Novelists are often asked: how do you write? Dominic Utton thinks the question should be: why do you write?
Writing a novel takes an awful lot of effort – ask anyone who’s ever actually typed 100,000 words next to each other and they’ll tell you that… but to then put those words in an order that not only makes grammatical sense but also contains structure, character, plot, suspense, surprise, pathos, bathos, comedy, tragedy AND some kind of insight into the human condition… Christ, put it like that and it’s a wonder anybody dares even try.
So… why do we? And more to the point: just what kind of person is driven to attempt such a seemingly impossible task?
My theory: all novelists are monsters. Bear with me.
I’ve been a journalist for over 15 years, knocking out features at a rate of two or three a week on just about any subject and for a range of newspapers and magazines. I reckon I average around 120,000 words a year: over the course of my career that’s a solid two million words.
And without wanting to sound arrogant (that comes later), it’s not actually that hard. Sure the research can be taxing, the deadlines can be tight, the interviewees can be tricky… but it’s a job. A trade. I learned the rules and I do it well.
So when I came to write my first novel, Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time (published last year), I thought the same principles would hold true. One hundred thousand words? Sure, it would be a slog, but so long as I thought of it as nothing more daunting than a really big feature, I’d be fine.
I was wrong. It was hard. Hard? It was a nightmare. It was a brain-breaker. And the reason why soon became clear. Unlike everything else I’ve ever written, I wasn’t dealing in facts: I was having to make stuff up. And making stuff up is terrifying. When you’re making stuff up, literally anything can happen. You’re left with a dizzying, infinite amount of choice: the sheer lack of limits can have an almost paralysing effect.
For that novel I was saved by my subject matter – in the words of the old cliché, I wrote about what I knew (commuting, tabloid scandals, pop music, the trials of being a new dad). And the result was pretty well-received, all round.
So well, in fact, that I’ve recently done it all over again. My new novel is set in a cul-de-sac in Oxford: there are seven houses in the street, giving seven intertwining stories that tell a greater overall tale… with a healthy twist or two along the way. And if the first one was hard, this time the task felt Herculean.
There are no parallels with my own life in this novel – the whole thing is, not to put too blunt a point on it, pure fiction. I had to make it all up.
It took me over a year to write – and my agent and I are still fiddling with it. In that time I’ve trashed at least as many pages as I’ve kept, I’ve endured sleepless nights, countless mental arguments, a fair number of real-world arguments, crushing self-doubt, sudden bursts of inspiration followed by hopeless weeks in which I’ve struggled to make any sense of what I’ve written, at least 14 incidents of serious computer rage, anger, jealousy, denial, despair… and all in the name of what? A story.
So why put myself through it all? What kept me going? Why do novelists do what they do?
Novelists are by nature obsessive, driven people. Writing something that big, that complicated, is not done for fun. It’s done because it has to be done. Motivating every novelist is a naked need to tell that story, no matter what it costs.
Which is, of course, the romantic vision. The slightly-less glamorous truth may be that we are also pig-headed, obstinate, arrogant show-offs. We have to be, in order to get the book written at all.
We not only have the enormous self-belief required to even attempt such an undertaking, but we’re also cocky enough to think that the end result will be worth reading – and even that it will be so good that people will want to actually pay for the privilege of reading it. (In their thousands, hopefully.) We’re egotistic enough to believe that it’s deserving of good reviews, window displays in Waterstones, literary prizes. We’re proud and obstinate enough to keep going with it, even when it all looks hopeless.
Novelists write because they’re monsters. We have to be, or we simply wouldn’t be able to write novels at all.