Okay, so last month, I was joking. It wasn’t my last post of 2015... It's now August, and here I am again – but this time, I promise, it's definitely my last appearance for the year. And since I’m still deeply embroiled in the process of honing and crafting, that’s what I’m going to talk about today.
What I'm going to share with you is part of the editing process, but it's not that pernickety Bonsai art of snipping off stray shoots, or the weeding out of those horrid little waifs and strays which plague the writer, such as repetition, dodgy grammar or whatever. No – what I’m talking about is the transformation of rough early draft into something coherent. This is a fairly routine task when you’re constructing a straightforward linear narrative, but as I’m finding more and more these days, it’s an exercise which becomes more and more involved when you’re dealing with multiple time-lines because then the arrangement of plots and subplots is much more complex.
I’ve mentioned previously that I’m currently writing a novel with two major plot lines. Timeline a (lets call it ‘the plot’) unfolds 6 years (or 2500 years, depending upon your perspective) after the events in Timeline b (‘the subplot’): at the same time, both subplot and plot are so tightly interwoven that the understanding of one is vital to the understanding of the other, so it would not be possible to surgically remove one and leave the other unharmed.
With both sections written, I’m now engaged in the process of weaving both elements together. It’s an exercise which sounds deceptively simple, but in reality it’s proving to be extremely complex and challenging. And that’s partly because the options are so vast, and the possibilities so endless. As the writers amongst you are no doubt well aware (limitations of grammar and vocabulary aside) the English language is almost infinite in its diversity, so there’s no real way of knowing how your words fit together until you’re actually at the point where you’re working to create a final text.
This is the stage I’m at right now. And the correct analogy for this phase of the work isn’t best summed-up by weaving. Or by gardening or even Bonsai-growing. This is more like working out a puzzle or a logic-problem, or one of those mad 3-d pictures that you have to stare at for hours until you see the picture contained within a mass of squiggles or wavy lines.
Throughout this process, the age-old conundrum becomes ever more apparent. There is almost infinite variation in the way your words can be strung together on the page. BUT.... (And this is a crucial BUT....) At the same time, you know in yourself that there is only one correct way to string these words together. It’s finding this correct way that ends up doing your head in.
This can be a traumatic enough process when you’re writing a narrative which unfolds in a simple time-frame. There may be simultaneous plots and sub-plots, but when you’re releasing these into the narrative, you are rather helpfully constrained by time. Throw in some wibbly-wobbly time (to quote the inimitable Doctor Who....) and all this goes completely out of the window.
So if chronology is no longer the driving force behind the structure, something else has to take on that function. I’m a pantster by nature – yes, I work to a very rough and ready outline, but it’s usually the process of carrying out four or five redrafts that enables me to define and develop the various plots and sub-plots. Working to a strictly defined structure may be quite foreign to my usual mode of operation, but these days I find myself becoming increasingly reliant on that old ally of the plotter, the little squiggly line which physically depicts the highs and lows of the narrative, and maps out the points of maximum tension and drama. With my hero confined and capable only of passive resistance for a portion of the main thread, tension has to be maintained in another fashion. And this is where the sub-plot comes into its own, for there’s tension a-plenty in the back story. And this subplot is crucial in terms of character development, because it’s through this part of the narrative that we see how the relationship between the hero and the heroine developed in the past, which in turn is crucial to how their relationship continues in the present.
And so it’s back to the weaving metaphor. The strings that make up both narratives are fed out at different rates then knitted together in the final version. And that’s where things get really complicated. I have to tease through both component parts of the narrative, then try and identify any important references and establish whether they’re acting as spoilers (in which case they need to be dealt with) or as teasers which can then be used to hook the reader and get them to keep on reading. In essence, dealing with these little details is just as crucial to the running order as the linear mapping of high and low points in the tension, because if the two narratives don’t fit together seamlessly, then the poor reader will just end up confused.
All this sounds very methodical. And very clinical, too. In a way, it is, and sometimes I find myself wondering if the whole project would have been easier if I’d started my writing career in the ‘proper’ fashion by attending a Creative Writing course at uni. That way, I’d have been taught to critically analyse what I was doing and why, every step of the journey. But at the same time, I can’t help thinking that if I’d ever tried pulling off this particular novel within the disciplined environment of a university creative writing class, my tutor would have dealt me a metaphorical slap across the chops, and said, “Don’t be so bloody stupid, this is insane! What on earth were you thinking?”
What on earth was I thinking, indeed! When I consider the practicalities, I still get this little moment of panic, a frisson of terror which transforms almost instantly into wild excitement. Despite the inherent difficulties, I persist, because not only am I sure that at the heart of this novel, there is a story worth writing, but it also turns out that I’m getting along well with the characters and I enjoy spending time with them, and as a writer, I don't think you can get any better justification than that.
I can analyse my work till the cows come home and beyond. I can try my best to think logically, and physically slide bits here and there and up and down like one of those sliding tile puzzles I used to play with as a child, confident in the belief that someday the picture will appear and suddenly everything will make some kind of sense. But in the end, I suspect that despite all the protestations of order and logic and clinical precision, I’m still doing the classic ‘panster’ thing of making it up as I go along and playing around with the various permutations.
Sooner or later, I’ll get it right, and it won’t be any kind of analytic reasoning that tells me when this has happened. Instead, it’ll be plain old gut instinct. It will feel right when I first press the ‘save’ button. And it will still feel right when I come back six weeks later for another read-through.
And then, just when I’m cracking open a bottle of wine and congratulating myself on how clever I’ve been, it’ll be time to send it to the beta-readers, and after that, I suspect all bets will be off...
So wish me luck, everyone! And see you at the other side – or failing that, on the Heroines of Fantasy Blog in 2016. By that time, I'll either be insufferable because I'm feeling horribly accomplished, or else I'll be a nervous wreck....