Writing for radio 3: meeting
Writing for radio part 4: writing

Not just better but also richer

In among radio stories and marking OU assessments, a wodge of editorial reports, and assorted domestic stuff, I still have to find time to revise the current novel. This is not a mere editorial hop-and-a-skip through, sorting out typos, but heavy engineering. The novel's a single story, quite heavily plotted and almost thriller-ish, told by alternating first-person narrators, and I've decided to change the narrator for one of them. So I don't want to change the plot if I can possibly help it, and this is where my novel-planning grid comes into its own: I filled one column for the narrator who's staying - let's call her J - then sorted out the new narrative told by M alongside it, with a third column to keep track of what are now the offstage parts of the old narrator S's story.

So far so good: up to now most scenes have involved M and S, so it's only been a practical matter of turning the scene inside out. Of course there's a subtler, trickier matter of not just subtracting S's voice and sensibility but bringing M's alive, so that the narrative reads as if it had sprung from her. It helped a lot once I'd worked out why she would be telling her story, because that affects what she tells and how she tells it. And, so far, everything I've lost in cutting S has been balanced by a greater gain. I now have confidence that the book isn't just better in the sense of working better, but is actually richer for this work. But now I've reached Day Six of the plot, and therefore Chapter Six. S has ridden away to London, where the next important chunk of plot is happening and all I have left is 'M thinks about encounter with J.' And most of J's section is that encounter, and is the point-of-view from which it needs to be told. Other than that, M's day has at the moment no plot significance, but having knocked away one of the piers of the bridge, I do need a new one of equal structural, weight-bearing power, and preferably 7,000 or so words of it.

And then I remember the writer friend whose problem gave rise to my post about the novel-planning grid. In scrutinising the sub-plot the agent didn't like, she realised that it wasn't actually doing anything in the story. Thinking about what one strand of a novel is actually doing (and not doing) is immensely revealing. So on Sunday morning I took paper and pen (without which I can't think in an organised way) and tea (without which I can't think at all) and retired to bed for a big brood.

My first heading was practical: "What do I need to make known?". In other words, what did S's narrative tell which was now offstage, and which I must therefore find another way of conveying? Preferably without overhearings, coincidences, or 'I must just tell you' letters, nor second sight or divine revelation, it not being that kind of novel. And since wholesale revisions must create as much good stuff as they have to cut, my second heading was "What could we do with more of?" This includes themes, ideas, characters and relationships which using S as a narrator precluded, and also the chance for more of the things which have developed since M became a narrator.

So how could I do it all? Drama is character in action, but since M wouldn't act on her own (for reasons of plot and character I can't tell you, because I'd have to kill you) who could I bring in? Who is free? We're back to the assymetric hill: who might seek her out, why might they do that, what would happen between them, and what would be the fallout? And I got it. I still need to check journey times (the bane of the historical novelist's life, except when they're saving it) but I think it'll be fine. In fact, it'll be better than fine: it'll bring alive an off-stage character whose absence was one of the chief problems with the original version. Now she can come onstage, embodying the opposite side of the main theme from M's side: now they're face to face, and I can't wait to write the scene. See what I mean about not just better, but also richer?


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So delighted for you. Any revisions that mean you end up with a better novel by the end of the process has to be welcomed.

Blimey, it's hard though ...

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