8 Lessons I’ve Learnt Whilst Writing My 8th Novel

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I have been incredibly private about my writing in recent years. I tried various avenues of putting my creative work into the world, each one backfired, and I retreated into my shell like an anxious-avoidant crab for the majority of my adult life. But I’m 26 now, and I’ve realised that if you want to be recognised for the things you love, you have to let them be known.

When I was in university, the majority of people in my life knew me as a writer. In the years since graduating, it stopped being a public part of my identity. There is no longer a neon sign flashing on my forehead like “Read my book!! Read my blog!! Come to the poetry open mic I’m performing at!!” the way there was when I was a student.

I’ve spent the better part of the past year applying for a PhD. The PhD application process taught me to fight for the things that matter to me, to fight for the career I want to have. I have known for years that I want two careers. I want to be an academic, and I want to be a novelist. And over the past couples of weeks, I realised that I need to fight for my writing the way I’ve fought for this PhD. My writing doesn’t deserve to be hidden away in notebooks and Word documents far from prying eyes. It deserves readers to breathe life into it. So, in spite of my discomfort, I want to use this space to talk about the novel I’m writing now. Here are 8 lessons I’ve learnt whilst writing my 8th novel:

1. Writing doesn’t get easier with age

Contrary to what inspirational quotes on Pinterest will have you believe, there are plenty of things in life more exciting than a blank page. Blank pages are stressful. I get excited when I’m 30,000 words into a novel and know my characters intimately. I struggle with beginnings. It’s like going into a room of strangers and being expected to make small talk, knowing nothing about their interests or prejudices. I prefer writing endings; I love tying the story together in a pretty bow.

Every novel I’ve written has hovered around the borders of the fantasy genre. My novel The Purest Form of Chaos was science fantasy, with a dystopian slant. Where TPFoC was set in a post-apocalyptic Eastern Europe, my current novel is straight fantasy (straight as in “not a subgenre”, it’s actually really queer). Writing novels set in fictional worlds means you have to come up with names for countries and cities. National identity is a huge theme in the novel I’m currently writing, and an important aspect of that is language. When I’m naming countries or characters, I have to consider the language they speak. Obviously to the reader it’s all in English, but that isn’t true for my characters. I have made a concerted effort with this novel to make sure character names and city names are linguistically cohesive with the country they’re from. I didn’t start coming up with place names until 25,000 words into the novel. Every time I mentioned a location, I would write “[city]” or “[country]” and hope Future Eliza could remember which one I was referring to based on context. Then I reached this point where it became easy. I trusted my instincts about what names sounded good, and stopped overthinking the process. Writing hasn’t become easier, but trusting my abilities as a writer has.

I was quite far into the novel before I decided to make it a dual POV narrative. I’m currently writing my character Lola’s chapters in one document, and my character Nataliya/Talia’s chapters in a separate document. Nataliya is 11 years older than Lola, and when we meet her in Lola’s chapters, she is 32 and poised and mature. She is seen only through Lola’s eyes, and Lola worships her. I struggled to write Nataliya, because she only existed through Lola’s gaze. As soon as I made her a protagonist in her own right, she blossomed. Talia’s chapters begin when she is 19 and in her early days of university. She is messy and oblivious and a world apart from the conscientious woman she becomes. When I went back and wrote Talia’s first chapter, it was so much easier than writing Lola’s. Because I already knew who she was, I wasn’t making it up as I went along. Writing doesn’t get easier with age and experience, it gets easier when you know your characters and know the world of your story.

2. The art you consume has a huge impact on the art you create

Do you ever find yourself writing a sentence like “she had a stern countenance” and just go “what in the Charlotte Bronte am I doing here?”. Reading Jane Eyre when I was 17 shaped me as a writer, but it’s so funny to me that its antiquated vocabulary has crept into my writing almost a decade later.
Classics are classics for a reason, so I’m sure this is not a unique or particularly groundbreaking thought, but there is something so powerful about reading the words of a woman who died centuries before you were born, and seeing so much of yourself in the characters she created. Reading Jane Eyre taught me so much about the human condition, about womanhood and agency in an era where women had very little autonomy. It also made me a better writer. Writing dialogue has always come naturally to me, yet I used to struggle with prose and description. Reading Jane Eyre influenced my writing style, it taught me the importance of powerful prose, and helped me turn my creative weakness into a strength.

The books you read, the music you listen to, it shapes your writing. Listening to music helps me visualise my characters, feel the intricacies of their feelings. I have written to death about my love for Taylor Swift, but I love her music for a reason. It has been the soundtrack to my life since I was 10 years old. Every novel I have written has been fuelled by Taylor Swift songs. Listening to Midnights on repeat for all of last year was vital for my creativity. It helped me ask myself questions about the characters I was writing, the stories I was trying to tell. I am guilty of listening to the same music on repeat for months, watching the same handful of TV shows over and over for years. I like consistency, I like longevity. I am not always adventurous in the art I consume. But there is value in coming back to the same piece of art a hundred times and continuing to find new meaning in it. It is the antithesis of the ethos of the viral digital age.

At the same time, it’s easy to get stuck in a loop. My day-to-day life is not adventurous, and when you work a repetitive job and consume repetitive media, it can be hard to find a creative spark. As an artist, I need novelty. I need new experiences. But until I find those, I will continue to innovate my understandings of old ones.

3. It’s called worldbuilding, not world improvising

I did improv theatre every week for four years, I am good at making things up on the spot. Unfortunately, what works in university theatre societies does not always apply well to novel writing.

In my early novels, I built the world in order to tell the story I had decided on, without much thought for the world beyond my characters’ experiences of it. Whilst writing my current novel, I have learnt that the relationship between character and world works best when its reciprocal. The world needs to fit the story I’m telling, but each character is a product of the world they’re brought up in. They are limited by the world as much as the world is limited by them.

I used to hate the cliché advice “write what you know”, yet I keep doing it, unintentionally. The city my protagonist lives in is shaped by my experience of living in Glasgow, and my frustrations with this city. I didn’t set out to write a decaying city that is a shadow of its past self, whose city centre is empty and a relic of its distant past. Yet that’s the city I know, that’s the city I’ve lived in for all my adult life. In many ways, this novel is my way of saying goodbye to the life I’ve had in Glasgow. Not a love letter so much as a breakup note. This is a novel about absences so strong they become a presence, it’s about obsession and loss. It’s a novel about coming into significant aspects of your identity in your 20s, and the community and solidarity that blossoms from this. It’s a novel about the importance of writing and theatre and art, and how such things cannot be separated from the politics of their creators. It’s about pouring all of yourself into academia only to learn that the institution will not love you back. It’s about walking in the footsteps of the woman you looked up to when you were 20, and realising that, for all the shared suffering, you’re on your own unique path.

My inspiration came from fin de siècle Ukrainian history, from film history, from my own history, from conversations with my boyfriend about fascism vs. nationalism. It came from listening to the same Taylor Swift album on repeat for a year, from waking up to parts of my identity that I’d been deeply in denial about, from being reunited with a woman who made me who I am. My inspiration came from growing up, from reading my old diaries and coming away with both cringe and compassion for my past self. Only so much worldbuilding can be pre-planned; all the best ideas come from living and thinking and talking to the people around you.

That said, important factors to consider when worldbuilding are your own biases and the limitations of your lived experience. I remember rewriting The Purest Form of Chaos after I came to university, and noticing all my points of ignorance from having grown up in a monocultural rural area. I wonder how many biases I still have that I will only recognise when I see more of the world. I wonder how much of my writing is limited by this.

It’s easy to take freedom for granted. I used to think the world was actively getting better, but post-pandemic it often feels like the opposite. The rise of anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-abortion laws in Poland and the US in recent years feel like a warning of things to come. When Kate Forbes ran for First Minister here in Scotland last year, I saw how we were a hairsbreadth away from having such repressive laws here, too. The world feels less safe than it used to. The rise of anti-trans sentiment in Scotland, a country that used to be one of the best in the world for LGBTQ+ acceptance, is also deeply concerning. This feeling of the world getting worse has definitely shaped my writing. I am a relentless optimist, and the world hasn’t made a cynic out of me yet. But I am wary.

My current novel deals with queer identities in a way that is much more explicit than in The Purest Form of Chaos. Whilst I had a couple of characters who were bisexual in TPFoC, it didn’t play as prominent a role in the narrative. Whereas the novel I’m writing now is about 1) being really intense about an older woman, 2) the intersection of women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights with national identity and independence movements, 3) art and exile, identities that exist outside of normative society. Queerness plays such a prominent role in all these themes, and it is at the core of the story I’m telling. Even when I was still in my “being completely obsessed with a woman is definitely just a silly girl crush and there is no need to read into it” phase, I was surrounded by queer people. I’ve spent all my adult life in an environment where queerness was the norm. Even though there was still stigma around queer identities when I was growing up, I have never lived in a world where it was extremely taboo.

So when I’m writing a novel set in a world that is a lot less socially progressive, I have to think twice about the frame of reference my characters have for their own identities. Queer identities have always existed, but the modern discourse around them has not. In the world of my novel, women have only just gotten the right to university education. It is not a progressive world. So how do people discover these parts of their identity? Especially identities like bisexuality, that are still dismissed and invalidated in the modern world. If I could have a massive crush on a woman for five years and still be clueless, what hope does someone have when they live in a world where they don’t even know that attraction to multiple genders is possible? Read my novel to find out!

There is so much more I could say about worldbuilding, so if this topic is of interest let me know and I will write a full-length blog about my trials and errors in fantasy worldbuilding.

4. Your non-writing hobbies will shape your writing

This section heading is misleading, because I do not have many hobbies outside of writing. Last year my main “hobbies” were, in no particular order: dedicating all my free time to applying for a PhD, reading tweets about the theory that Taylor Swift is gay, crocheting to calm my anxiety, and learning how to make seitan. How many of these hobbies shaped my writing? 0.5.

See, my PhD (if I get funding, huge caveat, etc, etc), will be in Ukrainian Studies. I will be researching the experiences of Ukrainian refugees in the UK vs. Syrian refugees, and looking at whether the ‘bespoke’ government support for Ukrainian refugees is good in its own right, or just slightly better than the standard refugee policy of shipping them off to Rwanda. Due to my future academic pursuits, I have been learning Ukrainian for over a year. I would not call it a hobby, because 1) it’s necessary for my future career, 2) I find it extremely stressful.

I am not a natural linguist; I am a very slow learner. But I love language itself. I love etymology. 99% of the time, learning Ukrainian makes me want to smash my head through a wall. Then I’ll realise that the words for north and south translate to midnight and midday, and I’ll fall head-over-heels in love with the beauty of language. Fun fact: in Ukrainian, the month names are tied to the weather of each season. The word for February means “furious”.

A key difference between Ukrainian and English is that Ukrainian is a gendered language. As a woman, I have spent a great deal of my life thinking about what my gender means to me, how it limits or defines me. But it hasn’t required me to conjugate the words “to be” every time I put them in the past tense. I’m not used to gendering every word I use, and learning Ukrainian has made me wonder how differently people conceive of their own gender when their native language is heavily gendered. How different is the experience of being nonbinary when every facet of language requires you to gender yourself? How much more difficult is it to learn a language when your existence doesn’t easily fit into its vocabulary?

I have thought about this a lot whilst writing my novel. Even though the book itself is written in English, in-world many of my characters speak multiple languages. I have a character who I planned to be nonbinary, and aside from the aforementioned consideration of what queer identities can look like in a less progressive world, I also considered the role language played in this. This line of thought led me to develop several new storylines, and reach such a depth of worldbuilding regarding the various languages my characters speak. The world I created wouldn’t be nearly as rich and nuanced if it wasn’t for the time I’ve spent learning Ukrainian.

5. Your real-life relationships will impact your writing

I once wrote a novel centred on close female friendship when I had exactly zero close friends. I love that book, spent a decade rewriting it, considered it my life’s work for a long time. I’ve always been more of a “write what you yearn for” than “write what you know” kinda girl. I still write things I don’t have hands on experience with. After all, I write fantasy novels. But the vast difference between lonely homeschooled 14-year-old Eliza’s books and my current writing is that it is deeply shaped by the people I have loved.

I wouldn’t be writing my current novel if it wasn’t for a lecturer who inspired me, the friends who helped me grow into myself, or the partner who is like Wikipedia in human form and spouts random historical facts to me every day and listens to me talk about my book for hours. I also wouldn’t be writing this novel if it wasn’t for the people who hurt me, who made me question my own worth, who did wrong by the people I love. I don’t base characters on real people. I don’t want to write about my real issues with real people, because it’s reductive and boring and the UK has strong libel laws. But this novel is inspired by real feelings, by multifaceted power dynamics and all the variables behind them. One of the joys of having a dual timeline structure is that I can explore the same themes through different lenses, tweaking the balance of power ever-so-slightly to tell a different tale.

6. Slow and steady unearths the plot

When I started writing my novel in December 2022, I had a vague idea of this story about a world where magic had almost died out and been replaced with technology. Set in a country split between two empires, loosely inspired by fin de siècle Ukraine. I wrote slowly over the next few months, but I didn’t know where I was going with the narrative. A handful of formative events took place in October 2022, one of which is that I got back in touch with one of my former lecturers, who I hadn’t had much contact with since 2018. Talking to her after so long made me think about the impact she had had on my life, and the ways I had changed in the years since. It’s not a coincidence that I started writing this novel two months later.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about who I was when I was 20. I hadn’t learnt to like myself yet, and there are so many aspects of 20-year-old Eliza that I can’t even bear to think about because they are so embarrassing. But it was one of the most pivotal years of my life. Having the opportunity over the past year to get back in contact with a woman who has impacted basically every aspect of my personhood has made me reflect a lot on who I was when I met her vs. who I am now. It used to be that I couldn’t talk to her without having the energy of an excitable puppy. I worshipped the ground she walked on, and it was really, really obvious.

A few months after I started writing this novel, I saw her in person for the first time in maybe 3 years. It meant so much to me to be able to tell her the impact she’s had on my life. I’m so grateful I got to do that. I spent years wanting to make her proud, and when I saw her last year, I think I achieved that.

Obviously my novel is not based on my real life experience of being 20 and annoying and having an intense admiration for an older woman. If I wanted to read that story, I would read the cringefest that is my 2018 diary. My novel isn’t based on real life, but it is an exploration of the intensity of being that age, of thinking you know everything in the world but not really knowing who you are. And it is about holding older women on pedestals, and realising years later that that probably made them really uncomfortable. I knew that was the theme I wanted to write about, but it wasn’t until months later that I had this experience of watching my intensity fade and give way to support and mutual respect. That is so much more satisfying than holding someone up on a pedestal and worshiping them from a distance. This encounter shifted the direction I took with my novel, it opened up the theme I had started with, and allowed it to take a new shape. My original theme has become one of many, and is less significant to the plot than I thought it would be. Yet something that has remained consistent during my writing process is the need to live my life in order for my novel to progress. I wrote the first draft of The Purest Form of Chaos in three months. It’s been 14 months since I started writing my current novel, and the first draft is nowhere near complete. The ways I have grown within that time have shaped this novel, and I can’t imagine how different it would be if I had finished it before I lived through the entirety of 2023.

7. The author is not dead; she is alive and opinionated

You may have gathered by now that my fictional novel set in a fantasy world is intensely personal. When I write blogs, I make a conscious choice about which parts of myself to reveal to you. Sometimes those choices are misguided, and I regret it for years to come, and even thinking about it sends shivers down my spine. But it is a choice nonetheless.
When I write novels, I am choosing what my characters do. I am playing a fictional game in a fictional setting, and somehow my innermost feelings have entered the chat, and they crave vindication. As a general rule, I disagree with the premise of Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author. I’m not dismissing the idea completely; I just think the author needs to have been physically dead for a couple of hundred years before it can be applied.

Writing is personal. As much as I have reiterated that my novel is a work of fiction and not based on reality, if you read it, you could easily infer a few things about me. You could figure out my sexual orientation, at least one of the things I studied at university (both, if you have obscure knowledge of Ukrainian literary history), my political opinions, my obsessions and interests, and the questions that haunt me. Because it is a fantasy novel, you’ll know even more about me than if it was, say, a romance or a comedy. Because I built the entire world.

Death of the author is nuanced. Let’s take two blonde billionaires who have shaped popular culture over the past couple of decades. Death of the author cannot apply to J.K. Rowling. All you have to do is look at the names of her ethnic minority characters, and you can see that things are a bit iffy.
But death of the author can be applied to Taylor Swift. Why? Because she writes about her feelings, she’s not creating in-depth fantasy worlds. Those feelings are deeply personal, but they are also universal. All the (sometimes valid) criticisms of Taylor Swift as a public figure relate to the celebrity image she has constructed. However, these things are not in her music. If she was writing songs about using a private jet for short flights and staying silent on numerous political issues, she wouldn’t be quite so popular. The majority of her songs are vastly different to her public image, and they are so personal that anyone can project their own feelings onto them. The author dies upon contact with the reader.
Whereas when someone like J.K. Rowling, who is vocal in her harmful and prejudiced views about minority groups, writes fantasy novels, these things cannot be separated in the same way. Because the same mind that has all those opinions is the mind that created that world. It is impossible for that prejudice to not seep into her work.

I don’t think all art should be unproblematic and pure, because that’s not how the world works, but there is a line. I won’t watch films directed by rapists, I won’t (re)read novels written by someone who is full of hatred for trans people. But when it comes to cases like Taylor Swift, my view is that celebrities are so far removed from the average person’s reality that we shouldn’t look to them to be a moral guide. Most of them will choose neutrality, they’ll choose to be apolitical. But they also probably don’t know how much a banana costs. These are not people to base your moral stance on.

8. Writing is cathartic

I am 26 years old and I have written 7 novels. My current novel is the first significant attempt I’ve made at writing a new novel since I was 15 years old. I forgot what it was like, to have this much to say, to be brimming with words and feelings and to finally have a vessel for them. I spent so many years trying to kill the writer part of myself. Her words got me into trouble, she was scared of the power of her own voice. She censored herself out of fear and embarrassment.

I am more deliberate with my writing now. I know the power it holds; I know that people will read into my intentions whether I like it or not. But right now, when this book exists for my eyes only, I can write whatever the hell I want. I can indulge myself, draw out every feeling that no one understood, and make it the centrefold. It’s like I’m holding the hand of my 20-year-old self while she screams into the void. I’m sure I’ll make it less raw, more palatable, before I share it with the world. Right now, it is my precious monster, it is so damn self-indulgent, and I am obsessed with it.

Writing this novel has healed parts of me that have been neglected for years. It has allowed me to be fully myself, and reclaim aspects of my identity that had faded away. This novel is a celebration of intensity. It is critical of that intensity, sure, but it doesn’t shy away from intensity as a driving force. It indulges in the messiness and drama that comes from the early years of adulthood, from figuring out who you are and what you have to offer the world.

My messy and dramatic years are behind me. I am loved, I have goals and prospects, I’m not filled with the burning ache of being 20 and haunted. I’m glad that that period of my life is over, I don’t think I could handle that level of anxiety again. But it is fascinating to write about. When I lived through it, I had to squash it down, to twist myself into something polite and palatable. I don’t have to do that when I write, I can embrace the horrors, give voice to the parts of myself I silenced, and purge the venom from my wounds.