Week 27

I really enjoyed writing this week. The threads of a difficult chapter came together suddenly and very satisfyingly, and I finally got back to the bones of the story, the flashback. My main character’s voice came back more bumptious than ever (sorry, hearing Danny Baker using that word has made me use it wherever I can, that and bozo), and I wrote a lot, not all good, but a lot, and as many nice ideas came out as flat ones, and I made a note to expand and improve them.

That difficult chapter made me think again about my story’s viewpoint. So far it’s in the first person. Most of what I read, however, is written in the third person, by a mostly omniscient narrator who describes sympathetically what each character is up to. It makes me think how difficult and limited first person can be, and I envy the comparative ease with which the writer can explain his or her characters’ innermost thoughts, and intentions.

I'm not alone in thinking this. Most writing advice counsels wariness when it comes to using the first person, like this on p.34 of the September 2011 issue of Writers' Forum:

“A really emotional story often benefits from this viewpoint. First person is more intimate – the reader gets closer to the protagonist and really feels for him. [...] On the down side, the first person is restricting. For example, if your ‘I’ person has a secret – say he’s done a murder – it will be difficult to keep it from your reader because of the more intimate viewpoint.”

Not necessarily. I’d cite Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby as an example of a first person narrative who does just that (ie keeps his part in a murder ambiguous).

There’s a lot that can be read between the lines when you write in first person, or even left out altogether. It’s just hard. It’s taken me a while to get used to what I can do or show with a first person narrative. There’s a lot of niceties of language I have to be careful with, as the tone is more like dialogue. My character wouldn’t go to the trouble of adjectives, of describing the feel of cloth or the phenomenon of morning traffic. It just wouldn’t occur to her as it might an omniscient narrator.

The first person is very claustrophobic – you’re in someone’s head, able only to see her more clearly through her own admissions, or what other people say about her, but only what she lets on they say – and requires you to ask yourself a lot of questions. How can you keep such a limited viewpoint interesting?

It’s also more direct: someone only writes or speaks in the first person narrative when they have an interlocutory, whether present, or a reader of a letter, say. Who is that person?

Why are they speaking like this?, is another question. What prompts someone to elucidate at length what’s happened to them or what’s going on in their head? Can we ever give an account of our actions and intentions with confidence?

All this makes me wonder if I’m making a mistake writing in the first person.

It’s what came naturally, I must admit. The very first account of this story – a non-fiction account, written more than a year ago – was written in the first person, as it was an account of first-hand experiences I had had. When it came to writing it as fiction, I assumed the first thing I should do is shift it to third person. Nice, detached, third person narrative.

I wrote a very dry opening scene about a camping trip going horribly wrong. This was in my let’s-not-plan, let’s-just-start-writing days; I don’t know where that idea came from (well, I do) and I fumbled around like the characters in the tent I'd written until it all ended rather drably. In my defence, I’d been reading a lot of Anita Brookner. I submitted both pieces to the writers’ meeting I go to, and everyone agreed the first was best: punchier, more lively, more exciting. They suggested I stick to first person.

So far I have. But in that one difficult chapter, where my character is grappling with her present life, memories and regrets, it rolls between the two. Sounds odd, I know. It’s a technique I thought of in the planning stages of my book, but it’s one that occurs naturally in my writing too, naturally because it fits her predicament.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Macall in To Have and Have Not

I recently read Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, after googling for novels that use both first and third person narratives for the same character. It was strange: Harry Morgan spoke for himself at first, but then the book drifted off into third person, describing him from afar and through the eyes of others. It was a disconcerting reading experience. By the time Morgan is left for dead, you’ve left him altogether. He’s no hero; he deserved it. There’s something there about the disposability of human life, and I want to read more Hemingway to get a better understanding of what he’s getting at.

What am I getting at? I don’t know. Narrative nerves, I suppose. I hear my main character talking to me, explaining herself in her own words, but sometimes I feel I'd make things easier for myself if I just told it from a third person's perspective. I wouldn't have to spend so long on all these questions, thinking myself into not only her thoughts, but her way of expressing those thoughts too.

It's just I’m not sure her story would work in the third person, it doesn’t have the required clarity. Besides, there’s too much written now that wouldn’t work in the third person. Her view of things is very important: it’s warped, but I hope it’s also captivating.

But it’s also hard to focus on the story and not on the interior when you’re in the mind of someone else. I worry it’s too hard to write in the first person.

Do many people use it for their first books? Can you think of any examples? Especially any books that move from first to third and back, whatever the technique used (a letter, diary entry, whatever)?

Word count this week: 2,806 Total word count: 48,672 First draft: 30,878

Week 23

I grew up in Surrey, by which I mean I used to ride horses. So I know that when a horse doesn’t want to make a jump, it doesn’t matter how many times you turn him round and kick him on towards the fences, he would veer to the side or come to a sudden halt an inch in front of the crossed wooden posts.

It’s been like that for the past week. Knuckling down to write has worked: I’ve sat down (tick), started my computer (tick) and sharpened my pencils (unnecessary, but a tick nonetheless). That’s half the battle, according to Steven Pressfield. I’ve opened all the documents I need (first draft so far, list of characters, list of scenes). I’ve rejigged my plot, deepened my characters, rearranged my story board (not wasting time), and I’ve moisturised my hands numerous times (important at my age).

The problem is, every time I get ready to start writing, I throw my rider. (They should invent a proverb about it being impossible to get horses to do something, they really should.)

Before I went on holiday, I had got into a good habit: writing most days before work, a little at a time, following a thread and, as Stephen King describes writing a first draft, getting it down. It took me a while to get there. Lots of planning, thinking, drawing up spreadsheets (really), but when I started writing, I felt a little less on shaky ground and had a vague sense of where I was going.

It’s taken me this long to get up to that speed again. After a break from my book, and a few weeks contemplating its awfulness thus far and how it's probably best to junk it and not think I could do anything as laudable as writing a whole novel, I returned to my document titled “all.doc” and read the last few stringey lines. Hmm. Not sure where to go from here, I thought.

Hemingway recommended stopping writing in the middle of a scene, when you know precisely where you’re going, to avoid this kind of situation. It's good advice, but that’s hard to do. When you’re writing at full pelt, it’s enjoyable and difficult to throw off all of a sudden. I think he also recommends a few mojitos at that stage, which I can totally get behind.

So I revisited my characters and plot, and realised the lack of momentum resulted from there being two narratives.

I always knew there were, as my story is told in the present-ish day, and an extended flashback. I was more comfortable with the latter, as it was based partly on my own experiences, and had a trajectory I’d been thinking about for some time. The former – set in the present day, the result of the earlier narrative, and in some ways, the beginning of the end – was harder. Beyond some hand waving about being grown up and dissatisfied, I didn’t know much about my main character’s situation then.

No matter, I thought; it’d come out eventually. So I started on what I did know, and wrote some patchy introductions as a result. I thought of the structure of The Kite Runner, which opens in the present day, when the narrator is prompted to remember his childhood. I’m a little further along in the story now, and a few ideas have cropped up in the writing, so I thought I could redress this lack of characterisation in the second draft, and expect to be happy with maybe 40% of my first draft. Writing is rewriting, after all. Writing is hard. Rewriting sounds more up my alley.

The problem was writing the first draft in the first place. And when I did, there’s something lacking. A lack of direction perhaps, or lack of drive. It’s just not gripping enough. Where is this going?, I keep thinking to myself. Do I really want to get into what colour his car was?

Then I realised that, though I enjoyed it, The Kite Runner lost its power for me when it returned to the present day and issues of redemption and putting things right became paramount, and the whole colourful world of growing up in Afghanistan became black and white.

I am obsessed with the idea that the end is inherent from the beginning, that the charge of a story is the interplay between the possibility of unlimited choices and an inevitable and unavoidable ending. In my reading experience, that idea is best explained by Frank Kermode in The Sense of an Ending, but I recently came across a definition of story that summed that up that double consciousness - that there's a chance but no hope - pretty well too.

I realised I had to work on my story as a whole, and work out how my main character’s conflict works not just in hindsight but in the present day too. It’s where my story begins and ends. That’s where the charge must be.

That part is a bit of a chore though, as I haven’t thought it through. What has happened to my main character now she has grown up? What is interesting about her now?

Those parts of the story need to function more than mere book ends bracing the main story, like the final fight with the evil Taliban in The Kite Runner or that bit with the scary bookseller at the beginning and end of The Never Ending Story. I hate that guy! Don’t end it like that! What's with the flying dog? Answer the questions!

Perhaps this is what writers talk about when they say they fear getting to the end of their book, having to write the final chapters and do justice to everything you’ve written so far. I’ve never had much sympathy with that fear as I'd love to be that far through my book, but I can see now that I should be thinking about it from the outset.

And because my story has two narratives that intertwine, I need to think about it sooner than others. The use of a flashback means it’s back-to-front anyway; in my beginning is my end, as Toilets would say. I had an epiphany in the first few weeks of what should happen at the end, and that has helped me with the structure as a whole. But now I have to fix those gaps, and make sure my story in the present day doesn’t let down the story told in flashback.

So I sat down today and started writing about what had become of my main character since she had grown up. I managed over a thousand words and had a few ideas. It’s a bit wobbly and I'm not sure where it's going, but it’s a start.

I also have the softest hands.

Word count this week: 1,778 Running total: 39,008 First draft: 22,015

Weeks 18-21

This week's motto That's this week's motto.

I’ve been on holiday in Hong Kong and Thailand for the past few weeks, and had an amazing time. I didn’t get much (any) writing done, but I read a whole lot.

I don't know if it was a coincidence, a recent trend in fiction, or simply something I was looking out for, but I noticed a few of my books had an interesting approach to character. A couple (A Visit from the Goon Squad, A Week in December) introduced multiple characters upfront who were all connected in some remote way, and then wilted a little when it came to sustaining a unified story, whereas another (To Have or To Have Not - okay, Hemingway, so not a recent trend) slipped from first to third person, and thence to other characters altogether, like the narrative has suffered a lapse in interest in that viewpoint.

All this got me thinking about character. By the time I got to Zadie Smith, I was surprised at her small band of characters - a protagonist, his father, girlfriend and friends - and how little they sprawled time, or space. Each represented a different element to the story and yet were brought vividly to life.

When I got back I spoke to my dad, who's reading Story by Robert McKee, and he mentioned something McKee had to say about character:

"The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to a narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, nonspecific generalities."

He goes on to explain that the "symbolic charge" of a story’s imagery should be in the move from the particular to the universal, the specific to the archetypal, not the other way around. As well as being a good reminder to start with realistic characters, this struck me as kinda appropriate for my book, which is about fandom and identity, what's real and what's symbolic (or archetypal, to use McKee's term).

It also reminded me that successful characters aren't just realistic. I've struggled with this in the past, as my novel is based on my own experience, and, to a certain extent, events and people I've met. That's always the way, isn't it? Surely everything a writer writes includes some of his or her experience?

A passage about a wannabe novelist in A Week in December made my blood run cold:

"So it was that he began yet again, with a main character not unlike himself on a life path that bore a fraternal relationship to his own. This thing about 'inventing' characters that some novelists banged on about; really, when you came down to it, why bother? Very few people knew him, or any of his acquaintances he planned to include, so what was the point of conjuring and moulding new people from the void? At least he and his friends came with built-in credibility; they were, by definition, 'realistic'..."

Except of course they're not, as soon as they hit the page. Characters are only as realistic as they are written, and writing about a real person leads you into forgetting what makes them who they are, which characteristics are defining and which are dull.

So I've realised I need to take a step back and work on my characters, think about what makes them special and distinctive, and what they eventually will come to represent, without losing any of their believability. Smith's description of an auction room in The Autograph Man, the first few pages of Goon Squad, and the opening lines of the prom scene in Carrie showed me that a few choice characters can really bring a scene to life. There's a lot more to a story than that, but I need to get that initial interest right, and set up a few more characters better.

Next week is about thinking about my characters, how they could move from particular to the universal, specific to the archetypal. It's a chance to think about that little guy Daniel too, and how he might fit in the story.

In the mean time, such a long break from writing means I have some work to do just to psyche myself up again. I want to get back to where I was before I went away: writing a little bit every day, and looking forward to it. This weekend I had to force myself to sit down both days, and work through every distraction in the book (tidying, googling, tweeting, coding, watching the 'Thriller' video) until I got into the swing of things again. I think I managed about two hours' solid work out of about 15, writing a long blog post and the bare bones of a short story.

Tomorrow's alarm clock is set for 6am; jetlag be damned.

Word count this week(s): 0 Running total: 34,891 First draft: 19,523

PS Sorry about my use of the word 'thence' earlier, by the way. It won't happen again.

Week 12


Apologies there was no blog post this week, but I'm away in Shropshire and internet connection is pretty scarce (thanks, BT).

I'm here with my family, helping my parents move into their new house. They've moved after 30 years in the same house in Surrey.

As a result I wrote nothing last week. I'm trying to make up for it this week, but any break from writing quickly leads to rustiness and a massive drop in confidence, so it's been quite hard.

It is utterly beautiful here. Peaceful, green and unspoilt, every turn in every lane gives way to a postcard view of green fields, cows and red brick houses. The farms aren't an eyesore, the houses, however modest, are crumbling Tudorbethan and delightful, and the lambs whose bleating keep me up at night are destined for wool and milking not the abbattoir (I think).

It may be the time of year, but everywhere seems to me green and abundant, glowing with new life and fecundity and royal happiness, while I stay indoors, slaving over the commode (ok, laptop), straining to tap out words with one finger hovering over the delete key all the while, heaving into the pan a great load of crap.

"All first drafts are shit", said Hemingway. He wasn't half right.

Word count this week: 0
Running total: 18,535
First draft: 4,777