But is it going to ‘work’?
I worry about students writing novels who say:
‘It came to me in a dream.’
Inspiration’s all very well but it does need to be tempered by reason. Be careful you’re not writing a novel which makes sense to no-one but yourself. Dreams are as likely to come from hell as heaven, depending on the state of your unconscious. Of course you must take notice of your unconscious – it probably has more say in the writing of your novel than even you realise – but dreams? They may well be trying to tell you something but your reader is not you, and you will need to do a whole lot of dream interpretation and soul searching before passing them on. No matter how vivid and coherent and full of meaning, your dreams are not likely to strike the reader in the same way they do you. Writing is not a magic wand.
The same applies to thoughts you have waking up in the morning. These can offer an apparently brilliant solution to some hole you wrote yourself into yesterday; on occasion you may indeed have found a way through – but mostly such ideas don’t stand up to the glare of morning light. Like dreams, they are creatures of the dark: succubi, leading you on. You can waste an awful lot of time pursuing false leads in this business. Sheer folly can pose as inspiration.
Or perhaps you’ll say:
‘I’ve just had this great ‘what-if idea.’
Another cause for alarm… What if a dead man walks, what if you wake up as a black beetle, what if you write a novel not using the letter ‘e’ (a lipogram)? If you’re Meyrink or Kafka or Perec the great idea may just about work. But you’re probably not a genius, and the trouble with what-if novels is that even though the idea can sound so good and so high-concept that gullible editors commission you – you then have to write the thing and though the beginning’s brilliant what do you do for a middle and an end? It’s when writing what-if novels that students find themselves saying ‘I’ve written three chapters and I’m stuck’, to which the brutal answer from me is usually ‘you’re not stuck you’re finished’. It was a short story not a novel. You have said all you have to say.
On occasion all is not lost. There may be some ingenious way through, such as introducing some relevant sub-plot on the first page, and feeding that in throughout, or realising that the what-if concept was actually the end of the book, not its beginning. It was a really ‘so-that’s-how-it-turned out!’ novel all along. Ingenuity is the novelists’ best friend.
I tell you this story as a warning. Once, back in the eighties, I had a brilliant what-if idea. It was about cloning and its reverse: one shared personality spread out between too many bodies, or too many personalities crammed into one body. I had ’flu at the time, but not alas badly enough to stop me covering sheets of paper with words – in those days hand-written. I posted off the idea in four different directions – novel, stage, TV and radio. All were commissioned. It was four whole years by the time I’d worked through to the end of all of them. All those middles waiting to be found, all those conclusions waiting to be reached, ingenuity stretched to its furthest limits. Aarrgghh…
Or you may say:
‘I’m three chapters in and it’s just so hard to write!
I have learned to write my own first pages six, seven or more times, changing tenses, voices and mood each time until I arrive at the version in which all the ingredients seem to meld together properly and the novel seems simple and obvious and something I look forward to writing. I will have come to various decisions. I will have shifted and changed through many possibilities before I set out. How am I best going to deliver this story, make my point, persuade others to my point of view? Do I know more or less what and who I am writing about? Does this work best as a dear-reader’ novel (in which I as the writer show my presence, talk to the reader conversationally, seemingly taking them into my confidence) and to if it is to what extent will the ‘I’ be fictional or my real self? Or should I keep out of it and just tell the story? Is my protagonist interesting enough to sustain the first person? Is enough going to be happening to get away with the present tense: or perhaps anyway I need the objectivity which comes with third-person past tense: ‘she crossed the room’, rather that ‘she crosses the room’. Out of whose eyes, and how many, do I intend to look? How do I envisage my reader: looking at an e-book or turning pages? Am I taking this lightly or dead seriously? Only when I have briefed myself properly on what and how I intend to write will I carry on – referring to my first page from time to time to reassure myself I am still on track. It will be my bible. I may tell myself and others I make it up as I go along, and have the sensation that the novel unfolds before me – but most of the work, I realise, consists in getting the first page right. And it can take months. Make it up as you go along, but know what you are doing before you begin.
Don’t try self-consciously to make things ‘good’, just try to get it done. Don’t aim for ‘literature’ – aim for ease of writing. Your exhilaration in writing feeds through to the reader. It’s going to help no-one if you’re just plodding along, checking your word count. And remember that synopses are there to be changed. Sticking to them can be really boring.
Or worse, you look really grieved and say:
‘I’ve had to put the novel to one side. I have writer’s block.’
No, you don’t. There’s no such thing. You may be ill, or not have had breakfast, or be in some emotional turmoil. But most likely – if you haven’t just finished and said all you need to say, which is always a possibility to be considered – what you’ve done is somehow write yourself into a corner. In which case overcome your natural reluctance to read through what you’ve written, and do so. ‘Writer’s block’, like being ‘stuck’, doesn’t just happen by itself. There is a reason for it. You’ve somehow lost your way on the path that must lead inexorably through your novel from beginning to end. It can be little – you’ve made some character say something they wouldn’t say in a month of Sundays – or large – your story has taken a turn which will lead you into trouble. Look at it, fix it, and you’ll find yourself writing on. Whoever said it would be easy?
And if you say to me:
Are you sure? All your points made and all loose threads tied up; all ‘i’s dotted, all t’s crossed? The pages are numbered? You’ve left space on the page for easy editing? Haven’t crammed your paragraphs together –you’re not trying to save paper; this is an electronic age! (Whenever you’ve changed time or place it needs to be reflected by space on the page.) Does the text look easy and confident – a crowded page never does, just old fashioned. Can you stand by every word, argue for every sentence? No careless repetitions, no typo’s, no relying on some putative editor to sort your problems for you later on? (Editors, publishers, no longer have time or will to do it. You are in a buyers’ market.)
Now, take time to look at your first four pages. It’s remarkable how often you can simply do without these. You’d written them when you were working yourself in, waffling in sheer terror at the prospect before you – 200 pages or more of blank pages to be covered – explaining yourself to yourself, temporising, writing and rewriting far too often, anything but actually getting on with the novel. Why it’s usually four pages of waffle, not more, not less, I don’t know, but this jumping from foot to the foot before the race gets going is endemic in many student writers.
Or if you say:
‘I’m working on this novel I started seven years ago’.
Hang on. You have changed your skin since you began this novel of yours. You are a different person than when you began it. You know more, and have felt more and your view of the world has changed; the reading world will have changed around you. Nothing’s static. The beginning of any book is intrinsically linked to its end: the person you longed to murder seven years ago may now feel like your dearest friend. The horse you are flogging may not be dead, but it will certainly be rather tired after seven years.
Don’t take too long about things. Just because Flaubert took seven years or so to write Madame Bovary doesn’t mean there is intrinsic merit in a book simply because it took a long time to write. Hemingway re-wrote the end of a Farewell to Arms seventeen times – nothing wrong with that – but the whole book was written within the year. I know people have to work and bring up children, and full-time writing is often not possible –don’t lament that too much: peace, quiet and spare time can make you languid and introspective – but do keep your end in sight. I’m afraid the whole thing is much like writing essays at school – the one you worked on so hard and long gets only a C, the one you tossed off when drunk and disorderly gets an A. There is no justice. But at least having worked so hard for so little apparent reward on one, the next thing you write will come easily. In my experience, one hard-to-write novel is followed by two which flow without effort. So one proceeds.
And don’t try and get everything into the first novel you write. With any luck you have a writing life to come. Eke your material out: Kingsley Amis once told me that.