I’ve been working, as I might have mentioned once or twice (cough), on a final list of tweaks and edits to Cold Light – the last hurrah before it is off to Sceptre for them to work their magic and turn my story into a book.
The work hasn’t been extensive but it has been slow and painstaking – mainly because I want to check time-lines and continuities, (I have a chart and everything) and because it has helped me to look at the novel in an entirely different way which has involved lots more tweaking. And the fellow writers amongst you will know, once a novel is nearly finished altering one sentence in an early chapter has knock on effects and often means you need to rewrite a paragraph in a late chapter. Which is as it should be – it shows the whole thing is knitted together, is all of a piece.
I’ve already blogged a little bit about the way the first glimmers of the story for Cold Light came to me. It was similar for A Kind of Intimacy – where I had the idea of neighbours and envy and tea parties right from the very start. I like this part of writing – the inventing part seems easier. I always have lots of tall tales up my sleeve. I can create a mess of a first draft in a couple of months.
Editing is very different though. By editing I mean anything from a second draft to a seventh, and the final tweaking which I am doing now. A Kind of Intimacy was seven drafts – Cold Light has been about the same although because I don’t tend to start at Chapter One and end at the Epilogue the lines between what counts as one draft and the next are always very blurred. Editing means turning the shapeless mass of the first draft into something that runs from page one to page – let me check… 337 at last count – with some kind of drive forwards and coherence.
What has helped me this time is to think of the novel as an attempt to solve problems that were thrown up by my original idea. In my mind, it works a bit like this:
What happens if you’re always the one left out and all the interesting things are taking place when you’re at home or distracted by other, more mundane events? What happens if you desperately want to be included, but almost never are?
This translates into a problem – of telling a story where the narrator didn’t witness any of the dramatic, plotty-type things that happened. Hmmm.
What happens if the effect of one winter in your teens totally derails the course of your life? And what if that life is stunted – if you grow into an adult who still acts like a fourteen year old? What if I want to write a story about people who get stuck, who don’t change?
One of the members of my fiction group translated this into a problem perfectly – the characterisation is static, the action in this part of the book is static (to be specific, adult Lola spends a LOT of her time alone in her flat watching television) and this works against narrative, which has forward motion, is about change and development.
So my editing this time around has been structured by me knowing I wanted to tell a gripping story about a crime with a few spanners thrown in the works (the narrator leads a life that would be boring to read too much about and is remembering a time and a series of events that she doesn’t funny understand and didn’t fully experience).
It isn’t up to me to judge how well Cold Light has solved those problems, but it has turned into the sort of book I’d like to read. I’m looking forward to seeing what people think. (Actually, that is an out and out lie. I’ve been composing scathing reviews for myself in my head for weeks).
I know this is itself a very partial, over simplified, craft-oriented way of thinking about writing and editing and checking if a novel ‘works’ or not. It is not dissimilar to the idea of ‘plot’ being nothing more than characters overcoming obstacles to get at something they want or get away from something they don’t want. ‘Story’ as problem solving for characters and structuring a ‘plot’ as problem solving for writers. Which works as a way of thinking about stories a lot of the time, but not always. And I don’t know if it would work like this for poets. It seems to be more of a way to think about how to do a plot than how to do language.
I’m looking forward to the next novel too (no working title yet. Just Number Three). I am wondering how my very specific requirements about structure: five first person narrators all narrating, partially and unreliably, the events of one twelve hour stretch of time are going to throw up problems for me, and what tricks I need to learn to solve those problems and tell the story. I’m excited to find out. I like the realist novel. I don’t think it is dead.