In May 2017 we bought a house in Somerset. It was originally built in the 1950s and for almost two years we’ve been renovating it. And it’s finished! I hesitate to do a huge cheer in case something else falls apart or starts leaking – but we are absolutely delighted. In fact, our house was shortlisted for an award (LABC SouthWest Building Excellence)!
While we were working on the house (yup, it’s a stressful as everyone on Grand Designs tells you), it made me think about the similarities between building a house and writing a novel. Both kinds of projects require vision, creativity, tenacity, an eye for the big picture, being dogged about detail, technical skill, imaginative flair and fair amounts of sheer blood, sweat and tears.
Here’s what I learned about the parallels between designing a house and plotting a novel:
Vision: We had a clear idea of how we wanted our house to look – we sent a nine page brief to our architect. Julian Mills of Orme Architecture then drew a picture of what our house was going to look like, and I do believe, it’s come out as we’d all hoped it would! With a novel, you might have a vague idea of what’s going to be in it, a general feeling for its shape, a wisp of atmosphere, a hint of the kinds of characters that will people it. You might want to create an ideas board or a mood board, as we did on Pinterest (and I also do for whatever novel I’m working on). You can have a look at my previous mood boards here.
However, at some stage, you’re going to want to firm up this vision so that you can communicate your idea succinctly to publishers and agents to make them excited about your novel, as well as understanding what they’re going to get when it’s finished. There’s nothing so dispiriting as giving your novel to an editor who was expecting something totally different…
Blueprint: Orme Architecture used the original design and our thoughts to create a blueprint. This enabled us, the client, to see what our house would be like, as well as showing the builders exactly what to do, from which wall to take out, to where the light switch should go in my office.
You wouldn’t start building a house without planning it first…why do the same with your novel?
Some of you may not like planning your novels. You may just want to start writing. And that’s fine, but my advice is, you may spend a long time writing your way into finding out what your novel is actually about, and even longer editing it if you haven’t created a blueprint. This is your outline for yourself, which you may wish to share with your writer’s group, your agent and your editor. It tells you how the plot will unfold and how you’re going to structure your novel.
Creating a blueprint is the skeleton for the novel, upon which to hang your beautiful words and well-crafted sentences. Effectively, it’s going to tell you where the walls will be built (major twists) as well as where the light switches will be fitted (minor revelations). It’ll help keep your writing focused on your theme: in our house it was minimalism, white walls and wooden floors, with a Swedish vibe; in a novel, it might be on identity, for instance, which was one of the themes in my thriller, The Stolen Child.
Adaptability: Life never goes according to plan. You can create the most watertight of design briefs and building specs, but there’s no predicting what can happen. One then needs to adapt, whilst still retaining the big picture in mind. For instance, we ordered a beautiful kitchen – the design looked stunning on paper, and the kitchen fitters, the architect and the builders shared the blueprint with each other. However, when the kitchen arrived, no one had told the fitters that we had a steel beam running through the middle of what should have been the dishwasher (the beam was put in to hold our house up when we took out all the walls downstairs).
Sticking rigidly to the outline of your novel will stifle your creativity. New ideas and inspiration will come to you; characters will ‘act’ in ways you hadn’t foreseen. Also, things will go wrong – you’ll realise your research was insufficient, you may be left with a plot hole, or what seemed to work on paper before you began writing, just doesn’t, or it’s too slow, or too obvious. Or your publisher hates it.
Compromise: Most of our compromises with our house were to do with money. We had a comparatively small and fixed budget. We compromised on major design features – for instance, we wanted to open up the attic space but discovered we had four species of endangered bat sharing our living space! We didn’t touch the roof, and the bats are still happily (noisily) living in our attic. We compromised in minor ways – the brand new ensuite bathroom has the original shower screen, which is old and doesn’t match.