This is a continuation of the theme of what the various stages are like in the journey of writing a novel, and that time has come around again because I’ve finally settled on what I want to concentrate on in my writing while at the same time as processing After Black. I’ve repeatedly opened and shut doors to my memoir and collection of short stories, but have at least happily begun them in earnest, however the characters in novel number 3, No Magic Pill, have been calling to me to get on with their story – and this is really how it feels. Jim, the disillusioned midlife crisis unhappily married man, the frustrated and worried GP, Roger, and the optimistic newly trained counsellor, Monica – they are all tapping their feet, waiting. I’ve already had the first three chapters written for well over a year – maybe even two! – in which I’ve introduced the three protagonists in turn from their own point of view, while exploring their personalities, histories, personal values, fears and desires. So rather than this being a 0% progress position at the very starting line of the novel, it’s more like having travelled 15% of the way in already. But I have to say it’s been tough to pick it up again as I’ve had to reacquaint myself with the characters and the plotting possibilities. It’s been like unlocking a rusty padlock on a thick creaky door, frozen in time.
Just like this, in fact!
That said, as soon as I began chapter 4, the door began to swing freely open again and morphed into something enticing, full of colour and life and the mystery of fiction, a door to leave ajar every time I’ve ventured across its threshold. So it gets an upgrade to this:
THE PROS OF THIS EARLY STAGE
1. You are fresh to the story, enthusiastic about the characters you’ve taken time to develop in depth. It’s a joy to work with them and invent secondary characters to help or hinder. It’s here that subplots may suggest themselves, but you go with a flow of possibilities, trusting that ideas you act upon and put into words will link up later on. And you do have to trust this process, otherwise you’d never get going. There is only so much control you can have at this early stage and spontaneity can work well.
2. The creative right side of the brain is leading or driving the car, while the analytical left brain is in the backseat, knowing that it can hardly be critical so early in the process. Remember, this critic is on your side, it just doesn’t feel like it very often. So they should be simply watching and keeping stumm. And if they dare interrupt, you really have to gag them!
3. Settings for stories are a personal delight for me. I love describing them and making them work to fit and even influence the story. I see the characters in their settings as making the fiction so visual to the imagination and more deeply realistic, hopefully to better resonate with the reader. If I read a novel with sparsely described settings, I feel as if a whole chunk of the ‘fictive dream’ , a term coined by John Gardner, is missing for me and I feel cheated. So at this early stage I can indulge my play with settings. Describing the setting of the story should happen at this point at the beginning, so the reader can be pulled right into the world of the story. It can be compared with the backdrop scenery and props on stage in a theatre production. The set is moved into position first, together with all the props, then the characters walk or dance onto the stage. If the set is bare, like with some modern productions, the actors/characters have to work very hard to build up a sense of place.
4. A huge chunk of the research you need to do can be done at this point and it can be fascinating. In choosing your theme you probably have an awareness of how deep you want or need to go into the research, so as you dig down you can make decisions along the way and it can free up your actual writing in the knowledge that you have this research by your side to back you up. And I do like mine printed out by my laptop because constantly clicking between windows can be tedious. Research can also trigger off ideas for plot twists and subplots – it really is a rich source of both information and imagination.
5. You are building your themes through your characters and the conflicts you are creating for them. Creatively, this is such an exciting time and throwing in foreshadowings and symbols is fun.
6. You can read masses of your favourite fiction, whatever you know frees up your own creative writing. The one can so easily prompt the other, with a kind of subconscious flow channeling through you. I find reading Dean Koontz or Stephen King works for me, not for the horror or supernatural, but for the passionate writing and for such believable characters who I can so quickly become invested in. It doesn’t matter that you own writing may be of a totally different style, whatever triggers off that enthused free flow is what matters. So you can read and write, write and read. All to the good.
THE CONS OF THIS EARLY STAGE
For me, there is really only one Con at this stage, but it’s a biggie:
When you start a novel, you start telling a story –obvious I know, but the plotting is the more difficult part for me personally, as I’m largely very character-driven in my approach. Plotting is becoming more comfortable for me as I’m becoming more confident with the freedom in it, but nonetheless, it’s near the beginning when doubts can overwhelm, because setting up the story is a really big deal, where everything you detail and describe, and all the secondary characters you invent should have some relevance or key significance for the protagonists and their dilemmas further on down the line. If these features don’t link, if they don’t supply this kind of meaning, then too many tangents or threads are introduced and the whole story becomes a baggy and frayed mess, instead of a carefully woven strong piece of cloth.
I’ve recently heard that the broad differences between doing fully plotted outlines or going with whatever flow presents itself in the story (sometimes referred to as planning or pantsing), can also be termed being an ARCHITECT, who works out all the angles of the story they are building with great precision, doing the full outline first with all the scenes mapped out in the right order and then writing the whole novel to fit, OR, a GARDENER, who having planted the seed, facilitates the story’s growth by allowing for the spontaneous to happen, where the story gains its own momentum and the characters take the writer where they will according to their nature.
Here is a quick guide to planning vs pansting/ otherwise known as architect vs gardener
So at the start of a novel, this is where you inevitably tussle with which mode you operate by, or what combination your own nature and preferences may tend towards. Are you an architect or a gardener or a combination of both? Personally, I’ve found I need to work out the main characters in detail, then know where to take them for roughly the first 30% of the story, having only a vague idea of the ending. I do have a mind map for the novel with the major turning points marked, and other important structural points with ideas for language and symbols, but I can see how I alternate between architect and gardener, pretty much 50:50, getting into a rhythm which takes me to the end. I’ve never had to do any reverse turns in my plotting so far – thank goodness – because I stop writing if I don’t know where I’m going. The draw back to this, though, is that it can be very time-consuming, constantly assessing, and stopping and starting. Now, with this novel, I’m curious to see whether I can plot in a linear fashion, with all the major scenes listed, so I’m reading Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland, who some of you may be familiar with. I’ve begun simply typing up the story so far and I’ll let you know how I get on. I’ll be thinking story for days to come now!
(If you are interested, the previous posts on this post’s theme are here:
Needless to say the peony painting is still in progress. But cheers for now and I hope your projects are going well for you :>)
(both pics from Pixabay)