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

Weeks 18-21

This week's motto That's this week's motto.

I’ve been on holiday in Hong Kong and Thailand for the past few weeks, and had an amazing time. I didn’t get much (any) writing done, but I read a whole lot.

I don't know if it was a coincidence, a recent trend in fiction, or simply something I was looking out for, but I noticed a few of my books had an interesting approach to character. A couple (A Visit from the Goon Squad, A Week in December) introduced multiple characters upfront who were all connected in some remote way, and then wilted a little when it came to sustaining a unified story, whereas another (To Have or To Have Not - okay, Hemingway, so not a recent trend) slipped from first to third person, and thence to other characters altogether, like the narrative has suffered a lapse in interest in that viewpoint.

All this got me thinking about character. By the time I got to Zadie Smith, I was surprised at her small band of characters - a protagonist, his father, girlfriend and friends - and how little they sprawled time, or space. Each represented a different element to the story and yet were brought vividly to life.

When I got back I spoke to my dad, who's reading Story by Robert McKee, and he mentioned something McKee had to say about character:

"The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to a narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, nonspecific generalities."

He goes on to explain that the "symbolic charge" of a story’s imagery should be in the move from the particular to the universal, the specific to the archetypal, not the other way around. As well as being a good reminder to start with realistic characters, this struck me as kinda appropriate for my book, which is about fandom and identity, what's real and what's symbolic (or archetypal, to use McKee's term).

It also reminded me that successful characters aren't just realistic. I've struggled with this in the past, as my novel is based on my own experience, and, to a certain extent, events and people I've met. That's always the way, isn't it? Surely everything a writer writes includes some of his or her experience?

A passage about a wannabe novelist in A Week in December made my blood run cold:

"So it was that he began yet again, with a main character not unlike himself on a life path that bore a fraternal relationship to his own. This thing about 'inventing' characters that some novelists banged on about; really, when you came down to it, why bother? Very few people knew him, or any of his acquaintances he planned to include, so what was the point of conjuring and moulding new people from the void? At least he and his friends came with built-in credibility; they were, by definition, 'realistic'..."

Except of course they're not, as soon as they hit the page. Characters are only as realistic as they are written, and writing about a real person leads you into forgetting what makes them who they are, which characteristics are defining and which are dull.

So I've realised I need to take a step back and work on my characters, think about what makes them special and distinctive, and what they eventually will come to represent, without losing any of their believability. Smith's description of an auction room in The Autograph Man, the first few pages of Goon Squad, and the opening lines of the prom scene in Carrie showed me that a few choice characters can really bring a scene to life. There's a lot more to a story than that, but I need to get that initial interest right, and set up a few more characters better.

Next week is about thinking about my characters, how they could move from particular to the universal, specific to the archetypal. It's a chance to think about that little guy Daniel too, and how he might fit in the story.

In the mean time, such a long break from writing means I have some work to do just to psyche myself up again. I want to get back to where I was before I went away: writing a little bit every day, and looking forward to it. This weekend I had to force myself to sit down both days, and work through every distraction in the book (tidying, googling, tweeting, coding, watching the 'Thriller' video) until I got into the swing of things again. I think I managed about two hours' solid work out of about 15, writing a long blog post and the bare bones of a short story.

Tomorrow's alarm clock is set for 6am; jetlag be damned.

Word count this week(s): 0 Running total: 34,891 First draft: 19,523

PS Sorry about my use of the word 'thence' earlier, by the way. It won't happen again.

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

Consciousness as story

"Thomas stood up. ‘What I believe consciousness to be,’ he said, ‘is the ability to tell a story to ourselves. To begin with, it enables us to see time - not as it really is, because we cannot do that - but in representation, at least, as a straight line. You cannot conceive of time in any other way - but the straight line is only a useful metaphor, or representation, not the reality. But once you have a grasp of time - even if it is essentially a misrepresentation - you can start to plan and visualise a past and future, and therefore causality. Likewise, consciousness enables us to make conjectures in which someone called “I” can be seen in a hypothetical situation or a story; and from that flows the ability to make judgements, plans, decisions. In short, consciousness takes the vastness of the physical world, whose coordinates of time and space we cannot really grasp, and gives us a model, a working version - a simplified, toy version if you prefer - in which we can more usefully and successfully operate.’"

- Human Traces, Sebastian Faulks, pp.454-5