Planning

Sunday 29th April 2018

Planning a novel

Writing novels takes time. A lot of time. It’s not something that can be rushed. Just writing the words, spoken by the characters, takes a good deal of patience and effort, to get right. A novel is a work of fiction. It is a creative endeavour that requires imagination. The writer is telling a story. That story has to be thought up. Thought out. Thought about. And then there is the research. My guess is that I spend about the same amount of time doing research as actually writing the text of the book. That is because I have to get the ethos and milieu of the period right. My novel is set in the years 1967 through to 1971. Even though I lived through those years, I cannot remember everything about them. What I have forgotten is how people talked. The vernacular of everyday life. The words and phrases that were used. That is not something that was written down at the time; not even by me. Little remains of the way I spoke; even though, a great deal remains of the way I wrote. The way we wrote differs from the way we spoke. Both then and now. It was during those years that my command of written English grew and developed.

Keeping track of everything

The art of writing involves sitting at a desk with a typewriter, or a word processor, and putting into words whatever comes into your head. That seems like extemporisation. Some authors might work like that; I have too, in the past. Today, writing is more likely to be planned in advance, than it was in the past. As I work through a novel, I have to record timelines and characters. The timelines ensure that sections appear in the right order, chronologically. Let me explain. I did not start writing at the beginning. Ideas came to me in somewhat of a random order. I then spent a lot of time trying to reorganise my sections and pieces so that they flowed from day one to the end. Day one happened to be 1st May 1967. That was the day when Adrian arrived in London. The story started from that point. Later, Adrian explains why he left home and moved to London. The other characters did the same; they explained why they were in London and what caused them to leave home.
Characters were thought up right at the start of the work. As I wrote, new characters had to be invented. I set up a page in which all the characters were listed by name, with a brief resume of their appearance, key facts about them, such as their age, and any notes that would help me to achieve continuity as I wrote about them. I decided that I did not want to have more than one character with the same name. My page of character profiles ensured that I did not use a name more than once.

Keeping to schedule

One thousand words a day was the target I set myself. I write daily. Including weekends. Having a target of writing at least one thousands words a day, was useful. To see how much I had written, I set up a separate document, at the top of which, was a field that displayed the number of words in the document. It’s a fairly standard feature of most word processing packages. Apart from writing new material – in this special document that I called a scratch-pad – I also went back through the manuscript and corrected it and proof read it, sometimes reworking whole sections. Nothing unusual about that. I started by having one document for the entire book. That proved unwieldy and stressed the resources of my computer. The book was divided into three parts (which I called Acts.) Each part covered a defined number of years. That made the management of the files a bit more easy. The drawback was that I had to know in which file a specific piece occurred. If I wanted to go back over a certain event, I had to know which of the files it was in. That meant I had to compile an index – a listing of sections. Each section was assigned a unique number. The index gave the number of the section. Using the ‘find’ button I would instantly get to the piece I wanted to see, providing I had a unique serial number for it.


In case this sounds rather complicated, let me explain that the way I wrote the novel was somewhat chaotic. For any particular year, I might compose a section using the scratch-pad document. That then had to be copied into the relevant file and put in the right position, chronologically. Other authors may, I am sure, find this a rather laborious way of doing things. For now I am stuck with it. But, it works for me.

It is all about method

I am a devotee of the method school of writing. This is how it works. I write a piece (also called a section.) When I have done as much on it as I can (no piece is always finished) I leave it. I go and do something else – the washing up, feed the cat, make a coffee, vacuum the carpet.) I go back to the piece and proof read it. When I am satisfied with it I read it aloud. I read as though I was an actor saying the lines on a stage or for a camera. If the piece flows as reading, then I am satisfied with it and I print it.

It is a peculiarity of this novel that it reads like a film script. That is the style I have adopted for this work. It has to work well as a script and it has to explain what is happening, where that is no obvious from the dialogue.

Some previous posts in my blog

22nd April – Should novels have plots?

25th March – Writing about characters

18th March – The swinging sixties

11th March – What is masculinity?

See the home page for my blog

D:\2018\1 Writings 2018\Writer Blog 2018\Sunday 29th April 2018.odt

Plots

Sunday 22nd April 2018

Should novels have plots?

All novels should have plots. So I have heard it said and seen it written. In case you are wondering what a plot is, here is a typical definition: ‘the main events of a play, novel, film, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.’ This is hardly different from the definition relied on, by most people, for the word ‘story.’ In a novel, a story ‘…is a causal sequence of events, the why for the things that happen in the story.’ Given that my style of writing (in this novel) is similar to that for a film script, a narrator cannot explain causes. It is up to the reader to assume what the causes are, for any event, except where the characters discuss causes amongst themselves. In a film, the reader should be able to follow the series of events, and understand how and why they happen, from the scenes, as they are presented.

Why no plot?

Early on, in planning and conceptualising my third novel, I decided that I did not want to use the conventional stylistic notion of a plot. I wanted the characters to portray their own stories according to their own visions of the world and their own ideas about people and events, as shown by what they say.

The story unfolds sequences of events. Some of these appear to be random. Life is often a random sequence of things that just happen. Often there is no reason why things happen – they just do. Life is serendipitous. It is the way a character reacts to random events that tells us about him or her and reveals his or her attitudes. This underscores the uneven roughness of life.

It could be argued that my novel does, in fact, have a plot. This depends on what one considers a plot to be. What I have avoided doing – in writing the novel – is to allow the plot to drive the story. What the novel does is to present three characters, a milieu (the swinging sixties) in a place (London.) The ethos of the time is revealed through what the characters say to each other. Mainly. The three central characters meet each other by chance. They then attend parties, pubs and cafes in which they happen to meet other characters. The sequences of events are not dictated by some causal set of reasons. Other than the nature of the world in which they live. Each of them has his own ambitions that propel him in a direction, as he pursues his chosen career path. Many of the important things that happen are the result of random encounters or unpredictable, fortuitous happenings.

For example, Tom happens to be at a party where he is introduced to a man who works for the BBC. Through making this contact, Tom ends up with a career in broadcasting. Before that, Tom had no specific inclination to get a job at the BBC. It was a matter of luck that Tom happened to meet someone who could further his career, however indistinct his ambitions were, up to that point.

If there is anything that drives the story it is the characters. The work is mainly about individuals and their interactions. A reader might try to foresee what they will do, to anticipate how they will react and what path they might follow. The thing that interests me about individuals is that they often fail to do what is expected. It is true that much of the story is a sequence of events. The story moves in particular directions. But, its substance is always about the people. It is not a history of events. In that respect, it is akin to a biography. Readers cannot always see what is coming – as they would if there was a plot which leads them in a particular direction.

Because the story is set in a particular period of English history, it unfolds the ethos of the time, through its characters. They witness events happening in the world (the riots in Grosvenor Square, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the first manned moon landing) and talk to each other about these events, as they see them unfold in the media. There are many scenes in which the characters are sitting in a pub or cafe talking about ideas. Ideas that portray the milieu in which they live. Ideas that were prevalent in the late sixties. The reader will either like or dislike any specific character. My only task, as the writer, is to make a character appear credible. Some characters are clearly intended to be likeable; others are the nasty ones – the bad guys – and the reader is free to either like or dislike them. Some characters are introduced simply to oil the workings of the story. They are subsidiary roles or diversions, placed there only to entertain.

Rejecting conventions

In this, my third novel, I have rejected the conventions that are currently being pedalled by those in the publishing industry. Does this mean that my book will fail to be accepted by established publishing houses? Yes. Very possibly. I am not writing the novel because I have been asked to write it. Its origins lie within me; not within some external influence. In writing this book I have done a considerable amount of planning. There is, however, no document called ‘the plot’ which sets out the story. There is a ‘timeline’, but its role is to ensure that the sequence of events is tenable and to avoid mistakes in narrating when things happen. It is only a planning tool. It is concerned with continuity and consistency. The principal characters each have a profile – a piece of writing that helps me to gather together key characteristics of each one. This does not form part of the book. I also have a catalogue of names which lists every name introduced into the story and sets out notes about each of them. This avoids using a name more than once, for different characters. It reminds me of things like age, appearance, relationships to other characters and so on.

Style, method and approach

The novel is set out like a film script. It is not narrated. Notes are added at the top of each section (or scene) to indicate the date, who is in the scene and where they are. These are like the subtitles that sometimes appear in films. Hence, most of the material is in the form of dialogue. This is an approach that makes the novel read like a film script. I realise that this is an unconventional approach to the novel. None of my other works takes such an approach. Writing a novel in this way imposes restrictions and challenges on the way the story unfolds. I can tell the story, only through what the characters say and do. It is a visual approach to the novel. In a traditional approach to story-telling, the narrator can explain things that are not part of the action or dialogue.

I have introduced into this book, some stylistic devices that I have not used in other works. For example, the dialogue is often written using short statements, punctuated by full stops. For example: ‘Adrian: “Yes. So. As you can see. We have just about everything in here. Proper cooker with an oven. Fridge. Washing machine.” ‘ The use of full stops indicates the way that a character speaks. Normal speech is broken into words and phrases that are punctuated with pauses. We do not speak in the way that we write. There are points where the dialogue ignores the rules of grammar and syntax in order to portray a naturalistic way of talking. The characters have to talk as young, working class men would have talked in the 1960s. They cannot use words or phrases that were not current at the time. There are also brief statements about what is happening. For example: ‘They go into the kitchen. Adrian fills the kettle with water and puts it on the cooker. He lights the gas.’ These are like stage directions. They are actions that characters would not say; they are always brief and used only where needed.

Characters

The story has three central characters: Adrian, Michael and Tom. The story revolves around what they do. Other characters crop up and play subsidiary roles. Adrian plays the key part in the group of boys. Tom is the cover boy. Michael is the thinker. They are the same age, though Tom is slightly younger. Each of them came from a small town background in various parts of England. They each had different reasons for moving to London. The common denominator was a desire to get a better job and become established in a career. At the end of the book, Adrian leaves London to start a new life in New York. Michael goes to university to get a degree. Tom is the only one who stays in London but that is because he has secured a job at the BBC. They discover that they have musical skills and interests and they form a jazz band, which becomes very successful; but, its success conflicts with their chosen career paths.
As a group of friends, they all get on with each other very well. The tone of the story is positive. Whilst they are similar, as individuals, they also have contrasting characteristics. Adrian tends to be the leader, the decision-maker, the mover. Michael is challenging at times. Tom also can ask difficult questions. There are parts to the story when the group comes into conflict; even so, they stay together throughout the book until – at the end – they each go their separate ways.

Previous posts on my blog

Monday 2nd April 2018 – London theatre in the 1960s

Sunday 25th March – Writing about characters

Sunday 18th March – The swinging sixties

Sunday 11th March – What is masculinity?

Sunday 4th March 2018 – London past and present

See the home page for my blog

Theatre in the 1960s

Monday 2nd April 2018

Theatre and the arts in the late 1960s

The period from 1965 to 1969 was a time when drama and the theatre flourished in London. Many notable dramatists were at work then. Just as I went to see many plays and shows, during those years, so too, my characters spend a lot of time in the theatres of London.

Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton, Athol Fugard, Simon Gray, Alan Ayckbourn, John Osborne, Harold Pinter, John Antrobus, Peter Shaffer, Kingsley Amis and Edward Bond represent a selection of writers whose new works were staged in the London theatres of that time.

Drama in the 1960s was a great period for innovation, rebellion and nonconformity¹ but that ran alongside the traditional productions in the West End theatres and the burgeoning offerings of the television companies. There always has been Shakespeare – from from the time when he himself directed the first nights of his own plays.

Last month, I finished reading The Orton Diaries.³ I enjoyed this book for many reasons; not least that it brought back to me much of the feel and colour of the period that lead up to Orton’s death in 1967. As I read the final entries in his diary, I wondered if our paths might have crossed; given that I was also living in London at the time. I very much doubt that ever happened; there is certainly no evidence in my own diaries that it could have done. Unless I unknowingly passed him in the street one day. I noted what I did on August 9th 1967 but there was no mention of reading the newspapers or watching the television. So, I must have been unaware that he had been murdered. Orton’s diary does however mentioned several visits to the Royal Court; it is possibly, I think, to write a scene in which one of my characters – Adrian would be the best one – is that the theatre and sees Orton there. If I add the date of this into the manuscript, then at least I can anchor it to what he wrote in his diary entry for that date. I have already written a scene in which Adrian is present at a party also attended by the singer David Bowie. There is no evidence that Bowie ever went to such a party but he was in London at the time – so could have done. What I would not do is to write in an event that could not have taken place. I do not invent fiction – in that way. My fiction must be credible and if I mention an event or person that was real – then it is something that must be verifiable.

Joe Orton

The theatres also provided a varied diet of established productions by playwrights such as Noel Coward, Oscar Wild, William Golding, Jacob Lenz, T. S. Eliot, Eugène Ionesco, Harold Wesker, David Mercer and G. B. Shaw.

Many London theatres

There were many theatres in London; but one is bound to mention The Old Vic. Like the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, it is the one venue to which anyone present in London must go. It is my perpetual gratification, that I attended both of them, during my teenage years. My characters will also be seen in them. After these two, the one venue that stands out for me is the Royal Court theatre in Sloane Square. I was a frequent visitor there during the first year that I lived in London, having an address only a few minutes walk away from it.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The world of drama was varied; not just the mainstream theatres but also the theatre clubs that put on experimental works by up and coming playwrights. In 1968 I attended several productions presented at The Ambiance, a theatre club held in the basement of a restaurant in Queensway.

Several memories stand out for me. I went to see The Boys in the Band at Wyndham Theatre, on 23rd May 1969. A couple of days prior to that I had been at The Royal Court to see The Enoch Show, an agitprop production by Edward Bond, in reaction to Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech.² I went to the Royal Court to see John Antrobus’s Captain Oats Left Sock on 6th July 1969. Later in July I went to the Old Vic to see Shaw’s Back to Methuselah Part 2. On 3rd October, 1969, I saw Troilus & Cressida, by Shakespeare, at the Aldwych theatre, the cast including Ben Kingsley as Aeneas, Patrick Stewart as Hector and Helen Mirren as Cressida.

Wyndham’s Theatre, London

I used my own experiences as the basis for my story, that part of it that saw the characters going to the theatre, but added in several shows and productions that I did not see myself, but which I thought would provide a fuller picture of London’s dramatic offerings during that period.

Royal Court Theatre, London

Music

More than just plays; musicals also contributed to the rich cultural life of sixties London. The capital city also provided a rich wealth of musical experiences. I remember going to see Jimmi Hendrix play live at the Royal Festival Hall. I was also a frequent visitor to the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. The Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House, The English National Opera; there was no shortage of great art and excellent entertainment.

Poetry

Other writers were active at this time: novelists, poets, including B. S. Johnson, Alan Burns, Bob Cobbing, Brigid Brophy, John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Ted Hughes.

Cinema and Television

The cinema and television also provided me with a rich diet of art and entertainment. I plan to write more on this subject, at a later date.

It is against this backdrop that my characters find their way into the theatres and auditoriums of London. My challenge is to the see the late sixties through their eyes. It is what the three main characters, in the novel, do that brings alive the London they lived in from 1967 to 1971.

Let me remind you of my approach to fiction. When I set a story in a particular period of time, I decorate the plot with references to contemporary events. I use historical facts as props; I use a backdrop of the events and features of the period to colour the background to the stage literary stage on which the characters play out their parts. This article acts as a map on which to locate the theatrical contours and landmarks of the 1960s. Before I commit anything to my manuscript I will check that I have got my facts right. I would not wish to send my characters to see a play that never took place or to a concert for which there is no historical verification.

George Bernard Shaw

This article forms part of my series about writing my third novel: The Streets of London.

Notes

¹ Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat, 2006.

² Peter Billingham, Edward Bond: A Critical Study, 2014.

³ John Lahr, The Orton Diaries, 1986.

Previous posts in my blog

Being an individual

London – past and present

The Swinging Sixties

See the home page for my blog