Writing a novel is a lot like climbing Mount Everest. I think. You see, I’ve never actually climbed Mount Everest and I’ve never written a novel — yet. But let me explain. I’ve been working on my debut novel for two years now, and I feel I can finally see the summit marked with a great big red flag saying “PUBLISHED” piercing the blanket of the clouds ahead. Maybe I’m naive, maybe the summit is just a mirage. I don’t know. Nonetheless, I’d like to share six important lessons I’ve learnt about the process so far:
1. Don’t let other people’s failure put you off.
It’s difficult, you risk your sanity when the air gets thin, and along the way you see the long-frozen dead corpses of manuscripts that sadly did not make it. They seem to speak to you from beyond the grave. Turn back! The way ahead is doomed. One swift turn of nature, and you’ll be risking everything. But you have to keep going. Well, that is unless you’re completely out of oxygen. Then it’s probably wise to turn back. The point is, most people never actually write a novel, let alone write a good novel. The first accomplishment in climbing Mount Everest is setting up camp beyond base camp.
2. Guidelines can give way.
Sure, along the way there are guidelines to follow, but they can sometimes give way, or worse, you lose hold of them. Most of the time guidelines are guidelines because they have been proven by the test of time to stand strong and make sense. Most of the time, you can hang on to these guidelines and nothing will go wrong. But not all guidelines fit all purposes, and all weather. You can’t just follow one single set of guidelines blindly. There are many different ways up the mountain and at some point you will have to find your own way. Especially in weather like this:
That’s right. You can’t even see your hands in front of your face.
3. Treat your sherpas well.
Your sherpas have been to Mt. Everest before. They know their stuff. When I first started writing a novel, somewhere inside the dark recesses of my being the beautiful troll of my ego rubbed his hands together and said, ‘Aha! Now I will show them all!’ Unfortunately, following my ego up the slopes of the mountain only ended up with me sliding all the way back down to base camp again in an horrendous avalanche. The troll got bruised, and I realised he is only beautiful in accepting his inherent ugliness. He didn’t give up.
If you didn’t have an ego you’d likely never create or express yourself. It is your ego that gives you that spark to have the audacity to leave your mark on the Earth. But just like an immortal puppy, it’s wise not to let your ego run off without a leash.
Listen to the advice of the people you trust around you. Even people who have never written a novel themselves might have still climbed the Mount Everest of other great challenges in life, and have important wisdom to bestow. Treat these people well, lest you get half way up the mountain and they decide to leave you there.
4. Sometimes you have to go up to go down.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve cut thirty thousand words or more from what I thought was a “somewhat” structured manuscript. What I’ve learnt is that I’ve been lazy in the past with my writing. Sometimes I cut a chapter which I know needs to be cut, but because it’s my “baby” I don’t tell my sherpas that I’m keeping it, and try to smush it in somewhere else in the novel like a jigsaw puzzle piece in the wrong place. This has only made things more difficult and the manuscript more convoluted. There is a difference between deleting words from your novel and deleting words forever. I never really delete anything. I keep an archives file which I keep deleted text in a kind of “word stock” because one day I might come back to it and make a new soup out of it. But I delete it now from the manuscript.
In short, forget about the word count. Focus on the plot, the characters, the story.
5. Sometimes you need blind faith.
Sometimes even when everyone tells you wrong, when they say you can’t do what you’re planning to do, when they say you’ll fail, you have to go ahead and do what you want to do anyway knowing they might be right and you’re gonna land flat on your face. But you’ve also got to know when to listen, because paradoxically, sometimes actually accepting feedback you don’t want to hear is a leap of faith too.
6. After reaching the summit don’t forget you’ve got to climb back down.
Okay, I haven’t got to this part yet. And though I hope I will get there, I understand that Mount Everest is a challenge for a reason. But I haven’t forgotten that when I get to the summit I still am going to need some oxygen to get back down the slope safely. Because I’ve heard, though it might take say two years to write a novel, it will probably take just as long for the manuscript to hit the shelves of bookstores (if it even gets past the gauntlet of impressing agents and publishers at all).
Any advice for scaling or getting back down from the Mount Everest of writing a novel? Come on, lend some much needed sherpa advice! Leave a comment below!