The Craft and Graft of Novel Writing

Last night, I attended an ‘In Process’ Masterclass –“The art and craft of writing full-length fiction” delivered by James Robertson. The event was organised by the Scottish Writers’ Centre in collaboration with Stirling’s Makar, Anita Govan.


download (5)I’d heard James speak before at the Linlithgow Book Festival but that event was aimed at readers rather than writers. Ever since, I’ve had ‘And the Land Lay Still’ on my TBR pile but I’ve yet to get round to reading it or any of the other three novels James has written. This was a pity as I’m sure I’d have gotten even more from the event if I had more background knowledge.  However, it was still an excellent session with James being open and honest about his writing career. He shared with us the fact that he writes between 5 and 7 drafts before he is happy to send a novel out into the world. But he said that he is never satisfied that a novel is perfect, it’s just the best job he can make of telling that story.images (3)

‘And the Land lay Still’ has been widely praised for its breadth of exploration of Scottish society in the latter half of the 20th century and in 2010, won the Saltire Society’s Scottish Book of the Year. And yet James was very humble about his writing talent and reassured the audience that his success hasn’t come easily.

For me, the most heartening snippet from James was that he wrote 3 or 4 novels and had many false starts before he was published. His key message was that writing is a combination between craft and graft. He reassured us that none of the writing we had ever abandoned is wasted as it all goes towards improving our writing ability. His analogy was simple and so true; a musician can’t play complicated pieces unless he has practised his art over and over (1)

The talk from James was very encouraging for me as I’ve recently got back in the saddle with my writing and I’m attempting to start a brand new WIP. I’d finally accepted that the 20k words of a WIP that I’d produced for my MLitt dissertation was going nowhere. I wanted to start something fresh that came from the heart rather than the head. I’d spent a year over-thinking what I was writing for an audience of my uni tutor, mentor, class-mates, and to satisfy grades for my degree. By the end of the course, the WIP had lost its heartbeat after having the guts ripped out of it during endless revisions. There was barely a pulse left and I struggled to decide whether it was worth giving it the kiss of life to revive it or to put it out its misery and pull the plug on it.

download (2)Now, after taking a step back, I’ve slapped a DNR on the old WIP and I’m fired up again to write something new very loosely based on my own teenage years.  This WIP feels right, my ‘voice’ is authentic and I’m writing it just for ME. I believe that if my motivation is right, then it will show in the writing. This time I’m not writing for my ego and looking for praise from others so success or failure is irrelevant. I’m writing again JUST because I love it and I’m doing it for the journey and not the outcome.

I can’t run 13k but I can write 13k words and that alone makes me feel good. It’s very early days and this latest WIP might not have the legs to go the distance but I’m enjoying writing it and that’s really what it’s all about, everything else is a bonus.

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Have you given ever up on a WIP? Or do you stick with it until the bitter end?

13 thoughts on “The Craft and Graft of Novel Writing

  1. I’ve had exactly the same experience with my WIP. The workshop process, the feedback from so many different people, can make you forget what you started out with. Congrats on getting on track with another piece. How fab to be excited again!

    • Hi Pauline, Thanks for the comment and acknowledging the flip side of the benefits of workshops. There’s no doubt that the process was useful but it also undermined my faith in what I was trying to achieve and left me bombarded with mixed messages.
      It is great to be writing something that I’m enjoying without any pressure and hopefully it’ll be be a WIP that I want to finish rather than have to finish, Good luck with your own writing and new blog 🙂

  2. Hello Pauline, I am moved and inspired by your post. It takes a lot of courage to shake off the inhibitions that academic study and work can impose. And like helenmackinven says above, the workshop process doesn’t can feel like overkill. I lost my confidence after a like experience, and am only just getting it back with poetry and especially haiku. All the best for your new WIP

    • Hi Ann, Many thanks for your best wishes. It’s good to hear that you too are getting back into your writing. It can be hard to build up your confidence again when your writing has been constantly critiqued. I’m enjoying feeling free of the pressure to please others and I hope it works out for you too. 🙂

  3. Hi Helen
    that was a very interesting blog because all the way through my writing I enjoyed what I was doing and often resented being asked out for dinner if I was on a roll, despite the resentment I rarely turned down an invite though as it is all ‘grist to the mill’ as they say.

    Of course you hope to get an audience but I learned so much from the process of writing. I have finally finished my novel,’Pearls and Black Gold’and published it in December on Kindle under a nom de plume, J. Guthrie. I wonder if you would be interested in reviewing it?
    I am returning home to Scotland in June all being well and very much looking forward to attending some of the writers’ talks and events you talk about.

    Keep up the good work and look forward to meeting up some time in teh summer.

    • Hi Catherine,
      Good to hear from you and fantastic news that you’ve published your book! I looked it up on Amazon and love the cover. Well done for getting your writing out there. I might follow in your footsteps at some point in the future and hope to meet up in the summer. 🙂

  4. Hi Helen,
    I can see that having your writing critiqued by a variety of people might easily be counter-productive. There’s always subjectivity involved, and as a new writer, I for one wouldn’t have the expertise to distinguish between useful and irrelevant advice (I belong to a writers’ circle but don’t find it much good for critique). I think the ideal must be to have one trusted reader who is guaranteed to be objective. But they have to know their stuff, and such folk are likely to be thin on the ground when you’re starting out as a writer. It’s great to hear you’re embarking on something new – more power to you!

    • Hi Susan, Great to see you back on Twitter and blogging again. I’ve just read your latest post and I’m so impressed that you’ve written another book in such a short time- I hope I can be as productive!
      You’re right, it’s difficult to know who to listen to when there’s such a diverse range of opinions bouncing around. This time, I’m just going with my gut instinct and plan not to let anyone read the WIP until it’s finished in the hope that I won’t lose confidence in my writing. Best of luck with book number two! 🙂

  5. Interesting post. I workshopped my first novel quite a lot in writing classes. I learnt a great deal about the craft of writing and plot development, but workshopping slowed me down probably because I was analysing my WIP too soon. I go on the occasional writing weekend now, which is great for getting into the writing zone and for workshopping a little bit. But I’ve stopped going to weekly writing classes because I think the time is better spent writing. Part of the reason I used to go was for contact with other writers-but I get that from Twitter/FB and blogging now (although need to stay away sometimes and write!). Best of luck with the new WIP Helen!

    • Hi Anita. I’m feeling the same way as you at the moment. I toyed with the idea of returning to a writers’ group I attended last year but I’ve opted for now to try and write a first draft without intervention before I take on board feedback. I think like you, it would slow my progress down and the main thing for me right now is to see if the new WIP has the potential to be of novel length before I share it with others. Thanks for your encouragement 🙂

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