That night, out in the family boat, when he was ten years old. Sea-mist came from nowhere. He was careless, and fell into chill April water, breathing its knife pain into his lungs. Panic. The current was strong, and the life-jacket could not protect him from cold. The water wanted to hold his head under, a force, a something that wanted to drag him down.
Writing a novel without some kind of a plan is like building a house on quicksand. It is so much harder to fix structural problems at the end of a draft than it is in the development stage.
Well known literary agent Jonny Geller
I don’t agree at all. Structure is a superficial feature of narrative. You can change it whenever you like. What’s truly fundamental is tone. You do need a plan, but the best sequence is–write first, then plan. Then edit with confidence, knowing what you’ve got.
Fantasy superstar Philip Pullman
Here’s the point about writing advice. I’ve learned to be cautious about dogma, because people are fond of saying what that works for them – their brain, their way of thinking – should be universal advice.
Lots of people extol ‘Write every day!’ That’s a great discipline if you can manage it, and for some people the only way to get the time. To be honest, a day of writing and doing nothing else (or two half days) works better for me than seven individual hours on seven different days. (Think about it every day if you can.)
Dogma merchants love the mechanics of writing. Some people handwrite their books in elegant notebooks with a fountain pen they bought at Harrods. Others hammer their old computer like a demented Muppet. Which is right?
I think it depends how you put words together. Some people painfully assemble their sentences like an old watchmaker. They write slowly – add a comma here? Oooh, tricky! What comes out is serviceable. Bit by bit they build the work. So handwriting is fine.
I’m more Kermit thumping out the words on my laptop, to see how the scene works, or whether this approach is too obtuse. I write quick and messy, knowing I will have to go over it again and again. I honestly think I need to write 10,000 words of a major character before I’m clear if they are working. To be forced to handwrite would be unbelievably frustrating. It would be like telling a ‘watchmaking’ writer to write with their feet. I accept the price of this method: writing stuff you change later, deciding an approach is not working, writing stuff you decide to cut.
When it comes to a significant review and edit, I change the font and print it out, and mark it up on paper. This is a deliberate attempt to make the work feel like someone else’s.
Plot or pants? Plan the work or write by the seat of your pants? See the two esteemed figures above. Brian Aldiss claimed to plan books down to paragraph level before he started writing. Stephen King starts with a situation and sees what happens.
I’m more King than Aldiss. However, starting a book without a clear understanding of the final place the characters must end is very dangerous. People don’t forgive poor endings. Where your characters start and end, the challenge they face and the change that happens, is the arc of the book. Starting without this is setting sail in the dark and hoping to find an island which might not be there. I must start knowing an ending, so in one sense I plot.
What is the narrative question, asked early in the book, guiding the book throughout, and answered at the end? Should Hamlet kill his wicked uncle? Can Iago destroy Othello by his lies? Will Romeo and Juliet live happy ever after?
Stravinsky said, ‘The magic happens at the keyboard.’ Writing deepens understanding of the characters, brings out themes, helps you understand this new idea is a better challenge than the old one. I’m also terrified that a detailed plan will remove the impetus to write the damn thing, just as telling someone a short story idea often stops me writing the story.
I start with a rough idea of what will happen, a one side plan. I write a lot, and it makes me reconsider the plan. Sometimes I pause a good way in and redo the plan. But the plan is the servant not the master.
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So, it’s only February but this is a strong contender for the Science Story of 2018. Cheddar Man, the skeleton of a 10,000 year old hunter-gatherer found in Cheddar Gorge, turns out not to be white. In fact, like other skeletons of the same age found across Europe, DNA testing shows he was brown or black – but had blue eyes.
This was presented in the Channel Four documentary as utterly stunning and unexpected. Although three hunter-gatherer skeletons on continental Europe in the 10000-7000 year old range gave exactly the same findings in previous studies, so a bit of hype I think.
About 10% of British DNA comes from these dark Mesolithic hunters. I could hear people falling off their barstools as I read the story.
I’ve been in Cheddar several times, and I am now dreaming of the man and his family hunting reindeer and ‘they gurt* aurochs’ with dogs, looking up at the cliffs … my ancestor, with as much right to be here as anyone else. His people walked from what is now continental Europe, because there was a fertile land now drowned joining the gaps. British, European, Middle-Eastern, African, human.
Scientists now think pale skin only came to the fore once farming begun, and palefaces benefited from higher vitamin D levels. Farming doesn’t feed you better than being a hunter, or keep you healthier, it just allows you to have more people, and take over. (Cheddar Man was lactose intolerant, which fits with not being a farmer.) It is interesting that although younger hunter-gatherer skeletons in Spain and Luxembourg come up with the same dark skin and blue eyes, the oldest German farmer found was pale skinned.
I love how new scientific developments throw established wisdom into confusion. There’s almost no Italian DNA in the UK – so the Romans came, ruled for four centuries, and left without leaving a trace. (That chimes with the fact that Latin words came into English through the post-Roman civilisation. Can we assume that the Romans didn’t breed with or teach the locals much?**) On the other hand, DNA tests have shown that the Black Death was in fact the Black Death and not as some controversialists claim, something else.
The real truth is hair, eye and skin colour are distinctive, but irrelevant for most purposes. We’re all related to each other. In fact, everyone is descended from most people alive in the Middle Ages. Many Europeans and Asians carry little bits of DNA from earlier versions of humanity than homo sapiens.
The debate about race and racism is not really about facts, but here’s hoping this stunningly visual find opens people’s hearts and minds.
*big. Of course I hear him talking in a West Country accent.
**Sometimes genes just drift out of a population for no obvious reason.
I’m due to get my latest set of edits soon. When I signed with Jo my editor for Our Child in the Stars, I knew from day one that she would want three broad things.
A developmental edit, which suggests changes to the structure and tone of the book at a para, line, scene, page, chapter level – character, setting, stylistic choices all up for comment – phew;
When that’s done, a copy or line edit, which literally goes through the book line by line saying delete this, unnecessary repetition – phew;
and finally, proof-reading, which a fresh set of eyes takes on, checking again eg grammar and consistency about italics etc.
[Added: of course these phases are not rigidly separate. Things occur to editor and author in the discussions.]
No surprise that people have said things like, ‘Won’t this ruin the book?’ ‘Will it still be your book?’
The core thing is that my editor and I share a vision for the book. What Jo is doing is helping make it happen. Following untold years in the book mines, her experience helps shape delivering the story well (pace and structure), dialling things up where needed, bringing things out. If we did not share a vision, then the discussions would be short.
So, ‘There is too much warm family stuff’ is not a line I could work with. ‘This bit could be faster’, I could.
Imagine you write and direct an amateur play. You plan to put it on, at your own expense in the local Scout Hut. Local rehearsals go well, your friends are impressed. Then an impresario is given a copy, and they want to pay you to put it on. Bigger theatre, bigger budget, paying the actors, the stamp of success. How exciting!
That impresario likes it, they really do, they read hundreds of plays before picking this one. But they have put on the odd play or thirty before, and they know what works. They will come back with a string of points. All that comic stuff in Act Two slows the pace and reduces the drama. Do you need both the heroine’s brothers? They seem very samey, and it’s boring when they talk to each other. You need to work on the final speech, which seems to cut across the theme. The set design is very bland. Is there a reason the period is so vague?
Some of this is so obviously right you nod. Some of this might be very challenging. You had some clear ideas right back at the beginning you might need to give up on. Some comments you vow you will agree to only over your dead body. Some involves looking up the first draft again and getting out bits you’d abandoned.
Your initial response might be to Google ‘How much assassinate theatre person London?’ Or that it would take a year to do all that, so the play is doomed. But you remember that Shakespeare probably had the same thing, and less time to do it in.
So, you muse on it all. Somewhere, some of the more critical points start to strike you as having the ring of truth. The editor’s suggested cuts in Act Two miss the mark, but you realise a much better way of addressing her concerns. You find you don’t care that much about one brother or two, and just roll over on that. The finale speech is really important, you will need to discuss what she means further. If she didn’t understand… that means you need to flag the theme up even stronger and earlier in the play. And she’s just factually wrong on Norfolk sheep farming.
You see the point. Of course, in a play, the actors are important co-creators, as is the director, the designer and a host of other people. A book comes down to you and the editor.
What you end up with, you both hope, is a work which delivers in the real world the characters, story and themes of your play/book, but more effectively. So, during the edit, there will be cursing, but you are working with a professional who after all, is investing time and money your book’s success. To stretch another metaphor, it’s like a marriage. If you ask ‘who is winning’ the relationship is in trouble. The book ought to be winning, and the readers.
An agent tweeted recently that editing was ‘enjoyable’. I’d say it’s more like doing a run for charity. Some of the training, some of the post training, the run itself, the aftermath – some of this is enjoyable. Some bits aren’t, some bits involve sweating and swearing, but you know you need to see those through to do what you want to achieve.