From idea to completion: Part 2
In part one of this blog I discussed how planning for the story, including the environment it would be written in, set me on my way to write my first novel in six weeks.
But once I had dealt with these problems the other big issue in my way was that there were many scenes I had to write that I just wasn’t that interested in. This sounds bizarre – as it was my novel! But the truth is there were a few key scenes (conversations in which characters revealed themselves, or bits where they were partying, or even some atmospheric scenes) that I really did want to write. They made the writing of a novel somehow worthwhile to me. But all the scenes to get Character A to the place where they needed to meet Character B for the next part of the story often did not interest me. I was not wise enough to realise that if these scenes did not interest me they were almost certainly not going to interest the reader. So I eventually came to learn that if I was dreading writing a scene I either had to wait until I did want to write it or, most likely, I had to engage my imagination and find a way to change the scene so I couldn’t wait to get it written.
I recall one scene in the novel where two characters had to discuss, in a quiet room while a party raged downstairs, a painting on a wall. Looking at this painting they had to work out that the owner of the house had stolen it, and then together they had to decide that the owner of the house could not be trusted. This was to set the story on a whole new path. Writing this scene felt like a grind. I had to make the scene interesting for me. In the end I decided that if the conversation made me laugh, it would be more engaging. If there was a sexual chemistry between the characters, it would make the humorous tone more interesting. I finally realised that it would only take two sentences for me to meet the brief I had set for that scene. Someone pretty much just had to say: ‘This oil painting is so expensive. To have it the owner of this house must be rich, but she’s made out she’s poor. We can’t trust her.’ I used the rest of the scene to have fun exploring the characters, and getting them to speak in the kind of tone that would bring them to say the one sentence I needed to hear from them.
Using my imagination to make boring scenes interesting brought the story forward. In these scenes I brought out latent features of my characters, by ensuring that they confronted one another with their hidden desires, secrets and ambitions. I made the setting more of a hothouse, in which people couldn’t escape one another, knowing that if they had to speak to each other, and I had created each character with interesting attributes, they would then have to come out. I built up a crib sheet of attributes that each character had, and drew from this in confrontations to bring the story forward. I was making sure characters challenged one another, so that they could never be together long before something happened. I made sure other characters wanted to stoke these dynamics for their own reasons. I leant on my plan. If these techniques didn’t work I made sure that the chemistry between the characters was interesting for me to want to write it. I realised this can be done simply by having two characters that strongly believe in opposite things.
A more experienced author gave me some key advice on overcoming writers block at this point. I was telling him about a scene I’d written, that I’d liked, which was atmospheric. I wanted to keep it but I couldn’t progress with it. He told me that that if there was no conflict to resolve in that scene it was probably dead space. I realized this was true. If the character wasn’t developing themselves, or being driven, the scene was going nowhere.
The scene was also going nowhere if I really, really didn’t want to write! I learnt to trust myself, and not remonstrate with myself if I really just didn’t want to write there and then. This was a key realisation, as I finally understood that if I didn’t want to write then if I made myself I would create writing that was not enjoyable to read. Just like we exercise better if we enjoy it, I had to be honest with myself about where my head was at. I found though, that having created an enjoyable working environment I now wanted to be in it. I didn’t have the money for any luxury mod-cons (in fact my room overlooked a filthy alley, which made me make the setting in my book all the more glamorous) so I had to be creative. I learnt to enjoy the scenes that were going well and explore them to their fullest. I thought at the time that any implicit danger or risk in a scene needed to be explored to its fullest, to make the most of the story. I now think its best to let the situation speak for itself, and not overstretch it in this way, however.
When the novel was finally sent to my editor she wanted me to take it to darker places. Her exact words were ‘get to the heart of the matter.’ I think it takes courage for an artist to do this, and I found following her instruction hard. There were certain confrontations that could happen between characters which hadn’t happened and she wanted me to write them. I found that emotionally testing and quite a dark enterprise to undertake. I recall going for a drink with a friend one evening after writing and him advising me to enjoy temporarily being in that dark space, knowing I wouldn’t have to live there. He had a good point. I think writers are best when they vicariously enjoy emotional experiences on the page, which they might not enjoy experiencing in real life. It helps develop a sense of empathy for your characters, a sense that your perspective and values are not all that matters. I now think sense of empathy must be important for an artist. I learnt here my final big lesson, which is that a writer can never see their own work too clearly as they are standing in the way of it. However hard I had worked on my book, it took a trusted adviser to tell me what was needed to make the most of the novel. My final tip would be to look for the person that will do the same for you. This is hard, as other people may secretly not want you to write, or not want you to write that story, or have all kinds of hang-ups that are getting in the way. It’s taken me many years but I have three or four other people whose opinion I trust on my writing. I would advise you to seek them out, as they’re worth their weight in gold.