Nine Stages of a Novel
The Creative Lifecycle of a ĎGarth Nixí Book
First presented at the
BYU Childrenís Literature Symposium, July 2005
Iím going to talk today about a strange journey that I have now made many times, along the twisty path from a half-grasped idea to a finished novel. Before I begin, however, I thought I might tell you a little about myself.
I was born to poor but honest parents: my father was a woodcutter and my mother a witch . . . actually thatís someone elseís story. Iíll start again, confining myself to some salient facts.
The first of these facts is that
Garth Nix is my real name. I know it sounds like the perfect pseudonym
for a writer of fantasy, but it is the name on my birth certificate, and I am
one of a long line of Nixes that records indicate goes back to around 1830 in
My name is also unusual because you can find both my given and last names in the dictionary. A Ďgarthí is a walled garden or a walled courtyard. ĎNixí has several meanings. One, of course, is ĎNothingí but I prefer to skip over that one. A much more interesting and more appropriate reference is that ĎNixí is also a Teutonic name for a merman or water-sprite. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has the best definition:
in Germanic mythology, a water being, half human, half fish, that lives in a beautiful underwater palace and mingles with humans by assuming a variety of physical forms (e.g., that of a fair maiden or an old woman) or by making itself invisible. One of three attributes may betray the disguises of nixes: they are music lovers and excellent dancers, and they have the gift of prophecy
Apart from being a Nix, I am also
an Australian. I was born in
I mention that I wrote at least six of my novels when I was in full-time employment, because Iíve been rather struck of late by how many people ó particularly young people ó think you need to write full-time to be an author, when in fact the great majority of authors have always had other jobs. Usually you need another job in order to actually eat and have somewhere to live, but a day job doesnít prevent you writing. Even if you only write on Sunday afternoons and the occasional evening, as I used to, you can still finish a book in a year or 18 months.
My publishing background is perhaps also of some interest to some of the audience. Iíll only be talking a little bit about the business or commercial aspects of writing today, as I want to focus on the creative side. However, I do have an unusual perspective for an author, as I have been a bookseller, a sales representative, a publicist, an editor and an agent. As it happens, I am still a silent partner in the literary agency Curtis Brown Australia, so under this warm, authorial exterior something of the cold, reptilean agent remains, to be summoned forth at need.
I am always rather surprised to discover that over the last 20 years or so, I have written 14 published full-length novels (plus another that remains unpublished for good reason), and I have very recently Ė as in last Monday Ė completed the revisions to one more. These published novels include The Ragwitch, Sabriel, Shadeís Children, the six books of The Seventh Tower series, Lirael, Abhorsen, Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday and the just-completed Sir Thursday. Iíve also written four chapter books, which Iím pleased to say will be published by HarperCollins here in the USA in 2006 or 2007, probably as an omnibus volume: these books include Bill the Inventor, Blackbread the Pirate, Serena and the Sea Serpent and The Princess and the Beastly Beast. My most recent book and the one that I have been on tour for in the last week and will be in the week ahead is Across the Wall, which contains a new novella set in the world of the Abhorsen trilogy, plus a selection of my short fiction and other work that has been previously published in various magazines and anthologies.
You would think that having written quite a number of books I would have a good idea of how I actually do it. But I have to confess that every time I lay down my pen or take my hands from the keyboard that final time, with a finished manuscript in front of me, I wonder how on earth I managed it. How did it start? How did I last the distance, which has on occasion been many years. How did it all come together?
Well, even after thinking about it at great length for this talk, it is still pretty much a mystery. But itís a mystery that I can take apart to some degree and perhaps, in talking about each part of the creative lifecycle of one of my books, Iíll come to understand it a bit better as well.
Iíve broken my novel writing process or lifecycle down into nine steps. It was eight, but I massaged it to get nine. Some of you may wonder why. I shall answer by quoting an edited selection of entries about the number nine from one of my favourite reference books, Brewerís Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.
Nine, five, and three are mystical numbersóthe diapaíson, diapente, and diatriíon of the Greeks. Nine consists of a trinity of trinities. According to the Pythagorean numbers, man is a full chord, or eight notes, and deity comes next. Three, being the trinity, represents a perfect unity; twice three is the perfect dual; and thrice three is the perfect plural. This explains the use of nine as a mystical number, and also as an exhaustive plural, and consequently no definite number, but a simple representative of plural perfection. (See DIAPASON.)
There are nine
earths. Hela is goddess of the ninth.
There are nine heavens. (See HEAVENS.)
There are nine orders of angels. (See ANGELS.)
There are nine
worthies (q.v.); and nine worthies of
There were nine
rivers of hell, according to classic mythology.
(2) Examples of the use of nine as an exhaustive plural:ó
A cat has nine livesói.e. a cat is popularly supposed to be more tenacious of life than animals in general.
(3) Nine as a mystic number. Examples of its superstitious use:ó
The Abracadabra was worn nine days, and then flung into a river.
Cat. The whip for punishing evildoers was a cat-oí-nine-tails, from the superstitious notion that a flogging by a ďtrinity of trinitiesĒ would be both more sacred and more efficacious.
Fairies. In order to see the fairies, a person is directed to put ďnine grains of wheat on a four-leaved clover.Ē
Hydra. The hydra had nine heads. (See HYDRA.)
Toast. We drink a Three-times-three to those most highly honoured.
Both seven and nine resonate with Western minds, which is why I chose to have seven bells for the Abhorsens and the nine bright shiners, and why I have nine stages in the lifecycle. (As someone is bound to ask, Brewerís has some good stuff on the number seven too.)
Latin, septem; German, sieben; Anglo-Saxon, seofan;
etc.). A holy number. There are seven days in creation, seven spirits before
the throne of God, seven days in the week, seven graces, seven divisions in
the Lordís Prayer, seven ages in the life of man, and the just fall ďseven
times a day.Ē There are seven phases of the moon, every seventh year was sabbatical, and seven times seven years was the jubilee.
The three great Jewish feasts lasted seven days, and between the first and
second of these feasts were seven weeks. Levitical
purifications lasted seven days. We have seven churches of Asia, seven
candlesticks, seven stars, seven trumpets, seven spirits before the throne of
God, seven horns, the Lamb has seven eyes, ten times seven Israelites go to
The nine stages in the lifecyle of my novel creation are:
Iíve said Ďone of my novelsí because every writer works differently. Often there are great similarities of thought, technique and practice between writers, but thereís always something different as well. This may range from such mundane things as the number of hours spent writing to the weird superstitions writers are fond of developing, like only being able to write when wearing a particular shirt, or with a particular pen, or in the dark with torchlight . . . or all three. Itís a good idea to try and overcome these superstitions or habits by the way, as all are really avoidance techniques.
To return to the nine stages. The first, ĎDaydreams and Musingí is about ideas. Many people think that coming up with ideas is the hard part of writing, but that is not so. Ideas are the easy, fun part. This is basically because ideas in themselves are not enough, they are one of the raw materials of a story -- like rocks that may or may not contain a useful gem. Even when you have found that gem, after sifting through tons of rock, you still have to cut and shape it.
I gather my ideas from everything that goes on around me, from everything that I observe and experience, either directly or vicariously. From my own life, from other peopleís lives, from reading, from television, from the Internet. I might get ideas from observing people in the street; from incidents in or details of history; from myth and legend; from landscape; from the living natural world; from the sciences; from all the fiction Iíve ever read.
By Ďideasí I donít mean fully-fledged plots, situations or characters, for these are expressions of ideas, things that are worked up from ideas. The fleeting bits of information that lodge in my head could include Ďideasí like:
These are all just random things that cropped in my head. I like to think of my mind as as kind of reservoir that is constantly being topped up with all kinds of information, which I am unconsciously sifting all the time for ideas that might be useful.
While the reservoir is constantly being topped up, my subsconscious and sometimes conscious mind is at work on both sifting ideas and connecting them up into larger rafts of ideas that may form the basis of a story. This is essentially daydreaming, taking thoughts and seeing where they might go and how they might connect with other thoughts.
At this stage, itís nothing but daydreams and musing. Nothing concrete, in story terms. But as those ideas float around in my head and new ideas are added, at some point there will be a kind of critical mass and a bunch of disparate ideas will join together and well up to the surface, ready to move into the next stage of my novel-writing lifecycle.
Stage Two: A Small Vision
My novels usually begin for me with some kind of image that captures the beginnings of character, setting and story. Itís rather like having a still from a film Ė where I know nothing about any other part of the film. All I have is this image, and a sense of the mood that it evokes.
This scene will come from the ideas that have joined together and made me pay attention to them. Taking my earlier examples, my initial scene might be something like this.
Two old men are watching the rain
from inside a car (with a cracked speedometer) as the sun sets in the distance,
discussing their famous expedition to
That is probably the first scene of my book, but it might also be the last one, or somewhere in the middle. The two men may be my major characters, or they might be part of the supporting cast. At this stage, I donít know. All I have is this scene.
But the scene tells me quite a lot
and it also gives me a lot to work on. If the men stole the body of St Mark
Uusally I will play around with this Ďsmall visioní for some time, and look at the thoughts and ideas that it throws off. Sometimes, the original scene Iíve imagined will never be in the book at all, it will just be a foundation that remains out of sight.
If for example, I want to write a young adult novel ó which to my mind is essentially an adult novel that will appeal particularly to teenagers ó Iíll probably want a young adult protagonist, someone who is aged between say 15 and 20. But Iíve got two old men in my original image. Perhaps this means this scene will be a prologue, setting up the background or back story for my novel.
Iím going to presume that it is. So
I have a potential prologue with two time travelers recalling their mission to
I usually have very limited knowledge of my characters when they first come into a book. I think about the sort of person who would be good to have in this story, and I get a vague idea of what they are like and perhaps of their physical characteristics. All I need at this stage are a few Ďstarterí details, enough for me to get on with the storytelling.
In this case, I think my hero will be a shipís boy who is up the mast when the vortex takes away the two merchants, one of whom is his master and benefactor (and you see Iíve just decided they are taken away, not killed). To make things interesting, I think this magical vortex will touch on the boy as it departs, giving him some powers and some maladies. And perhaps it will also touch on the boyís pet monkey, who will likewise be gifted and cursed.
At this point, as these ideas are coalescing into something resembling the outline of the story, I will write them in a notebook and there, itís very likely, they will remain without anything further being done to them.
Even if I do follow up this particular story kernel, it might be some considerable time later. I usually spend a year or so after this original Ďfirst imageí comes together in my head, thinking about it from time to time, exploring the possibilities that stem from the basic idea and letting the whole lot ferment.
At some point, this fermentation will bubble over and I will sit down to develop this first image and the ideas connected to it into an actual story outline, moving along to the next stage in the lifecycle.
Stage Three: †Building the Bones
A week, a month or even years after that initial Ďsmall visioní I will usually sit down and try and work out the bare bones of the story and how I am going to tell it. I look back at the notes Iíve taken and I dredge up all the salient points Iíve been thinking about it. Then I sit down and write a chapter outline. This is quite a simple affair. I write a paragraph for each chapter, describing what happens.
I sometimes wonder why I bother to do this, as my chapter outlines rarely bear any close resemblance to the finished book. Iíve usually departed from the outline within a few chapters and by the time Iím halfway through a novel there is often almost no correlation between the outline and the actual story.
In retrospect, this chapter outlining serves two purposes. One is that it makes me think about the overall structure of the novel, which I think kickstarts some subconscious process that will continue through the writing, monitoring the narrative structure. The second purpose is that it serves as a psychological prop. If I have a chapter outline, I presume I know where Iím going, even when I donít really. In this sense the chapter outline is like a very out-of-date map. Most of it is wrong, but there will be some landmarks on it. So if I get terribly lost in my book, I can always go back to the outline and though most of it will be wrong, I might see some important plot point or notes for a character that will help me get back on the narrative road.
Using the ideas Iíve mentioned and the small vision, my chapter outline might begin something like this:
A magical vortex
kidnaps two Venetian merchants, Antonio and Salerino
from their ship on a rainy evening. The event is observed only by
And so on.
After the chapter outline is done, or possibly while Iím still working on it, I will actually sit down and begin to write and the novel will enter Stage Four of its lifecycle.
Stage Four: That First Chapter
Though Iíve called this ĎThat First Chapterí I nearly always have a prologue in my books and that is the first thing that will be written. Itís not unusual for me to write the prologue at the same time as Iím working on the chapter outline, and in some cases Iíve written the prologue immediately after my initial Ďsmall visioní.
After Iíve written the prologue the book often stops for a while. Looking back, my usual practice seems to be to write the chapter outline and the prologue (in whatever order happens) and then to rest the whole thing for a few weeks or a few months before really starting in again.
In this Ďresting timeí Iím still writing. I work on short stories, or on the ideas that may or may not come together. And of course part of my mind at least is still putting together more ideas and working out the story for this current book.
With that first chapter or the prologue done, when itís time to start again the book moves along to Stage Five.
Stage Five: The Long, Hard Slog
Then I start to write again. I used to always write a chapter longhand, type it up on the computer, print it out and correct it and then start the next chapter. One advantage to this system is that the first typed version is a second draft. Itís also handy if youíre traveling, as you can handwrite anywhere, without having to worry about power for a laptop and so on. Iíve written chapters sitting on the wall of a Crusader castle, in the ruins of a Roman fort, on the headland near where I used to live, with the sea crashing below me.
These days, I only write parts of my books longhand first. Usually the prologue and the first chapter are handwritten first, and then any parts where I might be having particular difficulty.
Whether itís handwritten first or not, when Iíve finished a chapter, I do a wordcount (or rather the computer does it) and I enter the amount of words and the date in a running list in my writing book. This is part of a psychological process that is part self-deception and part self-encouragement.
I never tell myself I am writing a 100,000 word book. When I sit down to write, I focus on the fact that I am writing a 2,000-4,000 word chapter. A chapter is a do-able thing. Itís even possible to write a whole chapter in a single sitting, on a good day. Or it might take several days. But then itís done and I write it in the book, and I add up the total so far, and as that list grows, chapter by chapter, I know Iím getting to my ultimate goal.
Even just focusing on writing a chapter at a time, itís still a long, hard slog. The key for me, getting chapters written and thus the book, is to force myself to the keyboard or to pick up a pen. Like most writers I can find any number of excuses or diversionary activities to avoid writing. To some extent I think this is necessary, but at the same time, you canít let too many days go past without getting some words done. Writing is a habit as much as anything else and itís a habit that can easily be lost.
It is in this stage that I often tell my wife that I donít know how to write books any more, that what Iíve already written is incredibly clunky and terrible and that I donít know how to go on. She is a publisher and so often subjected to the neuroses of authors, so I usually only do this once per book, nearly always right in the middle of it. She reminds me that I always react in the same way at the same time and that I also always go on to finish said clunky, terrible tome. I then remind myself that even if it is terrible, I am no judge at this time, and anyway itís better to have something written that can be fixed up later than a blank page. So I go back to work, muttering and complaining about my lack of ability, and I get on with it.
This return to work is usually rewarded somewhere down the track, when I suddenly find the long, hard slog is turning into something more enjoyable.
It usually takes me about 90% of the total time spent writing a book to write the first two-thirds. At some point, usually in that last third, everything suddenly accelerates. The story comes together, the pent-up power of the narrative suddenly flows and the book enters its next stage.
Stage Six: Sprinting Home
As I mentioned, somewhere about two-thirds of the way through a book, I find myself writing more quickly, carried along by a surge of extremely welcome energy.
Looking at one the wordcount and date record of one of my more recent books, MISTER MONDAY (written in 2002) I find that I wrote the first 19 chapters plus the prologue over six months and I wrote the last 8 chapters in one month. This averages out at roughly a chapter a week for the first 20 chapters (counting the prologue) and then two chapters a week for the final eight, though looking at the dates I actually wrote the last three chapters in two days. This doesnít tell the whole story, of course, because the earlier stages of MISTER MONDAY and planning for the series as a whole began two years earlier.
By this stage, I am usually writing at night as well as during the day. Since becoming a full-time writer, I try to keep regular office hours and I do have a separate office that is ten minutes walk away from home. (This is a luxury Iím well aware of and I often remember the days when I could only write on the occasional evening and on Sunday afternoons. But as Iíve mentioned before, I still managed to write a book every few years.)
Because I can write in normal office hours and because I like to spend time with my wife and children, these days I donít write much at home outside office hours ó except in this crucial sprint to finish the book. I think there is some relationship between the energy put into a book and the energy of the narrative, and when everything is building to the climax and resolution of the story I think that for me at least, it helps to keep at it, to write fast and really charge for the finish line.
Naturally, this usually results in exhaustion and the need for rest. Which is not a bad thing, because books need that too, before you can bring a fresh eye back to the manuscript. After the mad rush, the book enters the next stage of the lifecycle.
Stage Seven: Rest and Revision
If deadlines permit, after Iíve finished a book I like to let the manuscript lie fallow for a while, preferably at least a few weeks. In that time I catch up on administrative things, perhaps jot down a few ideas and generally take life a little more slowly. I donít look at the manuscript at all and I try not to think about it.
Then, when the time seems right or the editor is screaming for it (with good reason, for an authorís late delivery screws up everything else in the long chain between manuscript and finished book), I sit down and go through the whole manuscript again, to revise it and improve it and try and make it as good as I can before an editor sees it.
By this stage, each chapter in the manuscript has probably been individually revised three or four times and different parts of the book may have been revised many more times. But there is nothing like coming back to the entire manuscript after a bit of a rest.
Usually the revisions at this point are to the prose, to correct minor plot points or inconsistencies, and to add detail.
These days I usually have a deadline and so the manuscript can only undergo so much revision before it has to go to my editor (though my books are published in English in Australia, the USA and the UK, I make a point of only working with one editor and the other publishers take that text and make only essential changes due to different uses of the language. Working substantively with three different editors is a recipe for stress and disaster). But even if there isnít a deadline, there comes a time when you need to stop revising and just send it off, either to see if someone will buy it (as in make an offer to publish) or to deliver it to your editor.
Then comes the waiting, to see what the editor thinks and to get their editorial report or first edit. And it is during this period that the author, more than the book, enters the next stage.
Stage Eight: Revulsion and Dejection
I mentioned that halfway through a book I usually doubt my work, but I get over it and keep going. Often, when the book is done and has gone off to the editor, this doubt returns and I think that not only have I lost the ability to write, Iíve demonstrated this lack in the latest manuscript.
This is probably a natural let-down after working very hard on a project that has possibly gone on for a year or several years. I overcome it in three ways.
First of all, I tell myself that if the book does turn out to be terrible, then it simply means a lot more work ahead to try and make it better, with the help of the excellent editors I have been working with for many years.
Secondly, I tell myself that if even after that the book is no good I will just have to work harder to write a better one next time.
Thirdly, if even that doesnít work and I really have lost all my writing abilities, then at least I can go back to work as an agent or in PR and marketing, and I will still have written a bunch of books that have stuck around and done well.
This stage doesnít usually last too long. After Iíve wrung my hands and moaned about a bit, I start thinking about a new book and get interested in that and forget to be angst-ridden and melancholy. Around this time, the manuscript also comes back, with an editorial letter and either some or lots of notes in the margins or on the electronic file. This edit is what is often called a structural edit and usually it flags places where more is needed, or less is needed, or something simply doesnít work.
As I go to work on the structural edit, which is essentially a guided revision process, the book and I are already entering the final stage of the creative process.
Stage Nine: Parting Company
Responding to the structural edit and then later checking the copy-edit (which is where the prose is smoothed and minor inconsistencies are corrected) always feels like a strange afterthought to me. Emotionally I have already moved on to the next book, and the editing is purely a craft process, done with the head not the heart.
I think you need to let a book go when all the work is done, and itís important to move on. In my years in publishing I often met authors whose whole self was entirely bound up in a single book, usually their first. Their lives would rise or fall depending solely on that bookís fate, and in this business, thatís an incredibly foolhardy and dangerous gamble to make.
Iím all for investing all your passion and self into the writing of a book, indeed, you need to put a lot of your soul into the story. But when the writing and editing is all done, I think you need to withdraw somewhat. Itís likely there will be many months before the book hits the shelves. It may even be a year away, and thinking about it and wondering how it will do and obsessing over it for that entire time is not healthy.
You need to say Ďgoodbye and good luck, my friendí and start on the next book. Sure, youíll be meeting again when the book comes out, and itís important to try and help it along then as much as possible, though again itís easy to lose balance in promoting a book.
Iím always really pleased to see one of my finished books. I get a great feeling of accomplishment when I hold that firsy copy in my hand, a feeling that is undiminished from the very first time, way back in 1990.
But I also feel detached, and I think that is a good thing. I probably already have a new book partly written, or at least the outline is there and the prologue. I look at this finished book and I flick through the pages, and even though I can remember every part of writing it, sometimes I read a bit and I feel like Iím reading someone elseís story. A real book, not one of my own. I like that feeling, because it means Iíve succeeded in my ultimate ambition: writing the sort of book that I like to read.
Those are the nine stages in the creation of one of my novels. Iím not really sure whether I understand the whole process any better myself, but I hope I have provided something of an insight into my methods, techniques and eccentricities.