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 27

I really enjoyed writing this week. The threads of a difficult chapter came together suddenly and very satisfyingly, and I finally got back to the bones of the story, the flashback. My main character’s voice came back more bumptious than ever (sorry, hearing Danny Baker using that word has made me use it wherever I can, that and bozo), and I wrote a lot, not all good, but a lot, and as many nice ideas came out as flat ones, and I made a note to expand and improve them.

That difficult chapter made me think again about my story’s viewpoint. So far it’s in the first person. Most of what I read, however, is written in the third person, by a mostly omniscient narrator who describes sympathetically what each character is up to. It makes me think how difficult and limited first person can be, and I envy the comparative ease with which the writer can explain his or her characters’ innermost thoughts, and intentions.

I'm not alone in thinking this. Most writing advice counsels wariness when it comes to using the first person, like this on p.34 of the September 2011 issue of Writers' Forum:

“A really emotional story often benefits from this viewpoint. First person is more intimate – the reader gets closer to the protagonist and really feels for him. [...] On the down side, the first person is restricting. For example, if your ‘I’ person has a secret – say he’s done a murder – it will be difficult to keep it from your reader because of the more intimate viewpoint.”

Not necessarily. I’d cite Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby as an example of a first person narrative who does just that (ie keeps his part in a murder ambiguous).

There’s a lot that can be read between the lines when you write in first person, or even left out altogether. It’s just hard. It’s taken me a while to get used to what I can do or show with a first person narrative. There’s a lot of niceties of language I have to be careful with, as the tone is more like dialogue. My character wouldn’t go to the trouble of adjectives, of describing the feel of cloth or the phenomenon of morning traffic. It just wouldn’t occur to her as it might an omniscient narrator.

The first person is very claustrophobic – you’re in someone’s head, able only to see her more clearly through her own admissions, or what other people say about her, but only what she lets on they say – and requires you to ask yourself a lot of questions. How can you keep such a limited viewpoint interesting?

It’s also more direct: someone only writes or speaks in the first person narrative when they have an interlocutory, whether present, or a reader of a letter, say. Who is that person?

Why are they speaking like this?, is another question. What prompts someone to elucidate at length what’s happened to them or what’s going on in their head? Can we ever give an account of our actions and intentions with confidence?

All this makes me wonder if I’m making a mistake writing in the first person.

It’s what came naturally, I must admit. The very first account of this story – a non-fiction account, written more than a year ago – was written in the first person, as it was an account of first-hand experiences I had had. When it came to writing it as fiction, I assumed the first thing I should do is shift it to third person. Nice, detached, third person narrative.

I wrote a very dry opening scene about a camping trip going horribly wrong. This was in my let’s-not-plan, let’s-just-start-writing days; I don’t know where that idea came from (well, I do) and I fumbled around like the characters in the tent I'd written until it all ended rather drably. In my defence, I’d been reading a lot of Anita Brookner. I submitted both pieces to the writers’ meeting I go to, and everyone agreed the first was best: punchier, more lively, more exciting. They suggested I stick to first person.

So far I have. But in that one difficult chapter, where my character is grappling with her present life, memories and regrets, it rolls between the two. Sounds odd, I know. It’s a technique I thought of in the planning stages of my book, but it’s one that occurs naturally in my writing too, naturally because it fits her predicament.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Macall in To Have and Have Not

I recently read Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, after googling for novels that use both first and third person narratives for the same character. It was strange: Harry Morgan spoke for himself at first, but then the book drifted off into third person, describing him from afar and through the eyes of others. It was a disconcerting reading experience. By the time Morgan is left for dead, you’ve left him altogether. He’s no hero; he deserved it. There’s something there about the disposability of human life, and I want to read more Hemingway to get a better understanding of what he’s getting at.

What am I getting at? I don’t know. Narrative nerves, I suppose. I hear my main character talking to me, explaining herself in her own words, but sometimes I feel I'd make things easier for myself if I just told it from a third person's perspective. I wouldn't have to spend so long on all these questions, thinking myself into not only her thoughts, but her way of expressing those thoughts too.

It's just I’m not sure her story would work in the third person, it doesn’t have the required clarity. Besides, there’s too much written now that wouldn’t work in the third person. Her view of things is very important: it’s warped, but I hope it’s also captivating.

But it’s also hard to focus on the story and not on the interior when you’re in the mind of someone else. I worry it’s too hard to write in the first person.

Do many people use it for their first books? Can you think of any examples? Especially any books that move from first to third and back, whatever the technique used (a letter, diary entry, whatever)?

Word count this week: 2,806 Total word count: 48,672 First draft: 30,878