You may have found it a little difficult to concentrate on your novel in the last week. Go back to it gingerly and potter about in its grounds if you've been away. Read a little of it - possibly from the beginning if you're not too far in or the last three chapters if you are - make notes and sure enough you'll be back in the swing of things. It doesn't have to be 'important' in its themes or claims this book of yours. Your stage is not the world stage, but just as importantly the arena of the human mind, the theatre of the human heart. Entertain us - by all means make us laugh, make us cry - but help us walk in other shoes. Show us the lie of the land. Being other, being another, and your way of telling is what makes your work unique and worthy.
“Words were not given to man in order to conceal his thoughts.”
José Saramago, 1998 Nobel Literature Prize Winner.
You can sing your story low and lovelorn like Sinatra, or stalk across the page and sashay like RuPaul. But rest easy, you will be doing something meaningful when you connect one person to the possibility of another.
Here's how to renew your love affair with your novel.
From the Desk of Emylia Hall.
In Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird, the titular character is desperate to leave the place she grew up in and get started with a future that’s on her own terms. For her college application, she writes an essay that’s all about her hometown Sacramento. There’s a wonderful scene where one of the nuns at her Catholic school talks to her about her work. It goes like this:
- ‘You clearly love Sacramento.’
- ‘I do?’
- ‘You write about Sacramento so affectionately, and with such care.
- ‘I was just describing it.’
- ‘Well, it comes across as love.’
- ‘Sure, I guess I pay attention.’
- ‘Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?’
Then the two of them sit in a moment of silence that’s deep with reflection.
‘Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?’
It’s the perfect mantra for writers, speaking to both what we produce and how we go about producing it. I think if we hold these two closely related values dear, we can’t go far wrong. Let’s talk about what that means in practice.
First, the writing itself. Detail is essential to good writing, and here Henry James cautioned the use of ‘weak specification’ – instead, we want the precise and unusual. Such an approach makes our writing feel like a dispatch from elsewhere, and readers believe in its authenticity. We can only conjure such details by paying attention, and not settling for the easy way out. It’s about being conscious of our intentions for a scene, and applying full concentration as we embark on achieving them.
Take this, from Francesca Kay’s An Equal Stillness:
‘London seemed to her a stony city. Beautiful in the vertical white lines of the houses by Hyde Park, the flat grey ribbons of the streets and the stark plane trees. But that winter it was very cold and the streets were scarred with spaces where the bombs had flattened houses; black gaps in otherwise white jaws. The faint flame of the gas fire in the hostel where she lived made no impression on the chill and damp. Her knuckles red and chapped and swollen. She remembered a winter she had spent as a young child, recovering from diphtheria. The acute boredom of hours alone in her bedroom. But then the consolation of a fire that for once in a parsimonious house was left to burn all day.’
And this from Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on the Green Bicycle:
‘George drove back down the hill, approaching the T-junction by the gas station in Winderflet village. A line of women waited for a taxi, hands out. They stared through him. This was the worst of all their looks: like he actually was invisible, like he was already dead and gone. He turned right, spotting the skinny black figure up ahead, on the left, in khaki short pants and white school shirt. The boy lurched along the dusty pavement, one arm longer than the other; this longer arm hung limp, twisted at the joint. This was how he got his nickname, Clock.’
The strength of specificity in each of these passages forges that most desirable relationship between reader and text: we’re wholly there, in the moment, whether it’s a moment in post-war London, or a moment in a Trinidadian village.
Attentiveness is crucial when it comes to characters. It’s all too easy for loosely-cast players to inhabit a story, for them to move from page to page and chapter to chapter, apparently serving their function until we realise (or more likely until someone points it out to us) that they’re not doing the one thing they should be: presenting as real people. For our characters to appear real, to be as unique as we are, we need to avoid hackneyed descriptions and behaviours. In 179 Ways to Save a Novel Peter Selgin says , ‘a salt-and-pepper beard’ or ‘blond hair and green eyes’ won’t do: We’ve seen hundreds of old men with salt-and-pepper beards, ditto little girls with blonde hair and green eyes. But we haven’t seen many old men with plum-sized boils on the backs of their necks, or little girls with eyebrows so arched and fine they look painted on with a Japanese sumi brush.’
Now the second issue - avoiding hackneyed behaviours. If we don’t, our characters will come across as little more than stereotypes. As readers, we want to be surprised by people, just as we appreciate the same in life. Here, plunder your friends and family; take their odd little habits and eccentricities and use them for your own ends. Delve deep into the psychology of every member of your cast; get them on the couch and hear them out; ask if X thinks Y, would they plausibly go on to do Z? Define backstory for every character; we know to tread lightly here, but regardless of how much belongs in the book it’s our job to know a good deal (or certainly the highlights and lowlights reel). Ask was theirs a happy childhood? Have they ever experienced true love? What keeps them up at night? Paying close attention to every cast member, never letting a single one sleepwalk through the pages of our novel, is a writer’s way of showing their characters the love that they warrant.
Susan Sontag said - ‘a writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world.’ A writer who gives themselves a shot at producing their best work is someone who pays attention to the process. Who sits down at their desk and thinks I’m going to make this count. The trouble with words on a page is that they look convincing, even when they’re duff. Wordcount mounts regardless. And it’s very possible for us to phone it in, for a length of a novel and then some, without ever really being attentive to the quality of the whole. When it comes to a first draft, you don’t want anything getting in your way; confidence is a fragile thing and our inner critic will do what it can to sabotage our efforts if we’re not watchful. So write that shitty first draft (as many wise folks, from Ernest Hemingway to Anne Lamott, have encouraged in exactly those terms), enjoy every second of it, and then edit, edit, edit. The trick here is knowing yourself: be conscious of your own weaknesses and inclinations; know the difference between a genuine loss of heart in your material, and a doubting voice hellbent on ruining your creative fun. If you haven’t quite got to that level of self-knowledge, then talk it over with a wise friend – and there are many to be found at The Novelry.
Writing for just an hour a day helps in the attention stakes, as graduates of the 90 Days course know. We’re much less likely to squander our precious writing time if we know there’s a limit on it. My most productive time of the working day? The half hour before I have to go and pick up my son from school. Go figure… Whenever we sit down to write, we want to do so with full commitment but let’s face it, 2020 has understandably tested many of us in this department. For me, it can be the little things that have the potential to ruin a session too. For instance, the other day as I dropped my son at school his teacher came over to the fence and asked me if she could have a quick chat with me at pick-up. Of course, what I should have said was ‘sure, what about?’ but I didn’t. Instead, I spent most of the morning imagining various scenarios for why such a conversation might be needed; my writing stood little chance against that kind of a messy head. It was only by messaging a writer friend who replied saying her own day would also be rendered useless by such a thing (though in more colourful language), and the two of us having a good laugh about the absurdity of it, that I got myself back on track. As any mindfulness practitioner knows, there’s no point worrying about what hasn’t happened yet; or, as the poet Wendell Berry writes in The Peace of Wild Things:
‘I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
Let your writing time be your own wild thing. And that’s another joy to be found in bagging your writing hour first thing in the morning: the day, with all its happenings, hasn’t had a chance to get its hold on you yet.
I love what Henry David Thoreau has to say on the subject of attention. While he’s talking about losing oneself in nature, I’ve always taken it as advice for writers:
‘I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?’
What business have we at the page, if we are thinking of something outside of the page? I’ve been known to break off in the middle of the typing of a sentence to check my phone. What gross disrespect for the whole endeavour! How can I expect a reader to keep reading if I can’t even hold my own focus? There's a brilliant Zadie Smith essay called Literature's Legacy of Honourable Failure and it contains the words 'Writers know that between the platonic ideal of the novel and the actual novel there is always the pesky self - vain, deluded, myopic, cowardly, compromised. That's why writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship: craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great'.
While Smith is speaking of the finished result, it’s a reflection on process too. Our pesky selves have the capacity to inhibit us, just as much as they can enable us to thrive. I keep a Writing Diary and sometimes I’ll open up a session by first turning to this; I’ll get as much peskiness out as I can, clearing the way for the story I want to tell. And I have my rituals to self-signal that this is ON: coffee made; music and headphones; and if I need the extra vibes, candle lit.
The single best way of paying attention when writing? Love.
Which, as Lady Bird learns in the movie, is essentially the same thing. If you’re genuinely fascinated by your writing project, if you’ve let it lodge itself not just in your head but in your heart too, if you know it’s imperfect but believe that with enough grit and graft it could one day be beautiful, then you’re going to want to pay it the attention it deserves. If you’re anything like me you’ll still have the odd day where a throwaway comment can get inside your head, or the ping of your phone seems more alluring that the sentence you’re in the middle of, but you won’t let yourself be derailed by these lapses. In fact, they’ll serve to sharpen your desire. Because you know your novel deserves better than this. And that’s when you can be sure you’re also writing the right one.
Emylia Hall is one of the tutors at The Novelry working alongside writers to help them complete beautiful novels.
Last week at The Novelry saw three evenings of Live Readings by Zoom from our authors with laughter and tears from their friends at The Novelry in equal measure. We are so very proud of all of you, and we're looking forward to some happy days in 2021. We can be sure we will have them because we are making them, by hand. With our thanks to members who took part in our seasonal Home Retreat Week for being part of The Novelry and helping make it such a warm, and kind place in uncertain times as in good times. Happy writing, all.
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