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

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

Tell don't show?

"Narrative does not show, does not imitate; the passion which may excite us in reading a novel is not that of a ‘vision’… Rather it is that of meaning, that of a higher order of relation which also has its emotions, its hopes, its dangers, its triumphs." - Roland Barthes, ‘Structural Analysis of Narratives’, Image - Music - Text, p.124

Narrative as fate

"…the mainspring of narrative is precisely the confusion of consecution and consequence, what comes after being read in narrative as what is caused by; in which case narrative would be a systematic application of the logical fallacy denounced by Scholasticism in the formula post hoc, ergo propter hoc - a good motto for Destiny, of which narrative (all things considered) is no more than the ‘language’."

- Roland Barthes, 'Structural Analysis of Narratives', Image - Music - Text, p.94