Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Maybe how to write a novel?

Aline's posts usher in the week at Type M and they always get me thinking. This week's post about Muriel Spark's writing process was no different. Writing a novel is damn hard work, and lonely as well. Novels are not written by committee, or in brain-storming sessions, or in support groups. They are written by one lonely soul sitting down in front of a blank page, taking a deep breath, beating back the doubts, shoving aside the distractions, and getting down to work. This will be repeated day after day, at times with ease and at other times with hair-pulling frustration, until the story is finished.

For most of us, it's an imperfect process. Some of us outline, some prefer to wing it. Some plunge ahead to the end, leaving a trail of loose ends, plot holes, and non-sequiturs in our wake to be fixed once the story figures itself out. Others tidy up as we go along, re-reading and editing the work from yesterday before moving on to today. Many of us do a little of this and a little of that, depending on our mood and on the flow of ideas at the time. Writing a novel sometimes feels like travelling down a river. Ever-changing, full of surprises, and scary and exhilarating at different times. Waterfalls, rapids, eddies, whirlpools, lazy meanders, logjams... And and always the inexorable tugging of the current that is the story in our head.

Along this journey, most of us run aground or get swept off course many times, and end up spinning around until some idea catches us and pulls us forward again. It's a rare writer who sits down and writes a story from beginning to end with barely a hesitation or false step. So I was astonished to learn Muriel Spark's technique. She spent a year thinking about the story, and presumably when she's got it all thought out, she opened her notebooks and wrote the whole story in about six weeks. With barely any need for revision.

The only think she and I have in common is that in the end, we both take just a little over a year to write a book. I could not imagine delaying the start of writing for a whole year while I thought up the whole story. Once I get the initial idea for a story and can picture the opening few scenes, I'm itching to dive in. Furthermore, I don't think I could visualize the whole story while standing on the riverbank far upstream. Ideas come to me as I am writing, and as I get closer to each scene, the ideas sharpen and often change shape. The unexpected happens. Characters change and grow richer. A element of setting which I had thought was minor suddenly changes the outcome of a scene.

For this reason, I can't imagine finishing the story with no loose ends to tidy up and no characters to reshape. Rewrites all enrich the book. They deepen the story, cut out the extraneous, and bring the story into clearer focus. A book without rewrites would be incomplete. It's certainly easier for us to do revisions in the age of computers than in the days of notebooks, and perhaps now we writers are guilty of too much editorial fiddling and fussing. But rarely do the words flow so cleanly and smoothly as to require no improvement. I write my first draft longhand on yellow pads of paper, and each page is a nearly indecipherable mess of crossed out words, arrows, "insert next page", scribbled additions in the margins, and so on. I rewrite on the fly.

Muriel's method sounds much calmer and easier on the nerves. But we all find the method that works best for us. It's likely much messier and more torturous than hers, but in the end, it's the only way we know. 


Unknown said...

I still have trouble believing that the writing process of such an accomplished writer and stylist as Muriel Spark included minimal revision. However, it's not such a stretch to believe that Barbara Cartland lay back on her chaise and dictated her books to a secretary (with a similar absence of revision). We might envy the selling power that Cartland enjoyed in her day, but surely our works are more complex.

Barbara Fradkin said...

I suspect there’s a little artistic license in her description but nonetheless she sounds much more organized and methodical than most of us.

Sybil Johnson said...

Loved this post and your description of the writing process. I think about a book for a month or two before starting to write. But as soon as I can sort of see that first scene, I'll start so I have something down on the page. Not that it flows smoothly after that, but I feel a little more grounded.