Demystifying Writing

Writing a full-length novel can feel like attempting to run the Marathon des Sables in a pair of flip-flops.

Hunter S Thomson c.1976. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

How does a novel happen?

In theory, it is a pretty simple process. First find something to say. Then – to paraphrase Coleridge – put the best words in the best order. And boom. Hello, Booker.

But for a first time novelist sat in front of their laptop, this simple process quickly takes on a paralysing complexity. How to plot; even whether to plot. Where to find ‘your voice’ and how to recognise it when it appears. Whether to revise as you go or plough unjudgementally through the first draft.  When to share; who to consult; what instincts to trust. When your oeuvre to date consists solely of articles, poems and short stories, writing a full-length novel can feel like attempting to run the Marathon des Sables in a pair of flip-flops.

It doesn’t help that the writing process is couched in myths, superstitions and euphemisms. Still in thrall to the classical concept of a creative ‘daemon’ or ‘genius’, not to mention that fickle bitch Muse, we are encouraged to believe that truly great prose is bestowed from without; cue generations of hacks watching Jeremy Kyle in their pyjamas while waiting for the elusive ‘inspiration’ to strike.

A linked narrative is that of the writer as tortured genius, in which transcendent talent can only be found through a legacy of childhood abuse, extreme pallor and a copious supply of Jim Beam. Sitting through Bruce Robinson’s recent film adaptation of The Rum Diary, watching Johnny Depp stagger from typewriter to moonshine and back again, I found myself wishing that it were in fact that easy. Kubla Khan has a lot to answer for.


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3 Responses to “Demystifying Writing”

  1. James Smith says:

    This was an enjoyable article, thanks. I write non-fiction and screenplays, have never really been a big novel reader, but am looking to indulge more as soon as I find the right author for me. I quite enjoyed Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Layer recently and felt the book was far better than the film. I was of the impression that the book was well researched and authentic, which to me is important – rather than sounding ‘made up’ in any way.

    Now, back to my book… I’m on Chapter Two!…
    James Smith

    • Molly Flatt says:

      I’ve heard good things about The Lincoln Lawyer. I tend towards the exact opposite – the wildly and obviously ‘made up’ – and am currently loving Carol Birch’s ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie.’ But authenticity, whatever the subject, is essential. Even the most extreme fantasy should stink of truth.

      Keep experimenting. Especially in these cold dark days there is nothing like a novel to see you through…

  2. Writing is like whistling, just put your lips together, and blow.

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