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So you want to write a novel ... 


By Caroline Overington 

The Australian, December 2010



ARE you thinking of writing a book? Come on, you know you are. Everyone is.

There are some writers who say: well, not everyone should be thinking about it. Or maybe they can think about it but they shouldn't be allowed to actually do it because not everyone has a book in them.

It takes a lot of time. It's harder than it looks.

Me, I think: if you want to write a book, go ahead and write one. Write it with the idea that it will be published by a big publishing house. They'll be so delighted with it, they'll give you hundreds of thousands, nay, millions of dollars, for the manuscript.

They'll package it in hard-cover and sell it overseas. A year from now, you'll be humbly making your speech, at the announcement of the Man Booker Prize. Ian McEwan will be trying to crack on to you. Probably not, because he's married. But you know, in your dreams.

Ten years from now, you'll be J.K. Rowling, wondering what to do now that you've got more money than the Queen. You'll be Dan Brown, a quivering wreck in a castle somewhere. But rich.

Those things aren't actually likely to happen. But you never know, and if you're still keen to find out, well, you know what you need to do, don't you?

Get writing. Yes, I know. You've started. You've written something like 20,000 words and now you're not sure that it's any good.

I know this because I've met people just like you at writers festivals. They come up to me after I've finished my talk and they say: "I've always wanted to write a book, and now I've started, but I'm pretty sure it's absolute crap."

I assure them they're well on their way. Anybody who has ever written anything has, at some point or another, looked at it and thought: "Wow, this is crap!"

Or as a writing friend of mine once said: "If not crap, then absolute, unmitigated crap."

The first hurdle for people who have decided to write, then, is not really to begin but to keep going through the wall of self-doubt that says: "This is crap" (Or "This is carp," which is how crap comes out when you're fatigued but still writing.) But how do you find the time? That's the next thing that people want to know. They want to write a book; they've got started; they've got 20,000 words down; they're pushing down the feeling that what they've produced is carp; now how are they going to find the time to finish it?

They have full-time jobs and marriages, and children, and, well, a life basically. I have those things, too. So where do I find the time?

Like mothers the world over already know, you make it.

You find it at night, after the children have gone to bed. You get up when the world is still sleeping, with only your faithful old dog for company, and even she would rather be in bed.

And of course that's where it will get tricky. Because if the only time you've got to write is 4am on a Monday, you're really going to have to want to write.

Most people, at that time, would rather be a) asleep; or b) getting to know their husband a little better; and c) when morning comes, they want to be fresh, to go clothes shopping on Oxford Street (or Chapel Street, if you're a Melbourne-born writing person) or to have a flaky croissant for breakfast on Bondi beach, with one eye on the children in their saggy, sandy nappies.

The only one reason you would rather be writing than doing any of those things is that you've got something you want to say. And that's a good thing because there's no way in the world you should be writing a book unless you've got something to say.

Don't do it for money or fame. You can't be sure you would even want those things if they were yours.

So, what will you write about? It doesn't really matter, as long as it matters to you. Maybe you'll write about marriage, or divorce, or love, or death, or loss, or children (not having them, or losing them) or crime, or justice, or grief, or the end of days. Or sex, and how much time we all spend having it or not having it, and how only occasionally do we get the mix absolutely right. Or else cowboys. Some very good books have been written about cowboys.

So, now you've got time and you've got a topic, you've got purpose. Now you need characters, so keep your eye out for them. You never know when they'll turn up.

I met one of my narrators in the street outside my mother's house, the house she's retired to, in cool and pretty Anglesea.

She wanted to show me her roses. I don't know anything about roses. I know they make her happy when they grow. So we were looking at her roses when her neighbour from across the road came out.

I had been thinking about having an old man narrate my story for me. This bloke, he wasn't very old. He was in his mid-60s. He was well-worn, the way some Australian men - working class, British-born Australian men - tend to be: leathery from the sun, with a scruffy beard.

It was hot day and this bloke was wearing Stubbies. His legs were still in good shape. The skin on his knees was falling down a bit, but he had good pins. And he was chipper. You could tell just by looking that he'd been through a hedge backwards once or twice, but kept perspective.

He introduced himself. He said: "I'm Med." And I said: "Hi, Ned" and he said: "Not Ned. Med, short for Meredith."

And I said: "Your name's Meredith?" and he said: "That's right. And don't bother telling me that Meredith is a girl's name. It's not a girl's name. It was a name for boys. It's just gone out of fashion."

Well, I couldn't stop staring at him, and not only because he was such an unlikely Meredith. I knew I'd found the name - indeed, the look and the style - of the man who was going to tell my story for me, the man who was going to try to save his grandson's life, in my last novel. He looked exactly right. He spoke just the way I thought my narrator would speak.

He had a name that people would remember. Also, my narrator was going to be a man who had raised his own children. His wife, Pat - her mind aflame after reading Germaine Greer - was going to flee the marital home, with the clothes still on the washing line. So, Meredith, as a name, made sense: he'd take what was traditionally a woman's role and do it like a man. He'd have what might traditionally be a woman's name, but wield it like a man.

I don't like to give people too much advice about how to write their novels because, you know, ancora imparo (I am still learning), but I will say: when you name your characters, don't go for something plain. I mean, call me Ishamel, but I think characters in a book should have an interesting name, a name like Scout or Atticus, or like Lester Lamb in Cloudstreet (which also had Mason, known as Quick.)

Then, too, there's the fact we don't always go by the names with which we were born. My young daughter, for example: she's Chloe, but she's Gooey to her brother, after his own first, best effort. What do people call you? What do you call other people? There might be leads you could follow, there.

So, now, you're really on your way now, aren't you? You've got something to say and you're making time to say it. You've got characters with names and, hopefully, appearances. So, what's holding you back?

I know: the laundry.

You've got to put the washing on. You've been meaning to polish those glass doors out to the back patio forever. You've got those bills to pay online. And while you're online, why not check Facebook?

Skip quickly over to Twitter, then over to eBay. Now it's time to pick up the kids.

Then you've got to scrub potatoes. The dishes need to be done. You haven't had any exercise for ages. What about walking the dog? Actually, the dog needs a wash.

There is a word for this. It is procrastination and it means you're faffing about when you should be writing, but that's OK. There's a fair bit of faffing about involved in writing novels.

While writing my first one, I began collecting mid-century Parker furniture. I had no prior interest in mid-century Parker furniture. It may well have cost me more than I got paid in the end. But it was worth it: I now have a dining table that is to die for. So highly waxed, you can see your own face in it. It can't be polished with anything other than Mr Sheen. But have you tried to buy Mr Sheen lately? That took some tracking down. And all the while, the book deadline was ticking.

I've just finished writing a novel. I know I'm finished because I've stopped digging up the garden.

It's important, I think, when you're writing a novel, to be digging up the garden.

"But haven't you got a book to finish?"

That's what people will say if you're silly enough to tell them you're writing one.

But I think we need to respect the faffing about that goes on when somebody is trying to write something. Because anybody who has tried to do it knows that the churning that goes on in your stomach when you sit down and try to write can only be settled by putting old photographs into albums. Something not related to actually writing the novel.

It doesn't mean you're not writing. You're plotting. You're thinking. You're rebooting the brain.

All that said, the best advice I ever got was this: it won't work if you don't.

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