I was recently asked by a fellow writer about how I have used my writers journals to develop novels I’ve worked on. I didn’t realise at the time what a personal question this is, as the writers journal is, I suppose, a fairly intimate space in which the internal furniture of the imagination is carefully crafted, ready to be supplanted into a fictional work. Often in dialogue with students of the OCA I stress the usefulness of the journal in helping to put flesh onto the bones of their writing, and here I thought I could perhaps elucidate my thoughts on the matter a little more.
My conversations on this subject with my friend were recently used as the basis for a chapter on ‘The Writing Journal’ in a textbook, ‘Creative Writing: A National Association of Writers in Education Handbook For Teachers’ which sets down in writing many artistic processes that can be helpful for teachers to understand. For this textbook, snapshots of pages from my rather grubby writers journal were used (grubby only because I use it so much), and in so doing I realised what an idiosyncratic relationship we writers have with our journals.
The notebooks were used for a novel published this year, called ‘How I Left The National Grid’. The concerned a fictional post-punk band called ‘The National Grid’. In order to develop their back story well I wrote fictional interviews with the band. I planned out the artwork, and both sides (which I called Program 1 and Program 2) of their album, which remains unreleased when the novel begins in my notebooks. In Image 1 you can see a triangle shape split into six shapes, with a word of the title in this shape. It was important to me to reflect the cover art for this record visually in the notebook and then describe in the novel. Firstly to give me a clear idea of it but further to flesh out the idea of ‘The National Grid’. We know it as the name for Britain’s electricity board, and in the novel I use this concept as a metaphor to capture the nation as we know it and how someone (the singer Robert Wardner, in the novel) can escape it. Therefore it was important to have this triangular shape, to broadly reflect the landmass of mainland Britain. One word from the title is in each part of this grid, just as onstage the Wardner divides the band into different zones- they are separate from each other, just as postmodern, gridlike living in postmodern architecture separates us.
The plan for this fictional album in Image 1 reflects the novel in other ways – its A side is called Utopia and B side Dystopia, to reflect the move from idealism in the early days of the band, to the disorder and chaos of later in the plot. Having researched post-punk, and listened to many post-punk records, I also wanted to have on this album not only the singles mentioned in the plot (for instance a song called ‘The Commuter Belt’, which the band ‘play’ on Top Of The Pops, and another, ‘Whitewashed’) but other songs, like ‘Love For An Appliance’ which reflect the type of songtitles and concepts by bands like Au Pairs. Art-rock bands active in that period who used the song writing format to explore themes as diverse as power and modernity.
In Image 2 (which, has a beer-stain in the corner) you can see the songtitles I considered and didn’t use. Thankfully too, in some cases. I actually considered calling a fictional song ‘The Charm Of De-Programming’ from the looks of it – hope that was a working title). These titles were workshopped so that the art within the art, the music within the novel, had for me a sense of naturalness and depth. I’ve read many novels where the art within the art just isn’t credible, and smacks of the author going ‘Oh God, I need a songtitle here’ and then making something rubbish up. I wanted something the reader could truly imagine.
In Image 3 you can see the brief I gave myself for each character, once I had a loose idea of the plot. I describe ‘Malcolm’ for instance, his attitude, his key beliefs, and then as part of the novel is in the third person, I also consider the tone I would bleed through purposefully in this narrative.
Originally, I didn’t think of the book in novel form- I wanted to capture the complete subjectivity of supposedly objective accounts that occur when people talk. To that end, I conceived of a piece which would be a series of interviews (which would follow a narrative) that tracked Wardner’s story. To that end I planned an interview in which the band’s guitarist, Simon, would be interviewed by Sam, the journalist trying to track his former song writing partner. On this page in particular (Image 4) I note the research I have done to capture, in real-terms the topography of the scenery in which Sam and Simon would conduct a walk together by the side of a real-life motorway, The Mancunian Way (just off Manchester Piccadilly).
In any piece of writing I consider it important that the writer develop, in their notebook, a sense of the geography of their setting, because if they don’t have that it will be vague to the reader and the impact of the work will be muted. To this end, researching this scene by the motorway, I recorded in my journal the distances that these two characters would walk, to consider how to reflect that in the pace of the prose. How areas like the Hulme Crescents (which they start their walk from) have changed in appearance over the years and how Simon, as a resident, might comment of that (it was good to have that at the back of my mind in case I wanted to naturally insert that into the conversation!).
I also had in my mind a rough idea of how their conversation would go, and so I wanted some local knowledge, about the Arndale Centre, that Simon might slip in- which he does, as he mentions Wardner getting the idea from the bands sound from there. Having watched interviews with the likes of the eighties singer Gary Numan I also make notes of what kind of synthesiser the band would have used, given what they might have been able to afford at the time, in case that’s mentioned. I also list what albums they’d have been thinking of at the time (like David Bowie’s ‘Low’). Street names they might pass and how old they would credibly need to be at various types in the story to try and retain some realism.
This was all to feed into my first draft of the interview- I ended up doing the walk myself, and then checking the whole chapter with Julie Campbell (aka the Warp Records artist LoneLady) a musician who lives in this area. She helped me to correct certain errors in details I had made in describing the place- a door that has since been repainted, for instance! I have read books, such as Ian McEwan’s The Children Act, in which many details are correct, but a detail that is not (such as the road that goes through Hexham, in that case) will really annoy one percent of your readers. In that case it was the members of a book group in Newcastle, who unanimously said that this error by McEwan really clanged with them!
The journal is the ideal way to make this story fully come alive not only for you- but also for them.