Tag Archives: structure

What I write about when I’m not writing fiction

My good news is that I’m getting back to revising my novel. Thank you, good friends, who have enquired about its progress over the last 12 months. My bad news is that the progress has been very slow, and was much delayed for about 9 months. In fact I put the novel back in its drawer again for a while. I just couldn’t work on it at the same time as on the book I have just finished with my two co-authors: The New Age of Ageing.

145 writing keyboard

Writing fiction and non-fiction

I have tried and failed on several occasions to keep two large writing projects on the go at the same time – one non-fiction and the other a novel or short story. It just doesn’t seem to work. I am wondering why. In part it is because they require conflicting skills.

The New Age of Ageing, and non-fiction writing generally, requires methodical and thorough research, solid arguments, a sequence of writing that reflects the ideas under discussion. Some skills needed are the same as for fiction, such as hooking interest early, clarity and presenting factual information that relates to people’s lives. What I don’t need is to go shooting off after a new narrative idea, or to leave the reader in suspense at the end of a chapter. No, every assumption and connection needs to be considered, verified, scrutinised. Flights of fancy must be followed by reasoned hypothesis.

Structural problems of the two genres are very different. For the novel I have a plot in 23 chapters. I have been challenged by the novel’s structure, deciding on advice to change to alternating chapters having originally written it in alternating pairs. The change resulted in an improved novel but hours of confusion as I had to re-label everything on my computer and on the hard copies. You need to be well organised about peripheral things when writing a novel. Well I do, being a planner rather than a pantser. Zadie Smith referred to micro managers and macro planners in an influential lecture at Columbia University in March 2008. I am happy to quote her descriptions, because I admire her work and recently wrote a post challenging a comment she made about writing and therapy.

You will recognise a Macro Planner from his Post-its, from those Moleskines he insists on buying. A Macro Planner makes notes, organises material, configures a plot and creates a structure—all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle.

I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.

Structure for the book on ageing posed different challenges. Each chapter required a great deal of revision, recasting, editing, removal, filling gaps. It often seemed that I had all the right ideas but in the wrong order. I also had two co-authors to whom reference needed to be made for everything as they are also responsible for the content. Their feedback notes were invaluable, our talk was even better.

I can get very passionate about ageing and the issues and challenges that are not getting enough attention. I loved writing our manifesto for the book, getting clearer and clearer what it was we wanted to say. I loved the process of taking our combined ideas and moving them to a place I could not have gone on my own. So my involvement in writing that book was social as well as requiring some good research and communication skills.

243 New Age cover

Writing my novel is more isolating. To write the novel or the book on ageing I sit for hours in my writing room, looking out occasionally at Dartmoor and its changing weather patterns. Sitting. Tapping. Rearranging papers. An observer would not see the difference. But in the end, the novel has been a very isolated and individual activity.

So they require different skills, but that does not quite explain why I can’t do write fiction and non-fiction at the same time.

Working one project

About 9 months ago I decided to put the novel back in the drawer (yes again). After all we had a contract for our book on ageing and a deadline for completion. And I had two co-writers to answer to. And to be honest I had got to a sticky point in the revisions.

I had found that my fiction writing is not good enough at showing or even telling the reader about the emotional state of the protagonists. I tend to assume it’s obvious. In my best moments I think that is honouring the intelligence of the readers, allowing them to do some work. But when my intelligent readers said that I needed to work on this I can only agree. It has taken me some rumination, reading novels and some guidance from my on-line course to help me see what I must do. That’s what I am working on now.

Blogging

94 Blog on tablet

I can’t concentrate on fiction and non-fiction writing at the same time. However, one genre of writing has proved itself compatible with both fiction and non-fiction – blogging. The Book Word blog has been building slowly but steadily throughout this time, and I have posted every five or six days. In the posts I explore writing issues, review books, continue the series on older women in fiction and am able to look at all things connected with books and writing that take my fancy.

Perhaps I can combine blogging with both fiction and non-fiction because blogging requires some creativity, some research, some care over the communication of the content. And I am my own publisher for the blog. It’s not a commercial undertaking, so if a post bombs there is no consequence except to my pride. The deadlines are close, but I can (and do) alter them to suit my life.

It’s back to the novel

So … I am taking the chapters and looking at the emotional arcs of the characters and hoping that all the reading and writing and thinking I have done will help me see afresh how to communicate the emotional life of my characters.

And I am doing all the other things put on hold while we finished The New Age of Ageing. That’s another post in preparation! What I do when I’m not writing. Watch this space.

Related posts

This was the 6th in a series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015. Previous posts

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

And here’s a post with some excellent ideas: 10 things to do while your MS is resting from Victoria Griffin Fiction blog in July last year.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman, to be published by Policy Press in September 2016.

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On-line Writing Course #5 Deadline approaching!

OK! So I said I was going to finish the second draft of my novel by the end of August. To put it another way I planned to complete revisions to the first draft by then. Here we are the beginning of August and – guess what – I’m not going to make it. And – guess what again – I don’t feel guilty.

Here are my reasons (others might call them excuses) for falling behind:

The Builders Were In:

The most compelling reason is one that anyone who has ever had building works done in their house will understand: my kitchen floor needed to be relaid and an external wall of my cottage waterproofed. Remember the great storms of December 2013? Yes, when the railway line between me and Exeter was washed away at Dawlish? Those storms? Well on 23rd December 2013 water came flowing through my kitchen and since that time I have been trying to get the damage fixed, and in June and for three weeks there was MAJOR DISRUPTION. In a good way. It’s all done.

153 tick

And I have been doing other things. Three of them are writing things:

  1. I’m co-authoring a new book on ageing. I had an outline plan for my sections, which I have revised in the light of not quite getting the writing done quickly enough. I do love the research, tracking down the right figures, looking through our interview material, thinking about how the issues of the topic fit our overall themes. Currently I’m working on a chapter about older workers. Should be a doddle. I’ve written about this before in Retiring with Attitude. Somehow re-writing material can take longer than starting from scratch. I don’t understand why, but I know this is true.
  2. I’m writing my blog. Yes I know. That’s what I am dong, now this minute. About every five or six days I write something about books: a review, some thoughts about writing, something else related. I love it. It’s not a burden, but it does take head space and writing time. 145 writing keyboard
  3. I’m writing a new short story to submit to an anthology that our writing group is getting together. I’ve done the first draft, but it needs close revision (not revising again!) to get it in shape and to meet the deadline.

And then there are more other things

Grandmother duties, picnics, trips to country parks, and summer in Devon; visits to London; a wet weekend in Cornwall attending a nephew’s camping wedding (of course it rained. It poured and blew a gale, except during the Saturday afternoon when we all put on our glad rags and waterproof footwear and enjoyed wedding things: champagne, cake, bunting, speeches, relatives, and weather reports); completing the visa form in preparation for a visit to Russia (people – it’s more complicated than doing income tax on line – although I haven’t done that yet, because of the visa thing).

So I am behind. And since I have been having such a good time there is no point in beating myself up. Some deadlines can be moved. One should never plan oneself into a corner with a deadlines if you can help it. Planning should not produce guilt.

86 Mind the Gap

I still love revising. I shall do it by Christmas, I hope. But finishing the manuscript of the non-fiction book and getting it to the publisher by/in March 2016 is an immovable deadline.

Watch this space if you want. Updates will appear.

Related posts

On-line writing course #3 Finished? in which I revealed my plan to complete the revisions by the end of August

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot in which I reported that the schedule was beginning to slip …

What keeps you from getting a writing task done? I hope it’s good things.

 

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On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot

I committed 6 weeks to following an on-line course on self-editing the first draft of my novel. I enjoyed it very much and learned a great deal, and when I finished I drew up a plan for the editing. You can read about my plan here. It involves six stages, each a focus for roughly a month on one aspect of the course. Phase one was structure and plot. Phase 2 is characters.

JG Ballard's edit of The Crash, tweeted by @johnnyGeller

JG Ballard’s edit of The Crash, tweeted by @johnnyGeller

It’s time to review how it’s going.

Here are the excuses, aka reasons

  1. All the things I had put to one side so that I could complete the course have claimed my attention since I finished.
  2. I have several writing projects –the blog, a co-authored book, writing groups – and these have also claimed my attention.
  3. I have had other time-consuming activities such as joining a panel at WOW The Truth about Ageing and the City Lit meet the authors event.
  4. All the other time-consuming activities such as walking, grandparenting, seeing friends, going to the opera, a day at the spa, all these have stolen away the days.
  5. Spring means that the desire to spend time in the garden has overwhelmed me, until …
  6. … I got this rotten cough and cold.

So it’s not surprising that my progress has not been as I hoped and envisaged.

What I have done

  1. I have decided on a new structure for the novel, which involves re-ordering half of the chapters, adding a new one and moving some scenes around. Not much re-writing there, but it feels like an important decision as well as the right one and I looked at it carefully before the physical task of renumbering consumed me.
  2. I have read lots of posts on writer Emma Darwin’s excellent blog: This Itch of Writing. I especially liked the one about the exercise where you go through the plot looking at fortunately/unfortunately. This reveals where the plot is engaging and moving forward. For example: ‘Fortunately Lorna’s niece came to stay. Unfortunately the nosey girl opened the box of letters.’
  3. 163 Into woods coverEmma Darwin recommends Into the Woods by John Yorke (Penguin), about story telling. It’s an interesting book about structure, and what keeps a story moving and why we tell stories this way. That’s stories of all kinds: novels, plays, tv series, films etc.
  4. I’ve been reading novels recommended during the course to help me look at structure and also psychic distance. I need to grapple with both of these during my revision.
  5. I’m learning that revision means asking questions, taking a longer view and lots of thinking and considering. At this moment, not so much rewriting. I am predicting that this will change as I move through The Great Plan.
  6. And now I’ve started on the second phase, revising aspects of the characters. I have already redrafted the arrival of the second main character. It’s not tight enough yet, doesn’t quite say enough about her yet, but I’ll get some feedback from a writing group this weekend.

    Pencils from tree trunks. Have I bitten off more than I can shew?

    Pencils from tree trunks. Have I bitten off more than I can shew?

Well I’m being systematic, which may not be a good thing. But at least I have a plan and I am following it. When I first tried to revise my first draft I had no real clue what to do. Now I feel a little more in charge. Will it last? Oh I do hope it will last.

Do you have any recommendations for books about revising a first draft?

 

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