What I learnt from writing a novel

I recently finished writing a 50 000 word novel, in less than 28 days. Why would I do such a crazy thing? That’s simple, as a member of the human race I have come to believe that we are all inherently crazy. Politics is enough proof of that.

Me, after writing a 50k word novel in less than a month.

Me, after writing a 50k word novel in less than a month.

But seriously, working as a journalist I felt that I had hit a wall in terms of my creative writing. I have been trained to write as a reporter. That means I need to restrain my flair, keep my writing concise and lose the parts that don’t add value to a hard hitting news story.

Also, it’s been a few years since I have written simply for the pleasure of writing. There was a time, when I used to write poetry, plays, songs and short stories that were never published. As a teenager writing helped me express what I was feeling. I kept some of these written pieces in a note book, no one else has read them.

As a journalist I got used to my work being published, all the time. Essentially, I haven’t written work that is not meant to be read by anyone else in four years!

In a way the act of writing became a machine that fed my ego. As the late writer Sylvia Plath once said: “I think writers are the most narcissistic people. Well, I mustn’t say this, I like many of them, a great many of my friends are writers.” Those words could not be more true (I’m referring to the part where she calls writers narcissists). One of the guest lecturers in journalism school said something similar, alluding to the idea that the only reason we write is so others can read our work.

Before this exercise turns into another measure of my self-importance let me explain why I took on this personal challenge. I borrowed the idea from National Novel Writing Month which takes place in November. I started writing my novel in December in a bid to do something “proactive” before the end of the year.

The plan was to write up 1667 words per chapter. I had written out a blueprint for the story, complete with characters. It was meant to be complete in 30 chapters, one for each day.

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Blueprint, well half of it.

Over time my story evolved. I didn’t stick to the plan. I changed the word count to 2000 words, I introduced a completely new character and changed other details. The story was completed in 27 chapters.

There were no restrictions on the way the novel would be written. I write mostly in the first person. There are some aspects of time travel and differing perspectives for the same event.

This experience has been like opening the sluices of a dam and then watching endless water run through. I say that because I have an idea for another novel that I want to write. The challenge this time was the volume of words and the time limit. I hope the next novel will create room to explore each character in more detail and more plot development.

I recommend the challenge to anyone, even if you don’t write. It’s an awesome opportunity for introspection.

There are four main lessons I take away from this experience:

1. Writing is pain

Throughout this process I have come face to face with my poor vocabulary, countless grammar mistakes and the general butchering of the English language. One of the things that helped me continue writing was the idea that no one would read this material. As writers we already put pressure on ourselves through the way we scrutinize our own work. Not having to worry about the judgement by readers helped keep the writing going.

It also came with a lot of sacrifice, which mainly cut into my hours of sleep. I would only really get a chance to write in the evenings. I would start after 8 pm and finish around 12 pm every night. I think it took me that long because the process involved a lot of pacing, drinking of Rooibos tea and the rehashing of conversations, out loud.

But after every chapter there was just so much relief! It really is like eating an entire elephant, one bite at a time.

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#Mood, after finishing each chapter.

2. Life happens when you’re writing

During this process, I still had other commitments which I had to fulfill, such as work for example. People don’t care that you’re writing a novel. When your friends come over, they come over. When you tell them you’re writing a novel they say: “Great, I want to read it.” And then they proceed to talk about their lives.

Once I even chose between washing my hair and writing another chapter. I did both and just slept five hours that night (I don’t recommend that). When Rogue One was showing in theatres, I had to complete two chapters in one day because I knew I would be too tired to type out another chapter after going to see the movie. I had to compensate like that a few more times for the “writing days” I missed.

It’s not just the “tiny” day to day events to consider either, there was a death in the family, something serious. I had to write through all of that too.

3. Writer’s read

The thing is, 50 000 words is a lot and I really did not think I would be able to colour those blank pages. I think that I drew influences from novels I had read throughout the year, especially in terms of writing styles.

In one example, I used the method to move between scenes from the current novel I am reading. I also used similar methods when dealing with dialogue between characters, which becomes really tricky in the first person. I took a conversational approach because I found that was easier to read.

In a way reading gave me confidence to sit down and write my own story. It’s kind of a – if they can do it, so can I – conclusion.

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Author Zadie Smith, reading.

4. Writing is intimate

Readers don’t realise that writing is an intimate experience. Apart from the personal reflection, it’s an invitation to the reader to step into the world the writer has created. The writer puts herself or himself in a vulnerable position by exposing their inner most thoughts, on record. No one writes without leaving a piece of themselves in their writing.

I found that even though this was a work of fiction, I wove in truths from my reality into the story. It also exposed some of my own thoughts and feelings on certain topics.

I have also created an ideal world where every character in my novel is completely honest. That’s probably unrealistic, but I have seen that it’s a reflection of the world I want to live in. So I’ve learnt a lot about myself in that regard.

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Final word count

Some of my friends have asked to read the novel, but I believe it defeats the purpose of this project. This was a chance for me to get back onto the horse, as a creative writer.

At the same time, having others read it will open my work to criticism, and I need to hear that if I’m going to improve my writing.

I found that, when you make promises to people, you have to keep them. However, it’s much easier to default on promises you make to yourself. ¬†I once started writing a novel in high school and I never completed that novel. It’s haunted me ever since, especially whenever I think about writing long pieces. It’s probably why I have stuck to shorter pieces.¬†Writing this novel has been daunting, finishing it meant that I kept a promise to myself.

What I do envision for this novel is to turn it into an audio project. I don’t know where I will find the time, but I have some idea of how. I think it will provide the perfect platform for my next creative endeavour.