Charles Dickens famously wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” at the opening of his grand opus A Tale of Two Cities. Right now it can feel like we’re leaning a little too heavily into the latter, but there are positive signs that folks are turning to creativity to get through this crisis.
If you’ve always felt like you have a great novel in you itching to get out, now might be the time to put digital pen to paper. Here’s some grand advice from the professionals.
Melbourne-based Natasha Lester, the New York Times bestselling author of The French Photographer and The Paris Secret, says seize these crazy days.
“We don’t have to drive ourselves or our kids around to a million and one appointments. We have more freedom to choose how we spend our time, and it would be such a shame to look back later with regret and wonder why we spent so much of it watching Netflix, when we could have struck a balance between Netflix and finally starting to write a novel.”
Recommending podcasts like The First Time or Writes4Women, Lester says don’t let not writing your novel be one more thing to beat yourself up about.
“This sounds silly, but I’ve spoken to so many aspiring writers who have the desire to write, but never do it. Desire doesn’t make a book. Sitting down in front of your computer and putting some words down will,” she said.
Just don’t show it to anyone too soon. “That first draft is precious, and it’s just for you. It’s your way to figure out what your story is. It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be done. And then you need to begin the rewriting, which is the really hard work.”
Arnold Zable, author of The Watermill and Café Scheherazade, says forget hesitation.
“It’s only when you commit that it happens. Write that first line, the first paragraph. The journey has begun. Let the story lead you. Yes, you can plan if you wish, but in my view, it’s best to treat your novel as an exploration. I discover the plot, storylines, and cast of characters in the doing,” Zable told The New Daily.
The novel leads Zable to the research, not the other way around.
“Otherwise you can get caught up. Be daring. If the story leads you in unexpected directions, go with it. Above all, believe in yourself, trust your own voice, your way of seeing things. That is what will make your novel uniquely your own.”
The Lost Jewels and The Jade Lily author Kirsty Manning says the first step to writing a novel is making time.
“It sounds crazy, but even in this strange new world of being at home full-time, it can be hard to carve out a little quiet time. So my first tip is to make writing part of your routine, like an exercise session, or the evening gin and tonic.”
First-time writers need to understand that early drafts might be a bit of a mess.
“That’s normal,” Manning said.
“Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, the best book on writing I know, explains her thesis on the shitty first draft: ‘All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts’.”
Manning adds that learning the craft and reading widely will serve you well, and recommends signing up for an online writing course.
“Connect with positive people who share your goal. There are many writing communities on Facebook, also the state writers’ centres. Organisations like the Historical Novel Society, Sisters in Crime and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators have great resources,” she said.
Garry Disher, author of Peace and Bitter Wash Road, cautions against overreaching.
“I’ve spent months on a novel only to realise it should have been a short story,” Disher said.
Writing is also thinking, so don’t start prematurely.
“What’s the main question driving your story? Is the right character filtering it to the reader? Is the material too harrowing for a first-person voice? What do your characters want? Are you forcing the story on them?”
And if you get stuck, Disher suggests tapping into powerful memories.
“But don’t write a report. Experiences work best as source material if viewed with a mature eye that allows you to do some creative meddling: changing the outcome, telling the story from another character’s viewpoint, inventing characters.”
“They have all the crucial elements of storytelling condensed, and cinema’s particularly good at creating a mood. The first thing you need to know about your fictional world is its atmosphere,” Pham said.
“Visualise the story in your mind like a film, because those images can be helpful in deciding on the narrator’s point of view, which details to keep in focus and from what distance and angle.”
Western Sydney author Peter Polites ( Down the Hume, The Pillars) kept his advice brief: “Research, plan and write. That’s my method. When you’ve done all your research and planned your structure, write 1000 words a day.”
Genevieve Gannon, author of The Mothers, says writing a novel is an isolating process at the best of times.
“The research, the writing, the editing, the editing again and again, it all requires great slabs of time spent sitting silently focused on your words,” Gannon told The New Daily.
Noting that most Australian novelists need full-time jobs to supplement their writing income, Gannon says the pandemic has altered everything.
“For me, writing in cafes, pubs, parks, libraries and with other writers was crucial for breaking up the inherent isolation of the task. The COVID-19 restrictions mean all that has gone. Switching off social media, the radio and other links to the outside world can feel like further retreating from your already small, locked-down world.”
Separate your house into designated areas, she suggests.
“The dining room table is my office. I used to write in bed a bit, but I’ve cut that out completely because the lockdown has been messing with my sleep,” she said.
“Instead of always being hunched over my laptop, I sit out on the balcony with a notebook hand-writing little vignettes. Taking a break from my screen is crucial, but that doesn’t mean I need to stop writing.”
Emma Viskic, author of Darkness for Light and Resurrection Bay, cautioned that we’re living through a traumatic period.
“A novel is a huge thing to hold in your mind, so now would be a terrible time for many people to begin one,” she warned.
“We’re in a time of grief and panic and free-fall, none of which are conducive to creativity.”
However, she also notes that writing can be a way of finding peace and understanding.
“Start writing a few minutes every day,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be good, thoughtful, or even comprehensible. It’s the simple act of shutting off the rest of the world and entering a new one that helps.”
Try journaling your thoughts without comment, she suggested.
“Get two characters in a room and make them argue. Imagine a reunion between two lovers. Do this every day and those few minutes may become 15, 30, or 100. But if not, you’re still giving space for your creativity to grow, and maybe nurturing the seeds of that novel.”