Archive for February 2019

From Outline to Novel

Over the last twelve months for nearly every waking moment I can spare when not working, I have been writing feverishly, first a feature-length screenplay as the last component of my Master’s course, and then the novel (see my previous blog).

The reason for the rush has been the need to finish before I time-out of my university:  I need to graduate within five years or I can’t collect my degree.   That time limit expires this summer.   Poetry has fallen to one side, at least in terms of finished poems. The exception was a nice shout-out from the Bridport Prize, which shortlisted one of the few poems I have written this year for their 2018 poetry prize.

Right now I’m working with my mentor, the fantastic Canadian novelist Wayne Grady, on a second full draft of the novel.  It’s changed completely in the last twelve months, requiring a near-complete fresh start last June, when it became clear that the overly complicated structure I had naively chosen wasn’t working.  Quite simply, the ‘voice’ of the novel didn’t sound right.  Nor did the time-line.

What did I learn? Mostly I learned by failure.  There are many hundreds of novel-writing blogs out there, but in the hope that someone reading this might save themselves some time when attempting a novel, I thought I might write up a couple of the things I learned along the way, over the last three years since the idea of the novel itself was first formed, to the final, ludicrously busy dash of the last eight months to get it across the finish line.

1.      Keep it simple

One of the major mistakes I made was trying to use a fancy structure, that started in the middle of the action and then went forward and backwards simultaneously.  It worked just well enough to bind me into it for a ruinously long time. Then, when I came back to it after several weeks with fresh eyes, it was clear it no longer worked.  It was truly terrible to start again, but I fooled myself with the promise that I would just work in the old material to save time.  As it happened, it didn’t fit.  But going back to the outline and telling the story sequentially, in the simplest way I could, immediately changed the writing for the better.  After that, it began to write itself straight from the outline.

2.      Plotting pays dividends

I don’t think I would have been able to start again were it not for the outline.  I’d plotted the novel in a detailed way, scene-by-scene, in the similar way to a treatment for a screenplay. The outline was fifteen pages, small font.  When I went back to the beginning, the principle problem other than the structure was the addition of  several non-western points of view for much of the action in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Afghanistan itself.  That required a huge amount of research, which I only managed thanks to UBC’s library, and the comfort of having spent a bit of time in both countries.  But what it did was widen out the story, and create series of sub-plots, that I think really drive the mid-section of the novel. So it was worth it.  In the end, the outline is now just that – the actual novel goes far beyond it.  But it was essential to have the form of the novel, even when straying from it as I wrote.

3.      You need research, but only so much

I could still be doing research for the novel. The countries in which it is set are so rich, and their cultures so fascinating, I could have spent years. But I didn’t have years.  In the end, I found the best way was to read a bit, and then write until I reached a block, and then read again. This at least kept me going forward.  I’ve also found a reader from Afghanistan to help me really get the cultural and linguistic detail right – the former New York Times journalist and writer Habib Zahori. His input, and constructive challenge, has been invaluable. I’m deeply grateful.

4.      No man (or woman) is an island

Writing a novel is a lonely but beautiful process. Being networked in to a group of writers and interested friends has been invaluable. The novel has been written all over the place – Vancouver, Sarajevo, Venice, Vicenza and last but not least home, Colchester, where I snuck into the University of Essex library to finish over the summer. Wherever I have been, having that network has really sustained me.  I wouldn’t have finished without it.  Thank you – you all know who you are.

The relief when Wayne told me that the first draft was working OK was so much I wore a smile for days. Now…onwards towards spring!