Education

Writing The Serious Novel

Let me put my cards on the table straight away and say that I am primarily interested here in giving you an insight into what is involved in writing a serious novel. What I mean by ‘serious’ will become more obvious, I hope, as I explain my position. For me the initial urge to write can be anything as mundane as a snatch of conversation, a character, a memory, an absorbing situation – any one of which might, if I’m lucky, push me off on the long journey of writing a novel. Then once I’m away and as my story develops, I discover that I am writing what I feel bound to call a serious work of fiction. This has been true of all my writing endeavours in the past. Not that I set out with the intention of being especially serious; I would say it was more out of interest that I lent an ear to whatever it was made itself available to my imagination. I was intrigued. You might say I thought it would be fun to follow that lead. But let me give you a clearer idea of that process from the experience I had of writing my last novel THE PURSUIT OF INNOCENCE.
Imagine me then one morning sitting before my computer screen and letting my fingers range over the keyboard. For some reason I begin with a young man (name not yet decided) running away into the night. Perhaps this is not the first bit of doodling of the morning but I like this young man who suddenly appears on my screen, and I persevere with him. I like his innocence, his will to live. So I decide to nurture him. Go with him. This young man is elated and fearful: elated, because he is running away into the dark to freedom; fearful, because he has no idea what he will encounter. There is a metaphor here for me as a writer; only later do I realize this, for I too am elated to have set out on my journey of writing a novel, though fearful also of how much I have yet to do in order to achieve that goal. But now the young man is on his way at least and I am excited for the both of us. You see, I am that young man.
There are days, months and even years ahead of us. But I am not yet to know this. Either of us could run out of puff any day. Or worse. After all, I have forced this innocent youth to jump from a train into a dangerous country, to run away from the loving care of those who have made a terrible sacrifice for him to gain this freedom. They have willed him to succeed, as I do. He cannot let them down. They are his history and he carries that history with him. So I push him on. But this young man needs an ally. He cannot bear to be alone, not now that he has lost his ‘brothers’, his true family, as it were. Besides, he needs someone to help him find his way home to freedom. He needs to get a map. So, out of this bleak, nightmarish land a house appears … then a woman: a strong woman who has known suffering … a mother … a loving and defiant creature with a history of lost ones too …
And so I write, on and on. I write through dark and dismal days when nothing much is achieved and I seem to have lost hope. By way of distraction and excuse I polish and re-polish sentences until they seem to stretch and groan under the weight of my attention. I fiddle endlessly with punctuation marks that act for me like worry beads until I can find the inspiration to go forward. Then the sun shines and I’m off again. I do not think of readers, of money, of best sellers. Not while I’m writing I don’t. I think only of this need I have to make it all come out right – whatever all that is. This need – urge, itch, compulsion, call it what you must – is ever present within me. When things are going well it manifests itself as a powerful emotion, euphoric, almost palpable. And it seems to be working for me now. I think I will call this novel THE MAP. That title is solidly reassuring. It will do. As time goes by my characters develop, grow to maturity at my fingertips. I see their faces clearly, hear the sound of their voices, recognize their own individual peculiarities. And I love them all. I love their goodness; I love their humanity that shines through the darkness of the horrors they have to face. And I am convinced that if I love them enough and care for them enough, by bestowing on them all the skill I have as a writer then any reader of mine will care for them and believe in them as much as I do.
But I see trouble ahead for these characters. Theirs is not a kind world to find oneself in. I should know. Yet the sentimental side of me wants all these good people of mine to live and be happy right to the end of the last chapter. Their suffering should grant them that comfort at least. But I cannot save them from is bound to happen to them, though I would if I could. I have no recourse to flying broomsticks or wizards or romantic swashbuckling heroes. No one can come to their rescue here. They are too substantial for magic, for wish fulfilment, and the world they inhabit is their natural element. You see, everything here in this novel of mine is as real as my fiction can make it. And my characters know it too.

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