Monday, October 29, 2007

Ted Hughes Letters: Brilliant listening

I'm a big fan of Radio 4, and there have been a number of inspirational radio plays this year that have been a great aid in my writing.

I've just listened to the latest: Ted Hughes Letters. It's moving, beautiful, shockingly tragic: and exposes you to the private thoughts of a great writer. On a personal note, it reminds me of my Yorkshire childhood, and I'm lucky enough to have stayed at Lumb Bank, which is now one of the host sites of the Arvon Foundation. And not far from there is Sylvia Plath's grave. And his now, I guess, although he was still alive when I was there. [Actually he was cremated and his ashes spread far from Yorkshire and Sylvia, on Dartmoor]

But this is writing at its best: accessible to anyone. You've got a week to catch it - if you're reading this after 5th November 2007, then sorry. For the rest of you, this is a real treat:

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Revising: the Joys of Rewriting

Ok, it's not very glamorous, it's not sexy, and it doesn't do much for your home life: but revision is absolutely integral to any book. Some books more than less, but for the beatniks out there, while On the Road was typed on one long sheet of paper, it was heavily revised before publication.
I've not written anything here because I've been rumaging back through my novel, like nosing my way back into a wardrobe stuffed full of old clothes, trying to sort out which bits I want to keep and those I want to throw away.
And it's a process...I've been at work for about three weeks, putting alot of my other life on hold (answering emails, gaming, updating the website etc) - while I try and sort my way into some kind of sense. First of all I wanted to introduce my main character with a chapter of his own. In that chapter I introduced two new characters because I want a nice set of interesting characters well established by the middle of the book. And now I find that I need to write more about these two characters, and In doing so I'm altering where they are from, because I have found that I can use this group of three friends to tell the story I wanted much better than I was trying with the main character alone.
Alot of the work I am doing is because I have a clear idea of where I want the book to be by the middle of the novel - and how far from that I had got. By comparing the two, it allows me to assess how much I have achieved that I wanted to achieve.
I've also learnt something about my writing style, that I tend to plot very closely the movements of the characters through the physical geography of the novel, when I am not clear about where the novel is going. This all struck me when I started reading Far from the Madding Crowd, where each scene is clearly set out, and the consequences feeding into the next, and the unimportant details are then left out.
I'm bearing this in mind as I go back into the wardrobe, but also when I write my next novel, I want to plan out the process a little more clearly: because I think this will save me a few months hard work. I should work out the themes and the ideas I want to get across and then work out how various characters can carry each of these along. I feel I could go back and rewrite huge chunks now, and stick to the main scenes.
This all reminds me of something Mary Renault talked about: using the fast forward button for a story, just cutting unimportant details with the insertion of a sentence or paragraph, and getting back to the main details.
The best way of breaking down a novel, I find, is to take coloured cards - with each character getting a seperate colour - and then write what happens in each chapter on each card. I then pin these on my wall, chapter by chapter, allowing me to visualise the story a little bit better. If there are too many blocks of one colour, then I look where I can insert another story thread into the mix. Then I mark the main story events: and look through my list of events for scenes I can cut, or scenes that achieve the same thing as another, or just slack.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Reviewing the novel so far.....

So - I've had a few weeks away from the novel and I take this opportunity to sit down and print it out and read it, a little fresher: and I have to say I'm disappointed.

There are a couple of things that are not as good as I had hoped.
  • the opening chapter is GREAT - but it feels as thought the narration loses some of its authority after that. Not sure why this is: maybe because I was less sure of the direction of the story after the first chapter, and spent a couple of months re-writing this point, and then cut lots of it and made it much more simple and straightforward.
  • I'm not happy with the main character's character: even though my readers have all said they're happy. I guess this is where being the novelist helps, as I have a certain idea of what I want this narrator to be like, and he's not as rounded as I want. Too much of his personality is shown by action, which is something that comes naturally to me (the infamous show not tell) but I need to find another way of developing and adding to his character. Note to self: This can be a very small touch, and might not necesserily mean more than a paragraph or sentence even. And in doing it, make sure you don't patronise the reader.
  • There's a point about half way though where the narration feels like it loses momentum, the main character going home in a way that is reminiscent of an earlier chapter. Perfectly fine in real life, but stories are not real life, and they shouldn't be. It would make a much more interesting movement to cut that chapter [point B] and get directly from point A to C. Also in this chapter the problems the character face are cast in too universal a light: so they are problems that seem to affect all of England. I need to find a way of making it personal to him. I keep in mind Dicken's Tale of Two Cities, where he's dealing with a big historical event, but where the French Revolution is made personal to all the characters involved.
  • Improving the characters: I have to admit I'm lazy in the sense that I don't do things that I've heard other novelists do (like writing letters in each character's voice, writing reams character background and motivations) - I like to sketch characters in bold black and white lines, rather than try and paint them in photographic detail. But there are times I need to update that sketch, especially as the story develops and the role of the characters becomes larger and more central than I had originally envisaged. I've had my wife read out a long list of questions about these characters I'm concerned about. I have her read the list to me (a very dull task) because I like the spontineity of the response that comes out, which I feel gives me more interesting and more truthful answers for these characters. I guess in the same way that we have to act instinctively to sudden changes or surprises, without lots of pre-thought.

It's great to have had this time away from the novel, though I wish I had come away feeling happier about it all, but novel writing is all a process, and if it makes the book better at the end then it's a good thing. But it does remind me how novel writing is a process of continual disappointment - like a child that never quite lives upto the parent's expectations. High expectations are cruel to impose on children, but I think you need to have high expectations of art, because its the only way you produce your best by pushing yourself, forcing yourself to improve and make the writing better.

I'm writing all this, knowing that my writing time is going to be limited in the next few weeks as I have a few things that will keep me occupied. One is a book I need to read and review by Monday. And another is a short story competition I agreed to help judge way back in the spring, and suddenly find I have 30-odd short stories to read and judge. But it's important to go in with the right mind-set, and I like looking at other people's work:they're a nice break from my own writing.

EDIT: I was walking last night and was convinced I had to go back to the end of the first chapter and cut the other 43,000 words and start again: but I think the problem is the way the main character is introduced in the second chapter. He is found in quite a passive way, and him being passive as his first moment in the novel, gives the reader a lingering sense of passivity about him. So I think I'm going to go back and introduce him in a chapter of his own, with all the details about him that give the reader quite a different impression of him from the start. Then, I think, there is not so much I will need to edit, because there is very little internal thought, and much more character shown through action - which will still work, but the reader will interpret him slightly differently.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Ubud Literary Festival

The last few weeks have been a little crazy: in preparing to leave for Bali, being at the lit fest, and then coming home again and trying to tackle the snow drift of jobs that have been piling up - which is all a bit irrelevant, except for the fact it means a three week break from my novel.

I'm a little supersticious of taking any break from the writing, especially when the novel is flying along, but sometimes there's no choice. Shit happens. You are sick, your children are sick, the novel is stuck, you're out of enthusiasm for the novel, for writing in general.

So - I try and find ways to make this work for me. One nice aspect of a forced break is that it gives you a chance to put the book away for a while, and then come back to it a little fresher, a little more like a reader will come to the book. And that's a great thing to achieve, because you start to see the saggy bits or the bits that really shine.

Sometimes - and this is the same with many problems, not just writing - taking a break allows your subconcious to bubble away quietly, and then the solution or inspiration will suddenly spring upon you and surprise and delight!

I'm half way through the book. 50K in, and as this is a novel based on real events, the second half is vaguely set out for me. It's up to me to decide how to deal with these recorded events: maybe by following them like a dot to dot drawing, or filling in the gaps between.

I've almost finished digging through the snow-drift, but having waited this long I'm happy to wait a little longer. I hope to start reading next week, and deal with the results, and then pull the story along. Just add a thousand words or so.

Notes to self:
1. Make sure the 50k so far works
2. Make sure the characters are full and rounded and empathetic
3. Make sure I have enough characters to carry the story through the second half of the book. This is the most important one, I think.

This all brings me back to the reason I was away: the Ubud Lit Fest. I'm a fan of lit fests, mostly because I'm a writer who enjoys reading to an audience. Writing is such an isolated art form, my audience is usually a simgle person who picks up a book alone, in a room, maybe years after I have written the book, and opens the book to the first page, and starts to read. No other art form is the artist so divorced from the audience, so readings give me a chance to feel the audience reaction, like an actor or musician.

I used to feel somewhat schitzophrenic at lit fests, as you go from no one to speaker and then back to no one again. But I don't feel that any more: I like lit fests. They give me a chance to meet other writers, and to talk ideas, inspiration, techniques, experiences and problems with agents and publishers. They're the closest thing writers get to conferences, and the conferencing usually goes on with a bottle of wine. Because writers are solitary creatures, by necessity, which is not something that seems to hold true for artists, who seem to mingle much more easily.

Ubud is a beautiful place, and there was a great bunch of writers and artists and literary types around. Its a credit to Janet de Neefe, and all the other people involved, all the more remarkable that this festival is less than 5 years old.