Saturday, 14 January 2012

Notes: Procedures, Happenings, Beginnings

This is a very odd sort of exercise. I'm pretty sure hardly anyone is reading this blog all through, and only a few have been giving an occasional glance at some of the postings. With so many interesting sites competing for attention, there's no reason why that should change much as the project continues. I don't mind that - in fact, I probably prefer it. As long as it gets me through the first draft without the usual agonies of hesitation and self-doubt, the method will have worked. With the novel I've recently completed, I chose an archaic-looking font and added all sorts of formatting oddities - marginal notes and an early-modern style title page - which made the whole thing feel like a game. This is similar: the experimental nature of what I'm doing is keeping me interested - and the fact that anyone can read it if they want to will help me believe that the novel really exists, even when it has only just started.

Not that it has started yet. Every section so far has been headed 'Notes:' to indicate that it is me thinking about the novel rather than the novel itself. When I start writing the text (today, tomorrow, or next week, depending on how busy I am) I shall head those sections 'Novel': so that readers can easily distinguish one from the other.

What will those Novel sections be like? For one thing, I am going to format them properly, with no gaps between paragraphs, and correct use of indents at the beginnings of the paragraphs. The sloppy formatting you find in internet fiction, and increasingly in books, just doesn't read properly: the blocks of text don't flow and the rhythms of the dialogue are all wrong when you have to jump across a line of blank space to get from one remark to another. So these sections will look different from the Notes as well as having a different heading.

It will still be a first draft, though. It may be that putting my output straight into a public medium will concentrate my mind and cause me to write much more powerfully and coherently than I normally would at this stage - after all, Dickens and his contemporaries wrote episodically to a deadline and it didn't do their writing any harm. But I am not counting on it. What I write may well be dreadful and it is highly unlikely that it will hang together. At least I will have the Notes sections to explain what I was trying to do, and where I went wrong. There will be no chapters at this stage, because I never make structural plans at the beginning of a piece of writing. (The summary of the themes and ideas in my last posting is much more explicit than anything I would normally do before starting to write.) It will just be passages of text, about as long as my postings have been up to now, between 1000 and 1500 words. Anyone who does read them will probably think the first few postings look more like an essay than a novel: there may not be much in the way of characters, dialogue and action, just a writer brooding on ideas or landscape. That's deliberate. I am aiming at a total of about 80,000 words, and you can't have a murder or a sex-scene on every page. Action is important in any story, but it has to be significant action, and I won't know what actions are significant until I have thought through the context in which it takes place.

What I want to avoid is the this happened-then this happened-then this happened syndrome. Nothing is more likely to tie the writer in knots at first draft stage. Because as soon as you've said something happened you are committed to it - it becomes a fact of your fictional world. Then if it proves incompatible with something else you want to happen you will have to go back and sort out the muddle. After a few sessions of this, you become so obsessed with getting your happenings right that you don't have time to think about anything else. You start to tell yourself that it doesn't matter that your characters are two-dimensional and your prose watery: as soon as you get the plot sorted out you'll attend to it. In my experience, long before you reach that stage you hate the novel so much that you either tear it up and start again from the beginning, or give up altogether.

So don't believe people (I have my CW lecturer's hat on now) who tell you the important thing is to have a good exciting opening, and that you should make sure your writing is lively and has a lot of drama so that your readers won't be bored. For one thing, as I have argued above, events are not interesting in themselves: it is what they signify that's interesting, and you can't know that until have got to know your fictional world. Walk around in it, describe, meditate. Don't worry if nothing seems to be happening yet, or no other characters have entered the picture. They'll come when they're ready, and the action will happen apparently on its own, without you having to impose it.

Anyway, that's my theory. What it will be like for my reader, if I have one, I can't really say. Blog postings, of course, appear on the screen in reverse order, so any reader who joins the blog at a later stage will have to go back though the archives to find the opening of the novel. But in any case, as I've said, I'm expecting to mix up the time frame, so there will be little sense of chronology yet. It's going to be more like a jigsaw than a sequential story.

Next post: the novel.

1 comment:

  1. This blog is just so good. Like I said elsewhere, it works as a kind of instruction manual for creative writers; only it doesn't shy away from how much of a slog it can be. Cheers.