How to get started on a first novel. Five things I wish I’d known earlier.

There’s bags of advice out there, of course. Hopefully whatever you’ve found so far has been fabulously helpful and you’re ready to get going. As someone who’s started more novels than they’ve finished and finished more novels than they’ve published and is still rewriting those nearly-but-not-quites almost to death, there are a few things that I wish someone had given me all those years ago when I first started.

The first big goal is getting started at all, and a number of narrative theorists go very, very deep on the impossibility of the beginning. The second big goal is giving yourself a better than decent chance of keeping going until the end of the first draft. Getting a draft out, even a crappy one, is a major effort – it’s 80,000 words or more where there used to be 300 blank sheets for Goodness’ sake – that really is a major effort and, make no mistake, anyone who’s written a vaguely readable draft of a real novel deserves to feel proud of their efforts.

The goals after that probably shouldn’t concern those at the stage of a first go, but they might eventually include improvements, increasing readability, harmonising style, squeezing that 5% extra out of all the conflicts and turning points. If you want to get published then there’s a whole array of imponderables and unknowns and lucky breaks that aren’t really about planning or motivation. Like a hole in one for a golfer, you need to be good enough to get close on a regular basis, but the actual drop into the hole isn’t something that can happen just because you want it to. That’s what luck is. When you’re starting your second novel you can get luckier by being more up on the Zeitgeist, being more canny about characterisations and markets and of course being more craftspersonly about those time-honoured conventions of narrative and prose. Some of those  you’ll find out before you start, but, like a new recruit to the army who sort of knows there’ll be assault courses and mess drills but who will find out a whole lot more as they begin the first steps of the journey, there’s a lot to learn just by getting started, by doing, and by accepting that your first go (maybe even your second or third go) will be more about learning than producing.

So, to add to the many other bits of good advice you’ll be getting online or in the many great how-to-do-it booklets, here’s four things I wish someone had told me when I first tried to put a novel together.

Your first novel #1: Give a name to your desired approach to writing

This is something you’ll know but may not have articulated – what kind of a writer are you trying to be? The chances are you’ll love a whole range of writers and styles and periods. Which one (or ones) are you trying to be? Or, if being unique is your aim, which ones are you trying NOT to be?

To illustrate, I studied music in my youth. When it came to composition the kind of music I wanted to make up was the music that was most recently in my head. I’d have a bash at a Mozart horn concerto pastiche and then an hour later I was trying to slap a ground bass and cluster chords into something outrageously modernistic (and, it has to be said, outrageously bad!)

As a music listener you can listen to any music you can get your ears on. You could have plainchant before breakfast and Mahler after the first cappuccino. Grunge before croissants and an accordion cafe for brunch. But you can’t compose like that.

For the book writers you can read all sorts, love all sorts and have your favourites in a dozen different camps, styles or centuries. But what a reader will want is consistency. Even if you want to make a clever shimmy of pastiches part of your thing, there’s a consistent narrative voice that has to hold the thing together and has to have chosen to BE one thing or the other.

You’ll have your own names – play with a few more, but get a real handle on what kind of writer you’re going to be. When Rankin came up with the term Tartan Noir – at a publishers party I gather – he’d already known for years that that’s what he was, at least when publishing under that name.

As a writer you might be: the Intellectual, the Stylist, the Dour wit; the Epic Poet; the Classicist; the Dissillusioned, the Funkster, the Observer… just make sure that you’re the same thing every morning when you pick up the pen or sit down at the keyboard or speak into the dictaphone.

What’s your type, your style, the label you’d like to be known by when critics choose one word or phrase for your work?  The quicker you can nail it, the better you’ll focus.

Your first novel #2: Don’t (necessarily) make yourself begin at the beginning

It’s a real divider of opinion – do you write your novel as though you’re a reader? A very slow reader of course, but, basically, do you start at the beginning and work your way through, wanting the outcomes that a reader will want and then either satisfying or delaying them in the following pages or chapters?

Or, do you plot out your work first and then, when the structure is established, come in with the scenes, the voices, the dialogues that pad it out?

Or something in between? Do you write the exciting bits and then go back and tie them together? If there’s a crazy denouement and a slow-burn mystery then maybe it starts and the end and goes backwards. One of the best prose stylists and best plotters, Arthur Miller, describes his process for Death of a Salesman as one where he began with the scenes that he knew would be most troublesome, leaving the ones he could visualise most easily till the end. I suspect for most of us it’s often the other way round

Screenwriters are so plot-driven and ruthlessly darling-killing about what is, after all, a ruthless time-is-money industry, that they would not dare do anything but plot out, usually with Post-it notes or similar, swapping bits in and out and testing them first against the paradigms of McKee and then against a live studio audience.

Novels don’t necessarily work in such extreme ways, but it is worth grasping a few of the much talked about elements of the debate:

For example, once you’ve told your story, will you get bored and never finish it? Remember screenwriters are well paid and have an objective. For novelists there’s something about working through the story that’s in their mind, only understanding its twists and potential as part of the process of writing. If you’re prepared to do this with one draft and then throw it away and start with the better plotted version, fine. Good books tend to need more careful plotting than a meandering explorative approach will allow, but if the process is the main thing – and it well might be – no problem and get that peregrinatory head on.  If you’ve got the plot sorted on Post-its, though, will you be fully motivated to go back and fill in the gaps?

Whichever way round it goes for you, be prepared to test out some scenes that are outside the chronological order – whether that’s your writing chronology or that of the narrative. You may find there are useful time twists – a chance to get the more interesting things in a better order and not one that follows standard time. Write test dialogues, odd sentences, phrases or metaphors you want to repeat to make themes. You may find you learn more about characters, you may find that some scenes are just impossible – too tortuous, too complicated, too boring – and need to be written out.

It’s not a hole by hole game of golf you’re playing. You’ve got a chance to do the driving range, the pitching targets and the putting green and then put together your ideal round at the end.

Or, like Mahler’s notes for a symphony, there’ll be a little passage that comes to you that you know needs to be in the middle and to which you’ll now build towards.

Or, as the advice goes that we were once given as undergraduate students. Don’t worry about the beginning of your essay. You’ll all be waffling till the brain engages. Accept this, write it as necessary. Then, when you’re writing the ending, go back and remove what you thought was the beginning. Your new beginning will be where your brain has joined you, fully engaged.

Just don’t forget to go back and fill in the gaps.

Your first novel #3: Characters that know they are characters

There’s a good line in McKee that goes something along the lines that Hamlet is no more a real person than the Venus de Milo is a real person.

One of the biggest hurdles for every writer but especially for the newbie is understanding where reality and fiction separate. The most common complaint from anyone asked to look through an early draft of a first novel is that it has that recognisable and very thin veil of an autobiography about it. Basically, the characters don’t suffer from not being rounded or for being too wooden. The bigger problem is that the characters are too damn real.

Very few people lead the lives of an engaging character in a novel. Human lives are messy, humans are balanced, humans avoid conflict by habit, humans are subtle and take a lot of working out. How often do you sit and wonder about the lightly nuanced quirks in yourself or your best friends or those people who really, really irritate you? Months, maybe years, a lifetime. Real people take a lot of working out.

Book characters are not real, the best ones just seem it.

Think through all the most celebrated fictional characters. Not just Lancelot or Heathcliff, Mrs Malaprop or Robert Buzzard, but those who seem more rounded, Hamlet, Margaret Wilcox née Schlegel etc. They are striking because they can be identified by a few highly visible personality traits.

They seem it because they’re larger than life, however subtly so. They have a narrow range of specific character traits that are designed to put them in conflict with other characters who have specific, challenging traits. While Walt Whitman can accept the contradictory fact of his own being – “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” [Song of Myself] – characters only contain so many multitudes.  Characters who contain multitudes tend to look at best wishy-washy, at worst confusing and unlikeable.

Characters need to change and your protagonist needs to change the most visibly – your novel is after all their journey towards some sort of transformation. They may start vain and selfish and go through something astonishing that makes them very different. You can’t make a character though out of someone with nicely balanced characteristics with occasional self-interest and occasional altruism. There’s no place in literature for the man who sees both sides of both sides. Characters are engaging and memorable because they illustrate a type or represent a characteristic. That’s not to say that everyone can be named after a deadly sin or cardinal virtue like a medieval mystery play (“Euery man I wyll go with the and be thy gyde In thy moost nede to go by thy syde. ” etc…) but even the most rounded and subtle successful literary characters are nowhere near as rounded and subtle as a real person.

That’s one reason why I don’t personally like the idea of developing characters from a kit of life experiences – favourite colour, childhood pet and so on, what Blake Snyder (I think) calls the Frankenstein method. It fills a fun creative writing class while everyone makes up the person they wish they were, but how much of it is really relevant. If you’re devising histories for your characters then the events need to be major and relevant to the bold archetype they will become. Beaten up by grandparents, failed to find love as a teenager, read too much Congreve, played too much Fortnite, whatever… I will admit this much, that it adds a pleasant veneer of realism if each character has an identifiable taste in dress or harps on some former trouble – but remember if too many details are irrelevant to the internal drama then the reader will pick them up as pointless or decorative and it will weaken your overall effect.

Your characters in a novel need to be characters – that way they’ll seem more believably human.

Your first novel #4: Plot or voice – what kind of book will this be?

For me, the most audibly upheld binary devision in the creative writing world is this: plot or voice.

Even if you ideally want a bit of both, you’ll probably have a sense of what kind of books you already like and what the primary excellence of those books might be.

There may not be an absolute black’n’white for any of these (It’s not PG Wodehouse vs Jeffery Archer but maybe Dickens vs James or Shakespeare v Moliere…?) but when you’re starting out, there’ll be one or the other that will be making you want to write.

I’ve known people walk out of creative writing classes because the presenter was teaching plotting techniques when the student was adamant that voice would lead the best works. I’ve known storytellers boast that they’re not much good at the style or the language end of things but they’re gonna be world-beaters when it comes to constructin’ narrative.

If you’re not sure, try and think through some favourite books and what draws you into them and through them. It’s not to say that there’s no plot in voice books or no voice in plotted books, but what’s the main driving feature?

This is a factor made harder by traditional English Literature studies. Literacists would, on the whole, have you believe that the more intellectual reads are essentially plot free and that the ivory tower reader is more interested in quirks of literary device than the mere plots that soap opera viewers crave.

For me, I feel that comedy is largely voice led although the best voices need a plot that does them justice. Ben Elton is read for his voice, surely, despite the fact that his plots are usually engaging. Ditto Stephen Fry, both of whom I’ve loved on TV and page, both of whom are clever and entertaining writers. Frustrating as it may be to those with literary exclusiveness as an aim, that’s why they’re world famous for it. I like the narrative voices and the voices of their individual characters. The plots help give shape but they’re not the end point. P.G.Wodehouse is probably in a similar bracket,  if rather easier to confess a liking to at literary dinner parties. Hang on though, it’s not necessarily a quirky, humorous, instantly recognisable style I’m talking about here. It’s just an approach. What motivates you to write. Why do you think someone would enjoy reading it. I mean, you probably wouldn’t read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage for the plot, nor James Joyce’s Ulysses.

For me Jane Austen is about plot even though not an awful lot happens, as is Hardy, as is George Eliot. However much you enjoy their style and the overall voice, it’s something else that’s in there that motivates the reading.  The motivation, I believe, is in who does what, when, why and the repercussions. That to me is plot. Sure, Enid Blyton was about plots, although her tone was spot on for the Zeitgeist when she was writing. Harry Potter is its plot with the same caveat.

Plot doesn’t mean page-turner, doesn’t mean anti-literary, the plot doesn’t even have to be marvellously intriguing or twisty as the rides at Alton Towers. The choice doesn’t mean anything except this: do you want your new book to be recognised as one with a concrete and carefully structured plot.

A regular response to this seemingly binary approach tends to be for someone to introduce what they see as the third way and the most intellectual approach of all – character.  That, they say is the Austen, Eliot, James, Shakespeare thing – and it’s what makes them literary.

I see character as something separate though, rather than a third way. Books that are about the analysis of motive and about the incremental shifts of mood and affection as one person slowly moves their index fingers across the table towards the other – they could be driven by plot or voice.

Some people say screenplays are plot and novels are voice, but I think this isn’t necessarily so. It’s certainly not useful to starting some major writing.

What you need is something that will colour your chosen approach and help you focus on being the best you can be at that aspect first and foremost.

So decide:

PLOT: if you’re going down the plot route then there are lots of great books about the science of plotting. How to make readers expect and how to entice them deeper: how to give the antagonist their necessary structural arc; making your heroine want something that the reader sees but she doesn’t; satisfactory conclusions and mid-point lows. While we all have the three act standard structure embedded in our entertainment DNA, it’s worth seeking out and learning all you can. This is an approach I only leaned about later in life, after I’d done literary degrees and read myself stupid and written pages and pages. I liked it and I wanted to pass the message on, as you’ll see elsewhere on the blog: Taking the Scenic RoutePlanning to Keep it UP.

VOICE: this isn’t necessarily the voice of a character but it may well dictate how your book takes shape. It readily suits people who are working with autobiography – either true to memory or semi-fictional. Also those who want immediate effect from the written word – comedic or erotic writing for example, both of which might suit a dip-in just as well as a cover-to-cover read. First person character narratives are often a great place to find great literary voice. The same is true of other atmospheric writing like horror or travel writing. Is style the same thing – perhaps. Okay, not everyone can be Bill Bryson or Jeanette Winterson, but working hard on achieving a likeable or powerful voice may well be your primary aim. There are books and genres where the voice leads and the plot supports rather than the other way round, but neither can quite do without the other.

Whereas there are dozens of excellent and hundred of quite good books and websites on plotting – it is essentially a science, or at least a craft, in that it has learnable rules and a no-nonsense set of reasons as to how it works – voice is something a bit more gifted to you in mysterious ways. If that’s what you want to do then its about practising up those innate habits around word selection, phrasal balance, rhythm, tone, borrowings, pastiches and corruptions. It may be impossible to articulate the particularities of voice and style that appeal to you or that you use best, but if you can it will be a step towards understanding what drives your pages forward.

Me, I went from voice-focused to plot-focused and then back towards voice to something with a bit more balance – I wish I’d considered this divided path when I first started instead. Plot or Voice. Like a ballroom dancing couple they may both prove essential to the final display, but one will clearly lead.

Will you be sculpting the sound and the wonder of the individual page, or will you be focused on the wide canvas of the plot?

Remember, what you’re deciding is not, shall I have no plot or no voice, but which of them will lead and which one will get the focus of your attention in the early days.

Your first novel #5: The three chapter and synopsis test

There’s an interesting example in the book Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, which sets out to demonstrate the need to be freely productive. A class in the States was divided in half for a design project. One was told they only had one chance to build an object for appraisal and that it would be judged on its closeness to an ideal. The other half were told to build as many objects as they could and they would be appraised by the number of objects they turned out.

The interesting fact was that the half that produced the most objects also produced the best objects. Their multiple makings had solved problems and developed efficiencies which led to an improved raw excellence in what they were producing.

Could this help you with your novel?

I’ve sometimes wondered if we (if one, if they) should start a ‘three chapter and synopsis club’, and put it in place of a creative writing class. The aim would be not to work hard at a pre-organised pet project, but to produce as many packages of three chapters and synopses as possible throughout the year. Then you’d go back over the ones you’d done and see if a new level of excellence had emerged. If nothing else – like Ronnie Barker’s Seven of One series where Porridge and Open All Hours first appeared, neither of which were at first glance favourites – you’d have a set of works to examine and see what direction you wanted to take.

Also bear in mind that publishers generally ask for three chapters and a synopsis, so it’s not a bad thing to get absolutely nailed before you go for the long-haul.


Good luck with that first go – or second go or whatever you’re doing. It’s a brave thing, a difficult and time-consuming thing. Some people make it look easy and I suspect that’s because they learnt early what some of us have taken a long time to recognise. Keep learning. Keep writing. Keep editing.

 

 

How to write a novel (#1) planning to keep it up.

I keep coming back to it. I’ve irritated everyone who I’ve talked to about it. I totally understand the objections and why everyone howls with contempt whenever the subject’s raised. The fact is though that more novels come to a slow, painful death about ten chapters in than ever come to a satisfactory, readable conclusion. Yes, there are light ways of planning and their are weighty ways of planning, there are plans to keep in your head and plans to put down on paper. There are even plans that look best on sticky bits of yellow paper each with under headers like “inciting incident”, “threshold guardian delays turn to Act II”.  It’s something, as I’ve said in another post (on log lines and synopses ), that screenwriters can’t get enough of and novelists can’t stand the sight of. How much to plan? what to plan? what to get straight before the first dialogue or description? and what to leave to that divine inspiration that will strike while the coffee’s hot and the view over the peaks is at its dawn-iest?

And here’s the major  confession – I’m not at all the planning type myself. If anything I’ve always fought against it. But I have seen its virtues and have, like a kind of re-converted-smoker, finally seen the lighter.

Planning – how will it help me?

It’s not because there’s any one way to do anything or that I want to spoil the fun of boundless creative options – let’s face it, this is why a lot of people write. Yep, nothing more fun than that clean sheet of paper, those first few drips of ink or taps of mac-book, those first words that you’ve been dying to put down because they’ve been buzzing and humming and shaping and mutating in your head for months.

And then say you don’t plan. Let’s just go for it. Soon those first words are down and the character’s formed and what an astonishing opening it is. Creative, vital, inspiring. The trickiest set up for the attractivest character anyone could possibly have imagined. Let’s see how Darcy McWittgenstein gets out of this one…

Yes, how does he get out of this one?  (Reason to plan number one.)  Actions and events can easily just sit there either with no onward lead or with no effective resolution suggesting itself. Or endings just sit there waiting to see what comes before them. So, all of a sudden, fun bit over. And then a week’s gone by without touching it and then someone tells you a joke so the next few pages are how the girl tells the joke to the guy and then there’s another few pages so let’s have that really smart fact that Wikipedia or QI dished up recently while you were hunting for inspiration. Then, why don’t you use that  hilarious thing that happened to your dog in the kebab shop when you were twelve, everyone should be told that story and… and then give up for another few months because that once pristine idea is now a mess.

Before you know it the whole project goes limp because the sound and fury disappeared with those first eager  thousand words.

Light planning

There’s a need to keep going if you’re writing and there are a few different ways of giving some protection against giving up on  a large piece of writing, some of which it’s worth having a go with even if, ultimately, you know there’s only one way for you and you know you can get the job done.

Yes there’s a scale of values here, with no plan on the one hand and on the other hand … we’ll come to this in a minute because we’re talking about planning here and not structure, well not necessarily structure anywhere.

Even on our non-planning end of the practice there are a number of possibilities. There are those who, with Enid Blyton-style vigour have a set of principles to stick to and a way with a plot that is so ready-formed that it needs a bit of the spice of exploration. I’ve spoken to plenty of writers who have never planned but who seem to come up with well shaped stories, good character arcs and the rest. Of course there’s an in-built sense of what a story should be, the direction it should take and the whereabouts of the various ups and downs or shifts of pace. Many writers are happy to use this intuition to give the shape, waiting for the writing process to generate new considerations, turns and so on.

On the whole this wholly unplanned exploration will need hefty revision. If you’re unlucky it will involve the kind of revision that sends shockwaves through the novel’s plot lines. What if, for example, your character’s last change of heart has not been flagged up properly throughout. If so it will need some early evidence and the reworking there is likely to need changes at any number of points. After a few of these, instead of an engaging and satisfying arc, your story is looking more like a cardiogram – one with an unsatisfying deadness at the end.

Heavy planning

On this  scale between plan and explore, most writers will find their way between the two extremes, working differently when faced with different tasks, or  at different points in the project.

I’ve noted elsewhere the frustration for the prose writer from collegaues in the scripting business. As Blake Snyder fans will know, there should first be a good sense of the  plan around the turning points, the scenes, and get the kind of tight story that will definitiely work (test it in fact in short form) and only then do you start crafting the minutiae, the dialogue, the interactions, the ‘beats’ or steps that raise tempo and the system-values associated with the essential conflict. Phew!

For the proficient film script writer there’s no sprawling exploring that includes a batch of near-complete dialogue. In fact this talked of as the worst trait of the amateur scene writer. How many people have lovingly crafted their James Bond scenario, skidoos and grenades and that witty one liner as he drills the bullet past the fur-wrapped KGB girl who says…. Months going back over the one scene and… and when this scene is done, what? Screen writing coaches have seen too many people fail this way. They will always recommend an exploration in major turns, saving all those details like dialogue until after the plan has been thoroughly drawn up.

But my novel isn’t about a story…

There’s always some earnest wordsmith in any class who points out that story is only for populist, unchallenging works. While not at all true, you can see where this through comes from. For prose fiction writers the work can start in a number of ways that have very little to do with shaping the plot. The novelist is often feeling for the voice of their narrator, or implied narrator. Or, the roman à thèse wannabe is wondering how that vibrant political standpoint is going to be expressed in lucid, compelling prose. Or the character builder is wondering how staccato sentences can reveal a deteriorating confidence in the speaker’s reliability or how cunning their metatextual jokes are going to be.

In short, the novelist often feels their novel does not have its source in a story as such. If it does it is often a vague story. There are reasons for this. It is another difference between the novelist and the screenwriter, one which makes the latter more similar to the writers of short stories. The scope of a novel, allowing as it does, even encouraging, digressions, philosophical discussions, descriptions, contemplations. Many respected novels have very sparse plot lines, especially those deeply unreadable early twentieth-century gems, and this gives encouragement to anyone who fancies groping forward in the dark, wondering where their characters will lead them.

Also, and much more common in the first novelist or early career writer, is that the novel pretends to be about something other than story because there is no story. Instead there are excuses:  a half decent set up, a dramatic starting point, “inciting incident” a few James Bond one liners and then little is known about what might happen next.

A word of warning. If you’re waiting for your characters to guide you towards a conclusion, there’s a better than average chance that you won’t keep the project up. At some point the characters will turn back towards you and shrug their shoulders. Or they will sit on the side of the road, wistfully contemplating their own backstory with its heavy-laden childhood incidents and early relationship angst.

So what should I plan?

It takes a while to understand exactly how you yourself will work best as a prose writer. A working regime will emerge, perhaps involving a wedge of notes and scrawls, some practice scenes, an ideas sheet, a character directory. Maybe you’ll be a chart-maker and excel-user or a post-it fetishist.

If you haven’t got your own methods and means as yet. Here are a few ideas that have come from the people I’ve met along my own journey towards some half-decent ways of working:

The comber: Setting off with a hurried trip through a story, getting the broad movements of characters and a sense of each turn in the structure as it moves. Sometimes a sentence to remind you where a whole scene will go, sometimes more detail. Then, regularly going back over what has been written, combing through, taking out the knots making it sleeker. Forward then back, each time edging a bit further forward.

The painter: I call it this because art school studies pushed this as the traditional way of painting pictures. It works for writers too, a bit. A painter of this sort starts with the initial bold strokes, structures the canvas, and then begins to work up the next level of shape, gradually developing from the general elements towards greater detail and greater refinement of each area. The job is completed with a few choice brush strokes to lift a contrast or expose a feature. The advantage is a good sense of direction and overall structure and keeps you constantly in touch with the whole.

The lacemaker: Inch by inch, making each portion perfect before moving on. Some painters, too, have become famous for working this way.  Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite founder member, went over the canvass inch by inch making each  as fully detailed as possible before moving on. Stanley Spencer worked like this, too. The advantage for writing this way is that you have something complete, something that will represent the finished work in all its detail. It helps with confidence if you can read a page or two back and they’re good. You can move onto the next inch or perhaps pick another inch altogether as long as there’s some shape that’s been sketched in advance.

The sculptor: A marble worker needs their block of marble and then chips away at it. Writing this way is to get a wedge of writing in place a basic lump of solid unformed material. A shitty draft if you like. Then when there’s something on the page you begin to chip away, moving through the work but taking out rather than adding in.

The architect: There are some foundations, but the real point of the architect is that the whole structure will stand firm before any details are added. The cladding, the fittings, the doorways and even the roof all come after that solid set of rivets and girders that guarantee the architecture.

Of course once you’re in the fiction frame of mind then inspiration comes from all sorts of fantastic places. Which planning method you chose might depend on what you have to begin with. What is that first little idea that needs some work in the kindling? Some little character points, perhaps, an ironic turn of events, an illustration of some human trait, a setting. The sketching in rough might help tease out this idea. It might be a while before the plan is ready to take shape. Some good advice I once got was not to see these early explorations as anything to do with the first drafting proper.

Plan to keep it going

There’s usually some kind of plan. Unless you’re an automatic-writing or dice-spinning, randomiser-type writer then you’ll have something in mind, some sense of what will drive you forward. And to be honest if you haven’t got it, how are you going to give it to a reader?

There are some easy ways to  fail – and I don’t mean fail as in not write a great book or fail to get published or fail to find readers, I mean just fail to write what you’re capable of or what you’d hoped to, even just fail to finish what you’d started hopefully… not even that, what I mean is fail to keep travelling hopefully, never mind the finishing, we’ll deal with that another time…

No, there are easy ways to fail, and through the chat above we’ve hinted at a few of them. It’s so, so common to resolve an early crisis and discover there’s nothing more to keep you going as a writer without climbing another mountain of conflict-building. (If that’s how you’re feeling as a writer, imagine the poor reader). You owe it to your story not to let this happen.

You can come to an early conclusion: you can end chapters on a closure – each of these essentially suggests that your current thread of interest has now reached completion. If you’d planned better, maybe this point would have been recognised and you’d have have been able to solve it with a push at a greater problem or a build towards a separate thread of interest, sparked by the one you’re about to close.

Related to this, your characters’ problems need to increase in intensity – the stakes need to increase, the pressure on the character to succeed needs to increase, the challenges don’t just need to vary in type, they need to increase in difficulty.  Another easy thing to avoid with a bit of planning is that realisation that you have blown your most intense scene early. It’s easy to insert scenes if you’ve planned that they should exist – make a note that character x must do y with character z then go back to it when you feel ready to write that scene/chapter/section. It’s a lot harder to crowbar that scene in if it was never planned to exist. How many people suddenly realise they need a halfway step for a major plot arc and then have to perform major surgery on three dozen pages to get it in properly.

Another thing you can avoid with a bit of forward thinking – and however keen you are to get going and get some words to fill that page this perhaps the best thing you can do – plan  your character revelations. Unless you’re completely new to writing you’ve probably become very aware that character exposition keeps going right the way through a work. One of the major give-aways for beginners is that massive character description that keeps going and going  and takes up 85% of the first 5,000 words. When children write their biggest flaw is often a succession of major action points. The next stage is when the young writer wants to avoid action points and instead sees their writing as digging for psychology. The worst-case symptom is that paragraph that begins “she dwelt again on that awful time in childhood  when…”  Ooh, nasty. Expect a rash of miserable little backstory mini-plots none of which help us forward or get us engaged.  This is where sickness sets in and in some cases is incurable. A  bit of planning could have helped the plight of many a maudlin navel-gazer character study.

Yes, plan, plan like your life depended on it, plan to avoid splurging on a character analysis in the first fifteen pages.

Instead, how about planning what to reveal and when. Plan the steps with which you show the girl is gullible or the boy’s a bastard. Is this three gradual steps or a sudden revelation? Is it better for them to seem the opposite for a while. Where in the story does that skeleton need to scratch at the inside of the closet?

Plan to keep going in the middle ground. Saggy, baggy middles are endemic among both weary writings and beery writers. On the whole, middle acts will show the increasing disintegration of hope and opportunity and (unlike middle-age) will prepare the means for the eventual attempt to counter this [more on plotting another time].

It is very common to have a great beginning and a great end and then to find there’s nothing much in the middle to read for – find your own metaphor , there’s plenty of stuff in the world that has no stuffing. If you’re struggling with this then there’s a stack of books that can help, but again, planning how this section will develop is the only way to guarantee you’ll have something to write when you get to it.

What not to plan

If you’ve ever done teacher training or marketing or travelling then you’ll know the type, the over-planner. There are plenty of mean-spirited stereotypes of the over-planner but I don’t want to be mean-spirited. We’re talking about the person who won’t take the detour to see the street theatre because it’s not on the list, we’re talking about the person who has to hurry those unexpected questions because it’s time to move on and the smart kid at the back can jut shut up and do what’s on the sheet… It’s another way  to fail and although not as common as under-planning, we should be wary. If you’ve planned it so that everything is an action waiting to be done then you risk writerly liveliness, you risk the verve, the sudden quick sprint or telling pause, you risk the chance to spin or follow a hunch or trace a casual invention down an occluded alleyway. Only a fool destroys a happy accident, said Joshua Reynolds to the academy and the same holds for writers. Make sure you’ve left all the space you need for that important freedom for the voice.

There’s a time to plan, time to act, time to explore etc etc.  You can spend so much time planning that you never do any writing. You can still be in the planning room while everyone else has boarded the ship.Don’t let planning be an excuse not to write. It is for some people and sometimes you do have to leap in.

And the over-planner has their quote ready prepared to use in any situation whether or not it’s called for, while the under-planner throws a quote in when the going gets tough. Not sure which this one  is, but the last word can go to Brutus.

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.  Julius Caesar Act 4, 4, 218ff 


Tips for writers

  • Try some different methods. If you like free writing try a plan and vice versa. Expand the arsenal.
  • Don’t be scared of shaping, thinking ahead. Not every day can be a brilliant prose day. Planning is something you can do on the days when inspiration is not doing its stuff.
  • Give your writing month a plan, when to go hunting inspiration, when to write scenes, when to do plotting.
  • Break all plans sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
  • More on how to write your novel on the University of Brighton Writer in Residence blog

 

 

 

under construction

Well, if you’ve clicked through to this page its probably because you’re the web police and want to know why a page has been called “under construction.”   Or perhaps, like me, you have some nostalgia for those websites in the mid nineties that announced “site under construction,” presumably because publishing workflows hadn’t been invented. I remember one friend had a page that happily said, “no this page isn’t under construction, it’s just crap.”  Fair dos.

In fact this isn’t under construction in that sense, not as a page anyway. More of a construct if anything. That is, I don’t imagine either coming back to it regularly for changes or leaving it in this state with a nice excuse hanging, like those 90s single page hand-coded websites with their two blocks of rough-hewn html and an airbrushed jpg.

Bear with me, as well as the rambling prose, i’m hoping to pull together tips for writers and something vaguely philosophical about writing. Have I used “writing” enough to get a google trace, maybe, writing writing writing.

Now where was I…

The point

I guess one slightly obnoxious point, if we need one, is along the lines of how does our work exist before completion?

Do we dare to start, or are we too precious about the onward pace and the need to finish?

Are we scared to commit, to commit ideas to the page or to commit our work to critical eyes?

Do we dare to finish? To say this is done, it is no longer part of me. My story must make its way alone.

What is it to finish? What is it to travel hopefully? And are amateur writers more likely to ditch their projects because the journey is no longer enough fun to bother with.

 

Committing to the start, preparing and then ceasing to prepare – changing into the doing mode. That isn’t always easy.

Starting to write…again

There was an interesting case with an individual I know who requested a website for himself and a project. He asked for 100 pages to be “created” to begin with, ready for the content to be put into them when the time was ripe. Some explanation was needed. Pages don’t need creating ahead of time. There’s no wood pulp needed, no bleaching no drying. It’s digital. Just launch yourself into it.

But maybe, for those who have lived through the printed paper phase and watched the world gradually become digital, there is something about the preparation of the platform on which to write. There is a need for the deep breath before beginning. There’s a need for that blank page, to know its there and that there is space to write.

I’m reminded of that terrific image from Virginia Woolf:

“she stood hesitating one moment on the threshold of her drawing-room, an exquisite suspense, such as might stay a diver before plunging while the sea darkens and brightens beneath him, and the waves which threaten to break, but only gently split their surface, roll and conceal and encrust as they just turn over the weeds with pearl.” [Mrs Dalloway]

The beginning. That moment before it is all under construction. The moment when waiting stops and excuses start. That moment when the end begins stretching horribly away from grasp.

Real feel – does it help you begin?

Stepping back more than a few years, I recall what seemed to me a sudden opportunity to type onto a white screen in black type. Of course I found out later – actually by reading Sephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles (super book, buy it and read it regularly) – that the marvellous apple™ company were doing this way ahead of anyone. Nonetheless, the power of the phantom page, the ache to be creating a book with Times New Roman on a white page-shaped rectangle on the screen, that was what motivated me. In fact,not having access to the proper equipment was enough to put me off, being lazy to the core, and unable any longer to stoop start writing in a green typeface on black screen. Better not to start and instead to concentrate on making endless cafetieres of coffee and being grumpy.

It is a seductive thing, knowing that your preparation must be done carefully, so carefully in fact that the real work needn’t begin for a while.  If you’re really, really lucky someone else can be given the major preparatory work, the paper making, the quill sharpening, the website building, the sacred creation of that tabula rasa before which to stand in awe of the creativity to come. Cue Virginia Woolf again.

Beginning badly

There’s a popular type of scene in novels or films which has a would-be (I’m avoiding the odious “wannabe” expression and hope to repopularise “would-be” as a phrase) a would-be creative, in the first throes of their work and, of course, finding – to wonderful comic effect – that they are so busy preparing the background to the publication that they can’t get on with the  task in hand.

This seemed to be a problem even before the green type on black was there to provide excuses.

Keith Waterhouses, Billy Liar (Michael Joseph, 1959) has a great example reworked in the film of 1963 and if I can sidestep copyright law for illustrative academic purposes, it would be good if you could home in on the scene in question. Not least because it is a bazzing good scene and worth trying to get hold of:

Billy Fisher, full of grandiose promise and self-delusion, is beginning his novel while at work. He writes the title, writes it again, writes a large “by” and then begins inventing names for himself. After a while preparing this header to the work he types a sentence and then scraps the sheet, ripping it from the roller of his cast iron Imperial with a sound you just can’t get from the delete button on a Mac.

Good scene. A classic for writers who fail to start. There’s the grandiosity with which the title and the opening paragraph are felt to herald the entranceway to a masterwork. Then the need to go over it again and make sure that entrance way is properly formed, with bells, and buzzers, and cherubim. At this point the beginning takes over. I’ve seen it plenty of times, someone with a film or a novel or even a story, and what they’ve really got is an opening chapter, or opening scene or line.

(Another nice example from David Nichol who in One Day has a not dissimilar chuckle at seedling creativity. High-minded and expecting to change the world, Emma Morley has her first go at novel writing and offers a marvelously naff half page, again with the title and the word “by” together with much agnoising over the potential pseudonyms.

[Writing exercise 1: construct a scene where a would-be creative gets overpowered when trying to begin a new work.]

Writing, possibly more than many other hobbies, passions, callings or whatever you wish to call them, seems to encourage this.  We want to begin, we want to tease out a thread that will seem like a starting point. Writing a story, whether based on something that has befallen us or that we wish or dread to befall some invented other, is a powerful motivation to sit down with whatever implement is to hand and to promise ourselves that we will begin at the beginning and, with some meandering through sagging middles, will arrive at an end.

Can we end, are we like Eyore who points out wisely in TH@PC “I would like to begin again but it is easier to stop.”  Stopping is not easy. Nor is it easy to erase what we have begun with: “the moving finger writes” as Fitzgerald has it in the Rubaijat, and not that the past is done and we move on, but that it is there for us to live with. Unable to stop we must press towards the end. If our story has proved too much for us, so way too much that we are not able to finish it but cannot bear to destroy the work, then it does seem easier to leave it until later, wait for the muse, or maybe do a bit more preparatory work, a bit of preparing of the Booker Prize acceptance speech, a bit of work on the font we should have for the cover, a bit of work on the dedication…

A philosopher equal in many ways to Eeyore, Gerard Genette points with adroit wisdom at the impossibility of beginning a narrative, looking to complex restarting as “mimicking as it were, the unavoidable difficulty of beginning the better to exorcise it.” Narrative Discourse trans. Lewin, Cornell UP, p.46.) We organise our every thought into narratives of being and the compulsion to write is the need to find meaning through organisation, through example, through the hope to find a beginning and to head towards what can be satisfactorily thought of as an end. “Closure” seems to be a word that has gained ground through American politics as much as through narratology,  and while we look for this in some instances, there is the pull of the need to end against the need to be alive to the ongoing pursuit of that end, something worth pursuing, via Walter Benjamin, through Peter Brooks’ ideas that “narrative has something to do with time boundedness, and that plot is the internal logic of the discourse of mortality” Reading for the Plot, (Harvard, 1992, p.22.)

Ultimate excuse #1 –  “It’s not finished yet” aka work in progress 

There’s another scene of would-be writers that springs to mind. Isn’t there a Comic Strip Presents episode when  Dawn French is a lonely writer, typing away at her book and getting shirty with anyone looking over her shoulder – “it’s all changing, I’m changing it all, it’s not finished” or something of that nature – and over her should you see her writing “run spot run” or some other 6 word todder book – great scene and one that You Tube has failed to pitch up for me. Never mind.  The impulse is there to hide the work, deny the creative process and to believe that it’ss possible to begin again.   The classic riposte from the challenged creative. My work is in progress, don’t judge me yet, let it be known that this is under construction and is mine, still mine. You can’t have it yet. It’s not ready to go off on its own.

How long have you been meaning to write, or meaning to finish or meaning to start again?

Of course I’m aiming towards amateurs and hobbyists here. Professionals don’t do this as they are given deadlines by others who depend on their work, or at least they don’t do it much.

I often wonder, did Isaac Walton ever complete the Compleat Angler, or was it a work in progress?

So, why is this post “under construction”? The clue is probably in the opening to this post. Fear to commit, fear to share and be scrutinised. Fear to finish.  In such circumstances, give your post a title no-one would ever want to read.

 

Tips for writers

  • Accept the possibility of what Anne Lamott hails as  those “shitty first drafts” (Bird by Bird) whether you end up flushing it down the pan or keeping it for a bit of further modelling, there’s a lot to be said for actually having the shitty draft there to deal with.
  • It’s not yours. It only completes itself in the mind of a reader. Know how to let go.
  • Invite others in to see your work in progress. Prevent yourself from being precious around what is finished and what isn’t.
  • Write towards getting an idea into the open rather than filling space or filling time. Don’t worry how many words, megabytes, hours have gone in, but what you’ve managed to bring into the open.

Who knows, maybe someone will read it.