You’d think it would get easier. It doesn’t, though. I finished writing my twenty-first novel a month ago and only now feel I’ve recovered sufficiently to recall the process.
Starting a novel is like standing on the summit of a mountain and looking down at the fascinating, colourful scenery below, spread out invitingly for you to explore. Finishing one is clambering down a steep, rocky slope, your knees grazed and fingernails broken, battling through the undergrowth, trying not to step into crevasses or lose the path, while all the time fighting exhaustion. Okay, I suppose it’s not as physically dangerous as climbing a mountain, but for milksops like me, it can feel pretty scary.
I’m never sure whether I can finish the story until I’ve finished it. In other words, I’m never completely convinced that I can tie it all up in a pleasing manner until I’ve written that final sentence. In my head, I see the shape and progress of a novel something like this: I start with a dozen or more differently coloured ribbons tightly bunched in my hand. As the work develops, the ribbons separate, whirled high and low, flung this way and that. They’re dispersed most widely just over halfway through the book. At that point I have to begin to gather them up and plait them together again. Sometimes they’re not easy to catch hold of and I have to search for a way of grasping them. As the final chapters approach, they must start to entwine in a pleasing pattern. If one strand is too prominent I must make adjustments. If a ribbon is thin or ragged, I might have to go back a number of chapters to correct it. All the threads need to be in my hands, in the right order and emotionally satisfying, by the time I write that final sentence.
Not all the strands need to tie up – that in itself would be unconvincing – but I mustn’t leave the reader, having ploughed through hundreds of pages, saying hang on, what happened to so-and-so, or what about the what-d’you-call-it? Or feeling disappointed that two characters don’t end up together (or that they do). Art isn’t life, and it’s the novelist’s responsibility to give a book a thumping good ending. A bittersweet ending is fine – often good – but a sour one isn’t. It needs to be satisfying morally, too. A villain mustn’t entirely get away with his or her villainy; a heroine, whatever trials she’s had to endure, must have restitution and at least the hope of future happiness.
Since writing my fifth novel, I’ve always worked to a deadline. The last six months of working on a novel is always pressured because the deadline is looming. I clear the decks and set my priorities: family is most important, the work in progress a close second. Everything else can wait. Weeds grow in the flowerbeds, dust gathers on shelves and my social life dwindles. If it’s really tight I’ll be working weekends. Never evenings though – I’m useless in the evenings. As soon as I wake in the morning I’m thinking of the next scene I’m to write, scribbling down notes, scraps of plot or dialogue that pop into my head, on a pad I keep in the bedroom. I neglect social media because it’s distracting and when I go out for a walk or do the garden I’m thinking through the next part of the book.
Then there’s the fact-checking. I’ll have been checking historical facts as I write. My novels are 130,000 – 150,000 words long. They are all set in the past and they need to be historically accurate because inaccuracies destroy the illusion. Before I start a new book and while I’m working, I visit settings, make notes, take photos, check reference books and websites. When I’ve finished writing, I go through the typescript all over again, marking off where I’ve confirmed a fact. Now and again an error slips through, which is annoying. The most likely errors are when you think you know something but are mistaken.
Having checked the facts, I check the text itself – that there aren’t two Chapter Tens or no Chapter Ten, that it looks uniform and pleasant to read, that the dates I often use as chapter headings to help the reader navigate the story are consistent. I’ll have checked the internal dates of the plot already. I have characters’ ages mapped out on squared paper and I’ll have gone through those a final time too.
So you’ve written that last sentence. Perhaps you’ll start sleeping properly again. Perhaps you’ll get to see your friends… even talk to your husband without half your mind on the book. But that’s not the end of it. There are books that have required very little alteration by me once I’ve sent them to my editor, and there are those that need masses of revisions. It depends on the book and, perhaps, on the editor. I tend to end up having to do a lot of rewriting when I’m trying out something different. It’s a nightmare having to make a lot of revisions at late stage – okay, again I’ll admit that it’s not absolutely comparable to climbing Mount Everest, but still, it keeps me awake at night. Making adjustments towards the beginning of a finished text can have huge ramifications. It’s like unpicking a single thread from a tapestry while ensuring that the entire work remains beautiful and coherent. In novels, as in life, everything affects everything else.
Eventually I glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel. The circle of light grows, bright and beckoning and the day comes when the book is finished at last. I feel a sense of lightness, of elation, of having shed a burden – but regret too, because I’m leaving old friends for the last time.