Its own shape

All novelists write in a different way, but I always write in long hand and then do two versions of typescript on a computer. I realised when I got to the end of the long hand draft [of The Pregnant Woman] that I knew nothing about this novel when I began writing it. The process of writing a novel is getting to know more about the novel until you know everything about it. And it's been described as a kind of dreamlike state where you're letting the novel make its own shape, and you're putting into it the pleasure of creation, which is intoxicating.

- Martin Amis

Week 8

Spent all weekend making stuff up. This is the nitty gritty now: after all my hand waving about themes and trajectories, I realised last week that I've got to start making stuff up. I've got one part of the story sorted, but not the other, but I think next week I'll start writing the bit I do know, and see where I end up. I was heartened to read Beryl Bainbridge admit in The Guardian that she never really makes anything up: "when I write a novel I'm writing about my own life; I'm writing a biography almost, always. And to make it look like a novel I either have a murder or a death at the end." Sounds about right. JK Rowling I ain't. Or who knows? Maybe JK Rowling's life really is blighted by some precocious little twat in specs.

I also finished reading House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, which I loved from start to end. It has to be one of the best books I've read in the last five years. I enjoyed Age of Innocence, but House of Mirth was something else, largely down to one thing: Lily Bart.

(Funny how you find things - I just discovered this great blog while looking for this picture of Miss Bart).

I was so wound up in her struggle against fate (and by "fate", of course I mean "marriage"), that it got me thinking about heroines of novels. Lily's vibrancy and coy deviousness in the face of some pretty large obstacles made me think of Becky Sharpe, and how much I fell in love with her when I read Vanity Fair. But what others are there?

Dickens doesn't count (he couldn't do women – with the possible exception of Estella). Catherine Morland, Dorothea Brooke and Clara Middleton come to mind. My friend Nisha suggested Maggie from Mill on the Floss (I've not read it).

Nineteenth century fiction, obsessed as it was with the conflict between the individual and society, lends itself to the portrayal of women. Sure, men had their problems (!), but that conflict is nowhere near as fundamental to them as it is to women. Men had the freedom to act in a way women didn't, and fate gave way to more Christian sins like temptation and pride (or snobbishness, as Faulks might argue). But the Eumenides still followed women like Lily (literally - she hears the beat of their wings in long nights of no sleep), and those doorstep novels of the Victorian age dealt with the issues of marriage, education and independence again and again and again.

In The Pregnant Widow, Martin Amis posits through his narrator Keith Nearing the idea that the English novel "at least in its first two or three centuries, asked only one question. Will she fall? Will she fall, this woman? What'll they write about, he wondered, when all women fall?". What, indeed? What will we write about once they're fallen, or emancipated, whatever you want to call it?

And it made me think: name a great female hero of a book in the last 100 years. I mean really great; not sad, or overwhelmed (sorry, Virginia), but a real force of energy, who grabs the story and commands it from start to finish. Women who are labelled perverse and uppity. I thought of Clarissa Dalloway, but she hardly grabs the world by the balls, does she? Briony Tallis? Again, it's no longer fate or a feature of immoveable character that pushes her along to a surprising end, but that virtue of atonement and bettering oneself through self-sacrifice. Snore.

I asked friends, and they had some good suggestions. Anthony, Mike and Kate all pointed out the holes in my reading of modern fiction, suggesting characters from novels I haven’t read (Sugar from The Crimson Petal and the White – note that's a mock Victorian novel – Mary from The Grass is Singing, and Sarah Woodruff from The French Lieutenant's Woman respectively).

A few tongue-in-cheek answers included Hermione Granger (disallowed), Nancy Drew and Bridget Jones (who famously puts herself in the place of Elizabeth Bennett). There are some kick-ass women in kids’ books for sure, and on telly - Peggy Olsen, anyone? – but few in our novels and literary fiction.

Where are the Becky Sharpes, the Lily Barts now they have all the world in front of them? That’s the sort of character I want to write. Any suggestions?

Word count this week: 2,102 Running total: 13,197

Week 3

I was sitting on the loo when I thought what she would do. I'd been sitting at my desk for a few hours, and, though happy with my writing so far, I was worried that my main character was based too much on my rather flat experience (they were unusual, yes, but nothing really came of it, and I sailed into university and out, and into a job – hardly a narrative arc).

I once read that Martin Amis, when asked what one piece of advice he would give new writers, said tactfully that would-be memoirists should have a little think about whether their lives were really interesting to other people before they start. It's not enough to mirror my experience; there has to be enough fiction to create drama, or "conflict" as screenwriters call it. But because my story is based on real events, I was finding it hard to add fictional elements to it, or add fictional attributes to real people. I was finding it hard to make stuff up.

But there on the loo it was suddenly absolutely clear what should happen, what she should do: a proper thunderbolt moment. It wasn't something I ever did or would do, or indeed what most people would do. It turned my story on its head. It's changed everything, from the plot to the interaction of every minor character. My question now is, would she do that? Maybe if she wouldn't, a more minor character would? That way here character could develop by witnessing and learning, not actually doing something, but that’s just part of her frustration: that life is always elsewhere, always happening to someone else. Could something prompt her to finally do something extreme and sudden?

More to the point, could I write such a dramatic turn of events? Is that the kind of book I want to write? Would it have to be written seriously, or could I still approach subject matter like that with a light touch without losing sympathy? Does it risk severing the end of my story, adding melodrama and a moral, a great sudden weightiness that the reader neither expected nor wanted?

There's only one way to find out: give it a go. Write.

Word count this week: 1,952 Running total: 7,066