By Gary Donnelly
Part 3: Whether you focus on the journey or the destination, completion is the key to successfully writing your first novel.
Writing a novel is a bit like embarking on a regime to avoid chocolate or mid-week wine in the run up to Christmas. Both are easy enough to start, harder to remain on board with and a true challenge to see through to the end.
According to Stephen King, novels are completed one word at a time, and let the story be boss. Plot at your peril and fear not; as you dig, it will be revealed. I don’t dare suggest he’s wrong (check out his list of published works) but his way may not be right for you. Certainly, King’s approach helped me cover a lot of ground, but by the time I went to Crimefest 2016, I’d lost my way. CJ Carver, speaking on a panel that year, said that a book will find a natural “tipping point”, an apex from which the rest of the write is a downhill journey. I liked the sound of that very much. Once home, I went in search of the fulcrum in my novel.
What I needed was a nice clear overview.
What I ended up with, was the wall of my writing room at home plastered with sheets of paper and post it notes, annotated in felt tip pen detailing main events and character story arcs and lots of question marks circled several times. My wife, who had already started making allusions to Jack Nicholson in The Shining when talking about my writing, gave me one of her looks. She said the wall looked like Nash’s garage in A Beautiful Mind, just before his imaginary friend demanded he kill his spouse.
I told her not to worry.
Some of the road mapping proved useful, much of it did not. But one good thing to come from it was the final scene, a place where all the strands came to an end. When I closed my eyes, I could see it, albeit hazy, and lacking specifics, but the situation was suddenly clear. The storyboarding helped me see it, and in turn having an end point presented the clear challenge I needed to thread the various strands of the story to a natural end, and one that felt right.
Not exactly what CJ Carver said, though looking for that tipping point was helpful. And not quite the same as Stephen King’s methodology (I’d still be writing the book now, and it would be as large as some of his own if I had kept going that way). I think what worked for me contains some elements, some points of similarity with both.
There’s a lot of noise out there about story strategies, formulaic plans for fast track completion and a novel in record time. If they work for you I wish you luck, but I cannot believe that something as personal and self-generated as a novel can ever be flat packed. Yes, the points of similarity of what make a good or successful completed novel can probably be reduced to discernible patterns, even pathways. But our stories, like our prints, are unique and to tell them, I think we need to find our own way, from beginning to end.
Going back to that regime to abstain from wine or chocolate, it’s ok to fall off the wagon, to have a mouthful of red or brick of chocolate. But you have to stick at it. The same is true for writing. No matter if you excavate, seek out a tipping point, or use a story stencil to write by numbers, you must turn up for work. Fundamentally, that’s the missing link between novels that are completed and those which are not, assuming you are telling a story that is both honest and right for you at that time. As someone more eloquent than me put it, “Write when you want and write when you don’t.” If we don’t, then catching glimpse of your story’s final scene and even finding a path to take you there are as useful for completing a novel as red wine and chocolate are for losing weight.
Get your copy of Gary’s captivating, debut crime thriller, Blood Will Be Born, here!