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Bardo, Bardo

Tibetan Buddhists believe in a drifting state between lives, where the soul waits to find its new home.  Me?  I don’t believe in rebirth or reincarnation, but a purposeless state between lives I absolutely get.

A month ago, I submitted my latest, and possibly last, draft of my novel to an editor.  It’s been nine years since I started it, so coming to an end leaves me kicking my heels.  The obvious answer is to get back into writing another.  I already have an incomplete novel, started during a time when I thought the last one was done with, but I’m no longer excited by the premise and the writing now seems clunky.

The ideal was to start something new.  I already had an idea.  A friend of mine is a real character, so it seemed like a good idea to start with him.  Then another character popped up, someone else I know.  Then another, less clear.  I had fun writing a past and present for them, and then began to get stuck.

I have a guilt-provoking belief that proper novels start from character, and even though this is not how I have always worked, I keep trying to do it.  I found myself in a mid-state, flicking between character studies, and searches for purpose.  The main character seemed to be stuck in his house and bedroom, the writing became thinner.  I stopped.

On Saturday, I had a day free and decided to go for a walk in London.  As usual, I headed for the bookshops.  Foyles in Charing Cross Road seems to have regained its status as the place to go, so I went for coffee and cake, then walked down through the floors.  In Reference, I looked through Grammar and saw a display of How to Write books.

One stood out.  Ready, Set, Novel!  Another guilt-provoking belief I have is that you shouldn’t use ‘How to’ books to write a proper novel.  But flicking through, I liked it.  Lots of space and simple exercises.  And something struck me.  I have been writing properly for 13 years.  Two novels completed.  Haven’t I earned the right to go back and have fun?

And it has been.  Scribbling pictures in a blank square; brainstorming places and things that inspire and excite me; randomly assigning the top nine to three ‘novels’; and using the ‘What if?’ etc. etc.

Lord knows what will come of it, but I’m motivated to continue.  And in the meantime, I seem to have recovered my sense of purpose and, maybe, a new life.

Writing Fiction: What, More?

With only a little way to go on the rewrite, I decided to put all of the chapters together in a separate folder called, ‘Completed.’

Ha!  The process only revealed more work to do.  Twelve pieces, to be exact.  The problem is that the younger character has really begun to shine.   This has made some of her original chapters look, at best, functional.  Also, seeing it in order, some chapters don’t make sense, or need to be amalgamated with others.

I have a picture of a house that needs repairs and painting.  Every time the decorator looks up from his pot, the house has changed shaped, or one bit doesn’t look as good as it used to.  Back to the DIY store.

Oddly, the process is not dispiriting.  I feel I’m really getting somewhere.  I like the way the two characters are interacting and there’s some writing I’m really pleased with.

In a way, I’m constructing a to-do list for the new year.

Last January, I started this last rewrite and promised the editor I would be finished by March.  It is now December.  I have emailed to let her know I may not be finished until spring or summer.  Who knows?  I don’t.  But I’m still enjoying the process.

Writing Fiction: Knots

Oddly, I’m fine with a list of chapters to rewrite.  It’s the unexpected knots that can knock the wind out of me.  In this case encountering the mysterious case of the number of elderly woman’s sons.

In one chapter, the first one turns up; in another, they are seen together; in the third, it’s just the second son.  But there have been various rewrites, and in some, it all drops down to just one son.  This makes sense, as it stops the cluttering of minor characters.  But in the version I’m rewriting, the second son turned up.

My heart sank at the prospect of having to rewrite and/or decide the question of one son or two, again.  Fortunately, a moment of clarity at the end of a meditation, and the discovery that the other chapters matched the one-son solution, made the actual rewrite quick and fairly easy.

I feel as if I have permission to go on with the next of my listed chapters.

Writing Fiction: The Day Goes Well

Apparently, if you join the SAS, they make you run a marathon.  When you get to the van waiting to pick you up at the end, it pulls away, and you have to run another six miles.

As I completed my recent rewrite and realised I had at least eight more chapters to create or amend, I expected to hear the sound of a disappearing motor.  Instead, the process has been a little like completing the course in the van itself.  The new character is coming through, I’m enjoying writing her.  The feedback from writers’ groups has been very positive.  One person saying that she’ll be sorry when I eventually stop presenting them.  Another, that she’d like this character as her friend.

This is all good, and a useful reminder that sometimes the daily grind can turn into something much more rewarding.

A Satisfying Plot: Theme

On my first novel writing course we were asked what we liked in books. I said, ‘Where things happen and people have sex; but they don’t have to have sex as long as things happen.’ Recently, I was delighted to hear that a friend’s child had explained her love of Downton Abbey as, ‘It’s olden times, and things happen.’ Exactly!

What I disliked most was the idea of theme. It sounded so writerly and Hampstead. I was once in a bookshop where there was a reading being given by new novelists. The first stood up and said, ‘There are three themes to this novel.’ I left.

But recently I’ve been wrestling with trying to put some shape to a novel I’ve been writing on-and-off for about two years. There are lots of little mini-stories, a main character, and fairly decent set-up. But it all feels a bit amorphous. Mostly, I experience a slight sinking feeling. I could impose a three-act structure, but it still wouldn’t get to the heart of the problem.

The idea of theme has popped its head up over the horizon, and has been waving at me ever since. Damn.

But recently, I saw Frozen. I’m a sucker for a good cartoon: Kung-Fu Panda, Shrek, even Beauty and the Beast. What struck me particularly about Frozen was that from about halfway through I found myself getting really drawn into the plot. When the ending came, it was fully consistent with the rest of the story and a delightful surprise. There was no getting past it. The whole thing had been developed from a simple theme.

You could sum this up as love and fear; or frozen heart; or simply, Frozen. Everything comes out of it, from the set-up to the resolution. Right down to the jokey character, Olaf, who is completely loving and open, but is made of snow. And it works. The most successful animated film in history.

My argumentative self would say yes, but it’s a cartoon. Based on a fairy tale. Of course it has a strong theme.

Except, I was once listening to a radio discussion about Middlemarch. Pretty much my favourite book. One of the speakers kept going on about ‘the web.’ What web? I thought. Turned out, it’s the central theme of the book. The way in which people get caught up. An image that is constantly referred back to. I hadn’t noticed. All I knew was that there were several different stories being told, and a sense of intelligence in the telling.

It’s probably about time I defined what is meant by theme. Which I have nicked from a handy video clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3_Bb9wGObY): theme is an idea that the author is trying to express to the reader about life or the human condition. It is the underlying meaning behind the whole story. And perhaps it’s this didactic element which put me off i.e. stop trying to tell me things and get on with the plot. Except that it is inevitable that if you tell a strong story you will convey something of your understanding of the world (or even discover what your view might be). A couple of stories in Middlemarch for example look at the way in which great ambition is undermined by relationships – part of the web theme. George Eliot did indeed feel held back by an early relationship.

In Lajos Egri’s classic The Art of Dramatic Writing (written in 1942! Recommended by Moss Hart!) he starts by talking about the importance of what he calls premise. Here, themes are not single words such as love, betrayal, jealousy, but are phrases written to describe a journey. Eg Romeo and Juliet: Great Love Defies Even Death, King Lear: Blind Trust Leads to Destruction, Othello: Jealousy Destroys Itself and the Object of Its Love. The premise or theme is the force that underlies the action. So Frozen would be Love Overcomes Fear.

So, I took this to my novel. First off, the hero is a hypochondriac. I thought about what hypochondria means to me, and came up with self-obsession, torpor, and fear. Then, what the opposite might be: selflessness, energy, confidence. In fact, my notes looked a little like this (if you can imagine them spread out over the page):

Selflessness (altruism) + The relief of love (energising), defeat Torpor + Decay, the mundane, soulless, Decay (disguised as progress) = Despair/Hopelessness.

My first attempt to get this into a manageable premise was Selflessness and Love Defeat Torpor and Decay-Disguised-as-Progress. But there is something about energy which is important to the novel. And even love can’t stop change in the public sector (where the novel is set). Though it might be able to dispel the despair created by it. So, The Energising Effect of Love Dispels Torpor and Despair. Which, with its strange capitalisation, looks like the sub-heading to an 18th-century novel. I like it!

But it’s a bit long. Boiling them down further I had Love Dispels Despair. With the caveat that for the exploration I can open it out to its long form.

Next, for that exploration, I thought up some questions:

In the novel…

  • How does love dispel despair?
  • When did the despair start? (How far back do I need to go?)
  • When did love start? (How far back do I need to go?)
  • How does love energise?
  • Why dispel, rather than defeat, conquer, dissolve etc?
  • What was the first moment when the character began to realise or rediscover the theme?
  • What are the other key moments in that journey?
  • Does the journey inspire me? If not, what’s missing?
  • Is this exploration too simple or too dull? If so, how could I spice it up?
  • How do other characters in the story embody that theme?
  • What forces (inner and outer) oppose this journey? Are they powerful enough? What is the biggest test?
  • Is the journey from despair to love described convincingly enough?
  • Is the ending a big enough firework display to see this theme off in a fitting way?
  • Are there any interesting things I could do with it?
  • What’s the last thing I would expect with a theme like this?

The process, even without answering the questions, took about three days. In attempting it, I began to get inspired by the possibilities, and feel a greater sense of control over the material. My reaction to theme in the past might have been to roll my eyes and think, how clichéd; right now, it’s thank goodness. Here, for my disorganised novel, is a way to bind plot, structure, characters and action, and get them moving. Also, there is plenty of room for exploration and creativity: to open it out while retaining a sense of continuity. Finally, themes can be BIG. Even the smallest, most parochial story can have a big theme. Which is quite inspiring (a good British sentence). I begin to see more clearly why an epic like Titanic would have a love story at its core.

Having said all this, I suspect you still don’t have to have a theme in order to write a successful story. Many authors of popular fiction probably write to plot and character, having taken the central theme for granted (love, horror, danger) – or perhaps they use it each time to reenergise themselves. Writers of literary fiction may only identify a theme after the first or second draft. Leaving the initial writing more open to exploration and spontaneity. Also, just getting your theme, characters, and action all lined up is no guarantee of success, Shark’s Tale stunk the house out.

Egri finishes by saying:

The premise is the conception, the beginning of a play [or story]. The premise is a seed and it grows into a plant that was contained in the original seed; nothing more, nothing less. The premise should not stand out like a sore thumb, turning characters into puppets and the conflicting forces into a mechanical set-up. In a well-constructed play or story, it is impossible to denote just where premise ends and story or character begins.

I’ve reached a point where it’s become a useful tool, and I’m going to explore it more. Though believe me, if anyone asks me what my novel is about, I’ll just tell them what happens.

A Quarter Novel in a Month: Report

November over.  Time to report.  I had intended to write a quarter of a novel and I’m not sure that I did.  I certainly wrote 19,800 words – which is bizarre, because I’m sure I did 750-a-day, so either I’m missing some or it’s a clear case of self-deception.

The reason I’m not sure whether I’ve finished the quarter novel is that I had a pretty clear idea where I would need to get to in the story and then decided halfway through the month that that plot event would happen later in the novel.

So, what have I got?  I have definitely broken the being-stuck-halfway-through thing.  The story has momentum and the relationship between the two main protagonists is clearer.  An odd thing is happening with the female character which I’ll write about another time.

So, all in all, a very useful exercise.  I’m now going back to the second novel to carry out some of the amendments suggested by the editorial report.

A Quarter Novel in a Month and a Reading

November is a month for growing moustaches and writing novels.  The challenge set at http://nanowrimo.org/ is to write a first draft in thirty days.  I’ve been stuck at the same place in my third novel for about six months: going back and editing the material, arranging it into chapters, working on the plot and characters.  It is time to move on.  So I’m going to break through by attempting to write a draft of the next quarter by the end of November.

By the way, I shall be reading an excerpt from my second novel at a fundraising event at the London Buddhist Centre on Saturday 16 November in the evening.  There will also be readings from award-winning poets Cath Drake and Vishvantara, as well as Maitreyabandhu whose poetry collection The Crumb Road was given a great review in the Saturday Guardian recently, and Simon Otokie, whose book Whatever Happened to Harold Absolom? was similarly lauded in the FT.  For full details follow this link: http://www.lbc.org.uk/festivebuddhist.htm