Turning Point

Sunday 29th July 2018

Turning Point

No one ever said that writing is easy; least of all, me. After more than six months of working intensively on The Streets Of London, I have come to the point where I think I have been doing it all wrong. Novelists will, I am sure, recognise that – as something that happens. As I have explained elsewhere, I decided to use a totally different style for the book. Most novels are written as narratives; often in the past tense and where the story is told by a third person. I wanted to do something different.

See my article about writing style

I used that style in my first two novels. In them. It worked. But I felt that the time had come to try something different. To experiment with a fresh approach to the novel. That is why I used a style based on the film script. Not the accepted standard way of writing a film script. A modified version of it that read like the text for a film. In some ways I think it worked.

Now I am not so sure. Yesterday, I spent several hours looking at the whole issue of whether it is possible to write a novel using a film script style. At the end of that time, I felt less confident that it could be made to work. I reached a crossroads. A turning point in my journey as a novelist where I had to make a decision about which way to go. I decided to rework the whole of Act One. Abandon the film script style and turn it into the more conventional way of writing. Narrative. Told by a third person. Possibly even an omniscient narrator.

Having done that, I will look at the two versions and weigh up where I have got to. That was my decision. I said ‘Act One.’ There were no chapters in the first draft of the book. Just three Acts. Each had a series of scenes. Each scene had a precise date. This is a history. It uses a chronological approach to the story. It does not have flashbacks. Those devices have not attracted me. Occasionally a character would talk about their lives – in the past. But they do that in the present. There is a sense in which the whole book is a story told by someone. But we are never told who. Or. It could be a diary. In that sense it is an epistolary work. It is, quintessentially, a story that runs along a time line. It begins at an exact time and ends at an exact time. Its division into three acts is, somewhat, a matter of convenience. Act One introduces the characters and sets out the background. Act Three leads to the denouement. The second act is the main course. Dividing the material up into chapters would be completely arbitrary.

Towards the end of last month, I realised there was one big weakness with the approach I had been taking to writing the book. It was almost totally talking. It could have been like a play for radio where all you hear is the voices of a group of actors saying the words. Apart from a few short opening sentences, each scene is limited entirely to people talking. All dialogue. It occurred to me that there could be some scenes that were almost all visual. Or largely visual. I have not yet tried that. So. I am not sure how to do it. In narrative. It’s straightforward. You tell the reader what happened. Job done.

Today – in the year 2018 – most people know the sixties from old film clips. Lots of documentaries on the television show news footage. Scenes shot at the time. They last for a few seconds. They illustrate the narrative. Someone talks about the riots in Grosvenor Square and you see brief clips of people fighting with the police; or being dragged away by them. That sort of thing.

Ah ha! You say. But this is a work of fiction. So you are not limited to brief news clips. You can make a scene as long as you like. As long as it needs to be. Yes. That’s true. But I could also use that news reel approach. Brief scenes where action takes place and a narrator describes what happens. New reels for radio. So to speak. That is a trope that might evoke a way of knowing what happened in the sixties. If you were not there. At the time. For some scenes that might work. Like Michael being at the Grosvenor Square demonstration. Or the boys attending the free concert in Hyde Park where the Rolling Stones were the main attraction. An approach such as this will not work for everything. It would not be possible to use it for the assassination of Martin Luther King. For example. That did not happen in London. The boys read about it in the newspapers, the day after. They talked about the news in the pub. There was nothing to visualise. Other than three boys sitting at a table with their newspapers and pints of beer. Talking.

Successful story telling involves keeping the reader engaged. Happy with how things are moving along. Being satisfied with the pace. Offering enough variation to keep them fully engaged with the story. Not getting bogged down in writing in a certain way. Just because you – the writer – feel comfortable with it.

Finding a voice

Lastly. One final problem. The story revolves around the lives of three people. All of them men (or at least boys – that is what they call each other.) Each of them has a distinctly different voice. In Act One. When they arrive in London. As their friendship develops, they become more and more like each other. By the final stages of the last act, they all speak with one voice. So it seems. By that time the reader has got to know them. As individuals. So, differentiating them through their voices is less important.

That is what I think. But I am not completely sure it works. Like that. Understanding the role of a voice in the novel is something I need to think through. But that will have to wait for next time.

Imagination

Sunday 15th July 2018

Use your imagination

To write a novel you have to use your imagination. At least. That is what I found working on The Streets of London. As the novel has developed it has taken on a life of its own. It began in January and is now over half way to its planned end date.

As I work on the sections, the world of London in the nineteen-sixties emerges, in my imagination. The characters become people that I can relate to. They can go on living their lives even after I have closed the document and walked away from the keyboard.

The scenes flow from my imagination. Like much imaginary life and like many imaginary worlds, the London they inhabit is partly imaginary. And partly real. The novel is sprinkled with real events. The central characters go to see a play. They go to the Royal Court theatre. They see a play by Joe Orton. The date on which they attend the show is a date when Orton’s Ruffian on the stair actually happened. The group of young men, around whom the story revolves, talk about the Grosvenor Square demonstration. They later talk about the assassination of Martin Luther King. Not long after that they discuss another assassination – that of Bobby Kennedy. They share their views on the musical Hair, recently opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre. They gather together to watch the first man landing on the moon.

The story is also sprinkled with real people. Various people make appearances in the book. To mention a few, Steven Sondheim, Leontyne Price, John Braine, David Bowie, Allan Sillitoe… people whose names might be found in any historical account of life and culture of the late sixties and early seventies. Their words were imagined. They were not people I actually met; well not most of them. One or two perhaps. I wrote them into the story because they were relevant to it.

Imagination or reality?

For me writing a novel is not q question of trying to decide between reality or imagination. It is about finding a way of weaving them both into the fabric of a story. My novel is based upon London during a period of five years. London is not a figment of my imagination. It is not a city in Middle Earth. It was a London that actually existed. It is, however, a London that no longer exists. It has passed into the shadows. Like the London of the Elizabethans. Or Victorian London. Many of the real people who appear in the story are no longer alive. They made their mark. They left behind the remains of their existence. Their books. Their recordings. Their lyrics. Their music. Just as Shakespeare did. Just as Karl Marx did. Some writers have created worlds and people who are only imaginary. That trope never appealed to me. My London grew out of my own experiences of living there. From the records I made, some fifty or so years ago, I have a woven a literary fabric which has the warp of reality and the weft of imagination.

Previous posts in my blog

Sunday 8th July 2018 – Ways of writing a novel.

See the home page for my blog

Ways

Sunday 8th July 2018

Ways of writing a novel

Someone asked me recently, how I wrote and was I either a planner or an inspirationist? In other words, did I plan everything in detail before I wrote the first word or did I just sit down at the keyboard and start writing, fuelled only by inspiration and the ideas floating around in my head.
My answer was that, where my current work is concerned, I started as an inspirationist and then became a planner. When I started writing, back in January, the idea for the book was in my head. I felt inspired to get on with it. By the time I had written several thousand words, I realised that I would soon be in trouble. I could not hold all the information in my head; I had to get it down on paper. Otherwise, I would start making serious mistakes. So. What needed to be planned?

Two things stood out:

Characters. Their names and profiles.
Timescales. When things happened and the order in which they happened.

What worried me the most, was continuity. In movie-making, continuity is making sure that details remain the same from one scene to another. If someone has red hair in one scene, he cannot have black hair in a later scene (unless of course, he dyed it but that is something you have to explain.) Or, to take a more obvious example, if a character is 19 in Act One, they cannot be 18 in Act Two. Timelines are records of dates that ensure that each scene happens in the right order. My timeline planning document runs to seven pages of A4. Its purpose is to ensure that there is chronological continuity across the five years of the story.

My novel is split into three acts (not chapters.) Each act is a separate document file. If I want to look at or work on, a specific scene, I use the timeline sheets to find it. Each scene is marked with a unique number. It has to be that way, if I am to find any specific point in the whole manuscript.

The Streets of London is not a simple work. For a start, it now well over 150,000 words long. And growing. There are already forty-six characters in it. Each character has to have a profile specifying their age, appearance and other key details that appear in the book.

Other things have been going on, in the background. A synopsis of the book has been written. This helped me to visualise the work as a whole. A resume of each of the three acts was written. Each of the five years, over which the story takes place, was researched. Facts had to be checked. The story is told in chronological order, from day one to the final day. It certainly was not written in order of the days. It was written in sessions – that was the inspirational bit. Now that nearly all the days have been drafted, I go back to scenes, add to them, amend them or even delete them. And that is just the work on the first draft. Throughout the book, there are some key moments – milestone events that are crucial to the story. These have to be right; they have to be in the correct position to make sense in the flow of the story and they have to be worked out. Once they have taken place, their consequences need to be seen. Explained and shown.

When can we read it?

So, when will the book be finished? I plan to have completed the first draft by the end of this year (2018.) The first couple of months of next year will be concerned only with editing – things like checking the spelling and grammar. I also have to ask myself how it reads – as a novel. Or, more importantly, I have to ask my friends to read it. And to tell me whether they enjoyed it. Sending it out to readers is done to find out if people enjoyed reading it. Some will; others will not. But it’s why they reacted to it in the way that they did, that is important. Not just friends (who are likely to be kind to me) but other writers (who are not likely to be kind to me.)

Finding the tropes

Then there are not inconsiderable issues of style. Trope. A trope is a literary device. A metaphor that portrays an idea; a motif that recurs in the writing, that embodies something. What it should not be is a cliché (unless of course, it is a cliché that was common to a year or period that would warrant its use.) A trope is a figurative device. The story contains motifs – symbols that represent something that underlines a character or event or an idea. The story, as I have written it, contains a great deal of imagery (often of a visual nature.) Motifs feed the reader with clues about what is happening, the significance of events or spoken words. For example, there is a scene in which Adrian (one of the central characters) is walking along a road that glitters with stars. Glittering streets is one of many motifs that are used to signify an aspect of life, an attitude to circumstances. There are many images or figures that signify something and these have to built up as the story unfolds. In this respect, a novel shares elements in common with poetry.

How did we speak?

There are several figures of speech. One of the big challenges I faced, in writing about the sixties, was trying to figure out how people spoke. Despite the fact that I was alive in that period, I cannot remember how people spoke. Not with any degree of detail or accuracy. But to bring the sixties to life, I had to guess how people spoke. There were a lot of slang words in the 1960s. Some of them I remember. Others had to be researched because I had forgotten them. Some of those sixties words and phrases are still in use; others have fallen into obscurity. Part of the trope (of writing about the sixties) was trying to capture how that period sounded, in the way that people spoke, back then. Not just speaking either. I had to describe how they looked. Fashion. Hairstyles. The way that what you wore said something about who you were.

There is one advantageous source, about setting a novel in modern times – film. Writing novels about Tudor times does not have that advantage. The camera was invented long, long after the death of Shakespeare. A lot of films of people talking and doing things in the 1960s has survived. Some of it has been very valuable to me in getting to grips with the period. It does have to be authentic. It’s no use thinking that movies, in which actors speak from scripts, is social realism. What I relied on were newsreels in which people spoke their own words.

Why?

In my travels around the Internet, I came across one question which I tried to dismiss when I read it. The question asked ‘Why are you writing this novel?’ So. Why am I writing a novel called The Streets of London? If I wanted to be flippant I could simply answer ‘Because I wanted to.’ Flippancy is not ways widely appreciated. In all seriousness, there are reasons and these include:

(a) Because I think it will make an entertaining read. Some people will want to read a book about the ‘swinging sixties.’
(b) A lot of books have been written about this period of English history. Few of them portray it realistically and accurately. Many of them stereotype it and simply trot out all the well-worn cliches that have become stock-in-trade for people who were either not alive at the time or failed to really understand what it was like, back then.
(c). I love using my own past – in my creative writings. Beware. My novel is not an autobiography. It is not about me. It is based on my experiences, that I recorded at the time, as they happened. The word ‘based’ is a trope. A device that is waived around in films and books more in glee than in seriousness.

Why did Jane Austen write Pride and Prejudice? Why did Charles Dickens write Oliver Twist? Why did George Orwell write Nineteen Eighty-four?

Intriguing questions but will we ever really know the answer? Might it not be better to say why I wrote the book after it is finished?

Some previous posts in my blog

Sunday 17th June, Finishing a novel

Sunday 10th June, Changing course.

See the home page for my blog, for a full list of blog articles