Writing My First Novel, by Alison Booth
On New Year’s Day in 2005 I began writing my first novel. No, it wasn’t a resolution for the new year, but simply a day when I found some free time. Exactly five years later – to the day! – it was published, as Stillwater Creek.
The story is about a Latvian refugee, Ilona, and her young daughter, Zidra, who in 1957 arrive in the remote NSW coastal town of Jingera. Ilona hopes to begin a new life in a place that she views – erroneously – as a sort of utopia. Their arrival sets in motion a series of event that will come to threaten the whole township.
I wrote the novel from six viewpoints. Some people have subsequently told me that this is not ‘fashionable’, but fortunately for me I didn’t know that then. Each character’s perspective contributes to the whole because of their distinct plot lines and their idiosyncratic opinions, and that’s why I chose six points of view.
Three years were to pass from the time I started writing until the manuscript draft was ready to show an agent. Australian Literary Management agreed to represent me, and it was another nine months before the revised draft was ready to show to a publisher. Here I was lucky – or perhaps you might say that all those years of hard work at last paid off. My agent chose one publisher, and she read the manuscript over the weekend and was ready to offer informally by the start of the week – conditional on getting it past the acquisitions committee. Another week went by before we got the formal offer – and then came the catch: the publisher offered a two book deal and the second book had to be a sequel. (I’ll write more on the advantages and disadvantages of that strategy from an author’s perspective in my next blog.)
What made Stillwater Creek publishable? Hard work and some good luck — the manuscript went to the right people at the right time. But I think the book’s setting also struck a chord: a coastal town full of eccentric characters, a place that looks charming but underneath has dark secrets.
What should people embarking on a first novel try to avoid? First, don’t make your novel autobiographical. I wrote a novel in my twenties that was quasi- autobiographical and I’m everlastingly grateful it never saw the light of day! On the other hand I’m glad I got all that stuff out of my system and could move on.
My second suggestion is to write from the heart and to plan from the head. This works for me, although I appreciate that it may not work for everyone. While I map out the novel in advance, I write the first draft of any scene very fast, with a 2B pencil, letting words and ideas flow and take me where they will. Afterwards I dictate this using a software package with the wonderful name Dragon Naturally Speaking and then I endlessly edit.
Third – avoid rushing. Expect to write between ten and twenty drafts, quite possibly more, and be realistic about setting completion dates.
Fourth, get an agent – but only after your manuscript is well-polished and has been read by people you trust.
Finally, writing a novel is an obsession: people should do it if they’re driven to tell a story, not because they expect to make money from it (very few do). It will eat up big chunks of your life. But it’s also likely to lead you to unexpected places – and you may well love the journey.
Alison Booth’s author website: www.alisonbooth.net
Writing Novels in Australia