Monday, 19 January 2009

Pacing about and lying on the floor

For me, there are two elements to fiction: storytelling and writing. A lot of literary fiction, places more emphasis on the quality of the writing than on the storytelling; a lot of genre fiction places more emphasis on the storytelling than the writing. I believe you have to get both right.

Just at the moment I’m working on the storytelling part of my new novel. This means that I am trying to get to the point where I can relate the story to my wife, Rosie, from start to finish in some detail and hold her attention. Once I’ve reached that point I can concentrate on writing it as well as I am able. In the process the story I have taken such pains to fashion may change. Nevertheless, I need to have a proper narrative before I start.

I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t do some preliminary sketching. Usually I write three or four experimental chapters to help me imagine the world of the novel, the voice I might use and the pace at which the story might progress. But this is not the novel proper; it is just a rough guide to the sort of thing I would like to produce. Some of it may end up in the final product or none of it may.

Having just got to the end of another year working as a mentor on the Apprenticeships In Fiction scheme, I am more convinced than ever that where most first-time authors go wrong is that they launch into the writing too soon. They get seduced by the pleasure of discovering that they have a voice and so set out to write a novel while they’re still very uncertain about the world they want to describe, the characters who inhabit it and the narrative arc. They feel confident that they will discover all this as they write. But what they end up producing is too often muddled. Parts are really good but usually there are far too many different strands and the whole things fails to cohere.

Surprisingly, some of those who aspire to be novelists, seem to look down on this process of planning, devising, story-building or whatever you want to call it, precisely because of the widespread belief that the quality of the writing is the most important thing and the story is only secondary. But a novel is like a house. If you don’t start with a decent plan, you are going to end up with a ramshackle building that no one will want to inhabit.

So in order to make sure that the foundations of my literary edifice are secure, I am spending a lot of time pacing around, talking to myself, then lying on the floor forcing my mind to go over and over the same incidents until it truly understands the essential elements of the story I am trying to relate. If I cannot convince myself and then my wife, how can I hope to convince anyone else?

I hate this part of the job because it can take so long and it doesn’t look much like you’re doing anything, even to yourself. You just seem to be wasting time when you could be sitting at the keyboard hammering out words and I am itching to get started on the first draft. But hammering out words when you don’t really know what you want to say, is a mistake. It only leads to disillusionment. So for now I must put up with the itch for a little bit longer and Rosie must put up with me.

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