When is a novel finished?

Beach cr Maithreyi NandakumarAuthor-in-progress Maithreyi Nandakumar guides us through a novel-writing journey of false starts and false finishes, but ultimately hope…

As anyone attempting writing a full-length novel knows, the process is not exactly a supercharged 100m sprint. A decathlon that includes all the gruelling hours of training would be a more appropriate description! When I started writing my novel, Stirring the Pot, I wanted it to be about one woman’s transformative journey.

Shoba, who is in her mid-30s, faces a crisis in both her personal and professional life and decides to take off to Chennai, India with her children, leaving her husband behind in Bristol. She hasn’t lived in India for fifteen years – the past comes to greet her in many different forms and new things happen – eventually she sees some clarity for her future.

That was the gist and I’m pleased to say still is the summary of the novel through the eyes of the main character. However, as I progressed with the story, other fictional people started cropping up and I was faced with the task of giving all these supporting characters a credible storyline. It was a task that I relished – being master of so many destinies is, not surprisingly, quite a buzz.

Read to research how others do it

Reading other novels which had multiple plotlines was crucial in helping me understand how to structure my story. From translated Latin American, Egyptian fiction to literature written in English by well-known and lesser known writers – I got inspiration and confidence from a range of wonderful works, in order to juggle the individual stories of my characters deftly.

The books that helped especially included Disgrace by J.M. CoetzeeThe Road by Cormac Mc CarthyHappy Families by Carlos FuentesThe Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (the multiple points of view really helped), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Corday and Chicago by Alaa-al-Aswany.

I also read the non-fiction book Love Will Follow: Why the Indian Marriage is Burning, by Shaifali Sandhya, about the state of marriage among middle class Indians resident and abroad.

Indian children cr Maithreyi NandakumarSeek support and criticism from other writers

There were times when I felt these creations of mine simply froze and went on strike – someone advised me to convene a meeting of my characters around a conference table and talk to each one of them! It helped. As did the weekly writing group meetings – in the convivial atmosphere of many a Bristol café (Goldbrick House, Watershed, Bordeaux Quay, the Arnolfini café and, more recently, The Birdcage), with Judy Darley and a few others. Feedback was rigorous as it was also mutual and the moral support that such meetings give cannot be emphasised enough.

Ixora shrub cr Maithreyi NandakumarAccept that the final chapter will be a challenge

Reaching the end was another trial altogether. Even though I followed the rule of knowing beforehand how it was going to finish – creating the right circumstances to reach that point wasn’t easy despite a tsunami featuring at the climactic finale.

It isn’t easy to describe the mixed feelings on getting to the finishing point. The predominant one is the rush of sheer relief at having accomplished it. And then, there is the unrealistic assumption that everything else from now on would be easy to tackle. Before too long, I’d succumbed to a strong sense of dissociation from my effort and was weighed down by the intangible nature of the enormous task ahead.

Consider using a literary consultancy

I was always aware of literary consultancies and been loath to use them – the cost was a factor and in some way, it felt as if I would be admitting defeat. After some soul-searching and rustling about my savings, I hunted around. In the end I went with a recommendation from someone who had heard the people from Cornerstones agency speak at an event in Bath. The manuscript was printed, boxed and delivered to a local writer cum editor, Kate Dunn.

Find a way to make the feedback manageable

In less than five weeks, I received a detailed 25 page report that covered all these headings: General Comments, Opening, Setting, Exposition, Point of View, Principle Characters, Minor Characters, Tone, Style, Show and Tell, Dialogue, Pace, Suspense and tension, Coherence and Believability, Ending and Concluding remarks.

The thoroughness of the analysis was initially overwhelming and difficult to absorb in its entirety. I printed it off and opened a folder – there I could see the results of my efforts – they were similar to a tutor marking a course dissertation. There were many encouraging comments – the scope was ambitious and the complex threads were interwoven well. Dialogue was effective, the minor characters were well developed and their ambivalent natures rang true. So where was it going wrong?

I’d also asked for a face-to-face meeting which proved to be really useful where Kate and I had a long conversation about what needed attention.  My main character Shoba, though appealing, required more emotional depth – the occasions where she doesn’t reveal her inner world enough were pointed out. And the worst offence of them all was the many occasions where I was ‘telling’ not ‘showing’.

Kigali pinnata cr Maithreyi Nandakumar

Settle down to the redraft

After allowing some time to digest this detailed breakdown of my efforts, I set about working on the re-drafting. Literary consultancies offer a discounted rate for the second reading, but so far I haven’t been tempted. Now, it seems, it is my own responsibility to understand the novel I’m trying to finish and take it to a new level. Feelings of depletion and hopelessness are there but have to be shown the open palm – the endurance test is ongoing and there’s more to do before the end.

Maithreyi NandakumarAuthor bio

Maithreyi Nandakumar is a journalist, broadcaster and writer of fiction. She recently started blogging at vaguelyprofound.wordpress.com.