On Building a Novel, Layer by Layer
Yesterday I finished the round of edits I’ve been working on since mid-October and sent them over to my agent. (If there comes a time when it feels less exciting to use the words ‘my agent’, please know that I haven’t yet reached it.)
These past six weeks I’ve been sitting at my desk each morning as endless rain comes down outside, moving between the years 1944, 1953 and 2002. I’ve been working on strengthening intentions, deepening emotion and creating suspense, all with the hope of building an intangible sense of ‘unputdownability’.
And ‘building’ really is the right word here, isn’t it? In fact, I saw a quote a week or so ago that summed this up perfectly. It was from author Rachel Cusk, quoted in the Paris Review:
‘You build a novel. You have to build it like a building so that it stays standing when you’re not in it.’
Clearly there are an awful lot of people who know an awful lot more about writing novels than I do. Still, it seems to me that they are built in layers, brick by brick, piece by piece, scene by scene. In each draft we are moving a bit more of the story out of our brain and onto the page. With each draft and each edit we are adding more depth, more reality, more support to the structure. After all, like Cusk says, stories need to be able to stay upright once the author steps away.
For me, the layering in this particular novel started five years ago. Looking back now, it seems an inordinately long time to have spent writing a novel, but I did what I could with the time that I had. Back in 2017, my two children were not yet at school. I was with them almost full time while also balancing freelance writing work and chronic illness. I was desperate to be writing a novel, but, as you can imagine, there was not much time. Sleep was a precious commodity I was not getting enough of (far from ideal for anyone, but especially when you have a disease that renders even eight hours of solid sleep unrefreshing, never mind night after night of broken REM) so getting up early or staying up late to carve out writing time just wasn’t possible.
Instead, I set myself a challenge of writing something every day. Some days I would find half an hour to sit at my laptop, other days I might scribble something in a notebook during nap time. More often than not, I would draft a couple of hundred words on my phone in bed before I went to sleep. It was never much, but I held onto the thought that the few moments I had to spare each day would add up over time.
And they did. They really did. Now, I look back at the dozens and dozens of Evernote notes I wrote during 2017 and 2018 and can see exactly how the first layer of the novel came to be. It’s interesting to see which scenes, characters and subplots have been brushed over and forgotten with subsequent layers, and which have persisted pretty much as is.
Reading the manuscript now, you can’t tell which parts were invented at a desk with my laptop and which came to me in bed, squinting at my phone screen in the dark. Indeed, no one would be able to point out the fifty words I wrote lying on a fold out hospital bed at 3am beside a four-year-old with pneumonia, but they’re in there, pretty much verbatim. (And yes, perhaps I could – or should – have given myself the grace of taking that particular day off, but at the time I suspect I was grateful for the normalcy of those few moments of routine!)
It took me three years to write the first couple of drafts of the novel, but things sped up once both children started full time at school. The half a dozen layers I’ve added this year and last have been written in daylight hours, often with a friendly co-writing face in the corner of my screen (hi, Anna M Boland and P.E. Holdsworth!) Day after day, paragraph after paragraph, the novel has grown into something that seems like a tiny universe all of its own, just one little layer at a time.
Now that this particular round of edits are in, it’s likely I’ll have a little time away from 1944, 1953 and 2002. But, in the interests of staying loyal to my particular brand of time travel, I plan to spend it returning to a first draft I’ve been working on on and off over this year. 1924, here I come.
These past few weeks I’ve enjoyed:
Transatlantic by Column McCann (another time traveling book with multiple timelines).
Listening to the ‘Manias and Phobias’ episode of Betwixt the Sheets.