6 Things I Learned Writing My Last Novel

I have just finished a novel that took me almost three years to write. Granted a lot of other things were going on in my life; houses burning down, mother passing away, moving to the other side of the planet. As I sent the manuscript off to my agent, I realized that during this novel I learned a thing or two about writing. I thought I’d share them with you.

1. Learn to enter into the journey. I think I’ve often approached a novel as a task. To be done. By such and such time. For a particular reward. And so I skimmed instead of dove. I scooted along the surface, looking left and right for anything that would contribute to my cause. Almost like a trip to the supermarket, picking ingredients for a recipe. Instead I learned that I should be diving. Diving deep, exploring the dark murky waters of my subject. Not everything is going to be useful. That strange looking rock I pulled up from the underbelly of a bottom feeder will probably not make it into the manuscript. But it’s there in the atmosphere I create. I don’t think we understand what we’re trying to say unless we live with the ideas for a while. So give up that time frame and learn to dive.

2. Don’t give into negative thoughts. OK this is my personal bugbear. My mind is constantly streaming what Anne Lamott calls Radio KFKD. So all I can say is: Zap those suckers before they take hold.  They are mosquitoes of the brain. Spray yourself with a good dose of determination and resilience. Put on headphones if you have to. As you fiddle about with your personal work, the world around you will be on fire with others accomplishments and triumphs. Not to mention the demise of the publishing world as we know it. Buzz buzz buzz. All the noise. Ignore it. Splat ’em and finish your work. Finish the damn thing. You learn nothing until you finish. It’s my new mantra. I give it to you. Finish the F@%ker.

3. Let your main characters laugh. Often my main characters are flat. The other characters are bouncing off the walls with personality but the leads are about as fun as a stick.( To quote the great Bill Murray.) They are very serious because I have laid all the weight of the book on them. I need to lighten up on the poor fellows and fellas. When I finish the first draft I’ve learned to go back and tickle them. In fact, I could probably do it one more time.

4. It’s OK to take a break. When life was too chaotic and I couldn’t concentrate on my novel, or I was too down on it to be of any help, I would go away and paint bad art and write some short stories. The art hangs on my walls (to my family’s patient credit) and one of my short stories ended up in a beautiful anthology called STILL by Negative Press before being chosen to be included in Best British Short Stories 2013. But the main point is: I came back and finished. When I really was without confidence I would say to myself: Finish. Just Finish. It might suck but you have to finish. Or as my sister said when I was yet again complaining: “Well, you can always call it A Really Bad Novel.” Made me laugh so hard I got back to work.

5. Eventually things do start connecting. Like brain cells, ideas start wiggling out and tapping other elements in the book and making connections. Connections I didn’t even know existed but look so obvious now when I see them.

6. The novel is in you. You just have to get out of the way. Remember the Michelangelo quote? ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’ Rather than in a block of marble the novel is in your soul. Open your soul a bit everyday and write what you see and feel. Your novel will appear as if by magic.

Good luck. I can’t wait to read your magic.

Photo by SébastienWiertz (flickr)



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4 responses to “6 Things I Learned Writing My Last Novel

  1. I’m definitely bookmarking this one, Nina—thanks!

    And congratulations on FTF! 😀

  2. Thank you for these fabulous words of wisdom. I’m going to print this out and pin it to my writing wall to read & remind me of the joys of noveling. I can’t wait to read this book of yours. What’s the title?

  3. ninakillham

    Thank you, Suzanne. Working title is The Moon Also Rises. We’ll see what it ends up with.

  4. ninakillham

    Ha! Thanks, Sarah. Another acronym! It’s got a certain ring to it. x

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