Shortly after embarking on the creation of her famous Wolf Hall trilogy, Hilary Mantel shared these insights into her unique novel writing method.
The Mantel Method is #30 in the ‘How to Write a Book’ series in Mslexia, in which a leading author explains exactly how she goes about this most exacting and idiosyncratic of tasks. It turns out that there are as many different methods as there are writers, but each contains nuggets of practical wisdom that other writers can apply to their personal writing marathons.
• Become a magpie. Collect anything that attracts you: images, phrases, little glimpses, footnotes from books… Cut them out if you can, record them on blank postcards, scribble them in a notebook.
• At some point you will discover some titbit that feels like the seed of a new novel. Tantalisingly, this will occur while you are in the middle of a completely different novel.
• Test the seed for suitability. Is it macabre? Is it potentially amusing? Is it concerned in some way with social justice? If it passes muster, go to the library and spend a day reading around the subject to explore the scope of the topic. If it still excites you, set it aside to germinate.
• As it develops in your unconscious, relevant information, conversations, people will start to come to you, uncannily, as though you are a magnet. At the library, books you didn’t know you needed will appear in your hand.
• By now the characters will have begun to form in your mind. Be sure to choose highly sophisticated people, or highly inarticulate ones, as they are more fun to write.
• Start developing snatches of dialogue (you adore writing dialogue) and unconnected scenes. Increasingly, the information you are collecting will be written down as if it’s already part of the book.
• As the information accumulates, develop a filing system. Tear pages from your notebooks and stick them on the wall, or in ring binders, or in a box. But beware of putting anything in order; the information must stay as fluid as possible.
• Begin building your written fragments into complete scenes and stitching them together.
• Avoid working to a set plot; it will make your writing feel mechanical. Just fix on the feeling you want to leave your reader with and work with that goal always in mind. Though it will fill you with anxiety, you must work with the maximum uncertainty you can tolerate. (If possible, choose a historical topic, where at least some of the outcomes are set in stone.)
• Cultivate a kind of vagueness about the novel, to allow your unconscious to set up connections and juxtapositions. Combine this with a surgical attention to the minutiae of each paragraph.
• As the novel grows, it must take over your life. Get up in the middle of the night to work on it, then go back to sleep and dream about it. Because your material is strong and macabre, and linked with your own experiences, inevitably you will start having nightmares. Take heart! These are a necessary part of the process, and signal that the book is going well.
• Press on, refining every paragraph, paring away extraneous matter, positioning every semicolon, until the manuscript is ready for submission.
Hilary Mantel will lead the judging panel of the Mslexia Novel Competition 2021. Also on the panel are Marianne Tatepo, leader of the Black Agents and Editors’ group, and literary agent Jo Unwin of JULA Ltd. For more information, go to our Meet the Judges page. You can find out more about the competition itself here. The closing date is 20 September 2021.