Writing the Novel

I’m writing the novel. Not a novel, but this particular novel.

Or should I say that I’m learning how to write a novel? This novel.

I find it very difficult to talk, or write, about writing the novel. So why don’t I show you some pictures? These are pictures of Castle Drogo, which I visited while I was in Chagford, Devon. (Two weeks ago, but honestly, it’s starting to feel like a lifetime ago.) Here’s a bit of the castle, which is actually too large to photograph in its entirety:

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And here is the front entrance to the castle:

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Castle Drogo was built in the 1910s and 20s, which means that everyone in Devon who mentioned it did so a little scornfully. It was not a real castle. But of course that was exactly why I wanted to visit. The turn of the century is my era, the era I studied as a PhD student and the era in which my novel is set. I wanted to see the building repeatedly described as the last castle built in England.

The castle itself was undergoing renovation, which was unfortunate. You can see the fences around it in the photographs above. I’ll have to go back once it’s been renovated and see the castle with all its original furniture. But I did take pictures of one particular room. Don’t laugh: it’s the bathroom.

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You see, in order to write this novel, I need to know how people lived their daily lives. I need to know about things like bathrooms. In London, I saw some turn of the century bathrooms in ordinary houses. Here is a bathroom in a castle. I don’t know about you, but I want to know what sort of bathroom a turn of the century castle would have.

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Since I’ve been in Budapest, I’ve been focusing on the novel, and it’s actually going well. At least I think it’s going well: this is the first draft, and it’s inevitably going to have a lot of problems, a lot of things I’m going to have to go back and revise. But if I can get the plot right, if I can describe the basic action of the book, I’ll be doing well. Then will come the difficult process of making sure it all works. That happens in revision.  (I’m daunted by the prospect of going back and revising — there will be so much to revise! But I’m trying not to think about it.)

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This is so different from writing a short story. I’ve written enough of those that I rarely spend much time revising anymore. When the story comes to me, it comes to me as a whole. I know the arc, I know where it will end. I can just sit down and write it, focusing on the writing itself, on how I will tell the story I already know. But I’m discovering this novel as I write it: it’s only recently that I’ve known how it will end. (Although I already know what the sequel will be about.)  I’m not even sure where the ending will take place, although I think this is a London novel.  I’m glad I spent so much time walking around London, figuring out how much time it takes to get from one place to another!

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One of the things I’ve had to deal with is that it’s difficult for me to believe I can actually write a novel. I seem to never believe I can do something until I actually do it — and then it seems intuitive, easy! Anyone can be a corporate lawyer! Anyone can finish a PhD! Anyone can write a novel! That’s that I will think when I’m done. But I try not to let my inability to believe in myself stop me. As Georgia O’Keefe once said, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”

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It’s difficult to write about the novel when I’m still in the middle of it, but I’m very glad to be in the middle of it, very glad that the writing is going well, that I’m finally focused. It’s taken me a long time to get here, a long time even to figure out how to write this novel. (I had a sort of false start. I was trying to write like someone else. That doesn’t work, in case you were wondering.)

Perhaps, really, it’s taken me a long time to become the person who could write this novel. I think we have to be certain people in order to write certain things. And then the process of writing changes us, and we become other people . . . So often, we talk about writing as a skill, as something that can be learned. And it is, in part. But it also integrally has to do with who we are. What we produce, what we can produce, has to do with who we are at any particular time. I think that I’m writing this novel now because I’m finally ready to write it. How will it come out? I’m not sure. I hope it will be good. No, I’m not going to think about that. If it’s not, I’m going to make it good in revision . . .

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11 thoughts on “Writing the Novel

  1. You are so talented! I find it difficult to believe you would ever doubt yourself. I think you are amazing and I can’t wait to read “The Novel”!

  2. Couldn’t agree more. What we produce, what we can produce has to do with what we are at a particular time. And then, the production could change us! And we’d be ready to produce other things.

    • Yes, absolutely! Sometimes I’ve tried to do things I’m not ready for, and it never seems to work, which is so frustrating . . . But it’s a wonderful process, changing with each project you undertake. It makes life a constant challenge.

  3. I loved this post and I loved seeing the bathroom. It’s so true we only learn by doing, and we can only produce what we do depending on who we are at that moment. And I hope that you are having fun with writing the novel.

    I am already glad that there’s going to be a sequel!

    • Well, whether there will be an actual sequel depends on whether a publisher will buy the first one, and then the second one! But I know what the sequel is about, and it would be SO much fun to write. And yes, I’m mostly having a wonderful time writing this story. Except the parts where I struggle, but you know, those happen too . . . :)

  4. How did you discover this castle? Are there particular things about this period of “castle building” that caught your imagination? You mention that the beginning of the 19th century is the period you studied while in grad school so maybe that is how you knew of it. Castles…aren’t they just an enchantment? I could day dream as I gaze at a castle for hours, they transport me back to something that feels so familiar. There is a longing as I look upon a castle, almost any kind of castle.

    I love your thoughts about learning a thing as you go. That seems to me to be a fabulous kind of wisdom and insight within which to nestle your guiding light. A friend once rode his bike from California to Cape Cod to raise funds and awareness about MS. (his wife and daughter are plagued with it) when I asked him how he found the strength to do it, he replied that, “he did not have the strength to do it, he found it along the way.” I think about that time and again as I write my first book. There are days I cannot sit down and write, days I do not think I have a topic, or the wits to write a book that any one would want to read. Yet I have been wanting to write a book for a long time and often when I read a book on the topic I am passionate about I think: “oh I wrote that in my head 5 years ago and this person beat me to the writing of it!”

    So this time I am going to write it! If no one reads it, or likes it, it will be alright because first and fore most I must like it. If I like it, there will have to be someone else out there who will like it too.

    I will very much look forward to reading your novel Theodora!!

    • I found out about this castle because I was in Chagford, and everyone kept pointing it out to me! It was the local castle . . . :) Oh yes, I do love castles, and I knew that I had to go see it . . .

      Just remember that no one actually beats you to the writing of anything, because no one can write it the way you would! Yes, you have to not think about whether anyone will read it, and write it because you want to — and find the strength and knowledge along the way!

      Thanks for the kind words! :)

  5. The novel is there already, it sounds like. It is just unfolding itself. While the plot and structure are important to consider during initial planning, they are like construction documents and drawings… things really get fun once the carpenters, plumbers, joiners, electricians and painters show up, by which I mean the characters. Their experiences help shape the two books I’m working on in remarkable ways. “It says here you wanted the vanity, but it’ll be sort of hard to clean behind it and I’ve noticed you have an Akita. They shed…” That sort of thing. Then there is thematic continuity on top of structural continuity. Are his eyes green through the whole thing and what does that mean to her? Do her feelings about his green eyes realistically change? Arrrggh. Those are the hard times in revision. Grammar and wordiness are easy to fix, but keeping the emotional tuning correct is hard. But I found I can’t look backwards for that. Re-vision, re-telling is the only place I can “see” that. I find the metaphorical language we use for this process to be telling, although sometimes I think it’s rehearing, retasting and especially resmelling. But what else can we do? It’s why Thomas Mann was right: A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

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