Jane Fallon, author of Strictly Between Us, talks us through her process of taking a blank page and turning it into a fully-fledged novel.
I always start a new book with the words ‘Chapter One”. Do you know why? Because if I write fifty chapters then that’s one hundred words added to the seemingly insurmountable required total of one hundred thousand. It’s little things like that that get me through the early days of writing a first draft.
A blank page is both a source of joy and of terror. You can write about anything you want to, create anyone you like, the possibilities are endless. Shit! You can write about anything you want to! Create anyone you like! The possibilities are endless! How on earth are you going to decide where to begin?
I have to have the plot all worked out before I type the first word. That doesn’t mean I’ll stick to it. It doesn’t mean I won’t veer wildly off as I get to know my characters better and I start to question their motivations. It’s a safety net. If it all goes to shit I have a back up plan.
You can revise your first sentence a thousand times. I almost always rewrite the opening chapter several times after finishing my first draft. But, even before you have your story fully formed in your head there are a few elements you have to settle on quickly and live with the consequences: who are you writing about? Who is narrating? What is the tone?
Sometimes it’s obvious. One of the characters screams out at you to be the storyteller. You can hear their voice in your head before you even put finger to keyboard. With Getting Rid of Matthew, my first novel, I knew that I wanted to be able to comment on the characters, to give the reader an insight into them that they might not have about themselves. It was never in question that it had to be written third person.
Other times the plot demands that you write from the point of view of one or more of your characters. It’s important that the reader only know what they know, that we find out key information at the same time as them.
But there are occasions when it can go either way. I’ve written a whole first draft in the third person before and then decided it would work far better if my heroine were telling the story herself. It was undoubtedly the right thing to do. It opened up the narrative and gave it a level it was badly missing, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It was a page one rewrite. It changed everything. I might as well have scrapped the whole thing and come up with a new story. And none of my friends understood the magnitude of what I was having to do. I remember telling one of them what was happening at the time and she said ‘What, so you’re having to go through the whole thing and make sure you change all the ‘she’ s to ‘I’s?’ I didn’t even bother to try to explain.
Jane Fallon’s Strictly Between Us (Penguin) is out on 14 January, and available for pre-order now.