Monday, 5 March 2012

Notes: The Story So Far

Not feeling at my most creative today after a weekend of marking, so it seems a good time to assess how I think the project is going. First of all, how much have I actually written? I haven't been keeping track as I've been going on, but had a vague feeling it might be about 5000 words. I've just counted, and it's about 7000, so that's encouraging. The sections are rather shorter than I was anticipating - I originally said 1000 - 1500 words each, but they are more like 500 - 1000. One reason for this is that I am deliberately not putting pressure on myself. Once you start getting up beyond 1000 it feels like hard work because you have to sustain a mood, a narrative, an argument, beyond the initial impetus that led you to write it down. It can be hard work for the reader, too, work that we are used to putting into the books we read but not when reading on a screen in the knowledge that lots of fascinating sites are just a couple of mouse-clicks away. So the second reason I am not writing long sections is the nature of the medium I'm initially writing for. Rather to my surprise there are a few people reading this, and I have had some positive feedback. Whether it eventually works as a novel or not, I have some hope is that it is working as a blog, and that seems to dictate shorter sections.

In other respects, it is much as I expected. I said it would begin as a process of getting to know the characters and the fictional environment and that not much would happen in the early stages. This is how it has turned out. Apart from Daniel himself there are only two other main characters so far, Rob and Imogen, and neither of them is much more than a sketch at present - it's not yet clear what influence they will have in Daniel's story. I know a little more about this than the reader does, but not much. There are also several other characters who are briefly sketched and who may or may not play a part in the story: Martin, Linda, Elaine, Bill the Landlord. I suspect that the first two will have a bigger part to play, while the second two are just part of the scenery. All are based to some extent on people I knew in my Brighton days, sometimes on more than one person. The underlying reality, the remembered past, is already beginning to shift a bit, to become the imagined world of the novel. The girl on the skateboard, for example, comes from a period two years after my brief stay in The Squirrels - she used to whizz round a different, much quieter corner. Helmston itself (now without a final E) is changing in my mind: I am beginning to see it as full of the sea-mists of Aberystwyth rather than the clear light I associate with Brighton.

One other thing that may surprise some readers - it's fairly light and humorous, despite all my initial comments about the misery I was going through at the time. This was not exactly planned, but it tends to happen when I write autobiographically. A certain defensive irony creeps in, keeping me at a distance from the material. This seems to be psychologically necessary for me - I remember that it happened when I wrote my first short story, 'American Fugue', which, as I have mentioned, came directly out of the breakdown I suffered when I was living in Brighton, but which is one of my most humorous stories. It could be argued that there is something dishonest about this approach, but I'm not sure - comedy is always present where there is a mismatch between the individual and the community. I may have been unhappy a lot of the time, but there was a lot of laughter, too. It seems to be my way of understanding these events, and I find it much more attractive than a wallow in remembered suffering.

What I enjoy about this project is the combination of instant and delayed gratification. The novel can be postponed for as long as I like, and yet in a sense it already exists, and is being read. Thinking of it as a blog allows me to forget about difficult things like plot - my only challenge is to write 500 - 1000 words that are reasonably interesting in their own right. What influence will this process of composition have on the final novel? It's impossible to say. I like the thought that it will retain a lot of the traces of its original composition. I enjoy novels in short sections, like Calvino's Invisible Cities, and it may be in any case that the novel of the future will have to take account of shortened attention spans by using shorter chapters and composing its fictional world jigsaw-fashion. Or it may be that the novel of the future will be in blog form rather than a book - why do I actually need to publish Starling City at all? I am working on other books of a more traditional nature, so I probably have my academic duty to publish covered.

So there is a thought to end with - the blovel as a genre in its own right, available to anyone who wants to write one, the kind of democratic art form that various internet prophets have been proclaiming for some time. It costs nothing to publish, and, if it doesn't make any profit either, that is almost true of the traditional genres I work in, poetry, criticism, the short story, the 'literary' novel. I could sell advertising space, I suppose, or, as I suggested in one of the comments to a previous entry, charge people a fee for appearing in it as characters. At any rate, I think writing this may well change my approach to writing fiction in general, and that is an exciting thought.

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