The Road To The Novel
Oct 08, 2017
Those of you who have enrolled in The Ninety Day Plan will know the vlog with me sitting at my desk beginning to write my novel live in April. We're now 180 days from that first day. Those of you who joined last week may not have seen it yet.
So here’s the spoiler as to what happened next ... (The Vlog for this is at the Members Lodge.)
The Ninety Day Plan: Creation
In the beginning, there was very little light.
You come to Kritikme, some of you with material, some without. All of you have come with one shared concern: plotting. Welcome to the world of the novel writer, where you learn to lose the plot. I show you within days of arriving not to fuss about plot. You'll have learnt how to drive your story using 'real' people with big problems. You choose one of our suggested 'hero' texts for your journey to keep faith with. Everything you need to write a first draft is given in The Ninety Day Plan.
You come to see that much of your novel is happening in your subconscious and unfolds along the fault lines of where your personality meets your experience. By the time you are given the perfect novel structure to attach your material to (The Kritikme Five F’s) you know a lot more about your book and yourself, but you have a hunch too that you’re really still just toddling. Still, better up and moving than laying in your cot bawling as the mobile of news and social media turns above you.
You’ve learnt good habits, you’ve learnt how to use the famous Kritikme two pedals (writing and reading) the virtue of routine and rhythm, and you know where to go to find what you need; it’s what you need that remains an elusive mystery at the end of the first draft after ninety days.
Great writers enter into a dance with this mystery. Raymond Carver’s short stories are portraits of mystery, mysticism and mystification. A stay against chaos and meaninglessness. The narrator has a moment of insight, just one, but it seems to span many lifetimes. His short stories are precipitous, and novel-esque in that they propel the reader with the writer to the possibility of self-erasure, a possibility which writers like Coetzee, Philip Roth and many more greats dangle so spectacularly and tantalisingly. You don’t know what you want, but it looks like this is what you’re going to get.
How to get through life?
Where’s the map?
You, the novelist, are making the map, whether you know it or not but whilst you’re creating the first draft material, you are, the blind mapmaker. At the end of your ninety days of focussed mystical effort, you have a map but you don’t know where the treasure's buried, until you add the Sat-Nav of the Kritikme Five F’s back in again.
You attach your material to this age-old format for a tragedy drawn from Aristotle’s first apperception in his Poetics, the backbone of most great novels since, and you begin to see.
1.The Rip Van Winkle Rest Phase.
Time off. To see, you need to sleep and you need to sleep with others who have seen. So you read, hard and fast. You're sleepwalking into the second draft.
At the end of the first draft you must be Rip Van Winkle and take a minimum of two weeks ideally four weeks or more off your work, and read. I have covered this process in the Members Lodge and on previous blog posts.
Don’t show your work to anyone, ideally don’t speak about it. Trust me, it’s not ready and this can do you more damage than good.
Start a new Moleskine. You will be surprised by ‘sideways’ writing during this phase. Don’t force it, just catch it. Some of it will fill any gaps in our first draft. Some will be utter rubbish, some will be genius. Catch it as it falls and it will. You’re not to make yourself write, but you’re to collect what happens.
What next? Here are the practical steps which take you from first draft to publishable material.
Start re-reading your work. Make notes as you go.
Find a week where you can be home alone with your novel. Just one. Take a week off work and warn nearest and dearest you are on ‘home retreat’ and will not be taking courtesy calls or any other. Candle, clean desk, laptop, notebook. Coffee. Shut down on the rest of life. You can shower next week.
- Ensure you have written down your Five F’s as they apply to your work and tacked the material to these. The easiest way to do this is to put the five parts into Scrivener, and consider the flow of information from one to the other as events or chapters. Then cut and paste your material into these formal sections. Good, now you’ve got the basis of a real working novel.
- Install a device such as Freedom.to to block social media and your wilful access to Google. Do not look at social media or emails until at least 1pm to give you a long run at the material. By the end of the week you will know it all of a piece and knowing it this way now is crucial to the process.
- Rise at an early hour, at first light with a strong cup of coffee. Open Moleskine.
- Whilst you work on your second draft, either in this intensive week or in the weeks leading to it, you should journal what you’re doing, and date it, alongside writing any fresh material. For every version of your second draft, DATE IT when you save it, sometimes you’ll even need the time of day as you work hard and fast, this helps prevent confusion and versions out of sync.
- Begin to read your work in order and make notes of the following in your Moleskine as you go
- key phrases (the soundbites you love).
- leitmotifs, the elements visual and verbals, apparently rogue which are metaphorical to your mind. Make sure you note where and when they recur.
- the greater themes emerging (social, environmental, political etc.) Spot your own biases. No need for shame here, just note them.
- chronologies, dates and details, the numbering of houses etc
- title ideas
- ‘guns’ that need to go off as Chekhov put it. If there’s a significant item in your book, make sure it’s deployed or delete it.
- logic flow of paragraphs
- cliffhanger chapter endings
- note the word count for every chapter and start looking for massive aberrations and see if you can combine or cut to allow a pleasant reading rhythm to emerge.
- Revise your manuscript using the muscle of judgement you’ve built during your Rip Van Winkle reading phase. If you can’t find the right words, even now, then delete the wrong ones. Replace repetitions. Remove adverbs. Why are there two adjectives? Could you not find the right one? Find it now. Enter back into the scared place of creation and see again, but more clearly with narrowed eyes and choose what is unusual not what is usual. Apply the Kritikme Kritikal test (see a previous blog on 'sentence stew') to your material - i.e. is it scintillating, unique, necessary etc
- New material (from the Rip Van Winkle rest phase) goes in now.
- Run through the entire thing and arrive at an unsatisfactory ending, uncertain about this.
- Go to bed early with a book you admire for ambition, and Raymond Carver for ‘lucidity’. Turn the light out. Turn the light on. Write it down.
- Return to the manuscript and remove a big chunk, put in something else, an alternative ending or direction which is a surprise to you and you’re not sure if it will work.
- Go through chapter by chapter for continuity and tracking of story. Keep your nose on the story, making the notes as above again.
- Celebratory dance. Now you know what your book is about!Push through to the end of the manuscript in Scrivener new cutting passages of ‘purple prose’ or overly long digressions, back story and philosophical asides. Now, your novel is becoming lean, mean and keen. (But the ending should turn you over emotionally.)
- Change the names of your secondary characters. Make them just right, Cast around for unearthly combinations. Keep them plausible but distinct, and right. Know what they mean to you. This change of names will help you make the transformation to reader from writer, you’ll be a little unfamiliar with the names. The names will help you give more dimension to the characters. For instance, I had an older Scottish woman called ‘Moira’ in my first draft. Moira was not going to change the world. But EVERY human being has extraordinary opportunities at their fingertips in our work, that is the moral purpose of a novel, to show that to the reader. So I thought sideways. I wanted to give her the heart and guts of a mid-century country and western singer so I renamed her Patsy. This brought new dimension to all her appearances in the novel and new possibilities. When you repeat this exercise across your entire cast, you’ve got a joint that’s jumping
- Export your manuscript as a whole word document. Run it through Grammarly. This will help you see it with in detail.
- Export it back to Word. You can run it through something like Autocrit if you want to look at overly used words, repetitions and so on.
- If you use Pages, you can go to Settings in your Mac, and choose in Accessibility a text speaking voice. Use ‘Speech’ in Pages/Edit and hear your work out loud. You won’t get far before you understand there’s work to be done. After three chapters, decided to save this for later.
- Import the ‘clean material back - chapter by chapter - into Scrivener.
- To bed with a big award-winning novel book and Carver. I picked up Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad' and read the first chapter. Light off / light on. I spotted in her work her use of the Five F’s, with the FLAW in the narrator clearly given, and ominous. I sat up and wrote on what happened to be the last page of my second draft Moleskine the Five F’s in narrative form, as a flow, because whilst I knew them inside out, it came to me they were not providing a clear enough map from disaster, through further disaster to enlightenment for the reader. (I noted too her use of highly visual unique items - the green purse - which saves the effort of ‘purple prose’ to help your reader be' present’ in a place and time in the novel.)
This process took me 180 days, with a day job, and kids. You can quite possibly do it faster.
4.A Third Pair of Eyes.
You know your work, and if you’re a member of Kritikme then I, your tutor and coach,Louise, know your work but no one else does. Time for a reality check. It will make your stomach muscles knot, but show the first three chapters to a professional whose calibre and class is second to none in terms of familiarity with successful published work. We offer la 'kreme de la kreme' via The Members Lodge.
You’re onto higher ground now. This is where a good novel, a solid idea and good work becomes great. You should feel nervous and excited at what you are about to do.
New Moleskine time. You will need to step onto clean pages to go through your work chapter by chapter, possibly a chapter a day, with a short checklist:
- mysticism - people don’t finish sentences, people don’t finish thoughts, the gap between platform and trains is where it’s all got to happen for the readers.
- the big theme - now easier to follow throughout the text.
- real speech - read the dialogue out loud and start listening hard to the way people speak around you and writing it down verbatim.
- beauty - do 'in depth' location checks or go back to the first draft notebooks or other material for any pitch perfect descriptions for the content you know now you’re using.
Have the guts to go for one last sprint, and do a chapter a day this way. Love it to death.
When you get there, the last chapter should still turn your heart over and make you cry, or laugh. Maybe more so than ever.
Hold next to your work the hero text you began the Kritikme Ninety Day Plan process with as your guide. Check that you are on par, or better kicking its ass.
Then, you'll know, you've written a novel that was as good as you could do.
Publish and be damned!