Small things are more crucial
Off-the-peg

What's your project?

You'll have noticed, by now, that as soon as you tease out an aspect of creative writing - a thread from the rope of the story - and discuss it, it has a way of twisting itself back up with everything else. Discussion of character turns out to be about structure; psychic distance leads on to narrators. And when, as has just happened to me, you encounter something like this, which gives all your ideas about narrators a good old shake-down and re-arrange, you find that it rearranges something, about everything, that you're doing. Which explains why, more and more, I find myself talking not about "your novel" or "your story" or "what you're trying to say", but about "your project".

Your Project, as I'm finding myself using it, isn't a euphemism for the grimmest kind of social housing, Detroit-style, nor is it the model of a mosque, or a medieval village, all wonkily glued, that you struggled with all through the last night of half term till your parent finally pushed your tearful body off to bed with promises to finish it for you. At the York Festival of Writing I found myself using the term all the time, particularly in connection with voice. Voice is so crucial and so hard to pin down because it is the embodiment of everything you're trying to do with the novel: not just who is telling this story, what the world and the people are, but why they/you are telling it: what you're trying to do with this novel.

It's not that I think every novel ought to be reducible to a tidy moral or message (even though there's a lot to be said for being able to describe its hook); I've argued here that I can't imagine writing a novel to set out a thesis. But once you've decided what you want to explore, you'll have to decide (find out?) in what terms you want to explore it: with what glasses, what sensibility, what audience. The adolescent catastrophe was the worst thing that had ever happened to you at the time, but it's very, very funny when you tell it to a friend from the secure plateau of your twenties; and the same basic adultery plot could be high tragedy, low comedy, farce, intelligent Mum Lit, literary weepie, a Raymond Carver story or a Raymond Chandler novel. If Voice is the combination of what the novel says, and how it wants to say it - if Voice is the embodiment of something - then perhaps the Project is that something: the combination of what you want to tell, and how you want to tell it. And then, of course, it becomes clearer how all the questions you need to ask yourself, in starting and then developing the novel - first or third, past or present tense, starting and ending points, narrators... are answered from the depths of your understanding of what the project is.

And having let your ideas for the novel brew as long as possible, till you know what that is, you need to go on worrying away at the actual writing (and checking again in revision and editing) so that all the strands - characters, setting, voice, structure, plot, prose, ideas - twist quite naturally together into that single rope. I think the idea of Your Project might help, too, if feedback about your novel is lukewarm or doesn't seem to have "got" it. Whether it's being rejected for falling between two stools, or discussed as being too quiet, perhaps one reason is that the different threads of the story-rope are actually suited to different ropes. This isn't about tidily ticking genre boxes, this is about your clarity of thinking: about you understanding at both a conscious and an intuitive level, what you're trying to do. Is everything - everything - in the novel dedicated to doing that?

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