The writing journey of an idiot who has got herself haunted by the ghost of a Victorian murderess whom everyone has an opinion about. This spectre finally wants her own say and thinks a historical novel would do nicely as a vehicle. But she doesn’t dictate it…o no, she just wanders in and out of our unfortunate author’s life telling her to get on with it and ruining lazy Sundays etc.
Reviewing the first third of my novel before I push on with completing a first draft has thrown me into contemplation of the struggle for structure. When I started this, I didn’t know where it was going – I have a slightly better idea now, but it’s evolving all the time – and so I cobbled together what I had to hand with the sketchy skills at my disposal. This now looks like a weak and wobbly matchstick house that could cave in under too much pressure.
And pressure it must take, for it turns out that this is the foundation for the rest of the novel. It needs to take the uniqueness of my creative self on the page (pompousness alert) that develops in a two-way dance with what already exists, what I want it to be and where it is going.
Will it do? If only I had stronger technical skills at the beginning…if only I had planned more…I imagine real writers don’t have this problem then I listen to Janette Winterson in this fabulous podcast discussing the non-linear nature of creativity and the `myth of the unitary self’. I love this woman – she is so intelligent and original.
Fear and Loathing in the Loft
Cheered by Janette Winterson’s assurance that my subconscious is on my side, I’m prepared to ditch the fear of failure that holds me back from even attempting to finish this book. First I read` The War of Art’ by Steven Pressfield, as somewhere I’d read him described as an Alan Carr for writers. Whilst I am drawn to the heroic vision of myself as a professional warrior fighting Resistance, I am ultimately drawn to the opposing idea of kindness to my Fearful Self. Outfox it with love! Calming the nervous colt of my imagination before I start to write now takes the form of a writing commentary which keeps a weather eye on how I’m treating my inner writer. The need for self-compassion is a fashionable concept that I thought blessed me watching back-to-back Corrie without guilt etc etc, but I’m only just directing it at the fearful voice that tells me I’m just not good enough as a writer, the scratchy, persistent bramble that snags the arm of your coat as you try to stride off towards the horizon.
It’s not all bad news – my main character is getting stronger and stronger in her demand to be heard and tell her story through me. I’m itching to to get planning and writing the middle third of the novel – especially as I don’t really know where it will take me – yet. Hoping the matchsticks can go with me on this one.
The horse has refused the jump consistently now for about a month. The jump is the heart of the novel, a scene of murder both physical and emotional. Everything I’ve written so far – thousands of words – has traced the tentacles arising from this beating, primeval heart. It is the raison d’etre of the narrative. If I can’t do this, the rest is useless.
The horse is not persuaded by this urgency. The jump looks very much like a brick wall. Something that would hurt very much if your soft belly came crashing down onto the top. If your fine legs hit the ground on the other side at the wrong angle, they would snap like matchsticks, so high and hard is this jump. And everyone is watching.
Obviously, I should have started here and planned outwards. However, hindsight ignores the reality of the to-ing and fro-ing nature of trying to write a bloody huge, complex thing like a novel. I was hoping this moment ahead would become clear as I wrote myself into it, but, instead, this `method’ has complicated it by creating characters that do not intersect as I need at this point. Also, their voices are still dim, too overlaid with the history that weighs this Victorian novel down.
My options are to push on and see what happens. I scribble in a book before I put anything on the computer to fool myself I’m just trying ideas out. Or I STOP and re-think the whole dynamic between the key characters involved in this murder, possibly inviting a major re-write elsewhere in the story. I am very much taken by Annie Dilliard’s analysis of this experience of refusal in her wonderful book `The Writing Life’, which supports the latter approach:
“When you are stuck into a book; when you are well into writing it, and know what comes next, and yet cannot go on;…then the trouble is either of two things. Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split it up the middle – or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you have planned will not do.”
She goes on to talk about the willingness to demolish `weight-bearing walls’. Gulp.
Most of all, I need TIME.
Time to make mistakes and put them right. My teaching job and need to just noodle around, rest and socialise are enemies to achieving this.
Does this novel even exist? Scattered electronically around Google Docs, hard drives here and there, Word, Scrivener and Docs, I want to print it all out, like the old days, and put it into a ring-binder so it can actually be read. Then again, there are the edited versions of sections, again across hardcopy and electronic versions, arising from the class I’ve been in for the past two years.
Which brings me to the fact that I need to submit 2000 words to my teacher by the end of the week. Rather than struggle with the misshapen and hidden heart of my embryonic novel, maybe I should just work on a short story in progress, a modern Sleeping Beauty, which was received enthusiastically by the teacher last month, when I started avoiding the novel. More enthusiastically than my Victorian efforts. A modern, easy voice I can hear very clearly in my ear as my fingers fly across the keys.
But my novel is my baby and I must protect it, spend time with it, get to know it – not abandon it, no matter how it refuses to behave as I’d like in order for it to fit into my plans for it. It will surprise me and grow into something that is like me, but not like me. This nurturing metaphor is more helpful that the horse jump one I started with, as I am long accustomed to the hard days of motherhood that, miraculously, are all worth it.
Faced to acknowledge my slide into a virtual file chaos that only a new computer would cure, I’ve had a simple yet mind-blowing tip for my writing – cut and paste all the bit, bobs, rambles, gambles and mad rushes of writing into just one document with the title `First draft’. Include notes from self and feedback from others for future re-drafting, but get it all together NOW.
At last I have something I can see in one glance and can think about without a grasshopper mind.
And it didn’t take a new piece of software to do it (though I’m still tempted to play with Sciverner…).
The structure of my novel can loosely be likened to a snake swallowing its tail then dancing with a bear. Which is, at the moment, defeating me. Unsurprisingly.
I have to learn simplicity in my writing at sentence level and to slow down so the reader can process what I’ve written rather than over-compacting like a too rich fruit pudding which leaves you with a mouth full of nuts. Maybe that’s going to be the lesson with my structure, but I hope not, as I am rather attached to my snake and bear dance,
On New Year holiday in Wales with writing ambitions buoyed up by large sheet of paper covered in swirls, lines and colours ie MY STRUCTURE!!!!!
Despite fact it involves multiple flash – backs and changes of tense and (possibly) a wrap-around modern narrator who sees a ghost who takes us into the historical world (nooooooo I hear yet another potential reader cry) , it seems like something I can rest my laptop on and make flesh by ‘joining the dots’.To write a first draft!
A proper one, with a beginning, middle and end rather than, at present, a series of ‘puddles’ of scenes that have decided to reveal themselves.
I will wrestle this motherfucker to the floor in 2014. Age may not be kind to this increasingly holey brain , so I do feel it’s, to some extent, a race against time.
Back to Wales, where I woke this morning (and half the night ) to read Affinity by Sara Waters, a master class in drip-feeding historical detail, sliding around tenses and withholding information. The gap between her writing and mine is so immense that I feel deflated and am about to give up.
However, I remember the mantra of that woman who swam between Florida and Cuba for the first time at 64 after failing 4 times – ‘Find a way’ and I think that writing a first draft is not only do-able but also a smaller and warmer process than an epic swim, for which I’m grateful.
The Novel is actually under-way, although, to be honest, I am already about to re-write it. But it has a beginning and possibly all those other bits may be stitched into it at some point. Have joined the Advanced Writer’s Group at The Writing Place and, finally, have some good advice ie go back to Go! But am not in jail.
Yes, I must plunge into my big fat needy main character and keep faith with her viewpoint. Ditch the Dostoevsky filmic spread (they hated entering the railway porter’s head on page 1. Poor Josiah!
So just need to work out how I can work less and write more without giving up the bottles of red and bottles of perfume.
Today I finally wrote a timeline in a straight line for my novel and it looks like 1863-1866 are the years lucky enough to be included. Now it seems simple. Shards of the novel still spinning off like stars not in anything called The Plough or The Belt or whatever but one day I hope for sunrise to banish the black blanket hiding my story.
At the end of the day, my aim is to write a bad novel but to actually get to The End for the first time.