The problem with writing a novel is that you’ve got to learn how to write a novel while you’re writing it. When I was younger, I just plunged straight in, but then I was all about the excitement of getting my daydreams down on paper. As I’ve got older, and learned more about plot and structure and characterisation, my subconscious has become more and more balky until I drag it along, tugging at the sleeve of my writing self, with it demanding “and then what?” and “why? why? why? why? why?” like a fractious toddler or a Toyota executive*. So, I’ve come to the terms with the fact that I’m a plotter, not a pantser.
Ok brain, I thought. You won’t write without a plot, so let’s get plotting. So I did mind maps and an outline, and then a more detailed outline, and built structures to convey the plot, and then I rewrote chapter 1 to do some very specific things. But I didn’t like it. It felt like the life had gone out of it. It felt too tidy.
Now, I know that in first draft you’re supposed to just keep going on. But I hadn’t got the voice I wanted for my 1st person viewpoint. And then I started dreading having anything to do with the novel. Playing around with the structure was no longer satisfying, and I felt stuck on the writing because my stubborn subconscious told me it was wrong, but wouldn’t cough up what was right.
And I started to have all those thoughts about how I just can’t cut it as a novelist, I don’t have the stamina, I can’t write and I’m a deluded wannabe who sucks at everthing, and I’ll have to just write software until my head explodes or my company fires me, and then I’ll be forced to go and live under a rock and eat mud and I won’t be able to afford any books or a TV, and I’ll spend my time trying to make passersby take pity on me and shout a line from whatever they’re reading as they go past or reenact last night’s episode of House with finger puppets made out of crisp packets. And they probably won’t.
Then a couple of random things put me back on track. First I had a dream in which the uber-hot celebrity I have a tiresome adolescent obsession with smiled at me. He was happy to see me, and I was flooded with joy. Yes, total wish fulfillment. But come on, that’s part of what writing books is about, right? And I thought – yes, that’s what I want for my protagonist (Monday) when she finally gets it together with the right guy.
I’ve also started mentally collecting a sound-track for the novel, and as I was explaining to my ever-patient other half the other day, although the lyrics are part of what make a song right for it, it’s all about the feeling.
So yes, duh, I have finally put it together and realised that I’ve been doing too much thinking and not enough feeling about the book. After all, feelings are ultimately what we buy fiction for**.
So, I’m going to try and feel my way back into the story now. And all that day-dreaming and listening to music is now legitimate research and creative work. Right? Yeah – it’s quite possible I’m still a deluded wannabe. I suppose the proof will be in the wordcount.
*Actually, the “5 whys” process is good for generating character backstory (top tip from a lecture by the wonderful Mr. Tim Powers). Start with a character action and keep asking “why?” until you get to something interesting. Or ask “why”, and then “but why really?”
For example: Rowan kidnaps Monday to force her to look for his missing wife.
Why? Because Monday refused to be hired to do it.
Why? Because she doesn’t trust Rowan.
Why? Her last delivery went wrong. She was being used to track someone, and they got hurt.
Why? Her instincts didn’t warn her that she was headed for trouble.
Why? Ever since The Incident, she hasn’t been able to trust herself.
**Funnily enough, I caught a brief interview with film composer David Arnold on BBC breakfast this morning, where he was saying pretty much the same thing. He talked about “walking around with your antennae out”, keeping the film or TV series in his head, and trying to capture the right feeling. No video available yet, but if I find it, I’ll post it here.