On Fridays I teach Y13 English Language for four hours straight – two hours with one class, two hours with the other. It can be a gruelling feat of faux enthusiasm (especially when I’ve had a crap week and I’m planning to run home at eleven minutes past three). Equally, it can be my favourite part of the week, if I’m on top of my marking, and my lovely sixth formers are on their ‘A’ game. They’re all very sweet, all girls, and generally good company… unless I’m the only one who’s acting awake and interested.
Last week, both classes did exams for me, and I had a spare couple of hours to work while they wrote. I didn’t have access to a compute
r and I couldn’t concentrate on marking, so I ended up doing a spot of writing on the sly. I had my favourite LAMY pen, a fresh pad of WH Smith narrow-ruled, and peace and quiet. I ended up planning seventeen chapters of my novel. Considering I’ve been working on this thing for years, this was quite an achievement for a snatched hour or so on a Friday.
I don’t tend to plan my writing in this way normally, but lately I’ve hit a bit of a brick wall, so I thought it necessary to change my habits. Basically, I’m brilliant at writing first chapters, and this is all that I’ve achieved in the last few months. I draft first chapters over and over, trying out different voices, styles and perspectives, driving myself mad and never driving the narrative forward. It’s not productive. So I decided I needed to figure out what was going on in my story, and whether I even have one.
It turns out I do have a story. What worries me is at the moment it reads more like a series of episode synopses for Dawson’s Creek. Too angsty, too melodramatic. I remember one of my university teachers telling me that the best stories learn to dwell on the ‘smaller moments’ – it doesn’t all have to be funerals and fights. I don’t know if it’s possible to plan your character’s breakfasts and their choice of footwear – those little details that make stories real. I’ll have to figure out those bits along the way. Perhaps I need more character notes to work out the quirky little details.
I don’t think I’m the sort of writer who will have a little digital sticky note for each chapter on Scrivener, or any other sort of novel-writing software. I might scribble bits into notebooks, or collate scraps of paper in folders, but it’s never going to be a very linear exercise for me. I don’t write plot-driven pot-boilers. I write character-driven quirky sagas. Perhaps, as so many writers claim, the characters will decide it all for me.
On my MA, I was lucky enough to hear from lots of successful writers about their habits and methods, and planning and plotting was a constant theme of discussion. It’s the sort of writing skill that can’t be taught in a two-hour seminar, because it can take a decade to do it. I remember Sarah Dunant telling us that she never planned rigorously – she described writing as like night driving – you can see a little way ahead, but not that far. Philip Pullman, on the other hand, talks of knowing the basic architecture of a novel, though not necessarily the blow-by-blow details of what will happen in each chapter. Nick Cohen, a journalist, said to have a flexible attitude to the structure of a text – the beginning will not always stay at the beginning.
With this in mind, I’m going to stop writing first chapters and get on with it, knowing I don’t have to stick to the plan… but I do need to stick to moving forward.