Week 22

Getting back into writing has been daunting, not least because I'm still feeling the after-effects of jetlag (it's been more than 10 days! Enough already!). I gave myself a day of acclimatisation, which involved opening the 20,000-odd word document (I think the largest I’ve ever written – my university dissertations were maximum 15,000) and staring at it.

Four hours later I'd not written a word, but instead worked on characterisation. Not necessarily characters who already existed, but a list of possible characters based on the setting. That sounds a bit odd, but when I tell people what my novel's about, they're really interested: in what I got up to, the sorts of people I knew. As it's based on my own experiences, however, it's difficult for me to see what's interesting and what's run-of-the-mill.

I was a fan, but what other fans were out there? How were they different to me? How did their fandom compare with mine, and what light does that shed on my main character?

This feels the wrong way round - McKee said taking characteristics first and applying universal themes second was a recipe for stereotype, after all - but has nevertheless been really helpful in working out how multiple characters work towards and not against a unified story. I fleshed out a list of characters based not on people in my story, but people I met, knew of, made up the fan world I lived in. Taking each in turn, I thought about their motivations, and what's stopping them getting what they want. They might not make it to my story; most won't, and some might, but not for long. But thinking about extra, possibly unseen characters helps me discover more sides to my main characters.

This has a big impact not just on characterisation, but plot too. After I'd thought about characters, I wrote a list of events that make up my plot from memory, without looking at the list of scenes I'd written months ago when I was first planning my novel. It's a useful backbone, but unlike last time when I tried to list every scene that happened one by one as per the Snowflake method, this time I just wrote significant moments, and hope to fill in the stuff in between as I go.

I realised when reading on holiday that the story in the kind of novel I want to write is episodic; not everything leads up to a final crescendo. It requires multiple characters, and sometimes scenes work just because they are interesting in and of themselves, not because they lead into another scene, or set up a conflict or situation that needs to be resolved later.

The problem with so-called story theory, or writers like Robert McKee, is that novels don’t follow a single story that rises and falls according to a single character’s actions. That is much more appropriate for drama or screenplays.

They are messy, exploratory things, which delay gratification and take readers on detours, disappoint and surprise in equal measure, satisfy our yearning for a broad sense of completion, and delight with a single phrase. Every page should be fun to write, and not full of anxieties about where this is all going, who I'm writing for, and am I setting this situation up right. There should be hundreds of stories within a novel, and a hundred ways of telling it.

Well, that's what I'm telling myself next time I open that 20,000 word document anyway.

Word count this week: 2,339 Running total: 37,230 First draft: 20,237