Sunday 29th July 2018
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.
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 timeline. 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 newsreel approach. Brief scenes where the 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 storytelling 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.