Week 66

After feeling a bit bogged down last week while I tried to draw this draft to some kind of conclusion, a few things improved this week: 66

  • I finished a short story I started last week, proving to myself I can tell stories (after grappling with something novel-length for so long, I started to lose my sense of story development and pace - a short story condenses things)
  • I baulked when it came to writing the ending of my short story, prevaricated, and then finished it before I'd even realised it was finished, thus proving endings are HARD
  • I read The Sense of an Ending, which has a similar problem with endings and, in my opinion, shirks it and wins the Booker (this is good)
  • I listened to Ross Raisin on Book Club, who wrote a brilliant book called God's Own Country, and in response to a question about when he felt the book had come together and finally "worked", he said that never happens with his writing, that usually he feels it doesn't work and may never work (this is also good - it's how I feel all the time)
  • I was reminded of the final line of The Great Gatsby, which captures a good ending perfectly: a will forwards coupled with an involuntary jerk in the direction of the past (Google it)
  • it was a long bank holiday weekend and the weather was BAD - you do not know how it warms my little black wizened heart to know you are all indoors and not enjoying the sun too

So, progress. Still battling with the end, still trying to tie things up, still finding whole new strands of story that change rather than resolve everything that has gone before. Perhaps that's the way of the world - but it doesn't make a good story™, does it.

Word count this week: 2,600 First draft: 127,812 Short story: 3,200 (total count: 5,200 words)

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 30

I set myself a target of 4,500 words this week, which would take me up to 40,000 words written. Sums written on a piece of paper

Since starting the first draft proper in April, I’ve averaged 10,000 words a month, and I aim to continue that, plus two weeks of time off work between now and Christmas, to finish the first draft, which I expect will be about 100,000 words.

I check the word count feverishly, doing calculations in my head (sometimes on bits of paper) and monitoring my progress. My rate is about 500 words every hour and a half, sometimes every hour, and a day’s work gets between 1,500 and 2,000 words written. I feel motivated when I keep to this; depressed when I struggle and watch the cursor blink.

I know it’s not a good idea. Checking the word count is a bad habit that encourages writers to write for the sake of it, not pick the choicest of words, the best of descriptions. But where does that leave me when it comes to getting it down, Stephen King’s mantra for the first draft?

I don’t think I’d be anywhere if I tried to write perfect sentences at all times, but the risk of living by the word count is that you die by it: writing words for the sake of that numeral flip. 1,998, 1,999, 2,000!

So to count or not to count? I count, but I try to compensate by making sure I focus on story and not detail, getting to the next point in the story rather than filling up the pages with needless words. It's hard though.

Two things I read this week were useful: God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin, and this post.

Raisin’s book was great. Tight, tense, taut. Something to look up to and emulate. It was written in the first person, a brilliantly closed and telescopic account of a Yorkshire farmer’s view of the world. It made me realise that the voice is the most important thing when it comes to building a character from a first-person viewpoint – so much can be inferred into other people’s actions from what they say (or don’t say), and quite often plot happens in the way that character sees the world, not how the world is.

And then in her post on the need for concrete story goals, Amanda Patterson writes:

“Characters always have abstract story goals. Never let these become more important than the physical goals, with deadlines, experienced through the senses.”

That’s always good advice. It’s so easy to get carried away with that abstract stuff.

At the moment I want to get to a certain point in the story, a particular scene, but it often evades me, and I become preoccupied with setting the scene, descriptive passages, a thought, whatever. I hope that’s simply the creative result of sitting down and writing, and not garbage that I’m filling my day’s quota with. Sometimes in the midst of a first draft it’s hard to tell the difference.

My policy so far has been to keep it all in, with a few notes if necessary, and it’ll be obvious what’ll need cutting and what’ll need expanding for the second draft. Hopefully in the mean time what I’m writing isn’t getting too bloated, creating an even rougher first draft that needs more of a hammer than a chisel in the rewrite.

What I'm saying is I try to include only things that develop the plot or character, and focus on the story. I won’t be able to tell if I've been successful until I’ve written the whole 100,000 words and read it back through.

I'm not sure I’m ever going to have the stomach to do that though!

Word count this week: 4,616 Total word count: 57,941 First draft: 40,147