatively different activity of making connections and adapting what you know to the particular circumstances of the moment. My subject knowledge is about teaching and student assessment, and it’s been accumulating over forty years. I should be pretty good at it by now.

But this wasn’t the plan. Six years ago I made up my mind to learn how to write fiction, and I’m doing that. I wanted to write a novel, and I did – eventually – and then I wrote two more and I’m slowly getting better. There are times in the writing process when I achieve that flow, when hours pass unnoticed, and I feel that same exhilaration as I’ve felt at times in the past weeks here in Winnipeg. But the difference lies in the very private nature of writing as opposed to the public nature of teaching. Imagine writing with the reader at your shoulder, thinking, asking questions, laughing, being moved, right there, on the spot. That’s what teaching feels like sometimes. And when I’m writing I miss that. It’s a lonely business, and I’m a social animal. That doesn’t mean I need people all around me all the time, not at all. I live alone, travel and work alone, and crave my own company from time to time. But somehow I need to bring the buzz of interaction into my writing life. Maybe that’s where I could run workshops about writing, but I don’t have the forty years accumulated understanding that my education life has provided, and which is so central to the ‘flow’ of teaching. Maybe I should just keep going with the education side of my life, not just to earn money to support my writing, but to reward myself with additional opportunities for the ‘rush’ of ‘flow’. I’ll have to think about that.