A Novel In A Year

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in Scotland On Sunday

A Novel In A Year
Louise Doughty
Simon & Schuster, £11.99

How long does it take to write a novel? One year is the ambitious target Louise Doughty sets first-time writers here, aware that what most will have at the end of twelve months is a start rather than a finished product.

Guides for would-be novelists abound. Some offer checklists and bullet-points, making novel-writing sound as logistically complex as moving house, while at the other end of the scale are inspirational, self-help-type books that offer little help with technicalities. Most budding writers want something in between, and this is where Doughty’s book lies; though despite her repeated insistence that she will be concerned with the “nuts and bolts” of fiction, her book is still more motivational than instructive.

This is largely because of the way in which it was conceived. Throughout 2006, Doughty wrote a Daily Telegraph column in which she set writing exercises for readers, offering comments on the pieces they submitted to the newspaper’s website. This book is a compilation of those columns.

Inevitably it results in a very bitty feel, better for browsing than for a straight-through read. The truly dedicated might want to repeat Doughty’s experiment exactly, reading one chapter a week – but I cannot imagine many people doing that. The column worked because it gave writers a sense of being part of a mass effort: the website blossomed into a highly active online writing group, and like all writing groups it had its blend of the single-minded and the half-hearted, the talented but unconfident, the talentless and vociferous. The book gives us a reminder of that collective writing force through Doughty’s comments on their pieces, but these are fleeting, and will not offer much help to anyone attempting to work through the book.

Still, Doughty is a highly successful novelist with ample experience of both writing and teaching, and she offers many words of wisdom in an affable, totally uncondescending way. She describes her own experiences many years ago on the MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, where she was, she insists, one of the least able: it took her another decade and a few failed attempts before she published her first novel, Crazy Paving. Writing, she says, is a long hard slog – and the only reason why writers stick at it is because they love what they do; any other rewards are a welcome bonus.

Doughty structures her book like a writing course: first a few open-ended exercises to get the ideas flowing (“Write an account of a time when you felt trapped”), narrowing down to topics like point of view (changing a first-person piece to third-person) and editing, where she quotes Stephen King’s advice on the importance of cuts: “second draft = first draft minus ten per cent”. Anyone who has ever been on an Arvon course (which Doughty teaches), or the equivalent, will have heard the dictum that “less is more” and also that the passage you are most pleased with is probably the one that should go. This latter advice – often abbreviated to “murder your darlings” is ascribed by Doughty to Ernest Hemingway, though Samuel Johnson said it long before. Johnson also said that you should only read as much of a book as you really need to, then throw it away. Take Johnson’s advice: spend an enjoyable hour or two absorbing the invaluable advice from this book, then get on with some writing.