Is Creating a Novel an Act of Alchemy or Engineering?

 

 

Is Creating a Novel an Act of Alchemy or Engineering?

by Paul E. Hardisty

For some, creating a novel is an act of alchemy. The transmutation of blank space into a story you just can’t stop reading. It appears as if from nowhere as words flow onto the screen or the paper, propelled by some force over which the writer seemingly has very little control. It’s almost like magic. These are the writers who start with a seed, an opening scene perhaps, or a piece of dialogue, and let the story write itself. No predetermined plan, no carefully mapped out sequence of scenes and events. One thing leads to another, characters emerge, conflicts boil over, and soon there is a novel. The process is organic, self-replicating. An evolution with a whiff of genius about it.

I’ve met writers like this. I’ve always been a bit envious of these magicians and alchemists. These are the writers who say things like: “the story wrote itself”, and “the characters kept surprising me, I had no control over them.” What a wonderful thing to be able to create this way, with freedom and spontaneity.

For me, writing is an entirely different process. More an act of engineering than evolutionary biology. Build it. Start with place and theme.  What is the subject, the essential message of the book?  Where will it be set? Why this, and why here? This is the foundation. Once these things are clear, make a plan. Sketch it out, from beginning to end. I create the characters and they absolutely do only and exactly what I tell them to. I determine the key events that will make up the story. Before I can start the first sentence, I need to see how the book will finish. That means lots of planning before I ever start composing prose, and a lot of hard work. When the plan hangs together, I can start writing.  Each morning I know what I am going to write, what has to happen. Then I can focus on writing the best prose I can. And when the whole things is done, the even harder work of revision begins, the polishing, the adding of essential detail, the culling of all of the wonderful but superfluous stuff every writer loves to create but needs to take out.

My first novel, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, which was shortlisted for the CWA Creasy Prize, took me ten years to write.  I was working full time, raising a family, building a business. I just looked back through my old notebooks, charted the life of the book. The first plan, a series of sketches, bears almost no resemblance to the final product. In fact, the published novel retained less than ten percent of the original plan. The plan changed over the years, as I learned, received feedback, and tested ideas. At that level, it was definitely a process of evolution.

My fourth novel, Absolution, released in 2018, was the final in the Claymore Straker series. I wrote it in a year, pretty much full time. The planning still happened, but the momentum of a series meant that so much of the context and essential character work was already done. Looking back, the writing process was much more “let it flow” than rigorous planning.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that perhaps the two approaches aren’t so very different. The evolutionary writer’s initial seed contains the story’s DNA, the essential coding of the story, wrapped up in his or her life experiences, hopes, dreams, and fears. Nothing comes from a vacuum. Place and theme are encoded in that opening scene, and carried deep within the writer’s soul. If the seed finds fertile ground, gets enough water and sun, it grows, replicates, branches out, spreads and gets strong. That’s life. What seems like magic is actually a lot of hard work, planning and preparation done subconsciously. All the engineer does it try to harness that work, make it explicit and use it. The plans themselves evolve and develop under the same influences. It all comes from the same place, needs the same nourishment. That’s what I tell myself, anyway, when I emerge from a day of “writing” and all I have is a series of sketches and notes that look more like battle plan than work of art.

If you are writer, you’ve got to write. One hears it all the time. And you know, it’s absolutely true. But whatever the method, engineering or alchemy, magic or planning, creating a novel is hard work. A year (or ten) to write, four days to read. So I better get to it.

For some, creating a novel is an act of alchemy. The transmutation of blank space into a story you just can’t stop reading. It appears as if from nowhere as words flow onto the screen or the paper, propelled by some force over which the writer seemingly has very little control. It’s almost like magic. These are the writers who start with a seed, an opening scene perhaps, or a piece of dialogue, and let the story write itself. No predetermined plan, no carefully mapped out sequence of scenes and events. One thing leads to another, characters emerge, conflicts boil over, and soon there is a novel. The process is organic, self-replicating. An evolution with a whiff of genius about it.

I’ve met writers like this. I’ve always been a bit envious of these magicians and alchemists. These are the writers who say things like: “the story wrote itself”, and “the characters kept surprising me, I had no control over them.” What a wonderful thing to be able to create this way, with freedom and spontaneity.

For me, writing is an entirely different process. More an act of engineering than evolutionary biology. Build it. Start with place and theme.  What is the subject, the essential message of the book?  Where will it be set? Why this, and why here? This is the foundation. Once these things are clear, make a plan. Sketch it out, from beginning to end. I create the characters and they absolutely do only and exactly what I tell them to. I determine the key events that will make up the story. Before I can start the first sentence, I need to see how the book will finish. That means lots of planning before I ever start composing prose, and a lot of hard work. When the plan hangs together, I can start writing.  Each morning I know what I am going to write, what has to happen. Then I can focus on writing the best prose I can. And when the whole things is done, the even harder work of revision begins, the polishing, the adding of essential detail, the culling of all of the wonderful but superfluous stuff every writer loves to create but needs to take out.

My first novel, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, which was shortlisted for the CWA Creasy Prize, took me ten years to write.  I was working full time, raising a family, building a business. I just looked back through my old notebooks, charted the life of the book. The first plan, a series of sketches, bears almost no resemblance to the final product. In fact, the published novel retained less than ten percent of the original plan. The plan changed over the years, as I learned, received feedback, and tested ideas. At that level, it was definitely a process of evolution.

My fourth novel, Absolution, released in 2018, was the final in the Claymore Straker series. I wrote it in a year, pretty much full time. The planning still happened, but the momentum of a series meant that so much of the context and essential character work was already done. Looking back, the writing process was much more “let it flow” than rigorous planning.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that perhaps the two approaches aren’t so very different. The evolutionary writer’s initial seed contains the story’s DNA, the essential coding of the story, wrapped up in his or her life experiences, hopes, dreams, and fears. Nothing comes from a vacuum. Place and theme are encoded in that opening scene, and carried deep within the writer’s soul. If the seed finds fertile ground, gets enough water and sun, it grows, replicates, branches out, spreads and gets strong. That’s life. What seems like magic is actually a lot of hard work, planning and preparation done subconsciously. All the engineer does it try to harness that work, make it explicit and use it. The plans themselves evolve and develop under the same influences. It all comes from the same place, needs the same nourishment. That’s what I tell myself, anyway, when I emerge from a day of “writing” and all I have is a series of sketches and notes that look more like battle plan than work of art.

If you are writer, you’ve got to write. One hears it all the time. And you know, it’s absolutely true. But whatever the method, engineering or alchemy, magic or planning, creating a novel is hard work. A year (or ten) to write, four days to read. So I better get to it.


Paul E Hardisty is a writer, university professor, environmental hydrologist, and triathlete. His first novel, ‘The Abrupt Physics of Dying’, a thriller set in Yemen, in which one man risks his life to bring down an oil company, is published by Orenda Books, and is available on Amazon. The sequel, ‘The Evolution of Fear’, will be published by Orenda Books in 2016. He currently leads Australia’s national science research in land, water, biodiversity and climate adaptation. Paul lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his wife Heidi and his sons Zachary and Declan. His latest non-fiction book, “Environmental and Economic Sustainability” was published by CRC Press in 2010, and is also available on Amazon.com.