How I came to write a novel was like climbing a mountain, with hazards and joys along the way, and the journey began with…
A Short Story
During my second writing course with the OU, I wrote a short story about two ‘chalk and cheese’ sisters who go on holiday together, just the two of them – title, On Turtle Beach. At the time of conceiving this, my sister and I certainly would never have contemplated such a ‘drastic’ action. It’s always the situation I’m attracted to first, then the characters are developed to fit. The location was easy for this story – Dalyan in Turkey, which I had twice visited and written daily notes on – my first experience of a hot holiday and all the stuff that usually goes with that – beach, pool, local culture, nature, excursions. It was an eye opener for me and I really enjoyed the scenery and swimming in the warm Mediterranean sea. The story just got an average mark, but the concept of the story lingered with me.
So after the course, and after writing some short stories, I felt like getting into something more expansive and the turtle beach story popped back into my mind. Could I write a novel using the story as a launching pad? Could I stick with this subject and not get bored? Answer – absolutely. So I got stuck into the first three chapters, slowly I have to say, forever re-editing. But it was so exciting. I was writing a novel! I developed the characters of Rhea and Lucy using those lists of character questions that are out there, wrote a prologue to get the hook established. I could see my favourite actresses playing the two lead parts – those flights of fancy at the beginning are wonderful, aren’t they? Situation, location, lead characters sorted – oh, and they’re bound to want to make a film of it when you’ve finished. Goes without saying.
But then I came up against crafting difficulties – how to convey inner thoughts in the way I wanted, smoothly and in a stream of consciousness way. Inner thoughts were vital, as the story was being written from two alternating points of view. How long should chapters be? (I have broken the rules on that one.) How to write good dialogue with the correct grammar, incorporating actions, gestures? When to use reported speech and weave it in naturally? How to reduce the ‘telling’ and increase the ‘showing’? When to leave connections to the reader and not spell everything out?
I found so many problems to solve and the internet did help, though there can be too much conflicting advice that you have to wade through – even that can be an art in itself. But my books on writing and the internet were certainly indispensible. And it’s like serving an apprenticeship, learning how to use all the tools and materials, how to craft your work, how to develop your own style. How to keep control of your ‘opus’ while still staying open to imaginative possibilities. In other words, you may have a plot roughly outlined with a three act structure and an end in mind, but you have to remain flexible about it and let the characters take over sometimes, letting them tell you what they want.
I also found the left brain (critic, moderating force) kept intruding, while the right brain (impulsive, creative) was going off in other directions, getting all excited. But if left to do its thing, the right brain could come up with plotting ideas and solutions to problems – not when sitting in front of my laptop but usually when driving the car or when out on a walk. I became very familiar with my left and right brain processes and it was hard to get them working together harmoniously. Usually my left side got the upper hand – the inner critic.
And I’m an information sorter – so from my gathered information, I wrote up my own guidelines on as many factors involved in writing a novel as possible, adding in new things I came across or solved as I went. This kept me focused as the whole thing started to become huge in a multitude of possibilities. Then I realised I really needed a more precise structure and plot. So using a recommended book, I painfully (I have to say) wrote out chapter cards with story arcs and questions to ask myself.
Getting bogged down in the middle
Just when I got Part 1 done, thinking that must be the hardest part, you come up against the real meaty stuff. We can call it Part 2, and this was a long period. What about the subplots? Everything you’ve introduced will need a story arc. Even the novel Rhea is reading needed one. And how to get the plot moving to build to the major dramatic turning point of the whole, going back and putting in little foreshadowings. It was about keeping control for me at this stage. What delicious material I wanted to include from my holiday notes, such as describing a scuba dive, and what I had to leave out. Having to learn a bit about tarot reading (don’t ask). How to ride a motorbike (same again). Carib islanders in the Caribbean in the eighteenth century? Fascinating. And are the characters still being totally themselves when you are doing more ‘directing’ of them? How to write scenes from the past. And this richness continued into…
Finishing the thing
Mmm – tricky to say the least. I sort of knew how I wanted it to finish but it was a very delicate business getting there. So to recap, in the beginning I’d looked up at the mountain I wanted to climb, picked out a route and negotiated my way to the top, back tracking and changing course, but finally arriving at the top – the novels climax. Hurrah.
But then I had to get down again, by going down the other side with its own awkward tracks, and near the bottom, before I’d completed my descent, I could see this path snaking off into a murky stormy horizon, the path of ‘afterwards’, where I’d be trying to get someone to publish it, or set about publishing it myself. And what about the information overload connected to all that? A boggy area to get stuck in.
So, that path at the bottom held me up, half way down the other side of the mountain, where I had a rest for a while, put off by the idea of rejection and struggle. But all those loose threads needed tying together, and you can’t send anything out if it isn’t finished, so I plodded to the end, trying to make it just the right combination of satisfying ending with a hint of future possibilities, my main aim being not to present the reader with a pretty tea cup of an ending. I did my best…the apprenticeship has been served with what I hope is a good quality polished professional result and then of course the editing began in earnest.
If you’re not careful you can get bogged down in ‘how to write’ books. And as I have discovered information overload can confuse, cause conflict, and make things seem even harder than they may actually be. So the books I used, and which are now my limit are the following three. These happened to work for me:
The Story Book by David Baboulene which uses film techniques and structure in story development, recommended by my former writing tutor. This got my chapter arcs and structure going for Turtle Beach.
Love Writing by Sue Moorcroft – a spontaneous find about writing romance, but which has a great range of clearly explained crafting tips on writing any genre novel, which is what I use it for.
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, my favourite, which I have decided to use from here on in with future novels.
And now, during this process over the last few years, I have learned so much and I can handle the pushes and pulls of the left and right brain areas a lot better. I can write with less critical intrusion now. So it’s on with the next one or two.
So, how was it for you?