Novel writing and the distance of time

Rewriting of the novel continues. My task now is to think about structure. The structure currently is haphazard. I initially had a new chapter after each day of writing. Then I tried to improve it with chapter titles spaced evenly throughout the book. Neither of these methods made sense.

Early on after draft one, I was advised by an author that each chapter needed to end at a meaningful moment. Perhaps a cliffhanger. Perhaps a small resolution. Whatever it was, it had to make sense to serve as the end the chapter. Chapter structure is one challenge I am facing, over a year from when I started writing this book.

The other challenge, and the thing that frustrates me about the current 55,000 words, is the excessive exposition! I have been constantly explaining things; often, things that do not drive the plot forward at all. I am seeing my novel now with the distance of time in a whole new light.

Other advice on structure I have received from my writing buddy, Lucy, is to plot the whole thing out. Where’s the rising action, where’s the falling action, etc. I have now done that and come up with some action on which to base the narrative. I should have done this in the beginning.

The critical point to make today is how time changes you as a writer. I have learnt so much more about writing since I started the novel that now I see it full of flaws. The writing served a specific purpose for me at the time when I was writing last year. But now we are coming to the end of another year and the distance shows me that the novel needs masses of work. I will keep going.

Would love to hear feedback on others’ experiences of temporal perspective and writing.

Back to the novel

blur book stack books bookshelves

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

Today I am reexamining my novel. My last edits were in the Spring. It feels like a bit of a drag to work on it, but I heard Kate Tempest say on the radio today that a writer should write especially when it’s hard or they think they can’t face it.

There are some things that I am very proud of in the novel so I hope it does see the light of day at some point. The daunting prospect at the moment is that I have to change the career path of one of the main characters. As this is a main focus of much of the story, it’s going to be a lot of work. Also, I need to create a bit more conflict. At the moment there is not a lot driving the plot.

But sometimes I just feel like shouting in my head, ‘I’m sick of this character!’ I think this is probably a normal part of the process. And maybe as the rewriting happens she will reemerge as a new entity that I am not sick of.

I am facing inertia and frustration with the novel, but I will press on.  It’s a Sunday afternoon at home. I need to be writing. Words of encouragement welcome!

Fear and writing in North London

I often feel like I am just beginning this writing journey. That is a complete fallacy, however, and it comes from a lack of courage. I have always been writing; not always stories, but prose (and some poetry) nonetheless.

When I was at uni, I remember trying to pinpoint the moments in my life when I felt most happy. In super nerd fashion, my happiest moments were the final stages of essay writing. I would be making certain the argument flowed, editing and ensuring I had the perfect words in place.

These days I feel like I have imposter syndrome (but I know we all feel this way at times). When I first went to a writing group in 2016, I was so non-committal: ‘Don’t have a genre, not sure what I want to write about, not trying seriously to get published…just dabbling.’

It’s fear, ultimately. I really want to write, I really want it to be read, but I’m scared of that happening. Still, the situation is improving.

I have taken a lot of steps in the plan over the last few years: very happily finding an inspirational writing buddy, writing groups, speaking with an agent, getting to know a publisher, joining a writers’ network online, sending my novel to agents and getting lots of rejections, and, of course: tons of writing.

There is a literary novel, half a dystopian novel, book reviews, two short stories, more poems than I can count, and then all the random scribblings in notebooks and other false starts on my netbook. I also have a job in publishing.

What I have to do is keep going. Just keep moving forward with the words.

The development is in the details

I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook, a birthday gift from a good friend. The details are impeccable. As a writer, I’ve become obsessed with trying to remember details of the day, snapshot vignettes of moments and encounters.

Last year, I remember vividly sitting down at a bus stop and seeing a neat pile of empty cassette cases underneath the bench. How could this have possibly come to be? Someone collecting cassettes like it’s 1989, going through a recent stash at the bus stop and deciding they didn’t want the cases, there and then; they just had to shed the excessive plastic immediately because they had precious little room in their bag and the tapes themselves were all that mattered?

I noted that the cases were from blank tapes. I longed to know more of this story. How six empty blank cassette cases came to find themselves sitting under a bus bench outside HMP Pentonville on Caledonian Road in North London in early June of 2017? Nothing but questions.  I should have taken a photo.

Another fascinating scene: one of the many winding, secretive passageways in the City. Such portals are brimming with ghost stories from hundreds of years of human activity (too sterile a description, really). Hundreds of years of tears, fears, cheers, beers and careers, to add some rhyming.

This particular encounter on this particular day really brought me to a pause. On the ground there were about 20 cigarette butts. On the wall there was a notice telling people that they were on camera and to stub out their cigarettes in the allocated receptacle or else (a fine, I believe).

This isn’t a comment on smoking or littering; it was just something about the warning, the total disregard for the warning, and the resulting detritus on the ground. I can’t think of a wry Didion-esque summary to encapsulate this scenario, but it is somewhere in my brain. People will find a way, I guess. Like the smoking Tyrannosaurus Rexes that we all are.

So writing is in the details. I’m going to practice writing details now to describe my recycling items that I’ve been collecting to walk down the road to the recycling bins. If it is of any quality it will be my next blog post. Watch this space diligently.

Make the plot difficult for your characters

In 2006 I took a creative writing course in Los Angeles, where I was living at the time. The main lesson I remember is that the author’s job is to make things as difficult as possible for the characters in the story. In my novel I struggled with this because of its diary-like, autobiographical nature. I didn’t want to make things hard for anyone! Hence the lack of conflict.

I am now learning that creative writing is not about solving lots of problems. I haven’t really worked out what it is about entirely. For me, so far, it is an artistic endeavour of personal expression that will hopefully resonate with the reader. In my PhD I asked the question: “why did people read?”. There were multitudinous answers that you can find in my thesis if you feel so compelled.

The reading lives of English men and women, 1695-1830 

I have received feedback on my short story now and it is so helpful. I am going to a writing group tomorrow to work on applying changes that will definitely improve the piece. I need to make things more difficult for the main character. This will make the story more universal.

While the process of writing is useful for me, ultimately the work needs to get out there. As a content designer I am constantly thinking about the user/reader. While it is not creative writing at my job, similar principles apply. Writing (and art) involves creator/expression and reader/reception. And that reception is not passive. Ultimately, the readers have licence to interpret as they will. Therefore, writing and art are acts of bravery and vulnerability.

The more challenging the plot line, the more rewarding the progression in the characters. The more rewarding the progression in the characters, the more human the story.