Posts Tagged literary fiction
How many drafts does a novel need? Some are ready for an editor by the second or third draft. Others – like mine – are assembled in slow layers of revisions, a process of discovery. There’s more about that in What Takes Literary Authors So Long.
I wouldn’t be surprised if I went through a manuscript at least 50 times, but I’ve never counted. So for Ever Rest I’m keeping a draft diary. How many times do I set out from the start? What am I doing each time and how much difference does it make?
Right now, I’m starting draft 10, which on my usual timescale is early days. But my draft diary has already revealed some surprising and paradoxical benefits of slow writing.
Outline first, obvs
Ever Rest has been with me a long time. I wrote it originally as a short story, read it out at a workshop and the feedback was unanimous – it had enough guts to be a novel. So began long hours of staring at plot cards in uffish thought, and much collecting of Undercover Soundtracks (music for writing… see here). Finally, I’d assembled a set of troubled characters and some torments for them. I put my headphones on and began writing.
Draft 1 – inhabiting the scenes for the first time. I was trotting nicely through the outline when a couple of characters went off piste and sent everything to pot. Somehow, though, it made glorious sense so I clung on and wrote to the end. And hurrah, I had a wordcount of 76,123. The original short story was 7,000 and I’d been worried it wouldn’t make novel length. Onwards.
Draft 2 – dealing properly with the disobedience in draft 1. It made intuitive sense, but why? Draft 2 was understanding this, pushing the characters harder. When I landed at the end I had 107,471 words. Shortness wasn’t going to be a problem. I suspected much of the wordcount was flab, but I now had room to cut.
Draft 3 – getting strict about facts. I’d left a lot of factual gaps so I didn’t nonce around with research I wasn’t going to use. What colour is a police uniform in Kathmandu? Now it was worth finding out. Also I filled the gaps in back story. How do x and y know each other? When did crucial event z happen?
This draft fizzled out, alas. Other deadlines intervened and I made my ghostwriting course for Jane Friedman. After that the manuscript looked like an exam in a language I didn’t speak, so I started again, draft 3.2. Pretty soon, draft 3.2 did something that disrupted the beginning, so I rewound again and started draft 3 for the third time.
Drafts 4-7 The original short story was a first-person narrative. In enlarging it, I added a lot of people and it grew into an ensemble piece, with short chapters from different viewpoints. Several characters had matured much further than their original roles, so I needed dedicated drafts to give them proper space.
Meanwhile, the book’s Undercover Soundtrack was now the size of a small record shop.
After a detour for a little travel memoir, draft 8 began with a radical scene reshuffle. The book had never felt balanced so I put a main character’s introduction earlier, where it ran more smoothly. Often I don’t know why something is wrong until I make a drastic change; then it seems to sigh with relief.
I was also worried about easing the reader into the story, so I promoted an outsider character to a bigger role. If I introduced the story through him, the reader could learn alongside him. His back story looked thin, so I tipped a lot more words in to give him a more defined life. But despite all this, he was boring. What to do? One of the other characters had a job that resonated with the novel’s main themes. What if he did her job? At first this seemed inspired; a perfect fit. Then I began to hear a false note. Instead of a pleasant resonance, it screamed the smart parallels in the reader’s face.
By the end of draft 8, they were back to their original professions. And I realised I’d been right the first time. The person who originally had that job had a bigger arc I hadn’t suspected. I only found out by breaking the book.
Draft 9. I now knew the supporting character couldn’t kick the book off. So I tried the most complicated character as centre stage. I hadn’t before because I’d thought her situation was too strange and required copious explanations. But if I could find one detail that would plug the reader into her world? I found it. Geronimo. With this new opening, I then chopped a number of redundant scenes and made a list of scenes that were missing. I usually find these tricky to write, but I found if I started typing and made the characters talk to each other, they took the scene further than I ever imagined. When you know the characters, they will surprise you when they talk for themselves.
And now I begin draft 10. What now? In the previous drafts, I’d been singling out particular threads or problems. Now I’m going to read the book in its entirety, to listen to the whole mix. I think I know what I’ve made, but I’m not yet certain. Wish me luck.
Oh and what’s the wordcount? 110,213. Each round, I’ve culled and added a lot, and I’m sure there’s more that can be trimmed, but it seems to have found its comfortable weight. Expect a whopper, guys.
So here are my 3 wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process
- A massive switch in my original plan was so intuitively right … that discovering why helped me understand the whole book.
- Sometimes you have to break the book to understand how it works. Swapping characters’ roles, giving the opening chapter to a different character, even changing the main viewpoint were all useful experiments. Even if you restore it to the way it was, you come away with a stronger understanding. (You might also like Revision is Re-vision.)
- When you know the characters, that’s when they might surprise you most.
Thanks for the balcony pic, Maxpixel.
Are you a slow writer? Have you discovered any wondrous paradoxes? Share them here.
Need a writing plan? My method (including time spent staring at plot cards in uffish thought) is in Nail Your Novel.
Want to know more about Ever Rest’s progress? Get updates in my newsletter.
This year I’ve been one of the guest tutors at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s site Writers Helping Writers. It’s my turn to take the lectern there again, and the subject they asked for is endings.
Are there any must-haves for an ending? Well, the answer isn’t simple, but there are some abiding principles that hold good no matter what you’re writing. You can read about them at Angela and Becca’s site … and if you want even more, there’s a chapter about them in my Nail Your Novel plot book. Have fun!
I recently had an email from a friend who has a literature PhD. He had read My Memories of a Future Life and wrote me a long, detailed response. Eleven pages, actually, which was quite daunting to open. Somewhat nervously, I read it. I needn’t have worried. It was kind and appreciative.
Indeed, it seemed to give me credit for a number of clever effects that were mainly accidental, not deliberate as he seems to have imagined.
For instance, my decision to give Gene Winter a leather bomber jacket. My faithful chronicler unpicked this as ‘bombing, linked to war – a sign that he will be destructive character’.
My actual reasons for Gene’s outfit were far more practical. I needed him to appear hunched, as if he was keeping the world out. A bomber jacket gives that postural shape in the reader’s mind. I could have left the kind of leather jacket vague, but then it might have suggested a scruffy biker. A different kind of bearing. So Gene wore a bomber jacket.
My friend also observed that Andreq, Carol’s incarnation in the future, is like a geisha. Once he’d drawn that parallel, he found more layers, exploring how geisha inhabit a separate reality, as Andreq does, and Carol has a different reality when she performs, and ‘recreates the spiritual environment that a piece of music represents, just as would a geisha with her client’.
Again, this seemed to give me credit for a lot more calculation than I actually did. When I wrote, I had much simpler aims. I was thinking only of the resonances between my two characters, Carol and Andreq. Though I’m very relieved that this aspect of the book made wider cultural sense.
Reading this essay, I was seeing the book in a new register. There are writers’ reasons and then there are the reasons readers find. Are they necessarily in tune?
I posted about this on Facebook and a merry discussion ensued. Some were reminded of school essays where they’d had to dissect texts for hidden meanings, which they were sure the author hadn’t consciously planted. This is just a fireplace. Anything else you can see is your own problem.
Of course, this is not to say we don’t take care when we write. Every word, image and phrase in My Memories of a Future Life was deliberately placed – but for reasons that were more to do with plausibility and nuance. My priority was controlling the reader’s emotional experience. With Gene’s jacket I was trying not to give a wrong impression, but in my friend’s essay it became a standout signal of its own.
That doesn’t mean I dismiss my friend’s analysis – not in the slightest. His version of the book is just as valid as mine. I wonder if he’d be disappointed to know how those creative decisions were made – that some of the effects he appreciated seem to me to be lucky accidents.
Fundamentally, I think this is a difference between writers and certain kinds of reader. I’m sure many writers are working more on gut than on grey cells.
This recent post at the Literary Hub rounded up a clutch of authors who didn’t have a formal writing education. They learned principally from reading and from life. It wasn’t study; it was an emotional process, a state of eternal noticing, a response as natural as breathing.
One of those writers, Ray Bradbury, I featured in my Guardian masterclass on self-editing. I took the beginning of Fahrenheit 451 and used my beat sheet method to study its structure. I found contrasts and balances that I hadn’t been aware of, subtle ways in which Bradbury plays with our expectations that add to the book’s enthralling effect. The book is itself a masterclass in pacing, balance and contrast (I’ve talked about that here) . In reality, I suspect Bradbury did most of it by instinct rather than by conscious design, but if you put the book through that process, it’s there.
I’ve written before about what creative writing teachers teach. Mostly we direct a sensitivity that is already innate, and awaken the blind areas. The other side of the coin – the learning – is about building habits: first consciously, then so that they become second nature (I’ve written about that here – the three ages of becoming a writer). An example: at first you might have to be told to prefigure a major reversal; after a while, it’s something you knit into the story by gut feeling.
Earlier in this post I talked about ‘controlling the reader’s experience’. You might have laughed in a hollow way because I seem to be proving precisely the opposite. We hope we’re directing the reader to notice the things we want, but actually they scoot off into the text like gerbils and chew random things.
In the end, readers bring themselves to a book. One friend drew a parallel with his work in IT – he said you never knew how a piece of software would work until the users told you. I suppose that’s what we’re doing. Our ‘product’ isn’t even a tangible thing like a theatre production or a picture or a sofa. It’s squiggles on a page or a screen that perform a transforming effect on the reader’s mind and emotions. A novel is code, and we can’t even definitively tell you how we assemble it or how it works.
So I guess that makes it magic too. Do give me your thoughts.
More about the beat sheet? You can find it in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.
Thanks for the chicken pic Christian Bortes on Flickr and thanks Cat Muir for the dancing fireplace.
Oh and this little thing is less than a month to lift-off. Rather excited. Here’s my latest newsletter if you want to catch up, including a free preview.
It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.
The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought. There’s something in that story.
When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.
So what do you do?
I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.
This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.
And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.
My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.
Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now on pre-order. And it looks like this.
When I invited my latest guest to the Undercover Soundtrack, she told me we’d met before, IRL. At a writing conference, she’d asked my advice about working with editors. A few years on and she has a novel with a very respectable endorsement from Esther Freud and Kirkus reviews, so it seems everything went well. The novel is the story of three generations of women in a village in the Ukraine, and she developed a playlist of music that would create the rich landscape of place and emotion she hoped to put on the page. Some of the music also gave her a mindset – the patience and purpose to refine every word, which was probably where she was when we met at the writing conference. I’m so chuffed to see her persistence paid off and to introduce her properly here. She is Leonora Meriel and you can read her Undercover Soundtrack on the Red Blog.
‘A dead soul, a journalist in a dystopian Scotland, and painful family memories’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Philip Miller
My guest this week has a novel of three complex threads – as you can probably guess from the above description. He says music was as much a part of the process as his notes, plotting and character building. Indeed, he found his way to a music style he’d never before warmed to – prog rock and, specifically, King Crimson. I’ve seen this before with contributors to the series – experiences and interests that you never took much notice of become suddenly essential. As you work on the book, it works on you. Other musical essentials for this author were Kate Bush, who I could never disapprove of, and he says the novel was so essentially ‘Bush’ that he began the edits by playing Hounds of Love on his iPod. He is Philip Miller and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
Literary fiction is much more about individual visions and the people who don’t fit. And if you’re publishing literary fiction as an indie, you’re usually a tribe of one, squeaking your tiny squeak in a roaring wind. I have friends in mainstream publishing who give me furious pep-talks about how I’m on a hiding to nothing, which, of course, is excellent for morale. Thanks, guys. (Here’s where I thanked them more extensively.)
That’s why I wanted to make sure you didn’t miss this – a campaign that aims to represent the work of literary writers, small presses, independent bookshops and anyone who struggles to be heard or find their audiences. It’s called the Main Street Writers Movement and it’s the brainchild of Laura Stanfill, of litfic publisher Forest Avenue Press.
Laura’s vision is for a number of hubs around the US with live events and networking, but if you’re not one of her geographical neighbours, don’t be put off. Wherever your desk is (I’m waving to you from London), we can blog, tweet, share, meet IRL (heavens!). And support each other to do what we must do.
It could be a lifeline for literary.
Of course, by its very nature, the term literary spans a vast range of writing. Not everyone likes all of it, or even agrees what it is. Laura faces this head on. She says Main Street Writers is for ‘Writers who are tired of writing fluffy reviews about books they don’t particularly like due to a sense of obligation. Let’s replace that instinct with better, more genuine ways to support each other.’
I like this immensely. This is about honesty; making meaningful connections. If enough of us get involved, we’re all more likely to find the people we really do click with. Writers, publishers, agents, bloggers, reviewers, events organisers – and readers.
There’s a pledge (which, alas, you can only sign if you have 5-digit zip code), but you can register separately for the blog and the newsletter. There’s also a hashtag #mainstreetwriters so we can all get – and stay – in touch.
I think it looks exciting.
This week’s guest first conceptualised his novel to the sound of the sea. Waves on rocks, rain against a hood. On a visit to a sea shanty festival, it took a firmer shape as he walked through the streets, hearing snatches of songs about love and loss. It became a novel about people struggling with grief and trying to make sense of it, catalysed by the spacey loops of ambient composers such as William Basinski, and the fragile otherworldliness of Ravel and Debussy. I listened to the entire set early one morning and it was like being pulled into a wild, melancholy dream. He is 2016 Man Booker nominee Wyl Menmuir and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.