Writing a novel

Sunday 20th May 2018

How I am writing my third novel

I began to write my third novel early in January, this year. The way I have written my book differs from conventional approaches. To begin with, it is written more like a film script than a narrative work of fiction. In my previous novels, I followed a more traditional style. In my first novel – Holiday – I wrote in the third person using past tense. The usual form of narrative storytelling. In my second novel – The Trench – I used the same approach: the narrative is told by a third person in the past tense. In both of these works, the order in which the story was told was not chronological. Neither of them began at the beginning. They started with a chapter that introduced the main characters and then, later on, told how they had arrived at the point at which the story began. I took advice that a novel should begin with a strong opening chapter that introduced the main character and set the scene. I could not do that in my current novel. It would not have been possible. There are three main characters and they all arrive in London at different times.

In the novel I am working on now – The Streets of London – the whole story is in precise chronological order. The book starts on day one and it finishes on the last day, covering a period of five years in the lives of its central characters. When it is completed, each section will have a precise date. The whole book is divided into three acts. There no chapters. Each act is written in sections, beginning with the date and then saying where the scene takes place and who is in it. In that respect, it is similar to a journal. The approach I have taken to the chronology of the story is intentional; it is essential to the way the story is told and presented.

The only points at which flashbacks are used (references back to events in the past) are when the leading character, Adrian, writes in his journal. His journal entries appear in the story and often these concern things that have happened in the past. The only other way of referencing the past is for the characters to talk about it. If I want to present the future (which is rarely) I put that into the dialogue. I show characters talking about the future – as they see it. The whole storyline is the dialogue between the characters. It is a novel about people, what they say to each other and what they do and the latter is explained via dialogue. In fact, what the characters do is what they say. There is no narrator describing their actions. Reading the book would be like seeing a film.

It strikes me that my approach and style might not be to the liking of today’s commercial publishers. Abandoning the conventional style of writing fiction – most often past tense narrative – is undertaken with caution, by authors whose aim is to have their work published. I realise that. But I chose this style of writing because I think it works in the context of this novel. I want to write a book that does justice to its content – not the whims and fashions of the publishing industry.

I decided that I wanted to do something different. That is what I am doing. Only when the first draft is finished will I be able to tell if my decision was a good one.

A selection of previous posts in my blog

Sunday 13th May 2018. Drawing as an aid to writing.

6th May. Masks and characters.

29th April. Planning a novel.

22nd April. Should novels have plots?

See the home page for my blog

Drawing

Sunday 13th May 2018

Can drawing make me a better writer?

A few weeks ago, I started a course in drawing. Every Monday morning I go the Adult Education Centre to do a course in drawing and sketching. If I learn to draw, will it make me a better writer? Will I become a more able novelist?

Much of my fiction writing uses images and pictures. Writing a story is, for me, like making a film. Instead of calling sections of my book chapters, I call them scenes. My hope is that learning to draw will help me to see the world around me, to visualise it and above all to observe it. In sketching we need to employ high levels of observation – there is one way of seeing which we do with our eyes partly closed – squinting – seeing only rough shapes, proportions and relationships. Then we open our eyes and look at the details. We also have to observe colour, shades, tones, shadows and textures. Drawing helps me to do this. It helps me to observe what I see. If I can see the world – or people – as an artist would see it, I might be more able to describe it through words.

Drawing of the head of a young man by Jean Baptiste Greuze.

Being able to draw is not the only thing that might make my writing more descriptive and more visual. I must be able to decide which words are the most evocative when it comes to describing a scene. Sometimes, the story requires only a rough sketch of a room, a landscape or a vista. At other times, it is useful to add details – as long as they are pertinent. Adding in details simply for effect (and not because they are required by the story) is padding. True as much for a novel as for a drawing.

Attending the course on drawing was not something I needed to do. I thought it would be interesting; it has also proved to be a rewarding social experience. I have no ambition to become a visual artist or to exhibit my drawings in a gallery. Studying sketching is, for me, a way of training my eyes to observe and my mind to interpret what I see. As I walk along the street, I see the world – just as any other pedestrian would – but my mind interprets it differently. I see the shapes of buildings and the colours of the trees, but I see the relationships between objects, their proportions, their textures, the moods they evoke and I analyse my surroundings as though they are a picture.

As a writer, I want to take my reader to the place I am telling them about. I want them to see it as I see it. After all, none of my books will have actual pictures in them. It is very easy, these days, to insert a picture into a text document. If you happen to have the right picture. If I was to become an expert painter or sketcher, I suppose I could draw any scene or face for my book. This has been done by a few authors who have illustrated their books. I am not sure that is likely to happen in my case. Of course, I need to leave something up to the reader’s imagination. I can show them something – a person, a scene – but I should not want to spoon feed the reader. I give them an outline and leave the rest up to their imagination.

Photographs are things I take regularly. When I take a picture, I have to position the shot at the right angle relative to the camera screen. That is the same as deciding how to layout a sketch on a sheet of paper. We have to decide where the focus of the shot or drawing should go. That requires observation and the skill of composition. Each of the drawing classes that I attend trains me to observe and to position objects in a layout. That skill comes in handy when I am writing – describing a scene or a person. So. Yes. I do think that my drawing classes will help to improve my writing skills as a creative writer.

A selection of previous posts to my blog

Sunday 6th May 2018 – Masks and characters

Sunday 18th February 2018 – The swinging sixties

Sunday 4th March 2018 – London: past and present

See the home page for my blog for a complete list of posts

Masks

Sunday 6th May 2018

Masks and characters

In my novel, the lead character is called Adrian. He is a young writer, intent on a literary career. In my novel, Adrian begins write a book – a work of fiction describing the people and events of the period (1967 to 1971). I have reflected my own work – as a novelist – in my story, showing Adrian writing his novel. In writing about the people he meets in London, Adrian is concerned with how to portray characters. Adrian reveals his characters, sometimes, through their faces and what their faces suggest about them as people. He unravels the idea of the mask – a device used to display emotions and personality through visual symbolism.

Masks of the ancient Greek theatre

In September 1971, I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, in South Kensington. Before my visit I had been reading a book by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst. Jung developed the idea of the persona, which, he argued, was a mask for the ‘collective psyche.’ At the museum, I spent several hours looking at exhibits – masks collected from many continents, some of them very ancient, other more modern. I then wrote an article on the subject.

Mask as used in ancient Greek drama

In ancient Greek theatre, masks were worn by actors to portray an emotional type or to conceal the true identity of a character. Adrian is aware that the mask of the face expresses emotions inside the bearer, but can be used, in the drama of life, either to communicate feelings or to conceal them. As he studies those around him, Adrian begins to analyse the way that people either use masks to portray who they are or to conceal their inner realities. This then becomes one of the themes in his book. In a work of fiction, some characters can hide behind masks and others can be seen trying to probe behind such masks to discover the reality of the individual. Adrian comes to realise that fiction writers can sometimes simplify complex characters in order to make them easier to understand for the reader – whilst, at the same time – exploring and uncovering some of those complexities. Novelists can, sometimes, use literary masks to enable recognition of certain kinds of characters. The danger is that such a device results in a stereotype, if not handled sensitively.

Noh theatre mask from Japan 1650 to 1700

Adrian reads widely. He often visits libraries in West London to pursue his studies and interests. During one of these sessions he delves deeply into the topic individuality. He considers that the individual comprises a unique identity but also a persona derived from the collective unconscious of the community he was born into or has become a part of. In his writings, Adrian explores the meaning of individuality and how identity is formed both personally and collectively. This might make Adrian sounds like an academic – in fact, he never went to college and rejects the idea of going to university. At one point, he describes himself as being like the ‘autodidact’ – a character in Sartre’s novel Nausea. Adrian prefers to build up his own knowledge and intellect rather than being defined and moulded by the English educational system, which he distrusts.

Medieval mummers wearing masks

In my novel, Adrian is criticised for being too intellectual in his approach to fiction writing. He refutes this criticism by arguing that it is necessary to explore and portray contemporary London as it is seen and witnesses by audiences. Themes, subjects, plots and dramas are complex and sophisticated. That is what makes London such a vibrant and entertaining city, he argues. As part of his background research for his novel, Adrian visits many places where the varieties and shades of masculinity are seen. He writes about the subject of twentieth century masculinity and tries to define and portray types of men that he observes. This becomes part of his other theme – the way that boys become men as they mature into adulthood. Again, his friends criticise him for being too ‘theoretical’ in his narratives. He retorts that he is not an academic and insists that many playwrights and film-makers of the time have dealt with such subjects but not in an academic way.
In writing novels set in a specific milieu or period we must be able to convey what it was like to be there. If we were to write a novel about our own time – 2018 – we would be foolish to ignore its main currents of thinking, politics, philosophy and beliefs when presenting our picture of its arts, drama and literature. How would readers in the distant future get the feel of our age if we neglected to present its depths by concentrating solely on its trivialities?
Adrian faces a similar set of issues as he writes his novel.

Nick Bottom as a Donkey in Midsummer Night’s Dream

Previous posts in my blog

Sunday 18th February 2018

Sunday 25th March 2018

Sunday 29th April – Planning a novel

See the home page for my blog