How Garth Nix Writes a Novel

Who is Garth Nix?  He is a prolific Australian writer of young adult fantasy, whose “Abhorsen Trilogy,” (1995-2003) more than any other fiction, inspired my own current efforts, and “gave me permission” to write the stories I’m working on now.

Garth Nix and Yokimo at World Fantasy Con 2009

Writing anything is better than not writing something perfect – Garth Nix

Abhorsens (there is only one at a time), are necromancers charged with keeping the dead, dead – the nastiest dead do not want to stay that way. We’re talking zombies before zombies were cool. In Liraeal (2001), my favorite book of the series, a young woman, apparently a washout from an academy of magical women, sets out with her only friend, the Disreputable Dog, and an inexperienced prince, to save a thinly disguised England and Scotland from several “Greater Dead” leaders of an army of reanimated corpses. Great stuff, like I said!

You can’t write if you don’t read – Garth Nix

Tonight I was browsing Garth Nix’s website (there is a permanent link on my Blogroll) and I came across the author’s account of the nine general stages he has gone thorough in the creation of his 14 novels.  http://www.garthnix.com/Nine%20Stages%20of%20a%20Novel.htm/a>

The nine stages are:

  1. Daydreams and Musing
  2. A Small Vision
  3. Building the Bones
  4. That First Chapter
  5. The Long, Hard Slog
  6. Sprinting Home
  7. Rest and Revision
  8. Revulsion and Dejection
  9. Parting Company

It is instructive to read all of his comments, but here is a summary:

Daydreams and Musing

This is about gathering ideas.  Nix says many people think coming up with ideas is difficult, but he says it’s easy, the fun part.  The difficulties come later.  Images, snatches of conversation, a hunch of a character, these are the the sort of things he gathers, like picking up rocks which “may or may not contain a useful gem.”   He gives examples:

  • The look of the sky in summer when a light rain is falling at sunset
  • Two old men bickering light-heartedly on the street about something that occurred forty years ago
  • The Venetian agents who stole the body of St Mark from Alexandria
  • A car with a cracked speedometer

A Small Vision

This, says Nix, is like a still from a movie he knows nothing about, but it will evoke a mood:

“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 Alexandria to recover the body of St Mark and take it to Venice. The mood is somber and melancholic, something terrible is about to happen.”

Out of this, he is likely to build a scene, often, but not necessarily, the first one.

Building the Bones

After weeks or months or even years, Nix will review any notes he has made, and write a very simple chapter summary.  He says he often does not know why he does this, since he usually diverges from any such plan within a few chapters, and by the half-way mark the book has little if any relation to the outline, but he notes that an outline serves other purposes:

…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 I’m going, even when I don’t really.

Chapter Outline for "Sabriel"

 

The First Chapter

By “first chapter,” Nix says he usually means “prologue,” and that once that and the chapter outline (in whichever order) are complete, the book usually rests for weeks or months.   During the interval he works on other things, and continues to think about the project, but doesn’t actually work on it.

The Long, Hard Slog

Nix always used to write first drafts longhand before copying them to a computer.  Now he is not likely to do an entire draft longhand, but usually the opening chapter(s) are first written in notebooks.  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. Even so, he calls it a slog, and says 90% of his writing time is an uphill battle to complete the first 2/3 of the novel.

Sprinting Home

At a late stage in the narrative, the writing will kick into overdrive, and the author will find himself working both day and night (he ordinarily likes to keep regular office hours and spend evenings with his family.  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.

Rest and Revision

Nix likes to let the story lie fallow for several weeks before doing revisions, though he says now that’s he is often working on deadline, he has only so much time before he has to send it off to an editor.

Revulsion and Dejection

Nix says, …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, I’ve demonstrated this lack in the latest manuscript. He mentions several of his strategies for getting past this mindset on the website.

Parting Company

The final point he makes is the importance of letting go.   Before breaking into print, Nix worked as an editor at HarperCollins, and says,  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 book’s fate, and in this business, that’s an incredibly foolhardy and dangerous gamble to make.

Garth Nix first came to my attention through an interview in the arts section of the local paper.  I liked his matter-of-fact tone about his writing process then, and I like it on his website now.  He simply offers his process as one approach, not the approach, and the message is, you really do know what to do – now go do it.

Just write one chapter at a time and one day you’ll be surprised by your own finished novel – Garth Nix

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