Week 86

86 I've worked so hard on plotting and getting the general thrust of the story out, that when it comes to the detail I wonder if I could pay someone else to write it for me.

I have a detailed plan of the plot on my wall, a line rising steadily along one whole length of the room, with scenes in post-it notes along it.

This is where it gets stomach churning. I have to write that?

I tested the plot on my wall by starting to outline each scene - who's in it, what they're up, what happens. Getting the balance right between notes and filling out every detail is important: If you're not careful you can write the whole thing then and there, in an outline template. I want to keep it just loose enough that there's still a way to go when it comes to writing, that it's still fresh and exciting.

Then comes grouping into chapters. To be honest, chapters weren't that important to me when writing the first draft, beyond providing a break in a scene or a pause. They didn't seem important, until I realised how much I preferred reading when I could fit in chapters in my bus to work, or between tasks. As we all know, the chance to curl up and read a book for an hour or two doesn't come about very often.

Then Amazon's recent foray into serialisation made me think about chunking up a story, and how really, these parts are often a story in and of themselves - with a beginning and a middle and a (cliffhanger) end.

There's more to chapters than I thought. This lecture by Catherine Brown at Oxford University goes into startling depth about them. She points out that they work as resting places - "of great help to the reader and the carver", says Henry Fielding at the start of Book II of Joseph Andrews, likening a writer to a butcher of meat - or indicators that let you relocate a passage in a book (just as films are "novelised" when they are made available on DVD, split into chapters).

Chapters work as boundaries, reminding you that what you are experiencing is not life but art. They also offer an opportunity for a change in tone. No breaks at all - step forward The Waves - are off-putting.

So this week I outlined scenes in the first part of my book, and grouped them into appropriate chapters, with an eye on momentum as well as length.

Word count this week: 0 First draft: 128,661

Week 55

Late this week, due to illness. Last week I worked on my story. As much as a first draft is experimental, mine was beginning to resemble a bunch of asynchronous notes and additions and tangents, and not a draft at all.

So (for the first time) I started to think carefully about chapters. How many would there be (roughly). What would happen in each. I had avoided establishing even the most basic structures of a novel -the chunks it's split into - thus far, as I worried I would become too preoccupied with the ebb and flow of each, rather than that of the whole story. It also meant locking down how the two stories, past and present, worked together. And that's hard.

So I avoided it. I wrote "scenes" instead, but novels do not benefit from the momentary shift of blackouts, the pace of scene changes, and they give away too much with words. There comes a point where you must ask: where is this all leading? Why this, now? I find it hard to write without it (though I know some don't).

At the same time, a few people asked me those tricky questions: how's your novel going? I've publicised my intention to write one here for long enough, so I can't begrudge them that one. But then: what's it about?

I have a one-liner, but that doesn't tell you anything. It's a tagline at most (yeah, I've imagined it on the fly cover of a book, I don't mind admitting it - even the blurb on a film poster, if you must know).

So I set to work braiding my two stories together, a card per chapter. For some reason, I had not considered them so closely together. For every memory, there must be a context in the present day, and ever current event must fuel those memories further. It's the engine of my story.

Story board 23.02.12As I created cards and scribbled the scenes and lines of dialogue I'd written as notes only beforehand, the story started to stir, and move, like iron filings after a magnet.

I now have 19 cards in five rows from left to right on my story board, each representing a chapter, though that's not rigid. I expect some chapters will grow, diminish and break into two or three over time.

I can add scribbles and post-it notes, photos even, to each card if I think of more ideas, and then when it's the chapter's turn in the draft, I take down its card and read.

So now I approach each chapter like I used to start exam essays: study the premise (the question, synopsis, whatever), make notes for a few minutes, then start writing.

Word count this week: 1,752 Total word count: 97,728 First draft: 87,712

PS. Do you remember Wooly Willy?? I hadn't thought about him for 25 years until writing this post...