Today on ye olde twitter I’ve been a-tweeting some quotes about writing a novel from the artist formerly known as the Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. As you see, I’ve been hashtagging the quotes #NaNoPrep (and thinking, as I write this, how kinda ugly hashtags are – sorry if that’s hashtag-ist – and recalling the chill in my heart, many moons ago, as I watched a web address appear at the foot of the screen on a BBC – yes, BBC – telly programme without a capital letter as if the whole world had gone e.e. cummings crazy: ‘ugh,’ thought I, ‘well that‘ll never catch on.’ I thought the same thing about the Spice Girls, incidentally. I have my fingers in many proverbial pies, but never, as I learnt long ago, on the pulse of the nation.)
Where was I? Ah yes, #NaNoPrep. If you read my last post you’ll know that by NaNoPrep I’m referring to preparation for ‘NaNoWriMo’ (National Novel Writing Month), and if that means about as much to you as Fermat’s Last Theorem, or an episode of Golden Balls, or some other unfathomable thing, you’d be best off (a) reading that last post instead, or (b) switching off the internet and doing something less boring (one for the 70s kids). There’s a reason these quotes are especially apt if you’re planning your November novel; and here’s one that is far too long for twitter, but is probably most useful of all:
‘Now when you are writing a novel […] you are constantly thinking of what is coming up next, and there occasionally arrives a time when it seems to you that nothing comes next – you dry up, you run out of ideas. This is the commonest difficulty among writers who write long stories. Even if they are the sort that plan out every incident ahead, they are sometimes brought to a stop, and their next incident somehow will not go, it will not come to life, it no longer seems the right thing, and they are stuck. This is a sign that the story has led them outside their genuine interests, it has lured them over the boundary into country that they have no real feeling for. It is as if their brains said: “We have nothing to say about this, we don’t know anything about it and we don’t feel anything about it and it bores us.”‘ (Italics mine. This is from Poetry in the Making: A Handbook for Writing and Teaching, which I heartily recommend to all writers.)
I have spent about two years so far on my novel and during those two eventful years I have stubbed my poor toes on the wooden furniture of a bad idea more times than I care to remember. And what I can say, hand on heart, is that Ted Hughes is right. There are days, or at least the beginnings of days, when your sentences ramble for England (I’m picturing un-herded sheep as I write this); you can’t find your rhythm; you fill your basket from the adverb aisle of the word market. None of those things, however, is fatal, so long as you’re writing about something that interests you. It might all be tangled and muddled and, damn it, the thing in your head is too complex and too beautiful to ever be pinned down in words, at least by a dufus like you, but hurray-with-bells-on if that’s the case: because, if it’s beautiful in your head, then you’ve been there, and done it, and seen it, and felt it, and even perhaps smelt it, and all that’s left now is to find the appropriate words to describe it (and if you don’t really enjoy finding words to describe things, then might I humbly suggest that ‘writer’ is possibly not your calling in life?). I don’t mean to be glib about this: it is incredibly bloody frustrating to argue all day with yourself about whether a non-existent object is ‘ointment pink’ or ‘sulphur yellow’, with all the particular repercussions and connotations each entails, but it’s sort of fun too, right?
Sometimes, though, no matter how lovingly we nurse it, our scene, or our chapter, or perhaps our entire novel, is on life support, being fed through a tube. In their white coats the doctors are circling, avoiding our eye, mumbling something in sombre tones about making decisions, and brain death, and needing the bed for new patients. As you try to ignore them your prose gets a straw-clutching case of the ‘Suddenly She‘s, (I do love the word ‘suddenly’, sparingly used, but as a substitute for genuine surprise and/or tension it’s a giant no-no); you wonder if somehow your head has a leak in the back, where the hair is, and all of the words you once knew – the good words – have seeped out… And the ones you still know (like suddenly, and realised, and almost, and sort of) lie flat on the page, like words, and refuse to transform into images, sounds, and textures… in that case it’s time to stop blaming the sentences. It isn’t your sentences that have rambled too far (we’re back to the sheep again now): it’s you. Without knowing it, you’ve crossed the border into country you ‘have no real feeling for’.
It is a dark place. It is forlorn and empty, peopled with mutes made of cardboard, and ‘shutter stock’ images straight from a film you once saw, and dialogue made entirely from cheese. Cue Harrison Ford to writer-director George Lucas (on the set of Star Wars): ‘You can type this shit, but you can’t say it’. And, likewise, you can type as much shit as you want (far more than the 1667 words a day that will claim you NaNoWriMo victory), but if it’s all written in ‘don’t-care country’ then what, pray tell, is the point? Let’s forget about sheep for a moment and turn to horses: more specifically, the flogging of dead ones. (Not to mention the leading to water of horses who’ve already had quite enough to drink, thank you very much.) Writing ‘interestingly about something that interests you’ is an ongoing concern from the very first ‘ch’ of chapter one to the ‘d’ of the End, and you have to refresh that interest again, and again, and again. Back to Ted:
‘The difference between a fairly interesting writer and a fascinating writer is that the fascinating writer has a better nose for what genuinely excites him, he is hotter on the trail, he has a better instinct for what is truly alive in him. The worse writer may seem to be more sensible in many ways, but he is less sensible in this vital matter: he cannot quite distinguish what is full of life from what is only half-full or empty of it.’
If you’ve signed up for NaNo this year, or you’re thinking about it, I hope you won’t only be thinking of scene arcs, and plot twists, and points of no return, and inciting incidents – as much as those things are important, yes – or ‘thinking it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic’ (Ted again). I hope you’ll be seeing and smelling and touching the scenes you are writing about. And I hope you’ll be noticing what is alive in your writing – what makes it yours, just yours, and nobody else’s – and, most of all, watch where you’re walking. It’s scarily easily to spend the whole month of November in ‘don’t-care country’ and end up with something that’s fit for the bin.
In other words: ‘Don’t think, feel,’ as a wise man once said. ‘It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.’ Full marks if you get the reference before watching this clip!
How to be interesting? The answer is: be interested. Remember that, fellow WriMos. And the very best of luck.