Writing Fiction: River Jumping

It’s been about six weeks since I received the editorial report on my novel suggesting another rewrite.  Six weeks.  That’s a long time.  Frankly?  I’ve been struggling.  Oddly, it was easier for me to adopt the idea of changing one of the main characters from a middle-aged man to a 29-year-old woman than it has been for me to make subtler changes.  Perhaps because I’ve run up against the limits of my conception for this novel or my ability to see this character in a different way.

One problem, for example, is in making the female character independent, mature and empowered.  I’ve had additional feedback from a couple of women about the character and it is consistent with the report: she is too childlike and too dependent on male characters to rescue her.  Damn.  And there was I thinking I was a feminist.

But, without meaning to dig myself any deeper, I like the character the way she is and can’t picture her in a different way.  I understand what I am being told, but there is nothing creatively that then presents itself as an alternative.

When Edward de Bono created brainstorming, it was to try to break people into new ways of thinking.  The principles are pretty well known: go for quantity not quality, always say yes, allow associations, encourage wild ideas.  In short, just say whatever comes into your mind, don’t censure and keep going.

It has been around long enough for variants to develop.  One is called River Jumping.  I’ve been teaching it on courses recently and it occurred to me that I might use it.  I think there are a number of ways to approach it.  But this is how I used to with my current problem:

First, state your problem.  In my case, it was how to create an empowered character rather than the slightly childlike/dependent-on-men character that I had before.

Second, generalise the problem.  Flatten it.  So, being able to create an empowered character.

Third, brainstorm all the people/organisations/etc. who face a similar problem.  I came up with a list of 49.  Starting with therapists, politicians, dramatists, etc.

Fourth, pick one or two which are quite different to yourself.  I picked: stewardess on a crashing plane, Robinson Crusoe, a porcupine and Yahweh.

Fifth, in your head, ask them how they would solve the problem.  I did it with all, but I’ll use the stewardess as an example.  She came up with lots of ways:

Forget the rest of the world, what will happen and what has happened.

Fix only on your passengers.

Know that their calmness is created by your calmness.

Fuck status

Think, this moment is your best moment.

I liked the middle one particularly.  But looking at them again, the last one quite appeals.

Final stage, apply what they say to your problem.  Actually, what I did was to write a scene in which the lead female character remembers being six years old and meeting a stewardess, who says, ‘I was once on a crashing plane.’  But beyond this, it gives me an empowering philosophy of my female character, one that I can identify with.

Since then, I’ve used it with other writing problems.  The effectiveness may not last.  The brain has a way of habituating to even the most innovative practice.  But it’s been interesting.

Snakes and Ladders: Another Throw

Apparently, the average number of rewrites for a published novel is seventeen.  I handed in my twelfth draft to an editor a month ago and this week I got the report back.  In short: great rewrite, needs another draft.

My initial reaction was: oh, bollocks.  I was at Paddington Station, early for a train, when I got the email.  I went to to a nearby café, ordered omelette and chips, and used their free Wi-Fi to download the full report to my laptop.  I mean, for goodness’ sake, that’s fifteen months’ work (in addition to the seven years it’s already taken with this novel).  Sometimes, you really need a long train journey to Bristol to sit with the frustration.

Anyone who’s been following the saga of the-writing-of-the-second-novel may remember that this is the editor who told me I needed to change one of the main characters.  The fifteen-month rewrite was the result.

But I know how I am.  Two days of despair, and then starting to pick myself up.  By the time I had emailed her back, I was able to conjure, in her own words, a ‘measured and kind response.’  Now, I’m beginning to see the positives.

The truth is, the comments that she made?  She’s right.  In particular, finding a more convincing motivation for one character to become involved with the other, and a greater intertwining of their stories.  Also, getting more edge-of-your-seat, forward movement to the story.  These, like the writing of a more dynamic character before, are invaluable, if painful, lessons.  My underlying aim in all of this, after all, is to learn how to write (see top of this page).

So, time to scrub the writing off the chalkboard, plomp myself down on the chair, chin in hand, and start thinking again.

Can I do it?  I hope so.  I am calling the next draft my fourteenth.  I know it’s my thirteenth.  But, quite frankly, I need all the luck I can get.

Writing Fiction: Done List

I’ve completed my final read-through.  Out-loud, which brings up lots of minor amendments.  There have also been a couple of chapter re-writes which I’ve stitched together as I’ve gone along.  The novel has lost a couple of thousand words – no bad thing.

When I teach time management, we talk about having a done list.  Instead of getting hung up on the things left to do, you celebrate those you have completed.  My done list feels huge:  twelfth draft (after a couple more tweaks); new character written-in and thriving; lots of new writing that I’m proud of.

Is it completely, the best novel I could ever have produced?  No, probably not.  But, I’m proud of it and it feels ready to go back to the editor.  Which is quite something.

Writing Fiction: Empty Boxes

I should have finished the final amendments to the novel within the next couple of weeks.  It’s gone quicker than I thought it would.  After that, I slot the changed chapters back into the novel, read it again and send it back to the editor.

In other words, I’m going to have to find something new to write.  The obvious step is to go back to the novel I put aside to finish up the old one.  It’s about three-quarters done and there’s some good stuff in it.  Thing is, I have just spent over a year on yet another rewrite of the old novel; do I really want to go back again?

Nile Rodgers, speaking on a documentary about Daft Punk, said, ‘There’s no special feeling in the world, to me, that matches the magic of creating something from nothing.’

At Tate Modern they have an installation that has been running since October.  Triangular boxes of soil, collected from London parks, lit and watered.  No seeds have been sown, but still, in the months since it started, plants have begun to grow.  Some, no doubt, from mischievous members of the public.  But still, the idea of how little it takes for life to start is inspiring.

One thing I have enjoyed in the rewrite is discovering new characters who come from nowhere and interact freely.  Letting them talk, start and stop.  No background profiles, no context, no point.  Just doing what seems fun.

So then, a period of empty boxes.

Writing Fiction: Update

Finished the read-through and frankly, I’m not bowled over by it.  I had hoped that the contrast between elderly woman and young female comedian would be stronger, but in some of the chapters their characters just disappear.  The comedienne, bright and perky in one scene, becomes a bit flat in another; the elderly woman becomes a mouthpiece.  Also, the story contains flashbacks to when the older woman was young and there is a bit of similarity between them there.  It’s fixable.  But it does mean I have yet another list of tasks.  Nine, this time.  Typically involving making a character more distinct or fixing an anomaly in the way the chapters are now arranged.  I have a slight marathon-runner’s fatigue, but, it seems far to near the end to give up now.  I’ll let you know.

Writing Fiction: Twelve Down

My novel just got fatter.  By about 14,000 words.  Which, for a novel which was about 57,000 words in its last version, is quite considerable.  I blame the younger female lead.  This whole rewrite has been about putting her in place of the previous male character.  Must have worked, if only by the word count.  I certainly enjoyed writing her chapters.

In my last post, I had just worked out that I had 12 significant alterations to make, from minor to major (apologies to Ella Fitzgerald): rewriting a chapter, making sure that both sides of the novel (told from two different points of view) are consistent, or just getting the names right.

Starting in on the list on New Year’s Day, I was relieved to find that I had written some initial notes and suggests under each alteration heading.  By the first week, I had knocked off six of them, though it’s taken me the rest of January to complete the rest.

The process with each one has been the same:

  1. This is impossible!
  2. I’ll read through and see how it sounds.
  3. Ooh look, I could that…and that…and that.
  4. (Reading through new version): it might be better if I do this…
  5. Actually, that’s all rather good.
  6. On to the next.

So now, for the first time since last January when I started this rewrite, I have finally put all the chapters into a single document.  And that’s where the fatness came in.  I had been expecting that I would still be struggling to reach 60,000, so the 71,000 came as a pleasant surprise.

The next challenge is to read it through from beginning to end and make yet more notes on what needs to change.  There will be things.  Not least, the shifts in style between the two points of view, which have been effectively written years apart.  We’ll see.  Back into the fray…

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.