November 15th, 2017

How I wrote a novel

This year I achieved a lifelong ambition. I wrote a novel.
I've wanted to write a novel since I was about six years old. I have multiple unfinished drafts saved on this computer, on previous computers, on computers lost to time, on computers that probably predate time (BBC Micro, anybody?). Until this year, I never managed to finish one.

I would begin and I would know how it ended. I could never do the middle bit, connecting the dots, getting the characters from A to B. Slowly my interest and motivation would slip away, or I would start afresh, try again only to find the same cycle repeating itself.

This year, that changed. I wrote an entire novel from start to finish, sent it to my agent, she got me a book deal and I will be a published novelist in 2018. The whole process was breathtakingly quick. I began in January. I had a deal by July.

In fact the whole process was breathtaking, full stop. It was fascinating. If you search online for ‘how to write a novel’ you’ll come across many well-thought out blogs and articles and tips and exercises all designed to help. Most of them involve things like, planning and writing out the story structure, getting the plot outline completed, developing your characters, going through various creative exercises on paper (if your character went out for lunch, what would they order?) and other very sensible and helpful tips. It’s all highly organised and linear.

I did none of the above. I have no Instagrammable notebooks filled with spider diagrams, scribbled notes and sketches. The process of writing my novel was as far removed from a planned and organised creative exercise as it’s possible to be. It was completely unlinear – it was cyclical. Here’s how it all worked, and what I learned.

  1. I got depressed. I began the year in a pretty bad place in terms of my self-image and general mood, and it got worse as I approached my 36th birthday. I felt impossibly low, stuck, drained, self-defeating and had no idea how to get myself out of it. On a surface level I continued ‘as normal’ but inside me everything was on hold. I had literally nothing inside me other than empty space and lack.
  2. I got reflective. Through a series of events and happenings my personal history became pressing in my mind and I became fixated upon my teenage years. I listened to music from the era on loop, remembered the people I knew, the places I went and the emotions I felt, and I played it all through as frequently as I played The Prodigy and Utah Saints. At first I wondered if I was experiencing a period of mourning, having entered my late mid-thirties, for times long gone and emotions and experiences I would and could never repeat. But then the internal processes began to change – again – and I started to wonder what might have happened if I’d made different choices or decisions, if I’d avoided certain people or become close to others – I began to play with my own history.
  3. I got inspired. I began to write a story that was in no way based upon my own personal life or experience, but was definitely informed and inspired by the process I’d been through above. I have had this happen before – a creative surge, out comes between 15,000 and 40,000 words, and then it stops. I ride the wave and then lose it and have no way of getting it back. I assumed this would be the case, and I wrote anyway.
  4. I dug in. Parts of the book were excruciating to write, for reasons that would make no sense to anybody but me. Although not autobiographical this book was a creation of mine, something generated and put into the world by me alone. This meant exposing the parts of myself about which I feel most vulnerable. At times I literally could not type the words, I knew what I had to write and I could feel the words in my head, waiting to flow down my arms and onto the page, and I could feel resistance and blockage along with shame and humiliation. I could sit for hours staring at the screen, waiting to be ready, waiting for the excruciating feelings to pass. I believed enough in the outcome to override the fear, and so eventually, I wrote what I had to write. This was the first time I had found the courage to write what I needed to write and not duck out.
  5. I couldn’t let go. When the first roadblock happened, the first indication that this was not going to work, I was running out of steam and losing the creative flow, I expected I would just stop. I didn’t. I kept going. I started again, a different iteration of the same story. I did this several times. I wrote chapters that kept to a chronological order and chapters that didn’t fit anywhere but I felt that they would do at some point, and I felt I was writing them for a reason, so I did.
  6. I went to the other side. I put all other aspects of my life on hold (as far as this is possible) and wrote. I wrote from the second I woke up until I was needed elsewhere, and until the second I went to bed, usually at about 1 or 2am. I was bursting with energy. I didn’t need much sleep, I had to force myself to remember to eat, I lost a ton of weight and I felt a true vibrance within me, a genuine connection to the flow of creativity, that I hadn’t ever really allowed myself to experience before. I’d skirted around it, had moments of inspiration, days here and there when the words wouldn’t stop coming, but I never let myself really lean into it. This time I went all the way. I dived in and let it swallow me whole.
  7. I began to trust the process. I saw that I went through cycles of intense creativity and productivity, and that these would slowly tail off and I would need to rest, get a few early nights, stop trying to force it and wait for the inspiration to return, trusting that it would – and it did. Every time. I wrote whatever I felt I had to write in that moment to keep the flow going. I wrote entire vehicles and characters into the story that I would later remove, but I wrote them anyway because I felt I had to at the time. I didn’t really know why, nor did I question it. I wrote whatever my brain, or my heart, told me to write. I surrendered.
  8. I abandoned all goals other than finishing. It became clear to me that if I kept trusting the process – trusting myself – I was going to finish this book. I put all thoughts of publication out of my mind, stopped worrying about whether my agent would want to read it and whether she would consider it worthy of submission. I didn’t have to encourage myself or ‘fake it til I made it’. I genuinely wanted to finish the book, to finish the book. That was the only goal. I retained of course an inkling that this could become something big for me if I did finish it and if my agent liked it and if somebody picked it up – but at this stage that was too many ‘ifs’ and all were out of my control. The only thing in my control was whether or not I would finish the book, so that became the goal, and that’s what I did.
  9. Once I’d finished, I started at the beginning all over again. I read and re-read and re-read and made change after change. Some small, some big – some so big they entailed almost a complete re-writing of vast parts of the book. I continued to trust the process. If my instincts told me something had to go, it went. If my heart said ‘this isn’t working,’ I stopped trying to make it work. When I saw I needed to make changes that would mean yet more hours upon hours of writing and rewriting and would be difficult and an effort, I made every single one anyway. I trusted that it would all make sense in the end, and I kept going. I also trusted that I would know when I was done, when it was ready, when it was time to stop tinkering and go on to the next stage.
  10. I sent it to my agent. This was a HUGE step. This was the start of me stating my intention to put my work out there in the world. I was terrified and the ‘what ifs’ were off the scale. I’ve been working with my agent Isy since 2009, but only on non-fiction. This was something entirely new and different. We hadn’t worked together since The Girl’s Guide to Life on Two Wheels was published in 2013 – this felt as scary as starting from scratch, but with the added fear of losing the respect of somebody I value. What if she came back saying ‘no this is just not going to work, please stick to non-fic in future’? I believed in the book 100% and I felt magic in it. If she didn’t get it and feel it too, would that invalidate everything I’d worked towards?
  11. She loved it and asked me to prepare it for submission. I froze up temporarily and struggled to rework certain parts based on her feedback. Then I struggled to create a synopsis – I think I spent about three weeks staring at a blank screen, completely unable to even start. The prospect of falling at the final hurdle loomed large in my mind. I tried various strategies, and they all failed. I wanted my synopsis to be PERFECT. What I finally sent was not perfect. It would do. That was all I was capable of, and it would do.
  12. Feedback took a while to come in and the first couple were rejections, but still positive and encouraging. Then the offer came in and I basically didn’t tell anybody other than Noel and my mother and one close friend. I had thought I would be screaming it from the rooftops. Instead I said nothing. Eventually I put something on Instagram. I’ve struggled to refer to it much since. Too many what-ifs again. What if they change their minds? What if they’re not happy with the final edit? What if it doesn’t happen, after all? What if it’s a spectacular failure and everybody laughs at me and I get review after review saying ‘this is shit’? WHAT IF?

The process is ongoing, in a cyclical way. At the moment the second edit is with my publishers, and soon there will be more editing, refining, tinkering, titles, cover designs and all the exciting stuff. But all cycles come back to the beginning and right now that’s where I am – almost back at the beginning, one cycle has ended and I’m waiting for the next one to start.

Throughout this process there have been standout moments. Finishing, getting good feedback from my agent, getting a deal – they were all huge. But the real standout moment happened much earlier. It happened after those awkward, difficult times when I sat staring at a blank screen knowing what I had to write and feeling unable to write it, waiting to be ready to break through the block, refusing to shut down my computer and let the novel slip away as all its predecessors have done, because I couldn’t find the courage to do what I had to do.

The standout moment was when I realised I was going to finish. That I was not going to stop and I was going to do whatever it took to finish the book. Not in a half-assed ‘well I’ll just put up with some parts that don’t really work for me just to get it done’, but finish truly, with the knowledge deep inside me that I’d done the absolute best I could. I hadn’t shirked or taken the easy way out.

That was when I realised that the hard part – the middle bit, the connecting chapters, keeping the story going, retaining the flow – wasn’t hard at all. In fact it was the easiest part of all.

That was the moment I chose to trust the process, while realising that the process isn’t really a ‘process’ at all.

The process is me. When I chose to trust the process I chose to trust myself. I chose to believe in myself. That was the moment it all changed. That was the magic.

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by Cathy Wallace


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