Crawling Uphill in the Dark: The Novel Writing Process

I am on the fifth (?) draft of the novel and a writing course friend of mine has just read it. Thankfully, she really liked it but did think to let me know that in the course of it’s 87,000 words I have used the word “suddenly” 67 times. Looking through the manuscript for the millionth time, I came across not only “suddenly” but “all of a sudden,” and “at once” on more occasions than I care to count….

Georges Simenon, the creator of the detective Maigret, said that writing is not so much a profession as a vocation of unhappiness. And it’s at times like these, when I might agree with him. Listening to a recent Radio 4 Open Book programme, the novelist Edna O’Brien said that writing a novel takes three years. A pundit on the same show, Sid Smith, said that the process of writing a novel involves taking the same journey as the reader – but on your hands and knees. In the dark. With a broken leg.

So much for the glamour and the book tours, the Booker and the Hay-on-Wye literary festival goody bags. It turns out that writing is actually a never-ending slog – where eighteen months into the process, even with your slew of words upon the page, you discover that you now have to invent a zillion other ways of writing “suddenly.” Or not bothering with the word at all and trusting that your surrounding prose will spell out the change in nuance to your reader. Hands and knees in the dark? Yep, certainly feels like it at the moment.

Cue lots of articles spat out by Google on the wonders of honing your craft, of whittling a statue, carving a masterpiece – and lots of other physical analogies that mean nothing next to the tedium and loneliness of sitting at your desk alone every single day. It’s then that becoming anything other than a writer seems a whole lot more attractive.

The sun decided to shine at that point – dare I say it, “suddenly?” And so I went for a run and listened to the rest of the programme where Edna O’Brien goes on to talk about her life and her work and what writing means to her. And she makes it all sound sense by the way she talks about it, the lilting timbre of her voice, her descriptions of carving a mark on history – her history. Not for the tours and the prizes or even the idea of earning any money from it. But because it’s the only thing you can do. And that’s when I realised that I’d do 67 drafts if it meant that what I created at the end was what I wanted to say. Even if nobody ever reads it.

Writing is a vocation. And often you are crawling through the dark, dragging your limbs behind you – trying to catch up with your mind and what it actually wants to say. It’s so difficult and takes so long because the recesses of your mind are black and cavernous and on the whole, a thing of mystery. Which is what makes delving into it all the more extraordinary. And worth a lot of thought and time to fathom it all out.

So I struggle on. The word ‘suddenly” has all but dissipated and whatever number draft it is that I’m on nears even closer to its conclusion. It is an uphill process and often a lonely one. But it reaps its rewards. Here’s hoping…..!

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. malcolm mckay
    Apr 22, 2014 @ 10:16:37

    a lovely blog. I did warn you about writing, but either you have to do it or you don’t. I don’t think you have any choice!. Dadx


  2. lgould171784
    Apr 22, 2014 @ 14:49:13

    It only takes Edna three years? She’s fast! I’ve just submitted a novel that took me five years, and I haven’t even dealt with the professional edits yet.


  3. sjoycarlson
    Apr 23, 2014 @ 01:05:01

    For me and my manuscript, it was the excessive use of color words. And apparently I used “speckle” a lot. Oh the joys of creating a masterpiece…. We’ll get there though! Each draft brings us one step closer to perfection, or perhaps one step closer to the next draft–maybe that will be the perfect one haha.


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