Just do it
Writing a novel is like building a house. A house, no matter how big or small, be it mansion, fairy castle or hovel, needs a basic structure: it needs a roof, a wall or two, along with some plumbing and electrics (unless you really are going for the hovel effect). But, will you choose flying buttresses and Gothic devils or is your style more minimalist, with clean white walls, tatami flooring and fusuma? Likewise, a novel must has some basics – even the most modernist of them – a character here or there, a – dare I say it – plot of some description or at least some structure about how you are going to write this thing. But the style of writing, choice of era, type of characters are as broad as your imagination.
I realise this isn’t an earth-shattering revelation. But having spent a week in January hanging out with my Dad while he worked on his beautiful, but ramshackle, house and I hammered (pun intended) out novel words, it is one that has helped me through an odd period of my writing experience.
On the second to last day of our trip, Dad asked if I would come and look at something he’d been working on. He needed a second opinion and since there wasn’t another soul around for a good few miles the poor bugger was stuck with me. I can barely boil an egg, let alone rebuild a house. So, off we went and had a look at the framework that was to be a wall between bedroom and bathroom. He knew what he was trying to achieve, but it hadn’t quite worked out the way he wanted. Over the next five minutes he described the effect he was going for, then explained the problem and asked if I thought he should keep going and end up with a slightly different outcome – after all, he had spent all week doing this – or should he unpick some of his work. I hmmed in the right (I hope) places but said very little of any use. As it turned out, this didn't matter very much. I wish I could get away with this kind of advice more often in life. In fact, the process of explaining his dilemma to someone else helped Dad figure out what he already knew was the right thing to do. Unpicking was the way forward. The final effect was more important and, therefore, worth the extra time to redo the framework.
How annoying. What a waste of time.
Except it wasn’t. It was only in the doing, in the trying, that Dad was able to fully see how to reach his goal. He could have drawn it out on a piece of paper several times over and still have ended up in the same position. He had to do it to see how to do it.
I was thrilled with my own progress while away. I turned out a good few thousand words; I was moving forward at long last. After months of chewing over the same small section for the dissertation, this was a relief. When I got back, I was determined to keep up the momentum. I wrote a couple more thousand words.
And then I stopped. I haven’t started again since.
Some of that is for boring, practical, life-getting-in-the-way reasons and I find myself constantly feeling edgy about the lack of progress – bloody inner witchy critic. But the main reason I stopped was because I realised I needed to take the same approach as Dad.
Yes, I am now 40,000 words into this novel and yes, I know roughly where I want the walls to stand and the sort of roof it needs, but the details have always remained a little hazy. What effect am I going for? In short, I need to take this very broad plot of mine and start adding flesh to the bone.
In her writing book Monkeys With Typewriters, Scarlett Thomas talks about giving your characters what she calls ‘super-objectives’ – their prime motivating power – but she also says, “In practice it’s almost impossible to do this before you begin writing and get to know the characters a little bit first. I want to see what the characters will do on their own before I begin crafting them, and so I usually begin working intensively on character only once I am a few chapters into the novel.”
I didn’t quite understand at the time I read it, but I realise now this is precisely the point I have reached. While I haven’t written anything new for some weeks now, what I have been doing is reassessing my characters, deepening my understanding of them, asking the question ‘what if?’ over and over again to try and get a sense of those super-objectives. It’s exhausting – half the time I just want someone else to make the decisions for me – but it is rewarding.
A simple example of the effect this approach has had: initially I couldn’t understand why one of my characters wasn’t behaving in the way I imagined. I was putting them in the right scenarios but somehow their behaviour just wasn’t translating. I wanted edgy but was getting dull. Through this crafting process, I thought long and hard about who this person was and why and how could I best demonstrate that through the novel. It became clear this person needed a new job, one that would allow me to demonstrate some of the personality traits I’ve always imagined them to have. A simple enough decision, but one that – like the butterfly effect – has implications that ripple right through the work I’ve already produced.
Writers always tell you nothing is wasted. It’s hard to believe that when I think about how much I need to rework as a consequence of this ‘what if?’ process. But I have found it to be a necessary and ultimately fruitful process. I believe in this character again. They’re blossoming – at least in my head since no writing has occurred – into a more rounded, and hopefully interesting, character. And when the witch isn’t doing her best to tell me I’ve wasted all this time, I recognise that much of what I have written is useful – the roof and walls are all there – it’s just I’ve realised lime green curtains with pink polka dots aren’t the way forward. By adjusting the details I am finding my way towards the final desired effect.
I had to do it to see how to do it.
Since it's Easter, I thought I'd shamelessly share my colony of bunnies...