A Knotty Problem Unravelled, or How Knitting Saved my Novel

My third novel was languishing in a bottom-drawer file on my PC. I couldn’t see the way through it, even though I had all the characters, the plot and subplots, and the ending, firmly in my mind. I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Was I being too ambitious? It’s actually a good story; I’m very proud of it, but it had become a dense, tangled muddle. I had to figure out why it wasn’t working, why the damn thing wouldn’t progress. I decided a more forensic approach was needed if it was going to be resurrected.

I’ve been a keen knitter all my life. I’ve designed and completed many garments, invented tricky stitches and twisty cables. Complicated patterns don’t faze me; multi-coloured fair-isle designs aren’t a problem; twisty Arans don’t daunt me. So it occurred to me that I might bring some of my knitting know-how to my novel writing. If I can carry several different strands of yarn along at the same time when I’m creating a piece of knitwear, why shouldn’t I use the same principle, and knit several plot lines together, too?

Off we go, then. In the same way as I tackle knitting designs, I started with a blank sheet of paper. I wrote down the names of the main protagonists in a circle. The story has four main characters and is moved along by their individual voices in alternate chapters. So that’s four storylines. So far, so fair-isle. Then I added another three minor characters, who, despite their lesser status, still have important interactions with all the major players.

Next thing was to draw lines connecting each character with others they had links with. I soon had an unmanageable set of intersections and potential subplots where their lives overlap. This wasn’t knitting – it looked more like a tangled cat’s cradle. If I was actually knitting a garment with this many components, I’d take a more measured approach, using a maximum of four different strands in each line, or section of pattern. I’d drop the others and introduce them back at intervals, alternating as I went, until I’d created a multi-coloured masterpiece.

So, taking my own advice, I’m giving each main protagonist their time in the limelight. At the end of each character’s section, they hand over the reins and the story is carried forward by the next one, revealing aspects of the plot only they are privy to. I’ve refined the main storyline and the subplots to make things more manageable, and it’s slowly coming together.

 I liken these segments to the self-patterned sections of the knitting: ribbing to keep the plot nice and tight; twisty cabling to add interest and intrigue; moss stitch to enhance the background; plain stocking stitch to keep things on an even keel; a lovely button for an unexpected surprise. Additional pops of colour and texture are produced by the character interactions, some of them quite unexpected.

In the background, I’m maintaining the tension (a very important aspect of knitting, and storytelling) so there’s no sagging in the middle, no dropped stitches to create glaring plot holes. Just as if I was knitting a sweater and shaping a sleeve or a neckline, for example, I increase or decrease the number of characters on stage at any one time and develop subplots to create suspense and keep readers interested.

So far, the knitting analogy has been successful. Sometimes the ‘garment’ is loose and free-flowing, other times taut and structured; it’s coming along nicely – satisfyingly complicated but not confusing. New colours have been introduced and the ‘pattern’ has emerged.

I can see the path I have to follow for a successful completion, with a final flourish to finish things off.  I’ll be able to cast off soon.

Advertisements

Asking Myself Some Serious Questions

desert island

While on my desert island recently, I was thinking that it might be fun to bring a writerly perspective to some of the more random, even philosophical questions I’ve been asked over the years. Some are pretty run of the mill; some have personal resonance and most have nothing, specifically, to do with writing. But I think they’re interesting enough to run a series of author interviews in the future. See what you think. Continue reading

For the Love of Books

As a fledgling writer I was advised that my reading pleasure would be ruined for ever; that I would minutely study everything I read, dissecting the dialogue, the use of language and vocabulary, the narrative style, to determine how it worked. I would treat every novel as a lesson. And I did, up to a point. For a newbie, it was a great way to learn. But I’m getting over that now. I still read a lot of fiction but I’m not obsessed with dismembering every book so I can scrutinise its inner workings in forensic detail. And I still learn a lot from my reading, that’s one of its pleasures. Facts I was previously unaware of, a novel approach to an everyday plot, the crafting of a story arc, I absorb it all. Some books are instantly forgettable; others stay in my head for a long time. Some take up permanent residence, and it’s these that I’d like to share with you. Continue reading

Writing the Kinks Out

Are you the sort of person who listens to music that reflects your current mood and reads novels that imitate your life, or do you prefer your listening and reading choices to challenge the status quo? I’m certainly in the former camp: I want mournful music when I’m anxious or depressed; uplifting tunes when I’m happy. I don’t want to be cajoled out of my sulk; I want to wallow. My reading material has to mirror my current frame of mind and, if I’m going through a particularly blue period, it should suggest an escape, or a way forward.

Committing thoughts to diaries and journals is an established method of exorcising our demons. Writing negative feelings on a sheet of paper, wrapping it round a stone and throwing it into the sea or off a cliff is still a popular way of ridding ourselves of bad vibes, so could the same effect be gained from writing fiction? Just as we use reading novels and listening to music as therapy, can we use writing to ease the kinks out of our lives? Continue reading

Characterisation

character One subject that keeps coming up in my writing group is how to create convincing characters.

All characters need a context, a goal, a challenge, a history, but do you start with a blank page and watch your characters develop as the narrative progresses, or are you familiar with every aspect of their backstory before you start writing?

So how do you build a character? Continue reading

Hitting the Wall

amaryllisThe Amaryllis on my windowsill is in splendid, flamboyant bloom at the moment. Pity I can’t say the same about my writing. I’ve never believed in writer’s block, so the last few months have been difficult: I’ve come up against an immovable obstacle that I’ve been unable to push through. I’ve hit the wall.

I make notes, use diversionary tactics and bring out all the tried and tested solutions but I still find myself, against my own advice, messing around in the foothills, constantly editing and re-editing the first few chapters. It’s all procrastination. I should be pushing forward, not marching on the spot. Continue reading

Who do you think you’re talking to?

writing-deskWriting is quite a solitary experience. Even when you’re writing in a library or crowded coffee shop you’re not exactly inviting people to sit down and chat. You don’t want to be interrupted, torn from your story and required to make conversation; all you want to do is explore that really important plot development you’ve just thought up. The folk on your wavelength give you a wide berth, appreciating your need to be alone. And you’re grateful for the solitude.

So why is it that after a long day with only the notebook or keyboard for company, you feel exhausted, intellectually drained, fit only for an evening vegetating in front of the television? Continue reading