‘I’d like to write a novel; I just don’t have the time.’ How many times have you heard that one and gnashed your teeth? As if writing a novel is that easy and all you need to perfect the art is the time to do it. Would they say the same to the doctor they meet at a party? ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to be a heart surgeon, but I just haven’t got the time.’ Sounds ridiculous in that context, doesn’t it? And what about the financial markets? We’d all be millionaires if we only had the time to play the stock market.
I don’t think so. These aren’t pastimes you pick up on a whim. They are professions that take dedication, practice, and, dare I say it, talent. You’ll never be a concert pianist (as I know to my cost) unless you practice, but more importantly, you’ll never get off the starting blocks without some innate talent.
Writing is the same. It’s a vocation, whether you’re getting paid for it or not. It’s a need.
As writers we are often called upon to critique another’s work. Maybe in a creative writing class, a writing group or even a friend who needs some independent input. But whenever we produce a sizeable piece of work ourselves, we should also be able to take a step back and look at it dispassionately. Just as we have a mental checklist to guide us through an assessment for a third party, so there are a number of points to check when reviewing our own work. This list is presented in no particular order of relevance or importance.
If you’ve temporarily hit the buffers and need some inspiration – look to the spectrum. Cool blues, elegant greens and vibrant yellows – the range of colours is infinite and the themes, emotions and moods associated with them are limited only by your imagination.
For this exercise I’ve chosen red. It’s a vibrant colour that has many nuances and connotations. When it’s diluted with white it becomes the pretty, girly pink of Dolly Mixtures or the heavy chalkiness of indigestion remedies; mixed with blue it takes on the mysterious, regal or funereal properties of purple; with yellow it becomes altogether more vivacious, adding a touch of citrus to a description.
Red occurs naturally in nature – the colour of blood and of many fruits. But it also suggests heat, embarrassment, anger or danger; it can be evocative of suffering, of carnage and of speed; it even represents a political ideal. These various aspects can be explored very successfully in our writing.
All writers need to understand the motivation of their characters. Strong motives produce convincing storylines; weak motives make for flimsy and unconvincing stories. Your characters’ problems and desires contribute towards their motivation; but these must be logical and believable. In fact, they should be inevitable; your characters should have no choice but to act in the way they do otherwise weaknesses and holes in the plot will be revealed and the reader will not be convinced.
It’s been one of those weeks where, on reflection, I would say that I’ve got no writing done at all. Sure, I’ve written stuff; in fact I’ve been busy writing stuff all week. But I’ve made very little progress with the actual writing of the new novel and there’s been almost no output of a creative nature (by that I mean made up). However, when I think about it, I haven’t been idle.
This week I’ve been plotting a whole new novel. I read a lot of crime and I’ve wanted to write a novel that includes a crime – not particularly a whodunit, but one that hinges on a murder – for a long time, and a story has been slowly developing on the back burner. But I’ve always been a bit reticent. Have I got the necessary brainpower to work out all the intricacies and tell a story without inadvertently revealing the secret or the perpetrator? It’ll be very easy to drop hints unintentionally, even reveal the whole façade, if I give a character some knowledge they shouldn’t or couldn’t have.
On the premise that you can’t edit a blank page, get something written down. If you’re experiencing the same kind of angst as me – too much to do and not enough time to do it in – consider this piece of advice I read a while ago: if you gave up just one of your soaps every evening and concentrated on writing something instead you would have the best part of a novel by the end of the year. Now, I’m no-one to talk, I’m a sucker for quiz programmes and whodunits myself, but there is some merit in the idea.
I always find it a problem to come up with appropriate and relevant titles for my work. My imagination stalls when called upon to produce something pithy, apposite and meaningful. Some writers I know can’t put pen to paper or finger to keyboard without having first decided on the title. Personally, if it were possible to have a profusion of computer files and folders all labelled ‘Working Title’, I’d be there. Sensibly, this is no way to operate, so I’ve been thinking about where we can find inspiration when we’re stuck.
We can link the title to a scene in the story, the historical period it’s set in or that mysterious discovery the whole plot hinges on. The message of the story, the mood or the scenery can all be reflected in the title.
You may have guessed that progress with my second novel is rather slow at the moment – hence all these displacement activities. I could write a book about writer’s block – 100 ways to beat the block. But would it be just another diversionary tactic? Watch this space.
Other things that are intruding on my time include trying to build up a supply of 400 word stories for the parish magazine and longer ones to read on the radio. If I can do that I’ll be free to concentrate on the novel for a while.
Here’s an old trick. Lost your writing mojo? Can’t think where to start? Where better than the first line of a famous literary work? You don’t need to be familiar with the original story; in fact it works better if you aren’t. When you’ve finished your piece, you can go back to the beginning and delete the first line – I guarantee you won’t need it by then.
In no particular order, here are some of my favourite first lines. I’ve read, enjoyed and can highly recommend all of these books, though I can’t profess to have remembered all these beginnings without some help. Some of the novels are a delight, to be kept and revisited, some of the others are more of a challenge. I’ll let you decide.