October 5th, 2015
It’s some time now since the great brouhaha – much encouraged if not engendered by the publisher – about Harper Lee’s ‘rediscovered’ novel, Go Set A Watchman. Leaving aside some of the wilder accusations (that she didn’t write it, that she was taken advantage of, that publishing it at all was just a moneymaking exercise) that question that clicks with many writers (certainly with me) is: why would one ever want to expose one’s early drafts to the world?
Watchman is more than a first draft; we can be reasonably sure that it’s her first attempt at the story, the first she submitted for publication, the one rejected by the publisher who may or may not have told her how to reshape and improve it so it could be published and, to everyone’s surprise, become one of the best-loved books of the 20th century. The ‘new’ book, written before To Kill A Mockingbird, has horrified some readers because it recasts the story and Atticus Finch in a different way. It is not the story we know and Finch is not the character we loved. Watchman is a prototype and an abandoned one at that.
Should such a thing be shared? Writers know that some of their prototypes should not be shared. When a writer tells you, as some do, that the story gestated over several years – even in some cases over decades – it is because the writer never quite got hold of it. Stories can be evasive; some are reluctant to emerge. It can be form: from whose point of view should this story be told? What should be included and what left out? In what sequence?
While the story is at this unformed stage the writer may have tried out more than one approach but they didn’t work and must be discarded. They should not be shown. I know that a number of universities and the like have bought scratched-over draft manuscripts (sometimes from quite mid-range authors) but who gains, I mean who really gains from perusing these sad working documents? Certainly not the author. Does a conjuror show how the trick works? Once you have seen the workings do you feel more respect for what originally surprised you? I think less.
I shall not show my workings. The story I was writing a few weeks ago will not be the finished novel. Ditto for the characters. Ditto for some scenes. That’s why I won’t let anyone see my work till I am happy with it. My early scribblings go on the fire.
October 12th, 2015
A bad week. It’s taken till today for me to get back to any meaningful work on the (still untitled) novel. Why? A conjunction of family events which have – though they shouldn’t have – kept me from my desk. Early October is always a tricky period here (hopefully a good period) as within a single week we have my birthday, my wife’s birthday, and our wedding anniversary. (Oh, and the Cheltenham Literary Festival as well.) Each are enjoyable distractions on their own and not ones that should block me from my work. But this year the busy week was aggravated by entirely separate family matters, of the kind that start by nagging at you and end up dominating your thoughts. For me, this week has been almost entirely lost.
Every writer has to accept that from time to time real life intrudes. For those in other professions (those who go out to work) the problem is solvable. They have merely to transport themselves to the workplace, to a different world where routine takes over and they have different things to think about. Non-writers like to think that we writers can transport ourselves likewise – to an imaginary world – but it’s not that easy. We’re on our own. There are no distractions. If, for example, I ask you to imagine something: “Put a picture in your mind. You can think of anything at all – except an elephant.” What is the one picture you can’t block out? The elephant. And that’s been my problem these last ten days: I couldn’t ignore the elephant in the room.
October 19th, 2015
Patricia Highsmith once said, “No book is ever like the first dream of it.” That’s certainly true for this book. Three weeks back I made big changes to a lead character’s back story, which changed not only her but other people (one of whom became nearly a decade younger). Now I’ve introduced another big change – one that might be guessed from my having changed the title also: Mother Naked had impact but never sounded quite appropriate whereas the new title, Striptease, does.
The titles may sound similar but there’s a fundamental difference in what they suggest – to me if to no one else, because I have in mind the overall shape and structure of the narrative. This is a story that gradually (teasingly?) reveals itself. Several key characters are, layer by layer, stripped bare. The change means more work, of course: several scenes must be rewritten entirely.
Writers’ Guides sometimes talk about – even recommend – a daily word-count. If you write 2,000 words a day, they say, you’ll produce 10,000 in a week, and you’ll complete a novel in about ten weeks. Wot, No Rewrites? No Second Thoughts? (And no revision?) There are writers whose natural fluency lets them whack out a first draft almost identical to the final, but I’m not one of them. Most writers aren’t. And most of those speed-written whacked-out stories, I like to think, are not worth reading.
October 26th, 2015
The book is still in the ‘constructive chaos’ stage – which is a stage I rather enjoy: it means the book is developing a life of its own. Yet another major character has changed – not in her personality but in her back story. As I was about to reveal one of two secrets from Lucy’s past I realized that she was far too old for the torrid affair she was supposed to have had only a few years before. (That, I suppose, would have been a story: sex in her sixties, a bus pass into bed. But it’s not the story I am telling.) I did wonder, though: given her age, must I deprive her of that naughty but nice affair? Perhaps she could have had it much longer ago? But that would change everything (or far too much) because some of the more extreme reactions when the affair first came to light came from today’s younger adults who, with the affair shifted decades earlier, would not have been born.
However . . . with a little adjustment to the timeline I could just about make things fit. Reactions that in the original plan were to have come from those young adults could now come from them as children – and the youngest (unborn) could hear about it later. In fact the spread of ages allows a better spread of reactions to the scandal.
Then there’s Lucy’s other secret. I’ve had a look at it. Would she really have done that, my Lucy? When I first drafted the probable plot the chimera called Lucy might have done so, but now I’ve come to know her better she tells me emphatically that she would not. In any case – two secrets? Keep it simple; this is not Dan Brown. Lucy knows best.
November 2nd, 2015
In the aftermath of last week’s constructive chaos I am aware that another of my characters (not one of the major ones) is a touch boring. I guess this is not too surprising because I deliberately cast him to be ‘the boring sibling’. Boring people are not easy to write – and the danger signal to me was that I didn’t want to write his scenes. I avoided them. “I’ll do that scene tomorrow,” I’d say. “I’ll write a different one today.”
So what to do about it?
An authors’ manual would recommend that I think about this man more deeply, delve into his back story and develop his character – but a key point about him was that, compared to the others, he didn’t have a character. He was Mr Boring, and the trouble with writing a Mr Boring is that he can seem…boring. To make him interesting would defeat the purpose.
What then? A remedy we don’t find in any authors’ guide is to impose on him an interesting characteristic. But a characteristic is not a character; it’s a quick fix, like giving a man a funny red nose and thinking that makes him a clown. I confess that I did once try that remedy: in a previous book I transformed a character simply by giving him a foreign accent. No, not simply, because by giving him an accent I then had to work out where he’d come from and why and – hey presto, he had a back story.
In another book, when I came to the scene which introduced a minor character I hadn’t fully visualised I suddenly switched that person from male to female. Doing so had a huge effect, because that scene was set in a very male milieu, and by changing him into a her I gained a stand-out cameo.
To do that here seems an exceptional remedy, a cheat and, given that I don’t like to cheat, what should I do? Why do I ask? The answer’s obvious and, as happened with Lucy, it’s not me who has come up with the answer – he has told me himself. He knows who he is. Now I do.
November 9th, 2015
We do pick ’em, Jill and I. Of all times to take a British holiday, the first week in November was bound to be a risk. Storms, an early snowfall? No, just typical November weather (typical, some would say, for any month of the British year): dull and wet, mild but uninviting, the days growing shorter. But we were on holiday, a staycation where we’d B&B at home but go out every day as tourists in our own area. After all, we do live in Gloucestershire, one of Britain’s finest counties. But with rain and drizzle every day?
“No,” to traipsing over to Bristol or Oxford. “No,” certainly, to long walks in the country – even a drive seemed rather pointless. But “No” also – this was the agreement – to working on the novel. We were on holiday. We did have a couple of good walks; I saw Tannhauser (Jill saw Suffragettes); we found a new bookshop; we enjoyed a concert. But the weather… On Thursday I gave up and, instead of getting back to the novel (not allowed), I wrote a full first draft of a ghost story. Rather good.
Non-writers sometimes ask how it feels (in my case, how it will feel) to return to a novel untouched for ten days. Nothing to it, I say: it’ll be like stepping back into a pair of comfortable old shoes.
November 16th, 2015:
Two hurdles I have to cross when using my own real-life experiences in a novel are, first, drifting into therapeutic writing and, second, sticking to the truth.
Many years ago I revisited some of my more painful childhood and adolescent experiences, setting them down quickly in a hand-written unedited stream of memory that ran to around 20,000 words in no time at all (about two days in fact which, had I been writing fiction, would have been an impressive output). I opened doors I’d kept locked for decades and, having done so, found that many of those memories came attached to other long-forgotten ones – not all of which were painful but many of which were so forgotten I’d forgotten they were there. Some brought tears, others brought flushes of embarrassment. Had I really done that? How could I look myself in the eye? Those were memories I didn’t have the guts to share.
Recently, shortly before starting this book, I destroyed the scribbled notebooks, not because what I’d revealed was too embarrassing (well, partly for that) but mainly because reading them was like being trapped in a small space beside a maudlin drunk insistent on spilling out his interminable and occasionally incoherent story. As a therapy – but only as a therapy – I commend such uncensored autobiographical confession, but only for private reading. (Who needs a psychiatrist’s couch? Just write it down – or dictate it. Don’t hold back.) But don’t expect anyone else to be interested. What you wrote is likely to be deeply personal – that was the point, after all – deeply personal, and deeply dull.
November 23rd, 2015
As I said last week, when incorporating real-life experiences into my novel I run the risks of boring the reader and (as I also mentioned) of sticking to faithfully to the truth. I’m sure there are creative writing courses that would urge me to ‘find my inner truth’ and regurgitate it. I don’t agree. Just as no one is interested in hearing about last night’s dream so they are unlikely to be interested in my regurgitated but unshaped inner truth.
When a kid spills a sack of wooden bricks onto the floor we do not exclaim in wonderment (all right, some mothers do) but when the child arranges them into a street, a house, a tower or citadel we may exclaim – and mean it. Not only has the child created a pattern or shape but, crucially, some of the bricks have been discarded and put aside. Just so with real-life memories: not all are interesting, and neither is an unordered shape. In a novel a chain of events need not replicate a sequence from real life. An author can make a better one. It’s not creative to plainly report the facts unless you’re a policeman giving evidence in court, where you are not meant to be creative. Although sometimes…
Because my current novel (still untitled – when am I going to find one?) has scenes based on what happened in real life I initially found myself telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The reader will want none of that (except in a celebrity bio, where it won’t be found either). The reader wants truth ruthlessly pared down, leaving only the juicy bits. And as for nothing but the truth? What, no invention? It’s a fiction writer’s job to make things up. I may have started with reality but, fortunately, I have gone on from there, and kept going.
I have strayed from the path of truth into the forest, where the wild things are.
November 30th, 2015
I’m now approaching the climax of the book, when truths are revealed and some previous accounts are found to be unreliable. I don’t worry that some of those truths (and indeed, one or two deceptions) conflict with what was written earlier because, months ago when I set out on my journey (a literary cliché, yes, I know), I was feeling my way rather than groping in the dark (another cliché). I was exploring different paths. What was the truth? Who were the key characters? I know now better than I did then, and in consequence shall have to rewrite some early sections. They can’t merely be revised; they have become wrong factually. The past I imagined then did not exist – or doesn’t any longer, not for the key characters and certainly not for the mother, who remains the character around whom everything revolves; the hundredth birthday party is in her honour.
Now, being impatient to tell the story rather than fuss over details, I hurry on, clearing the last undergrowth from my chosen path, eager to emerge into daylight. Yet I know that, before I do, I have another thicket to cut through: my intended ending, I now suspect, has too many climactic moments and along the way I have prepared four dramatic fireworks. But to explode all four at once will be too much. One of those fireworks must not be lit. But which?