So I’m trying to write a book. I’ve been, in one way or another, ‘trying to write a book’ since I was about five years old, except for the one I wrote when I was six (which was a Thomas the Tank Engine story) and the one I wrote when I was twelve (which was pretty much a patchwork of the kind of predictable fantasy stories that I liked when I was twelve, but still, I suppose 62 000 words, even if they are largely very silly and predictable words, isn’t bad for a Year 7) and have since disowned and hidden in a drawer, as I have done with pretty much all of my writing before the age of 15 because it was around 15 that I stopped being earnest and started being analytical and also angry.
Anyway. I find the process of writing both very hard and very easy, which is also how I tend to describe playing the violin – it’s something I started to do at a young age pretty much by accident, but it took me a long time to work out my method. I realised recently that playing the violin is, for me, simple and difficult: you put your fingers down in the right place to make the right sound. Easy. What took work was practising how to do it until I was playing music, not just squawking. And then it’s a case of getting better, and learning all of the things that make music lovely, and not just functional.
I’m wondering now why it took me so long to realise that writing is exactly the same. There’s a trick to it, and the trick is that you have to practise.
Also, having the talent doesn’t mean you’re going to be good straight away. You have to learn how to work at it. I took a long time working out how to work at something (if I’m completely honest, I’m still working out how to properly work at writing: I’ll let you know when I work it out). It can be a very slow process.
What’s slowest for me is my plots. They tend to start off with an idea – often a character springs up, or a situation. And then I try formulating it into a story, and it germinates for a little while, and then kaboom! Six billion little wiggly threads that all might go somewhere, or nowhere, but they won’t be going anywhere unless I think about them, and that’s a lot to think about. And it can take such a frustratingly long time to work through it.
If I’m completely honest, I think my plot problems are my biggest barrier in writing: because I don’t know what the story is going to be, I lose all confidence in writing, because I don’t want to write something and for it to feel written if I’m then going to have to go back and change it.
Today, though, I had a realisation. It was this: working on the plot is all very well, but if I’m not writing it, the story’s not going anywhere. It’s still just sitting there in my head, dry ingredients of ideas. When I actually mix them up and put them on the page, they might solve themselves. And they might not. If they do, that’s great – if not, then I will have to do some serious background work.
I’ve been doing a lot of background work for Passion recently – working out a little local history, some family relationships and political ties. And while I was doing it, I realised that what I was doing was essentially building scaffolding around a wall that wasn’t built yet. Now, I personally dislike stories that don’t seem to understand the world they operate in, or that clearly make up or alter the world in order to submit to the tyranny of the plot (see ‘Eddings and editing established reality’ below); I’m not a big fan of making things up as I go along. I like my stories to be coherent, I like worlds that are plausible and interesting. But all of that can have very little to do with the initial writing. As E. M. Forster had it in Aspects of the Novel, ‘a story can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next’. The story doesn’t care about background or what happened to the government of that world twenty years before the plot of the novel unless it’s directly relevant to that plot – and at the initial writing, the rough carving of the sculpture, it’s not necessary to know.
My epiphany, you see, was, very simply, about the power and the point of the first draft. I realised that it was ridiculous to be reluctant to write because my first draft wasn’t going to be good enough. I don’t know where or why I picked up the expectation that a story was going to slip, perfect and pearl-like, from my imagination onto paper, but it’s one that I am seriously having to combat now. I need to learn to lower my expectations and to know that, yes, while coherent details and world-building will probably make the novel very good in the end, they aren’t really what I need to be worrying about right now.
This post didn’t go exactly where I intended it to go, to be honest. It was going to be a consideration of plot problems and how to resolve them. I’m wondering if the answer to plot problems is to write everything down, stick it in a vague order and then go about filling all the holes, rather than spending ages planning it out first and then writing it up. Instead it turned into a rather personal analysis of my writing style, but still, it’s been useful. It seems that I started doing background work in an attempt to make the story better and therefore forgot the point of writing the first draft at all, whereas now I think I need a lot more writing and a little judicious planning on the side. I’ll let you know how the new method works out: now I just need to muster the courage to put it into practise.