Week 25

(Late this week too! I'll get back to my schedule of publishing these on Sundays next week, promise.) I envy other people's way with words: their brevity, economy, or perfectly pitched descriptions. This is why I love reading so much. In a few words some writers manage to describe an often-felt but barely expressed sensation, and I have to stop to let it sink in. Something about their writing has made me want to reread it, savour it, gnash my teeth with envy and wonder how I'll ever be able to say anything that well.

So far I haven't. When people ask me about the progress of my book, I say it's getting longer but not any better. It's not what I want it to be. It is patchy and full of notes to myself ("expand", "another childhood memory here", "make this better!"), and through writing it I'm finding my way a bit. It won't be until at least the second draft that it's even legible, let alone any good.

I've taken some solace from a few things I've read this week, however. Jane Wenham-Jones admits that her first draft is often way short, and full of notes. So far the only writer I'd read who'd gone into that level of detail was Stephen King, who is sickeningly prolific and has a rule: the second draft = first draft - 10%. It was therefore heartwarming to read someone else who comes up short at this stage.

I also read that DH Lawrence said that he wrote his entire first draft, threw it away and then started again from scratch (I can't find where he said that, but I'm going to hope ferociously it's true). The first draft is almost a training ground for me.

I have in my head a vivid sense of the whole of my book - what I want it to be about, the story I want to tell. I have practical goals too: I want to write x,000 words a week, have a first draft done by Christmas.

The trouble is, none of that helps with the daily chipping away at a story, knocking at an idea until it reveals itself fully formed. My ideas may be vivid, but they are not clear. When I actually sit down to write it, my attempt at expression of all these wonderful themes and stories ends in a few abrupt words or a lumpen paragraph.

This week I wrote a scene that ended after a few paragraphs, when I ran out of ideas. None of the delicacy of thought I had in mind was possible in such a short passage, and I was disappointed, but determined not to garnish the story unnecessarily (every sentence should either "add to the plot, or reveal character", is the common advice).

Besides, I had no time to elaborate, as I was getting it down. I wasn't even sure I was able to get down what was in my head, the mass of thoughts and ideas, into anything as coherent as a story.

A few weeks ago I realised there was nothing coherent about the story in novels - they are messy things - but where did that leave me? I fretted about my structure. I got bored at the scene I was in, and wanted to jump to others. More than anything I felt anxious about moving on, getting to the next bit. At this rate the first draft of my novel would be about 50,000 words (the average is 100,000).

Then I saw the brilliant Hugh Garry give a talk at the BBC, in which he talked about the limitations required for creativity. Sometimes, he said, the best ideas come from the worst of circumstances, pointing at one of Kurt Vonnegut's story charts, where it suddenly flatlines towards the end of Cinderella:

The trajectory of a fairy tale is relatively simple: a red line surging forward like one of those bikes in Tron. Come to think of it, there's something fairy tale-ish about Vonnegut's books. His characters are unable to change anything, are powerless in the face of the world (is this true of sci-fi in general? I haven't read enough to know). The moral of Cinderella and Cat's Cradle is the same: so it goes.

At the same time, I'm reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith, who is one of those writers who makes me throw my book down with jealousy. Reading it made me realise the careful and deliberate way Smith reveals character and conflict, and all those storytelling buzz words. They are present in every sentence she writes. One scene was so fraught it had me bracing my shoulders, as if the tension were above my head, weighing it down.

It made me think my story should look a bit more like this:

Conflict is not the progression of a line; every scene should bristle with it.

Particularly for me, it meant characters shouldn't spend long on their own. Not enough happens that way. They shouldn't buy coffees and think about things in cafes (one of my godawful early attempts). They should bump into each other, have words, not say what they mean.

Interiority for interioity's sake is boring - it should be used as a brief respite, an interlude that casts more light on character, a pause between scenes in which the conflict (story) unfolds, not in a straight line, but like a flower. (Or a big ugly red cross, if you've only got Microsoft Paint on your shitty Dell.)

And most important: as a reader, I am not aware of the overarching story. Perhaps, as I often do, when I finish the book I'll think about all that, go over the structure in my head, break it into turning points and crises and climaxes. But at any one point in a book, I am in the moment, in that particular scene, reading as a very real problem or insight unfurls.

So I took the few paragraphs my first attempt at my current scene had produced, and unfurled each one, like tightly rolled cigarettes. A scene of three paragraphs became 26, but the action remained the same, I just followed the densely packed ideas a little more thoroughly, and a little more leisurely.

I'm getting better at writing in the scene, to coin a poncey phrase. Not worrying what comes next, but thinking about the situation, what's going through the mind of each of my characters, how would they react? It'll need editing, but that's for draft two.

Word count this week: 2,375 Total word count: 44,343 First draft: 26,879

Something beautiful

"Jerome had wept: the tears you cry for someone whom you never met who made something beautiful that you loved. Seventeen years earlier, when Lennon died, Kiki had dragged Howard to Central Park and wept while the crowd sang 'All You Need Is Love' and Howard ranted bitterly about Milgram and mass psychosis."

- On Beauty, Zadie Smith, p.174

Zadie Smith on individuality

"His face was childish, apologetic, completely inadequate. It made Kiki suddenly despair. It was a face that placed them right alongside every other middle-aged couple on the block - the raging wife, the rueful husband.She thought: How did we get to the same place as everybody else?"

- On Beauty, p.104

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.