Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Writing your lockdown novel

I am one of thousands of people who are writing a novel draft during lockdown. (Let’s hope it’s not millions, but who knows?) The peace and quiet, the sense of a global pause, the endless home-based hours – for those without onerous family responsibilities, this seemed like a golden opportunity. Still seems like it, as ‘lockdown’ segues into ‘period of confusion’.  With a partner better at cooking than I am, a furloughed adult son and a newly part-time job, it certainly seemed like a good time to me. And still does, even though I have no idea how far to stand away from other humans outside my current bubble, or whether I should mask-up to go to Waitrose.

So what is the story now? I teach creative writing, this is my fifth novel, I am half-way through the first draft. I hesitate to call myself an expert, because writing is so peculiar, and each book so different from the last. By the end of any novel, you are generally an expert on that novel, but not necessarily on any other novels you might write. And I’m also the kind of writer who – foolishly, perhaps – writes novels that are dissimilar. I don’t even stay in the same historical period. (That is definitely not a smart move, so my future books may well be set in the Victorian age, like my current Work In Progress.) But I am past the ingenue stage. I know what doesn’t work, for me, at least.

Writing blind

This is the approach in which you just slam the words down, in the spirit of Jack Kerouac. You don’t look back, you don’t read your draft before starting work each day, you just get the darn words down. The file on your computer grows, there are lots of words there. Therefore, you are a writer. There is something to be said for this, because all writing has its use, and this may help you establish a writing habit.

But the reason I know it doesn’t work for me is that I end up with a lot of pages and no story. And the germ of the idea – what the tarot calls ‘the scent of the undertaking’ seems to have been drowned in the wrong words, it’s in there somewhere, but I don’t know how to find it. Both D.H. Lawrence and H.G.Wells used to write a new draft from scratch, rather than editing the existing one, and I wonder if this is because they had that feeling, that they had to have a blank sheet to imagine the story freshly.

Working to a plot outline

I’ve tried this too, bruised from the experience of churning out words. But the problem with this, for me, is that I don’t want to know too much more than my characters do. I have to experience their problems and issues from their point of view, and see how they resolve things. If I already know, and have just put the problem there so I can fill some pages, then the energy goes out of it. The well-balanced approach is to have a rough plot outline, or plot ideas that you think will work, provisionally, but which are subject to adjustment.

Being a perfectionist

People sometimes think that perfectionism is a desirable quality, because it means that someone has high standards. But there are no standards which can deliver perfection – there is no such thing as perfection in human life. No perfect novel has ever been written, not even The Great Gatsby, which sometimes attracts that kind of praise. And even if your finished novel is going to be a work of genius, it has to be allowed to be rubbish at first go. (As Ernest Hemingway famously put it: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’) So your novel-in-progress will often feel as if it is no good. That is its prerogative.

Talking too much

I once heard Edna O’Brien describing the way young Irish writers sometimes go to the pub and talk their books into oblivion, carried away by the Guinness and the craic. I am a talker myself, if I get excited I want to share what I am working on. Currently, I am keen to bore the partner and adult son with highlights from the life and times of H.G Wells, and they are quite keen not to listen. That kind of stuff is fine, as is sharing drafts with other writers if that works for you – the quid pro quo element helps, you feed back on their work and they feed back on yours and it all feels like part of a process. But talking endlessly about your characters and plot can kill an idea, make it seem almost not worth writing. I try and keep quiet if I can, and jot notes down rather than talking.


This relates to the over-talking issue, because sometimes I want to talk because I want the story to be out there, and I know it will be months, if not years, before that happens. Novels are like lives or relationships, they have phases, seasons, moods, good and bad days, periods when they seem to be spinning down the vortex of your self-destruction (or maybe that is just me), periods of euphoria and hope. What I try to do, at the point I am at now, with 40,000 words down and 40,000 very much to go, is focus on the provisional nature of the writing. I try and keep a balance between clarity and wild imagination, focusing on that first glimmer that made me want to write it in the first place, but also thinking clearly about how that can best be dramatized and live.

I’ve just had the first half printed out (at our local, newly reopened print shop), read it through in hard copy, covered it in notes and corrections, and am ready to move on to the second half. I find that doing it this way stops me from becoming anally obsessed with editing paragraphs and polishing sentences. The editing that happens at that point is about story, more than style.

Does it work? Is this how you write a novel? I’ll let you know. I think it’s probably how I will write this one. For now, it’s onwards and sideways, following this weird thing where it needs to go.

Monday, 15 June 2020

My top five writing guides

It’s week 13 of lockdown in the UK and my energy levels are definitely beginning to flag. What seemed like a welcome pause in frenetic 21st century living - for those of us lucky enough to be in work and in reasonable accommodation - now feels like a prolonged period of uncertainty tinged with paranoia. Not the best situation for writing, perhaps, and I know many people are struggling to get words on the screen or page.

But it’s also true that writers have been producing work in adverse circumstances since whenever, whether personal or political or a mixture of the two. Virginia Woolf struggled with her mental health, George Orwell with TB, Chester Himes (author of A Rage in Harlem) started writing and publishing fiction while serving eight years in prison for armed robbery.

So, it’s time to reboot, recharge the batteries and return to the Work in Progress. These are five books that have helped cheer me on, over the years, and I’d recommend them to anyone, at any stage of the writing process. 

Geneva Dawn by Nouhailler is licensed under  CC BY-SA 2.0

1. On Writing; A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

Wonderfully down to earth, filled with King’s own experiences of the highs and lows of writing, and pithy advice about getting started and keeping going. Busts the myth about alcohol fuelling great writing, too. The account of his near-fatal accident is as vivid and shocking as you would expect from this master story teller. A favourite with experienced writers as well as newcomers.

2. The Art of Fiction, David Lodge

Lodge gives a clear overview of the elements of writing, from Beginning to Ending, and taking in Suspense, Interior Monologue, Defamiliarization, Weather, Fancy Prose and Magic Realism along the way. Elegantly written, and with a short extract at the start of each section which illustrates the point being made. A book to dip into again and again – my copy is bulging with Post-It notes.

3. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, Ursula le Guin

Le Guin is best known as a science fiction writer, but this book is invaluable to writers in any genre. It’s just as useful to writers working alone as those in a creative writing class, and the playful tone makes it accessible and easy to refer to. I love the passion and commitment that informs this book. As Le Guin says: ‘To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit.’

4. Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, John Yorke

Yorke is a screenwriter and drama producer, and this book is filled with references to story and narrative on the screen. But his insights are extremely useful to fiction writers too. Here he looks at the fundamentals of storytelling and the reasons that there are so many common elements to a compelling story. Here is an example of York at work, speaking to employees at Google 

5. The Right to Write, Julia Cameron

Cameron is a passionate advocate of the writing process as a form of self-discovery. I find her approach borderline hippie at times, but it works. One of the approaches she advocates is writing morning pages when you wake up – this is not easy, particularly if like me you aren’t much of an early bird. (I am borderline dynamic after 8.30 am, pretty much slug-like any earlier than this. I can just about manage a masochistic bout of yoga, but thinking is out).

Reading any of these books is a reminder that writing, while not necessarily fun, is a sustaining, grounding process if you approach it with patience and commitment. Top tip: try to avoid thinking about agents, publishers, Twitter storms and The Voices while you are engaged in writing. See you writing space as a place apart, where you can think and write what you like. That works for me, and it may well work for you.