Author Lucy Wood began her career with a short story collection. Here, she discusses the lessons she learned from writing her debut novel, and shares her advice for writers working on their first manuscripts.
You have to write the novel in order to write the novel
This probably sounds like a very obvious thing to have learned – but it took me far too long to realize it myself. I spent so long planning and trying to work out exactly what was going to happen, and what it would all mean, that quite a long time passed before I actually wrote anything! When I was working on my short stories, I had the idea and shape of each one planned before I started writing it, but this wasn’t possible with my novel - I didn’t know my characters or their situations well enough to imagine what might happen, or what events could occur. Writing the novel was much more about confronting uncertainty and the unknown. As I began to write, ideas, themes and characters slowly emerged. I had no idea that I would end up writing a scene where my main character butchers a deer, but as I began to explore her situation and the emotions she was battling with, it suddenly seemed strangely inevitable.
Don’t be afraid to make big changes
It is difficult to confront those niggling doubts in the back of your mind, the ones that tell you that something just isn’t working. You can either plough on ahead, trying to ignore them, (which I became very good at) or you can work out what’s wrong and change it. In novels, this often means that the change will affect everything you’ve already written. For me, this meant excising a main character that I had spent a long time working on. I thought he was an integral part of the plot, but he was actually making the whole thing sprawl, and by taking him out I ended up with a stronger, three-character structure. I thought that all the work I’d put into this character had been wasted, but I ended up using elements of his personality, habits and back-story in the development of one of the other characters. A lot of what I wrote in those early, awful drafts ended up being useful in one way or another.
There are certain things you have to address in a novel
It was easier to gloss over things that I didn’t want to write about in my short stories. The short story is a small fragment of a much larger whole, so it makes sense to leave out more mundane activities like food shopping and work and bill-paying. When I started to write my novel, I realized fairly quickly that I would have to address some of these day-to-day events. For example, the novel is set over winter and one of the main characters is six. She was going to have to go to school, even though I didn’t really want to write about school. I spent a long time worrying that this would end up taking over; that a big chunk of the novel would have to be school-based. But I slowly worked out ways to get around it. Apart from one chapter, I tried to refer to school in chapters that inhabited another character’s perspective – so although the child was in school, the reader wasn’t. I tried to do the same thing with the estate agency. I had to learn ways of alluding to day-to-day issues without letting them take over.
Use a layering technique
I couldn’t hold all of the information or ideas for my novel in my head at one time, in the same way I could for individual short stories. I tried to at first, and ended up completely stuck. So I started thinking of the novel in layers: first building up the overall structure and focusing on the bigger picture. Then, once I had the basic story down, I began to work on each draft with a particular set of ideas in mind. I worked on minor characters, then on furtherance of imagery, then small patterns and repetitions – slowly building on the themes and concerns of the overall story. I thought of it like working on a painting: first using broad brush strokes and then adding finer details layer by layer.
Find something that takes your mind off writing
Writing a novel is a long process and I became very boring when I was in the depths of writing mine because I couldn’t stop thinking about it and couldn’t concentrate on much else. I had to force myself to do other things because the story was going round and round in my mind, but not in a useful way! So I started to bake and cook and go for longer walks, and eventually these things ended up not only taking my mind off writing for a while, but also feeding into my novel and (hopefully) enriching it in small ways.
Lucy Wood has been awarded the Holyer an Gof Award and a Somerset Maugham Award. Diving Belles and Other Stories was long listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize, shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and was a runner-up in the BBC National Short Story Award. Lucy Wood has a master’s degree in creative writing from Exeter University. She grew up in Cornwall and lives in Devon.