The idea – or rather, the ideas – for my fifth novel came in pieces. My son is very keen on architecture and I spent a good part of last year watching property programmes with him – Grand Designs, George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, Extraordinary Homes (he’s currently into that Tiny Homes show on Netflix). I’ve always been fascinated by houses as spaces of haunting and occasionally places of safety and belonging. For a long time I’ve played around with a story about a couple building their own home. In the different versions, the construction process is a metaphor for something else – in one version, it’s a metaphor for their marriage; in another, for the husband’s mental illness. These thoughts coalesced in the form of Tom and Aurelia building their own summer home in a rural part of Norway.
I mentioned in a previous blog about my reasons for choosing Norway as the setting for the book. Another element that came gradually was the main character, Lexi Ellis,who serves as a nanny for the Faraday family. Childcare has long been the bane/fascination of my life, because unless I have childcare, I’m pretty restricted in what I can do. The people with whom I trust with my children have become Very Important People in my life, and the dynamics of these relationships fascinate me. My youngest, for instance, adores the teaching assistant who spends time with her every day (she is autistic and has a dedicated teacher at school), and my only connection with this woman is through my daughter. Still, I adore this woman, because she cherishes my little girl every day and her influence and care have played a massive role in helping W flourish at school. The dynamics that usually inform such emotional connections with people other than family, such as shared hobbies, similar social class/political viewpoints, don’t matter in these relationships – you’re invested entirely in the relationship for the sake of the child. In the book, Tom would probably never have any kind of relationship with someone like Lexi – a young, working class admin assistant from northern England, with a history of mental illness and trauma. And yet, because she becomes a nanny for his kids, Tom and Lexi’s lives intersect in a dramatic and highly essential way. Suffice it to say that such dynamics intrigue me and I was interested in the drama that can play out from such a meeting of opposites.
I had other Things I Wanted to Write About. Postnatal bodies, trauma, heritage/legacies, caring for a newborn, homeschooling, veganism, the climate crisis/anthropocene, particularly its effects on the Arctic. These all formed the bedrock of the plot, and I’ll address these individually in subsequent blog posts. Once I had my ‘ingredients’, I had to work out the recipe for a brilliant, enthralling story.
I wrote the first 18k words without writing down much of a plan. I had a synopsis that laid out the beginning and end of the story, and in writing the beginning my focus was on getting the voice right. Plot comes secondary to voice. Whatever you want to call voice – tone, character (essentially I think it’s both) – it is crucial to get right as early as possible.
Once the voice was working, I turned to index cards to plot out the key parts of the story. Behold:
(Excuse the mess of my kitchen table.)
I used to be a ‘pantser’, or someone who launched into writing without a plan. But now that I’ve written a fair few novels (ten, give or take) I’m aware that it’s easy to launch into a first draft and then find that it requires a ridiculous amount of redrafting. The reasons a story draft doesn’t work are various – sometimes, like baking, you put all the ingredients in, stir and cook accordingly, and the thing still doesn’t rise – but I know from experience that an overview of the story allows me to see how the narrative threads contribute to the main story; how the inner and outer narratives (or the emotional story vs the plot) work together; and the main character’s arc. An overview of the story also allows me to maintain tension and push my ideas further. I tell my students that this approach – as shown above, with numbered cards marking not the scenes of the story, but the ‘beats’ – allows me to be as creative as possible. It can be boring to plan out a novel; conversely, writing into the unknown is exciting, because you’re discovering things as you write, and often that energy infuses the reading experience.
The index cards form a kind of scaffold around the unwritten story that enables me to be creatively flexible. By this I mean that ideas often emerge during the writing process can be integrated into the broader framework without leading me off in a tangent. When you’re writing something as big as a novel, you’re writing on days when you’re busy, tired, feeling low, on days when you’ve read something that makes you feel that you should try a different direction. To make sure you don’t end up with something that is affected by your moods and influences over such a long writing period and therefore ends up uneven and patchy, a plan is a good way to keep you on course. In short, the tone, narrative threads, and characters all have to cohere and be consistent throughout the course of the book, resulting in something as beautifully symmetrical as a spider’s web. A plan is essential for that.
I went back to the index card plan again and again to get a sense of how the structure was working as I developed the story. At several points I actually forgot what was meant to happen next, so I referred to the cards and felt very glad that I’d actually brainstormed the direction of the story beforehand! At other points, I departed from the plan when something was working a little better than I’d anticipated. For instance, I wrote a scene with a bird in it. The bird scene worked so well that I decided to make it a narrative thread and I was able to work that into the broader framework (I simply added it to these cards later on with a pencil).
Breaking it Down
I don’t think I’ll ever write without a plan, and certainly the index card approach is one I’ll stick with. Another reason I enjoy this approach is because, even now, embarking on a new novel is scary! It always feels like climbing Everest. I never feel confident about it, and I can well understand how many novels go unfinished because it feels like (a) argh a novel and (b) I don’t have the time and (c) argh a novel. But by breaking it down into sections like this, somehow those 90k+ words don’t seem quite so scary… Breaking it down is crucial to overcoming the doubt that will inevitably try and stop you from writing something as massive as this. There will always be a reason not to write a novel, however excited you are by the original idea. Even though I was excited for this book, even though my publisher contracted it on the basis of the first 6 chapters, I still had to push myself every single day to eke out the word count. What worked for me was breaking the word count down, too. So instead of feeling overwhelmed by the 90k words I had to write while working full-time, managing my family etc. and writing to a deadline, I calculated how many words I needed to write per day in order to hit a deadline. And I finished before that deadline. Had I tried to write every day with that scary 90k hanging over my head, I’d have probably given myself writer’s block.
I know that there are software platforms out there (like Scrivener) that offer this kind of planning, but I like the old school approach – scribbling is an underrated facet of creativity, and I also like being literally ‘hands on’, moving the cards around to work out where the scenes should go, and pacing up and down my living room with a hot chocolate in hand mulling out the threads. That’s not to say that these platforms won’t work for you, and I don’t mean here to suggest that my method is the only method for plotting out a story.
What’s key is finding what works for you.