Producing a novel has often been compared to giving birth – giving birth after what is usually a prolonged gestation. The creative labour is a journey with many stages, from the first spark of an idea to typing the last words, and this lengthy process involves substantial pain as well as joy. You hope it will end on a high of creative satisfaction followed by the reward of holding a physical book in your hand, but the road is long and hard, the happy outcome elusive.
Whether the idea comes in a sudden flash of inspiration or forms gradually over time, it brings a certain thrill of anticipation, which only increases as it takes substance. At the same time the enormity of the challenge becomes all too obvious. The story must be more than an idea. It needs immersion in a place and a time period, the painstaking construction of the protagonists as individuals. Above all it needs a structure. You are beset by countless decisions: who will narrate the story and will it be in first or third person, or even second? Will you write in past or present tense? Will it progress chronologically or will you move back and forth in time, starting at a dramatic moment perhaps? How will the story end?
The research alone can take many months, maybe years – reading, interviewing people, building up background and particularities to ensure authenticity. It can feel like a slog or it can bring its own rewards: a sense of discovery, the fascination of new knowledge, curiosity satisfied.
As the project slowly evolves in your mind and the different elements begin to gel, it’s time to devise an outline and then to start writing. Details are magically filled in as you write; plot ideas, sentences and phrases come like lightning bolts out of the blue. They come when your mind is relaxed, open and receptive – probably not at your writing desk but out in nature, on the beach or walking in the hills. The buzz this provides beats any drug-induced high.
Over time, the novel takes shape, the word count grows. There may be pauses when the way forward eludes you or when life gets in the way. Progress is rarely consistent: there will be spurts of joyful creativity and periods when a long day at your desk produces no more than an uninspired sentence or two accompanied by feelings of despair.
And then suddenly, after months or years of effort, you are approaching the end, galloping on – if you’re lucky – towards the novel’s resolution. Euphoria hits as you type the final words. You enjoy a private celebration, time off from your all-consuming mission. But after a couple of days you realise how lost you are without it. You start mourning the characters who had become your closest friends. The completion of your work feels like a bereavement too.
So when the process resumes with the editing stage, it comes as a relief, a welcome return to the grindstone. Until the dismay sets in at how much work still remains to be done. All those decisions you made at the beginning, which now seems so long ago you can hardly remember your reasons, must now be re-examined: the structure, the point of view, the all-important opening page. Questioning everything, from the big picture down to the minutiae of each sentence, phrase and word. Some of the words you laboured over so long must now, you realise, be excised. Is that delete button your friend or your enemy? How cruel it feels to be cutting out treasured scenes, minor characters for whom you still nurse affection but who may be superfluous and only serve to distract. Cutting and polishing – it sounds like a visit to a nail salon but although it may hurt, there is satisfaction in the final result.
Now the moment has come to share with a few trusted friends, your ‘beta readers’, what has until now remained entirely private. This baby you have jealously guarded to yourself must be exposed to the critical eyes of others. You quake and drag your heels, terrified by the power you are giving them: the power to utterly destroy your ambitions, your self-confidence as a writer and even, by extension, as a person.
When the feedback is positive, bringing praise rather than disparagement, the relief is huge. You take note of the helpful suggestions and minor criticisms, edit a little more and feel buoyed up – enough to invest in the bigger challenge of a professional critique. Because how can you rule out the possibility that your friends were merely being kind, reluctant to risk hurting you or damaging your relationship? Only an impartial expert – one who knows the market – will be incisive and honest enough to give you a meaningful evaluation. The report comes back and your heart sinks. There is encouragement certainly, but also negative comments, advice you disagree with and some that you now see is sound and perceptive and must be acted on. Deflated, you go back to work, forced to make more difficult decisions. How much credibility should you accord this one expert, who admits her view is subjective?
If this stage is difficult, the one that follows is worse. You sweat over a cover letter, revise your synopsis, research suitable agents and the few small publishers who accept manuscripts direct from authors. Then, together with your initial chapters, you send them out. And wait. You wait a long time. After weeks or months you might receive a standard rejection or if you’re lucky, a more personal and encouraging rejection. From some you will hear nothing. Agents are bombarded by submissions, they tell you: up to 10,000 a year, of which they accept two or three.
I think of this as the heartbreak stage. All that time and emotional energy, the work of several years dismissed in a few seconds of an agent’s busy day. Six of my earlier novels still languish on antiquated floppy discs or on a series of broken, long-discarded computers, copied onto memory sticks; some sit in paper version on my bookshelves. Once again I am faced with decisions. Should I give up? Work on it more? Self-publish as I successfully did with my last novel? Meanwhile I fantasise about the breakthrough, the email or call that will change everything.
And then it happens. The emotional rollercoaster has ended, as I hardly dared hope, on a high. I have a publishing contract in my hand. I’m exultant. I’ve arrived at what feels like the end of a long journey, though in fact it’s only the beginning.
Now, while the excitement of preparing for publication builds up, I must start all over again: open my mind to new inspiration, the spark that ignites my next novel.
Postscript: The rollercoaster ride has not ended after all. Six months after the signing of the contract, it is withdrawn by the publishers. They have changed their priorities; the list for 2019 must be cut down and refocused on more commercial genres. I feel as if I’d been flung to the ground from a great height. Who would choose to be a writer?