Monday, July 09, 2018

How to Write a Novel

This year, Scotland has been celebrating the centenary of one of its best known novelists, Dame Muriel Spark. She is probably best known for her book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which became a very successful film starring Maggie Smith – lately of Downton Abbey fame. Based on her own schooldays in Edinburgh the leading figure is a charismatic and dangerous schoolmistress, determined to make her girls 'the creme de la creme.'

Spark was a mercilessly observant writer with a fine satiric wit.  She had no time at all for poseurs and fashionable theorists and, as a pedant, I relished her demolition of the claim that children should not be taught but discover learning, since education comes from the Latin educere, to lead out. If it did, of course, the word would be 'educetion'; as Miss Brodie's unfashionable headmistress points out it actually derives from the Latin educare, to stuff in.

Much though I enjoy it, I don't think it's her best book. My favourite, because of the sheer elegance of its structure and technique, is The Girls of Slender Means. In a dazzling display of brilliance she seems to toss ideas and strands of plot around like the random shapes in a kaleidoscope and then, with a final deft flick of the wrist has them fall together to complete the pattern.

In a filmed interview in her Italian home, she explained how she wrote her novels. She would think about a book for a year. When she was ready to write it, she would send to an Edinburgh bookshop and order a packet of their exercise books, like the ones she would have used as a schoolgirl at James Gillespie's School for Girls. Then, she said, she would write the title, underline it, add 'by Muriel Spark' and underline that too.

On a new page she would write 'Chapter One, and then she would write for six weeks and the book would be finished. No first drafts, no extensive revisions. I could hardly watch the rest of the programme for the sheer envy that was choking me.

I am just starting a new book. I can walk uptown to the shop where Dame Muriel bought her exercise books. I could think for a long time, too, and I could certainly do the underlining the title bit. But I am beset by the feeling that thinking isn't really working, and it's only by putting stuff on paper that I can stifle the terror of actually writing another book.

I daren't even try the Spark method, though it obviously works. As long as you're a genius.


Sybil Johnson said...

I am envious of her as well. I'm just starting a new book myself and am having trouble getting into it. Eventually I will I know, but I'm still feeling a bit uneasy.

Aline Templeton said...

It's such a scary stage. I feel as if I've got lots of ideas but I know perfectly well that, as Ian Rankin says, by p68 they will all be used up!

Sybil Johnson said...

It is scary isn't it? Doesn't seem like it should be but it is.

Christine said...

I'm trying to get going on a new novel too. Yes, that feeling that all the ideas will be used up by p 68! How well I know it.