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.
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.