Andrea Gillies

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The Three Golden Rules of Novel Writing

The Three Golden Rules of Novel Writing, at least for me.... A blog post on Books By Women


Andrea Gillies is the author of three books: the novel The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay (2014), the novel TheWhite Lie (2012), and the non-fiction book Keeper, which won the Wellcome Book Prize 2009 and the Orwell Book Prize 2010. We asked her for some novel writing advice.

Knowing the terror of the blank white page, and all the blank pages lying behind it, I don’t usually start at the beginning. I make myself write down and hone what the story is about on one sheet – more plot unspools as it’s re-written.

Next, I make a list of characters who’ve come to mind in imagining the story; I might identify their faces using actors’ images online. Then I start to write scenes, or the notes for scenes I might use. The word might is crucial. It’s vital to realise that at this stage, you’re free associating, and will come up with a lot of stuff you discard later. Let yourself imagine. Editing is easier than adding: I cut 15,000 words from Nina Findlay just before she was sent out.

Golden Rule number 1: Never show the work in progress to anyone until it’s done. At that point, one or two other opinions are useful. My books always go to another draft after my agent has read them, and then to a final one just before publication: the last polish is always swift and sure, after a break from being in the story. Your subconscious keeps working on things. Give it time to do its job.

So here I am, with a few characters, a few scenes and other oddments, the often random points at which the book has surfaced. More scenes are devised and now I have a storyline: things happen in a particular order (the order’s important: all fiction needs tension). Only now do I try to start at the beginning, and to write the book that stitches the scenes together. I never read back.

Golden Rule number 2: don’t read back until you get to the end of the draft.
Far too many people give up because their first attempt hasn’t gone well. They’re stuck; it’s no good; they don’t have confidence in what they’ve written. But that’s normal. The first draft is almost always terrible; this I have learned.

What’s important is to get it down in words – in any words, so that you have a story, and things happen, and people talk to one another. (If they’re slow to talk, put them in a room together and listen to what they say. I wrote a lot of The White Lie that way).

doublespread_finalcover_ninaWhile you are allowing yourself to be free in what you write, your subconscious will start on the project, and things will begin to evolve. You’ll also find that some of what you allow yourself to say when it’s not ‘the official version’ will be writing that you don’t ever edit out.

Sometimes we’re too tight and too anxious about quality to allow ourselves to be creative. I am firm with myself, these days, about the first draft not being the official version. I can say anything, and do, and go off on wild tangents that are trimmed back in the second draft. That’s all good. That sets the imagination free.

Golden Rule number 3: The second draft is the place you want to get to, as fast as possible.
This is where the writing starts. You need flow, now: observe Golden Rule #2. Once the first draft is done, from A through to Z (though of course the ending may change radically in the rewrite), and you’ve included all the characters, conversations and scenarios you can currently think of that might be important to the story, you’re ready for the printout, and big pots of tea and a red pen.

Though most of what you read may be awful, chances are you’ll like some of it, even if it’s just one scene, the development of one character, or a conversation that strikes you as true. It’s all progress. Lots of crossing out and inserting goes on at this point, and I go back to the laptop to write sections that link the bits I want to keep, until I have a big jigsaw puzzle and am ready to print out again.

twl2This is draft 1b. You’re not even onto the second draft yet, and you may have used a lot of paper – I used 6 packets in total, or 3000 sheets, when writing The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay. But that’s my technique; I write fast, and edit on paper, and don’t judge myself, because I have learned that it’s all part of the process.

Things get better slowly, until, (often between drafts two and three), there’s a sudden leap forward that’s reassuring. Sometimes, even then, I remain unimpressed with my approach. This is the dog-walking and thinking time. Perhaps the book needs to be written the other way round and start at the end? (I did this with The White Lie).

Perhaps it needs to be written in someone else’s voice, from a different character’s perspective? (I did this with Nina, who was originally first person). If you feel you need to start completely afresh, don’t worry; that happens. Writing’s mostly about stamina. I went to a dozen drafts with Nina Findlay, the last of them written in a month, a chapter a day, to synthesise the narrative better. If you’re writing your first novel, good luck! Remember, it’s never too late. My first novel was published when I was 51. Mary Wesley started at 70.

(c) Andrea Gillies 2014

Andrea Gillies

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