Saturday, 5 November 2011

Hoping For More Than Potatoes

Well, the novel is chugging along quite well. I have managed over 4,000 words and feel a lot better now than I did on the second and third days, when I had too many ideas and was trying to make it too complicated. I was so aware this was different from a short story, ie, a lot longer, that I was guilty of cramming far too much in. I was thinking of twists and turns that the characters were not ready for. As if I were trying to suggest a new-born baby write a Haiku.

One piece of advice applicable to short stories is valid for novels too. And that is to let the characters develop first and that will allow them to dictate the plot. Mine are already beginning to show me what should naturally evolve, rather than me deciding in advance without actually knowing them. After all, I can't expect to grow a sunflower from a tulip bulb. I have already changed the potential relationships between the characters a few times and feel very pleased when I reach that moment when light dawns and you think,"Oh, of course that's what happens!"

If I keep going at this pace, I shall finish the first draft in four months. That sounds like a long time when patience isn't one of my virtues, but now I've started, I really want to know what happens next.

In a previous post, I mentioned a story that changed setting from a hospital to a party in a railway canteen. I was pleased to have that one accepted by Woman's Weekly, particularly because it proved that making a drastic alteration is sometimes just what is needed. I'm glad I didn't abandon the first draft and start again. The basic story, the journey the characters had embarked on, was working for me. But they required a new direction. It felt daunting. I worried that I was veering off-course. But the final destination made it all worthwhile. So sometimes it can pay to make in-roads into unknown territory. You never know what the rewards might be.

I am still working hard on the short stories. I couldn't imagine being without them. But it is fun to have a novel to turn to as well. It feels very different from the short fiction. It's like a long soak in a bath. The short stories pour out like a quick shower; intense, invigorating and no waiting while the taps run.

When I feel unsure about what a character might do next, either in the stories or the novel, I imagine putting him into an extreme situation. I might blindfold him and make him teeter on the edge of a cliff. Or strap him to the wing of a plane and send him thousands of feet up in the air. Or offer him a million ponds to eat a raw elephant with a spoon. I imagine what he'll say, do, think, feel. Whether he will scream or try reasoning with me. What facial expression he will pull. Might he laugh? Cry? Distract me with words? Dance the hornpipe? It is quite useful. Also amusing. And it isn't the sort of thing you often have the opportunity to do in real life.

I wrote a novel a few years ago that I know is bad. It has its moments, but it is still bad. It is under the wardrobe, coated in fluff thick enough to be a small blanket. Or a bed for growing bad potatoes. I hope my new novel will be worthier and not have to be hidden away. And even if that's all it becomes, simply less dusty, less potatoey, then that's good enough for me.


  1. Great post, Joanna. I so agree about letting characters develop - that's why I can plot a novel before beginning.

    Well done on the WW story and good luck with that novel!

  2. Sounds like you're going great guns with the novel. Well done on the WW acceptance too.

  3. Many thanks Rosemary and Joanne.