How to write and how you write, December 16

A few years I attended a very good writing course called the Novel Studio at City University. It was well structured, with experienced and insightful tutors. However, the novel I tried to write on the course was terrible, not a single word I wrote was right. Looking back, one of the issues was that learning to write is half about learning technique, but the other half is learning about how you as an individual write, what things work for you. By this I mean both the process and the kinds of stories that your imagination gets on with.

The course rightly placed a lot of emphasis on plot, but in doing so there was discussion of quite intricate plots. One of the lessons from studying these plots was to be careful that you knew consequence of something in chapter three for the action in chapter twenty four. There are some plots that illustrate these kinds of principles better than others, such as those in thrillers and genre fiction, though they apply to all stories. What I have realised since I doing the course, is that one of the problems with the novel I was trying to write was that I was trying to be too clever with the plot.

The stories I like to write have plots such as ‘an old woman tries to walk down the stairs while remembering her past’. Many of the principles that apply in more complex, plot-driven stories apply to that kind of narrative too. For example, in that story the protagonist has a goal (she wants to go and eat a piece of fruit), forces ranged against her (the stairs and her age), a key decision point (does she take the stair lift or try to walk down), a false dawn (she makes it down two steps and thinks its easy but then comes up against the difficult third step), a moment of crisis (she wobbles on the third step and could fall) and high jeopardy (she’s very old, so falling could well kill her).

But in my kind of narrative, the plot unfolds in a simpler, more straightforward way because what I’m interested in as a writer is achieving depth of character and using the narrative to explore and illustrate a theme in a symbolic or metaphorical way. I find that intricate plots can get in the way of that task, so my experience is that if a plot element is becoming difficult to handle, the best thing for me is to cut it out rather than trying to make it work.

A parallel learning point was about process of writing. The course got us to work on creating a detailed plan for the novel, including the overarching narrative, key plot points and chapter plans. This was all very sensible stuff and works well for many writers. But I am learning it’s not how I write. I like to have a sense of the overarching narrative and some of the key plot points but not to have detailed plans for chapters or the body of the story. In part I think this reflects my experience as a poet, where you are encouraged to let go of the idea of knowing where the poem is going so that it can go in directions that surprise you, which should means it also surprises your reader. This is a very personal thing and other writers will find the complete opposite, that having a structure is creative and a way of freeing the imagination. But that is why I think it is crucial to observe and understand yourself as a writer as much as it is to understand what makes good writing in an abstract sense, and to learn what kind of stories you write and how you go about writing them.

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