How To Write A Novel #36

Added on 13 May 2011

The essence of writing any novel, as discussed in parts 1-35, is making shit up. The question is, in what order do you make shit up?

With crime and mystery novels, and no doubt a variety of other genres, there are always things going on that the reader isn't meant to understand. Someone does something that seems completely inexplicable, and the reader is thinking, that's the weirdest thing I've ever heard of in my entire life. A character says something really banal, or really weird and strange, that has the reader thinking, What the fuck? Completely out of the blue an event is described, or a whole new character pitches up, that has the reader wondering if they've picked up the wrong book, or if the printers had somehow gone rogue and mixed up the book they were reading with parts of a Jilly Cooper.

The reader isn't supposed to know what's going on, and if they work it out and start telling people at parties that they knew who the killer was on page 3, it's a crushing disappointment. What one is looking for is the compliant reader, who happily enjoys what's happening, wallows in the sensation of complete bemusement, but does not launch their own investigation into proceedings so that they establish the facts before they appear in the book.

There are two ways to go about fooling the reader in this kind of way.

1. You sit down beforehand and work out what the book is about. You don't necessarily need to plot scene by scene, page by page, but there are those who do. Every bizarre little scene intended to confuse and confound the hopefully compliant reader is meticulously planned.

And then there's the one where you...

2. Make shit up as you go along.


I'm a happy proponent of Number 2.


Every now and again you throw in a scene that doesn't really make sense, you kill someone that you hadn't thought was going to be killed until you sat down at the computer that morning, or you blow something up for no apparent reason. As the writer you have no idea why it's happened either, but you know it adds to the intrigue.

You keep writing the novel. A few thousand words becomes twenty thousand. You throw in weird shit every now and again in the belief that at some stage it'll all magically come together. And then suddenly you've written 95,000 words and you realise you still haven't thought what any of it's actually about.

That's the stage I've just arrived at. This week. Today. Which is why I'm writing this and not the novel, because I realise that it's time to get it to make sense.

I do have a rough idea of what's going on, but it's now at the stage where the writer who relies mostly on making shit up needs to go back to the beginning, tweaking and adding and binning. You read things that you wrote three months previously and you think, What the fuck? Those are the ones you bin. You bend some parts, but you don't want to bend too much or else you find you're not bending, you're jumping the shark. You add bits in, you put a splodge of paint here and there, you tie up loose ends in a magical way and then Bob's your builder, it looks like a well-rounded, beautifully crafted novel. Written by a professional.

It's easier with Barney Thomson novels, because those books exist in their own slightly skewered reality. Pretty much anything goes in that world. The book I'm currently writing is set in regulation Britain, 2011. Everything is as it is, so there has to be some base in reality for everything that happens.

So, today is a thinking day. I'm going to sit and think. All day. And drink coffee and eat doughnuts. So on the plus side I'll be sorting the book out and marathon training at the same time.