Tag Archives: structure

Keeping focused

For once, this isn’t actually a blog post about the struggle to focus on the novel in the midst of everything else that’s going on in my world. That is still (and will ever be) a challenge, though the early mornings are definitely keeping things ticking over.

My latest issue, though, is keeping my focus where it should be within the novel writing process itself. Since I’ve jumped almost twenty years into the future, picking up with my teenage protagonist as she navigates her way through adult life, I’m finding my mind increasingly drifting towards structure.

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I think it’s partly because, 75,000 words in, I can begin to taste what the novel might be like in its finished form. It is still a long way off that – far more than either of my first two novels I have really let myself be liberated by the first draft, and I know what I’ve ended up with is much rougher around the edges. Still, though, I’m finding it hard not to project a response onto future readers, trying to imagine how satisfied they will be with how I’ve told the story, how much they will empathise with my protagonist both now and in her past.

And actually, ultimately, what is seeping in at the corners of my mind are those questions about how exactly am I going to tell this story.

I’ve written it chronologically, starting when my main character was ten and peeking into every summer until she was sixteen, and everything began to come tumbling down. There’s loads I’ve left out – some I’ve alluded to in dialogue, some that is there in an exchange of letters. And then of course there’s a whole seventeen years that’s missing between the two different phases of life the novel covers. The bulk of the story happens – and is told – in the past, but the ‘present’ is vital to understanding its significance.

I always imagined that I would structure the final narrative in a way which travelled between those two phases, and that is still my goal. I told myself just to get the story down first, and to worry about that particular (albeit major) detail later. And that is ultimately still what I’m trying to do. But it’s so odd writing something when you’re not entirely sure what your reader already knows at that point – or what they don’t. So hard to think about building suspense when you know that you might already – intentionally – have given the game away.

I’m not expecting any answers here. It’s an interesting process, and one which I think I just need to hold my course on if I’m going to be able to find out whether it will work. There are a handful of key scenes that remain to be written, and once I’ve done that the solutions may well emerge all by themselves. Even if they don’t, I’m quite looking forward to the jigsaw puzzle challenge that the next phase of this novel looks likely to present.

I just need to make sure that I have all of the pieces on the table first before I try to see the bigger picture.

 

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Bringing order to the chaos

After months of not quite managing to get focused for one reason or another, I finally sat down last night with a pile of index cards to make sense of my latest novel idea. The length of its gestation so far meant that my thoughts were somewhat scattered: some had made it into Scrivener, others were caught up in ramblings in this blog, most were in a scribbled stream of consciousness in the notebook I bought for this project many moons ago (and took TWO DAYS trying to find this week, finally discovering it beneath a pile of clothes under my dressing table just as I was about to give up hope).

Part of me felt like I was being a little unfaithful to my second novel. It is, after all, not yet finished. I mean – it is finished, but it still has a way to go to complete its journey. Grace and I have spent so much time together that I feel I owe her that sense of closure; but it is, for the moment at least, out of my hands.

And actually mostly it felt fantastic to be pulling together all the strands of this next project. Terrifying too – an idea that seems strongly formed when it exists only in your mind can dissolve into smoke and mirrors when you try to hold it up to scrutiny. But there was plenty there to work with, so work with it I did.

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I knew from the start that the narrative for this project was going to be more ambitious than anything I’ve attempted before: different voices, different times, all telling the same story from different directions. And before I work out exactly what those directions are going to be I want to make sure I’m clear on what the story is – the bare bones of it at least.

And that’s where the index cards come in. The pink ones are for the past, the blue ones for the present. Yellow for characters, green for settings, and white (a late addition to the mix) for questions. There are quite a lot of those.

I think I have collated most of what’s written down elsewhere. It ranges from really specific scenes to more general periods in time, as well as the people and places I think are going to be important. I want to spend a bit more time with my cards this week – noting down the thoughts that haven’t yet made it out of my head, filling in some gaps. And I guess I’ll see where that takes me.

I haven’t planned like this before – but then I haven’t attempted anything so non-linear. I think it’s going to really help, having those physical cards, when I come to the next stage of working out how it all fits together – both in terms of how the story happened, and how I want to tell it.

The final decision is going to be how I want to write it. In the past I’ve always written things ‘in order’ – but that could mean so many things this time round it’s not so clear cut.

So there’s still, if I’m honest, quite a lot of chaos.

But at least I’ve made a start.

 

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Some thoughts on structure

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As the building blocks of my next project begin to take shape, I’ve been pondering on how I’m going to put them all together to form a coherent whole. If I’m going to stick to the plan of commencing a first draft in January, then I’ll need to have chapter outlines worked out in the next few weeks. Well I know I don’t have to, but that approach has worked for me so far so I’m kinda keen to keep it going.

How the novel’s going to be structured isn’t a decision I need to square away completely now, of course. I can still play with the structure right into the editing phase. But in my mind what I write – and particularly what I reveal – will be influenced a lot by the order in which the story is told.

If you’ve been following my thoughts on the story so far, you’ll know it takes place in two distinct time periods: the teenage summers of the 1970s, and the grown-up days of thirty-odd years down the line. There might be some moments in between that need exploring, but I’ll deal with that when I come to it. It definitely doesn’t feel like the story is going to be a linear progression between the past and the present. Things will swing back and forth, and not necessarily in any particular order.

It all oscillates around one particular event. I’m not going to tell you what that is, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to reveal it in its entirety until the end of the novel. There will be hints and clues along the way, but I think the truth needs to stay hidden for as long as possible.

I know I could just work on alternating chapters, jumping back and forth between past and present, but I feel like I want something that flows a bit more organically than that. I was watching a film last night – Begin Again – and I really like the way it tells its story. Flashbacks are triggered by concrete things which shift the narrative to a different time and place from where it works its way up to a key event that is retold several times from slightly different perspectives. I liked the way that approach built up the story, like layers of paint on a canvas. I might try to do something similar, though it would take some quite complex mapping to get right.

Just writing all this down is helping. I’m starting to see how the pieces might fit, and that in turn is actually adding to my ideas about the plot and characters. I can see a very large piece of paper with numerous post-it notes in my near future… And yes I know I could do it on Scrivener, but it’s just not quite the same.

 

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