Hats off to novelists!

Having worked in publishing for nearly thirty years, eighteen of them as a literary agent, working mainly with novelists, you would think I knew a little about novels. Having written six non-fiction books in the last eight years, you would think I knew a little about writing. But, as I very tentatively move towards writing a novel myself, I realise I know absolutely nothing about writing novels!

I know that there are those who can sit down in their studies, write the requisite number of words, and turn out a good, or at least publishable, novel. There are those for whom the discipline is essential, for whom 10% is inspiration, and the rest perspiration. In my thirties, I set about writing a novel in just that way. I sat down every morning and wrote. I wanted to have written a novel, and I did. It was absolutely empty: I had nothing to say. So this time, I hope I have learnt the lesson about how I – and this is personal – need to write.

Writing fiction is quite different from writing non-fiction, where there is a fairly clear sense of what the book is and where it is going, where what is written comes from a fairly steady base of facts and opinions, where the writer is ultimately in control of a pre-determined subject. A novel may begin from an image, a character, a scene, even a phrase. And then, it seems, anything might happen. I had known in theory that, in the writing, characters may take over the book; I had no idea of the interweaving of things felt and observed, the detritus of conscious and unconscious life. I find I cannot make it happen, that often the best insights come on waking, on a train, or walking through the park. I need to allow space for the creative instinct to emerge.

We all know that writers carry notebooks, but I hadn’t known how essential it is, how inspiration – if that is what it is – may strike at any moment, and is unlikely to do so if you try too hard. On the other hand, it is true that engaging with the text so far will sometimes elicit an understanding of further development. Most of all, I have no idea if what I am writing will be any good, if it will in the end emerge as a novel. I have had to let go of expectation. I can only follow my instincts, and go forward in hope.

So, this is a much less comfortable journey than I am used to. And to those who make their living out of writing novels – I salute you!