Week 89

This week is a bit short, on account of posting late last week. For the sake of consistent and comparable weeks, I'll try to post every Sunday from now on. As I thought, writing the new stuff is considerably easier than rewriting old material and fitting it into the new draft - I wrote the first two chapters in a way I liked. The situation and characters are so changed that it seemed like starting over. Which is fine, but the temptatation to start over is always strong - introductions and build-ups are fun to write, it's the bit in the middle that gets tricky.


Third chapter - which I knew last week would be hard - was just that. I've still not cracked it. The voice isn't quite there, and the narrative falls apart a bit.

Reading Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day this week (so far only the second book of his I've read, and oh my God, I am in awe) reminded me again that flashbacks, memories - whatever you want to call them - ought to be prompted by character, not similar-sort-of-things happening in present-day life. That's made me rethink some of my plot and focus again on my main character.

It also made me think about narrative and first-person narrators. It's not the first time. Those two books I've read of his (Never Let Me Go being the other one) are both written in the first person, as mine is, and it struck me that that old maxim "show, don't tell" doesn't quite work with first-person narratives. Everything is in effect, "told".

I often realise that I have written a scene that works, or feels like it does when you're close up and writing, but doesn't make sense if someone involved is describing it. They are woken from a daydream, say, or they go back and forth in time, remembering things that have happened that have a bearing on what is at hand.

Whereas in third-person narratives like Hilary Mantel's - infamously so, given criticism of her exclusive use of the personal pronoun "he" - or Woolf's experiments with consciousness, these flashes of memory can be associative, immediate, like the flicking of a switch.

First person - and Ishiguro's butler narrator in Remains of the Day, full of cavils and self-abnegating pomposity, is an extreme case of this, admittedly - requires narration at all times. Describing a scene too faithfully should be avoided - the reader should always be able to hear the narrator's voice: "why am I telling you all this?" they might say "Well, let me explain..."

The way the narrative is ordered takes on another significance - what is being let on and when indicates character development as well as story. Of course all this is managed by a third-person narrator in other books, but they have more of a free wheel to express things there. Their principle motive (if they are objective) is to tell the story as it happened. Or, in Woolf's case, as it occurred to a character in terms of thought and experience.

My point is, I still wonder if first-person isn't right for me. It makes things like this *really hard*, especially as my story is already fragmented into at least two different narratives, past and present, real and not-real. I'm plagued by the thought that perhaps I should revert to third-person narrative. I could maintain the claustrophobic and partial perspective of my main character (which was my main reason for preferring first person), but write in terms of she not I, just as a writer such as Anita Brookner so beautifully does.

Sigh. You'd have thought I'd have got this sorted by now, wouldn't you.

Word count this week: 4,782 Second draft: 10,092 First draft: 128,661

Weeks 78

SYN-OP-SIS. Synopsis. "General view" or "to see all at once". Greek, innit.77 78 There are loads of good blog posts about writing a novel synopsis: when to write it (before you've even started, or only when you're finished), how to write it (third person, present tense, keep it short) and why to write it (to bring your story to life and sell your book, mainly). This is not those posts. I do not give advice. I am in no position to write advice. This is the first time I've tried to write a novel, and all signs suggest I am doing it very badly.

So, don't expect any pointers here. I'm more interested in how a synopsis can help focus a story while you're writing it. And by "interested", I mean very keen that that's the case and I haven't just wasted a year and a half of my life.

How do you write a synopsis when you're not even sure what your story's about?

And how do you write a story when you haven't got a synopsis? "Just start writing". Sure - thanks. That's got to be up there with "cheer up - there's plenty more fish in the sea" and "have you tried drinking upside down?" for useless advice. I've tried just writing. And guess what? I've written. Words. Pages. Loads of them. But do any of them constitute a story? Does a story even = a novel?

Okay, let's not go there. Yet. This vagueness showed when someone asked me about my book, however. "What's it about?" I can answer that. "What happens?" Trickier.

A synopsis helps because it demands that you explain only WHAT happens, not WHY it happens, and refocuses you on the story at hand. It's an evolving document - in 79 weeks, I've written about five, and rejigged my story board as a consequence more than three times - that can sometimes raw your attention more than your actual manuscript (so much so that I've had to abandon my computer and write in longhand, to avoid the habitual drag and drop of chapter summaries).

At regular intervals I've thought my story was up to scratch, and even had a few eureka moments. Different phases brought a focus on different aspects of the novel, from character to perspective and all-out plot.

But there was always this nagging feeling that the story didn't hang together, and, I like to think it was this, rather than a last-minute attack of nerves and vertigo when I found myself 10,000 words from the end, that made me grind to a halt. I hadn't earned the ending I wanted to happen.

What ending had I earned? That would involve reading back what I've written, and I'm not strong enough for that (it's 08.52 in the morning - not late enough for the three strong whiskies I'd need to down before I could do that).

Having earlier worked out my central goal and the consequence if it's not reached, I devolved this pair into smaller units to work out a list of scenes. So if the story goal is that a character must get married*, then the events that need to happen are parties, visits to bars, dates, etc etc - you get the point. And if the consequence of not getting married is dying alone and afraid and unloved, then there need to be some credible intimations of that: the death of relatives, being snubbed, laughed at or jilted at the altar etc etc.

Binary opposites such as these helped me keep up the "suspense" - would she reach her goal? - and gave me lots of ideas for things that could happen. I wrote these longhand, and ended up with a synopsis of over 6,000 words, sprawling and varied, each chapter summary varying from a single line ("present day event here?") to paragraphs of description and dialogue.

* NB: Example only. The central goal of my story is NOT getting married. OR IS SHE.

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

Week 44

After returning to the first chapter or prologue last week, I worked on two questions this week: why is my main character writing, and at what stage in the story is she writing? First things first. Is she writing, necessarily? Ross Raisin's book God's Own Country is narrated by a voice, not a very literate voice, so one must assume he is speaking rather than writing. Whether it is being transcribed and by whom is irrelevant; the story grips you immediately. The main character Sam is narrating events as they happen, whereas my main character is concerned with events from the past. I think she is writing.

Why? Something has happened. She is explaining herself. First person almost always implies the confessional. Is that the note I want to hit? Is that the note she wants to hit?

And when in the story is this? How much does the character know? Is it right at the end of the story, or some time before? I think it starts with some way to go, at the end of act four in the Hulk's narrative structure.

This consideration isn't just about getting the character's tone of voice right, it involves rethinking her entire narrative arc. Over the course of the story, she, as all narrative theories demand she must, comes to an understanding about herself, but to describe events in the order they happened would require a deliberately naive attitude. An authorial narrator writing in the third person could tell the story and show characters developing, but when it is a character telling the story things are different. The character is in charge. She has experienced all that she is describing, and it has already changed her. How do I make sure she doesn't give the game away from the start?

I focus on my main character too much. A 1982 interview with Philip Larkin reminded me that this is not a single-character medium (thanks to @lloydshepherd for the link). Asked for his definition of a novel, a notoriously thorny question, Larkin replies with a single statement:

"I think a novel should follow the fortunes of more than one character."

Point taken.

Philip Larkin Top TrumpsFirst person narrative does that though; every character is seen through the main character's eyes. There's plenty of scope to imply the main character's viewpoint is flawed, but it is still claustrophobic and incessant.

So I started writing a section with two other key characters. It's a crucial section - act three, to use the five-act structure as a reference - that sets the final events in motion. I've had to think about different characters and how they relate to her, what she thinks of them and what those thoughts let on about herself.

It's often said that characters leap out at you. They jump off the page. Well, bullshit. Mine don't feel real like that (yet). Some days my main character is clear, but some days she's difficult to make out from stuff I'd say, stuff I'd do. I refer to character notes when I forget what a character is supposed to be doing. I pin a list of characters to my board to remind me of their names.

Character is like every element of my book: added to and developed a layer at a time. I think I have a handle on them, and then I think of something else, another aspect to their character or backstory, or whatever it is that makes up an identity. Character doesn't just spring up from nowhere, just as no-one appears fully formed when you meet them for the first time. You must fill in the blanks, make assumptions and change them.

This week's word count is low, but I'm pleased with how the plot is taking shape through a focus on characters. When those two things work together - plot derived from character, and character fleshed out by plot - then you know you're on to something.

Focussing on one, whether by endlessly structuring your book and planning scenes, or by working on character in isolation, believing in a constant index of character, is always to the detriment of the other.

Erm, as Aristotle put it rather better 1,400 years ago. Keep checking back here for more up-to-the-minute news, folks.

Word count this week: 2,943 Total word count: 83,551 First draft: 73,535

Week 43

Judi Dench as Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal This week was a little demoralising. I wrote a lot, but realised after about 3,000 words that it wasn't going anywhere and I'd probably end up keeping 300 words out of the whole scene I'd just written, if not cutting it altogether.

I have a tendency to go into horrible detail and describe a scene as much as possible, rather than only fleshing out what needs to be fleshed out for the story. I have an idea for a scene and it quickly devolves into an act of description not narration, adumbrating every detail, change in mood and temperature, a style better suited to a short story than a novel.

I read Notes for a Scandal this week, and was really impressed with how Zoe Heller deals with a narrator who has a limited view of things. Not everything needs to be told. Get to the point. Sometimes Heller's narrator knows a little too much, but that's arguably a desire to embroider the story on her part.

Mine is just prevarication, I think. An unwillingness to get on with the story, because I'm not sure where it's leading. I think the final version of this draft will be full of stops and starts, a mishmash of writing styles and ideas, and probably wildly overlong. I originally anticipated it would eventually be about 100,000 words, but I'm already at 70,000 words and nowhere near three quarters of the way through.

This mass of notes and scenes will need to be distilled. Someone told me a quote about writing that likened it to a sculptor working a block - an image I've used before - but unlike with a sculpture, where a sculptor takes a block and sculpts it, a novelist must first build the block from which he or she sculpts a story. I feel like I'm building that block right now.

I suppose it's better to have too much material that needs to be cut, rather than the opposite. But nevertheless I need to be stricter at keeping to the point (especially in scenes set in the present day, where the narrative will conclude). If the skill in writing comes in the rewrite, then the first draft is about discipline: sitting at a desk every day, and keeping a light hand on the steering wheel. Nothing more than that, but less results in baggy, directionless writing.

I've worried before about the reasons my narrator is telling this story, and once again started thinking about how important their perspective is in how this story should be told.

The main character in Notes on a Scandal, Barbara Covett, uses a foreword to introduce herself and her reasons for writing everything that has happened down.

So I asked myself questions like, when in the present day does the story begin? Why? What's prompted it? How did we get here?

I started writing an introductory scene. It's something I've written before, in pieces here and there while I've struggled to work out the initial scene of the book, and going back to write it possibly contravenes my "don't look back" rule for draft one, but it helped me get back on track. It's where I hear my main character's voice best, it's where she's at her most indignant, because, well she's got some explaining to do.

I then moved on to the stage in the story I'm at - just over half way through - and started writing with that voice in mind.

I vowed once again to stop when I get too bogged down in descriptive detail, and move on. Keep with the story I know - the other bits will sort themselves out as I move forward.

I also decided to stop reading fiction for the time being, after a few conversations with other writers. I hate the idea that to write one must cut down on reading, but maybe it'll only be while I finish the first draft. Reading other people's perfectly crafted prose will be more instructive when it comes to the rewrite. I'll read non-fiction for the time being, perhaps related to my theme, in the hope it'll provide inspiration.

Word count this week: 5,120 Total word count: 80,608 First draft: 70,592

Week 29

I’ve been preoccupied mostly with the main voice of my story this week, something that was nagging away at me two weeks ago too.

So far my story is a combination of the present day and extended flashback to 15 years earlier; it's complicated, jumps back and forth and eventually gets a bit confused. I wrote something out of context this week, which was set in the time of the flashback but spoken directly, as if at that time, and not as a memory, and it came a lot easier. I could hear my main character speaking as if she was speaking directly to me, at the reader, and explaining herself.

As soon as she’s describing a scene, or remembering a memory from her childhood, I have to ask why. Why is she telling me this? Is she writing a letter? A diary entry? That seems a little forced to me, but then I suppose that’s how the novel form started.

Then another question forms itself: when is she telling this story? Right now, as it happens? Just after, a rushed narrative telling a strange story? Some time after, once time has transfigured it? This doesn’t seem to be a consideration when writing in third person. And if, as happened to me, you start wondering if you shouldn’t restructure the whole story so that it’s no longer flashback but told in sequence, that means a whole lot of rewriting, just to get that tone of voice right. Narrating a recent event is very different from remembering something.

Then how is she telling it? I might be keen on a descriptive reverie on the colour of the sky, but why would she bother to mention whether the sky was grey or blue? Is that how normal people talk? Do they tell stories with long rambling anecdotes about the weather? Surely it's better to get to the point. Trouble is, my novel would only be 60,000 words too short if I just got to the point.

And then there’s style. As it’s in first person, the whole thing is dialogue, or a monologue really, so abides by those rules. What might seem corny or clichéd is sometimes exactly how a character might express herself. Remembering to write in someone else’s voice is difficult, especially when there’s a story to tell, but I enjoy it when the character pauses and explains a bit more about themselves, or other characters. It’s there, in between the lines, that you get a sense of her and how she sees other people, even what those people are really like (and that’s not necessarily what she says they’re like).

Writing with dialogue in mind inevitably means you have to deal with parenthesis. Sometimes my character’s fluency breaks down, and she struggles to describe something. That’s fine. Because my book is based on some personal experiences, I’ve felt the need to explain what happened, or make the reader understand why and how things happened the way they did. I don’t have to. The more I think within my main character, the less that’s important. Perhaps, like me, she doesn’t know. There is no reason.

But what does she say? Does she hesitate? That’s fine in speech, but writing? Do people pause when they write? Of course they do – the pen hovers above the birthday card while we wonder what message to write, or the cursor blinks, waiting, at the end of the last word we typed. But does that hesitancy make it into print? Why would it?

…and we’re back to the why – why is she writing what she’s writing, why is she telling this story?

This is hard. I'm not sure how much I should be thinking about this mid-first draft, when I should just be getting the story down, but I worry about getting it so wrong a rewrite is more like a write.

I’ve thought back to some books I’ve read in the first person. Some are an act of atonement, some are reminiscences prompted by a change of circumstances in the present, some are an attempt to explain one’s actions or view of the world.

All are claustrophobic, misleading, vivid.

What other ones are there? I really need reading recommendations, to see how other writers have gone about telling a story from the limited view of one person, and perhaps to encourage me to stick with it. I’m determined not to restructure yet, not until the second draft anyway, but want to absorb as much good first person writing as I go. Any recommendations?

Word count this week: 2,061 Total word count: 53,325 First draft: 35,531