Get a free video course on Writing and Mindset Click hereJoin my author mailing list

How and why I wrote my second novel

A home for unmarried mothers in Ely

Like The Water’s Edge, my second novel, The Haven Home for Delinquent Girls, is partly based on a building. In a previous post I talked about how I wrote my first novel – this is part two – how and why I wrote my second novel.

The Haven in Ely, Cambridgeshire, used to be a home for unmarried mothers. I found it because I was researching homes for unmarried mothers for the book and it was the closet to where I was living in Cambridge at the time. It is right on the waterfront next to the Great Ouse. When I first visited it was a tea shop selling fancy cakes. Since then it became a private home – I’m not sure what it’s like today.

Oddly, at one point in its history it was a hotel called The Waterside Bed and Breakfast. I only saw the downstairs before I wrote the book – the tea room – when the owner kindly produced maps and historical documents related to the house and told me where the young women used to sleep. After I published the book a friend took me for tea and I finally saw upstairs, which was nothing like I had imagined it.

Erica, a ghost, and a card game

I finished The Water’s Edge in 2001, while I was doing my MA, and started The Haven shortly afterwards. The structure came from research – particularly historical research. So both novels were based on a real building, and both times it felt as if the tendrils that reach backwards and forwards through history gave the books a structure.

I gave my second book a plot using a troubled modern-day character called Erica – or rather, I managed a thread rather than a plot. I also wanted the book to be haunted by a ghost called Almost Brown – that was another thread rather than a plot. There were various other threads: magic, baking, the (made up) game of scrummage, motherhood. If these turned into narrative arcs (which at the time I confused with intergenerational history) then it was an accident. Scrummage was meant as a version of the Tarot, which I learnt around the time my first novel was published.

For the very niche group of readers who love scrummage (a game I made up that appears in the book) here is a list of the cards in each of the scrummage suits, which I had forgotten about and found when I was revising this post.

The eight-point story arc

When I started teaching fiction writing full-time in 2005, fellow writer, teacher and friend, Leone Ross, introduced me to the eight-point story arc. Believe me, you can’t understand the brilliance of this constraint until you actually use it for your specific project and make it your own. The best students resisted it and resisted it, and then used it anyway, in a subtle, sophisticated way. I learnt how to use it in the same way.

It wasn’t until I figured out a way to teach the eight-point story arc to myself that I started to get it. Using a particular form of narrative structure isn’t formulaic if you repurpose it for yourself. Any description of it is necessarily general – your job is to make it specific.

Using questions as subtitles

Writing my PhD at the same time as editing my second novel introduced me to the power of questions. I don’t think I could have put my thesis together without using questions as subtitles. Try it: write out a series of questions about whatever you are writing right now. Keep going. Fill up a page. Add some ‘what ifs?’ as answers. What if character X did this? What if it turned out that etc.? Questions are powerful. I eventually planned my third novel, and created my scene sheets, using tonnes and tonnes of questions.

Another really important aspect of this search for the meaning of ‘story’ and a way into narrative structure was to do with finding my own voice, and having the confidence to write in that voice. When I do this now, and let myself off the hook, the sound of the prose is pretty similar to The Water’s Edge – so I must have been doing that all along anyway.

Getting the process down

Here I am in 2017, five years on from the first iteration of How to Write a Novel and Get It Published – which started out as a book for students taking my year-long novel writing class. In it, I got the process of novel writing down (or my version anyway) which involves asking yourself questions.

How to Write a Novel is about four things:

  1. How do you actually go about writing a novel in the first place?
  2. How can you create a workable plan for a novel?
  3. How do you fit novel writing into your life, practically-speaking?
  4. How do you get the book published?

I am using the techniques in the book to write my own novel as we speak – I’ve incorporated narrative structure using the scene sheets, for example. So, this book has evolved over time, and has come out of teaching novel writing, and trying to get to grips with narrative structure. It’s only one way of doing it, but almost all of the activities are flexible enough that you can take what you need and leave what you don’t. Hope you’ll check out the book. Let me know what you think.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx

Oct 2017

P.S. Use this link to take a look at all of the Small Steps Writing Guides.

P.P.S. Here’s an extract from How to Write a Novel and Get It Published.

P.P.P.S Check out the seven myths of novel writing here.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.