Get Lost: advice in novel writing

Sean Williams

NOVELS are big. I’m stating the obvious, but only because it bears restating. Novels are hard to write because there’s so bloody much in them.

That’s one of the reasons why we love them, of course. You can lose yourself reading a novel in a way you can’t with short stories or poems. Which is not to say that the long form is better than the short, just that it’s different. Complexities of plot, setting and characterisation can unfold in ways barely glimpsed at the beginning of a good novel–and that’s why they’re hard to write. It’s easy for novelists to get lost as well as readers.

How to avoid this? There’s lots of advice out there. You can plan your novel in advance and try to stick to that plan. You can make it up as you go along and fix things afterwards. You can try something in between those extremes, as I do.

Or you could concentrate on just one or two elements in the first draft–such as plot or character–intending to add the rest in the later drafts. That’s totally allowed. In fact, there’s an old adage that you never really know what the book is about until you’ve finished, so many writers wait until the second draft to concentrate on thematic or symbolic levels. Some approach it the other way around, which is fine too. Others start with nothing more than a voice and wait to see what that voice tells them.

You can write a book the way you would read one, from beginning to end, but you shouldn’t feel compelled to. You can start at the ending and work backwards. You can start at the middle and work outwards. You can write scenes as the wild urge takes you and cobble them together later. There are no rules.

There are no rules–which is not obvious at all. It’s the hardest lesson for a new novelist to learn, and possibly the most tragic thing about being one: you never really know whether something will work until you try it.

The thing to remember is: if finishing a novel seems hard, that’s because it is hard. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. There are so many balls in the air by the time you’re halfway through that you can’t possibly keep track of them all. It’s too much for a single human brain, which is why programs like Scrivener exist, or older tech like white boards and paper serviettes with scribbles on them. When we hit the point in the ms when we’ve lost all sense of direction, as every writer inevitably does, we can only push on in the hope that when we reach the far shore we’ll have arrived somewhere worth visiting (as we imagined when we set out) and that the journey there was enjoyable (which is the whole point of going in the first place). Or we could give up–but who wants to do that?

Two of my favourite quotes about novel writing are:

“Unwritten novels never disappoint.” – Gary K Wolfe.

“[The novel is a] prose work of some length that has something wrong with it.” – Randall Jarrell.

You can either dream a perfect book that no one else will read, or you can write something that is bound to be flawed no matter how much you strive for it to be otherwise. Or, to look at it another, more optimistic way: the perfect book doesn’t exist, and nor should it. A book’s imperfections are what makes it, not necessarily great, because not all books are great, but at least unique. Polish off all the rough edges and you have a featureless sphere. Perfection, if it exists, is boring.

Remember that too, next time you’re struggling with a new book, be it the one you’ve just finished, the one you’re halfway through, or the one you’re desperately trying to start. Don’t imagine that other writers are any different to you. Give yourself permission to get lost, to make mistakes, to make up the rules as you go along. There are no rules, remember?

Novels are big, too big for people to write. That’s why we have so many of them. Because the endeavour is magnificent, and so very, very brave.

Sean Williams is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of our forty award-winning novels for readers of all ages.

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