Writing a novel: it takes as long as it takes
by Amy Arnold, Northern Book Prize winner

Amy Arnold was awarded the inaugural Northern Book Prize in 2018 for her debut novel, Slip of a Fish. We asked Amy to write about the challenges of completing the book.

Top photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

There are a lot of good sentences around. In fact, I found one this morning. There it was, sitting in the middle of a page, in the middle of a paragraph, minding its own business and looking like every other sentence in the book.

It goes without saying that a good sentence, like the one I found this morning, must be marked in some way. Folding the corner of the page is almost never sufficient. The good sentence will, more likely than not, have migrated by the time you’ve returned to find it. Those of us who’ve suffered anguish at the lost good sentence understand the need to underline. Twice is better.

So, you see, I love a good sentence. I care about them. But I really only have the haziest sense of what makes one sentence better than another, what separates the goodies from the baddies, the sinkers from the swimmers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m none too slow at recognising a good sentence. I mean, I know how it feels to be carried along by one, to be under its spell, mesmerised, hypnotised. I know how it feels to be stopped dead in my tracks.

Now, let’s take stock for a moment. I’d like to propose that recognising a good sentence is not the same as writing a good sentence. I repeat, they are not the same.

I tell you this as a good-sentence-lover turned would-be-writer, and I know I’m not alone. The transition between states happens seamlessly enough. We have, thus far, passed a very nice lifetime appreciating other people’s good sentences. We know what we like, we know where to look to find what we like, in fact we’ve stumbled across so many good sentences that we start to believe they’re two a penny, that the process of mind to page is no more than a simple act of transference. In short, we conclude that writing one good sentence after another for around two-hundred and fifty pages can’t be all that hard. We wonder why it’s taken us so long to realise that it is indeed our destiny to write our own novel/short story collection/poetry collection.

But writing a good sentence is not easy and writing one good sentence after another is even harder. I know this because I’ve tried. To be honest, I’ve spent far too many hours wrestling with commas and conjunctions to be considered normal. I’ve passed entire afternoons searching for missing syllables. I’ve added, then taken away, I’ve read out loud, then read again, I’ve tried to breathe life into charred remains by reading with a Scottish accent. NB: this is actually worth considering if you’re getting desperate.

writing a novel will be as hard as hitting your head against stone

But nobody chances to mention this, do they? Nobody volunteers to be the one who has to break it to you that writing a novel will be as hard as hitting your head against stone, that a year from the day you begin you’ll dump your work in the trash and weep tears of permanent black ink. No, they do not.

You see, if you look for novel writing advice on the internet you will find that it is, in fact, irritatingly chirpy.

  • Write a novel in a month – the easy way
  • Lifehack: write your novel in under four weeks (14 days, 10 days – yes, really)
  • Write FAST
  • Don’t stop to tinker
  • Get muscle memory for your keyboard
  • Get the vomit draft done!

These statements make you feel bad. 10 days, 14 days, a month goes by and you’re still fiddling with your first paragraph. Perhaps it is a little adjective-heavy after all, you think. How can I be so slow, so bad? After all, you reason, everyone knows how to write. (You might be especially taken in by this line of argument if you happen to have spent time on a big piece of writing before – say, an essay, or a dissertation.)

But writers of good sentences fool us. They fool us the way professional ice skaters, musicians, dancers and artists fool us. I like to console myself sometimes by imagining that the day after watching the Olympic gymnastics finals a handful of people turned up at their local gym expecting to be able to perform an Arabian Double Pike.

The truth is that gymnastics and writing are hard. The final product always conceals the struggle. We were simply not around the day Shakespeare wrestled with iambic pentameter for so long he stabbed his quill into his knee, or the afternoon Wordsworth contemplated taking a mower to all those daffodils, when Gertrude Stein threw her pen at the window shouting, ‘Sod it, a rose will have to be a sodding rose’.

Shakespeare wrestled with iambic pentameter for so long he stabbed his quill into his knee

Sooner or later we must arrive at the understanding that writing well requires some degree of skill, that it’s fine, possibly even good for us to spend time working on our craft, that churning out a novel in the time it takes most people to actually read one, may not be all it’s cracked up to be. I’m willing to bet that you have never, and here I mean never reached the end of a brilliant novel and said to yourself, ‘Good, but I bet she/he didn’t write it in twenty-eight days’.

You see, when it comes to reading – which is actually what writing’s all about – speed doesn’t really come into it.

As a species, we’re fairly partial to slow-cooked food, mature wines and cheeses. We happily wait ten weeks before we pull our potatoes, we don’t think to hurry the earth on its orbit around the sun or complain about the length of an elephant’s gestation period.

Writing a novel takes as long as it takes. It takes as long as it takes.

And yes, there are some (lucky) souls who write quickly, there are those who so rarely encounter the struggle of getting words on the page that all it takes is a cup of coffee and a handful of encouraging words to get them back on track. There are others who have to write faster than they’d like – especially when writing pays the bills.

For the rest of us, the moment we stop paying attention to the voice inside us that says one hundred words a day isn’t enough, the moment we stop listening to the people who ask if we’ll ever finish (and there are people who do this more often than is considered polite), we can concentrate on trying to write well. We can give ourselves permission to enjoy the sometimes frustrating process of writing; the well placed semi-colon, the sentence that’s grown so long, so unwieldy, there isn’t any way a human being with a lung capacity the size of Bradley Wiggins’ could even contemplate reading it out loud in one breath.

 width=Amy Arnold was born in Oxford in 1974. She studied Neuropsychology at Birmingham University and has worked in a variety of jobs from packing swedes to teaching and lecturing. She lives in Cumbria, and in 2018 was awarded the inaugural Northern Book Prize for her debut novel, Slip of a Fish.

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