I’ve heard Brian Aldiss talk about the same phenomenon. For him, a novel often requires two ideas. He describes them as a combination of ‘the familiar’ and ‘the exotic’. He begins with ‘the familiar’ – usually something germane to his personal life, either thematically or experientially – but he can’t write about it until ‘the familiar’ is impacted by ‘the exotic’. In his case, ‘the exotic’ is usually a science fictional setting in which ‘the familiar’ can play itself out: ‘the exotic’ provides him with a stage on which he can dramatize ‘the familiar’. Rather like a binary poison – or a magic potion – two inert elements combine to produce something of frightening potency.

The same dynamic works in reverse for me. I start with ‘the exotic’… but that idea declines to turn into a story until it is catalysed by ‘the familiar’.

For example: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is squarely – and solely – founded on two ideas: unbelief and leprosy. The notion of writing a fantasy about an ‘unbeliever’, a man who rejects the whole concept of fantasy, first came to me near the end of 1969. But the germ was dormant: no matter how I laboured over it, I couldn’t make it grow. Until I realized, in May of 1972, that my ‘unbeliever’ should be a leper. As soon as those two ideas came together, my brain took fire.

Stephen R. Donaldson
The Real Story

When I write a novel I’m writing about my own life; I’m writing a biography almost, always. And to make it look like a novel I either have a murder or a death at the end.

Beryl Bainbridge
On writing: authors reveal the secrets of their craft
The Guardian, 26th March 2011

the voice in your own head

February 25, 2018

book cliffhanger

In the course of writing a novel I will sometimes lock myself away. During most of my previous novels there comes a point where I just go to the country and hide for 5 or 6 weeks. Sometimes it’s the first draft, sometimes it’s the second. There are periods when I feel like you just have to cut out the world and listen to the voice in your own head. So I regularly take periods of a month or two in the course of each of these novels to isolate myself from the world. I used to borrow country houses from friends…Sometimes I used to go to Yaddo, which is a writer’s retreat.

Jay McInerney
Interview with Mia Funk

Writing a novel is like ripping out one of your internal organs really slowly, a painful and bloody process that leaves you hollowed out and weak with relief when it’s finally over. “Occasionally there are moments when the words just flow, as if the gods were dictating to you, but most of the time it’s a bit of a slog.

Alice Adams
Interview with Sadie Trombetta for Bustle

I tricked myself into writing it. Since I thought I was writing a story, I began as I typically do, with a sentence or part of a sentence, with a disruption, or a feeling. And when I realized I either had to throw it away or write a novel, I really had to rethink my process. I began again on a sentence level. At first the book was replete with modifiers, and since for years I had taken adjectives and adverbs away from myself, I had to talk to myself about this. Talk myself down some. I had to go pretty far out with that permission, toward something I gradually found too lavish, and then I scaled back. In places, I’ve likely scaled too far back, been suddenly strict, disgusted with the excess. My recent work is somewhat drastically compressed, and because the novel took such a long time to write, I felt often at odds with myself, and wanted to inflict the somewhat merciless swiftness of what I’m doing now on a book that needed, I think, a more ample linguistic terrain. Also, structure. My god, structure. This was the toughest knot. What a relief to discover the book would pass in a day, and to know I should begin at the beginning of that day.

Noy Holland
Interviw with Benjamin Woodard for Numéro Cinq