Martin Amis describes how he starts a novel and, in many ways, this gels with me too.
“The common conception of how novels get written seems to me to be an exact description of writer’s block. In the common view, the writer is at this stage so desperate that he’s sitting around with a list of characters, a list of themes, and a framework for his plot, and ostensibly trying to mesh the three elements. In fact, it’s never like that. What happens is what Nabokov described as a throb. A throb or a glimmer, an act of recognition on the writer’s part. At this stage the writer thinks, Here is something I can write a novel about. In the absence of that recognition I don’t know what one would do. It may be that nothing about this idea—or glimmer, or throb—appeals to you other than the fact that it’s your destiny, that it’s your next book. You may even be secretly appalled or awed or turned off by the idea, but it goes beyond that. You’re just reassured that there is another novel for you to write. The idea can be incredibly thin—a situation, a character in a certain place at a certain time. With Money, for example, I had an idea of a big fat guy in New York, trying to make a film. That was all. Sometimes a novel can come pretty consecutively and it’s rather like a journey in that you get going and the plot, such as it is, unfolds and you follow your nose. You have to decide between identical-seeming dirt roads, both of which look completely hopeless, but you nevertheless have to choose which one to follow.” [from The Paris Review]
Waiting is a difficult game and not many of us are built to handle it well. “Waiting for what?” you might ask. It could be waiting for your next plot idea, next book concept, or waiting for a literary agent to get back to you after a full manuscript request. So, to ease the pain, here are a few suggestions:
- Relax. Take time to review you plot outline. Go back over your character arcs too. Like a good meal, add some spice and “kick it up a notch” where you feel best to do so.
- Start another book. That is, look forward. Never look back too far and keep on being creative because that’s where the juices flow best. Begin to outline some ideas for your next novel. Will it be the same genre or a new venture – perhaps a YA or even a children’s book?
- Take stock of major events; events in your own life or current events. Read the news and sniff out another story. You might find an article that brings a great perspective. Has something unusual happened that might bring freshness to you story? Ah, the inspiration for a book surrounds us all. In 3 WISE MEN, I was ruminating and came up with a great new chapter to slot into a rather pedestrian section. It worked so well that I reprinted the book. Finally,
- Get out of your head and take a walk around your world. Listen to conversations, sit at a coffee shop and observe. Volunteer and learn.
Late nights and early mornings are quieter and my favorite times to reflect, write and edit. An early morning coffee along with some inspirational reading is a good foundation for the day ahead. For me, I write best when I think best and this is during these quiet times. If I have reached a stumbling block for a character or plot – a “what should happen next” moment – these often unravel during my place of quiet reflection. I have often woken during the night with a plot solution and scramble to write it down, dare I lose it by the time I wake in the morning. I wonder if this is why some authors only write during winter—when the cold and quiet allows more freedom for thoughts to roam? I hope you also find your happy place for quiet reflection and effective writing.
Kristan Hoffman writes: “Some days the font is all wrong. Some days your wrists hurt. Or your back hurts. Or both. Some days your dog won’t stop barking, and there are three loads of laundry to fold. Some days you can’t fall asleep because you’ve got a million ideas for your story. Some days you can’t remember a single one.
Some days the words just flow. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them in a rush. Some days you feel so high. Some days you laugh at your own funny parts, and cry at the sad ones. Some days you know that this book is The One.
Then some days you read about that 7-figure, 3-book deal and you just want to scream. Some days you think it’s never going to be you. Some days you wonder why you even bother.
And some days you read a great book, and you think, This is why. I can do this. I will do this. I am doing this.”
I love this advice and it reiterates what many great writers have said. For example, George Orwell notes that, “Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” Even the Everest of a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, admitted, “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”
As I struggle to re-write portions of my next thriller, it is helpful to have these thoughts to ponder and ease the burden. Sometimes, putting the computer down and losing myself in my plot or character gives me the space to find new ideas and better ways to write about them. I wonder if giving my thoughts more space allows new ones the room to come in?
Looking for inspiration for my next novel. Hmm, something’s in the pipeline already!
Aha – the plot thickens! Well, so it should. I was once asked whether the plot for 3 WISE MEN was clear before I started writing, or did it grow as the word count increased? It is best to answer this in two ways:
- The two basic ideas were floating around in my mind for about 2 years.
- My wife and I visited locations in the south of France, but I did not start writing the book until we were taking the train from Nice to Paris a few days later. It may have been the sunshine, or the lovely swims in the Mediterranean that set the writing wheels in motion – or, it could have been the train wheels engaging with the writing cogs? Originally, I hoped to have the book largely written before embarking on the trip. This approach simply didn’t work for me. There are so many details that are needed for an authentic thriller, that I needed to see the main places firsthand. Here is one brief example of a cafe that we came across one day, but it was a Sunday and it was closed. So, we made a point of visiting it the next day, and it proved to be a great meeting place for Jak to catch up with an old teaching colleague of his. They both taught together at the University of Milan, which if the pinkish-red building on the left in this photo.
[novel extract: “His favorite café – the Bar Arcibaldo – was just across the street from the university entrance, and Jak was delighted to enter and finally shake off the cold air. Not only was this a good place to relax, but it was also an opportunity to enjoy the company of fellow university students and lecturers who frequently gathered here between classes and at the end of their academic day.] Note: “Nun Te Pago” means “Not paid.”
- When faced with a “what do I write next?” scenario, I tended to wait a few days until the basic ideas flowed. This was usually in the morning. Once I had the next step in the plot worked out I would type furiously to get it all down. Sometimes, things happened that I had not expected in the plot. Hopefully, neither will the reader be expecting them!