This new series on The Itch is aimed at people who've always wanted to write a novel, but have struggled to get going. I'm not sure exactly how it will pan out as it wasn't planned in advance, any more than anything any of us are doing at the moment was planned - though, since nothing in creative writing is wholly predictable in time, length or topic, I'm used to uncertainty, in writing at least. I am aiming to keep the posts short, concentrating on prompts and processes that will lead step by step, towards the first draft of a novel. As it grows, the full series will appear here.
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So, what happened after Day Two? Did you find the characters bobbing up in your mind at other times? Or did they slip away? The latter doesn't necessarily suggest anything bad: different people have very different kinds of attention. You may find that they slip away less if you're not reading or listening to wordy radio, say, or watching TV or doing other things that occupy your human-story-mind.
But if more did occur to you, either about these characters, or about other possibilities for your story, I hope you managed to jot some bits down. A remarkable amount of writing work can be done when you're not sitting at a desk at all, provided you were sitting there fairly recently. Many years ago I went from having every other weekend to write in to having a couple of hours more-or-less daily. After each writing session the novel would simmer in the front of my mind for a while, but in the earlier regime, by day eleven it had sunk, I'd spend most of Saturday dredging it up, and only get going with new words on Sunday. But under the new regime, because the next day I had another, albeit short, chunk of writing time, I could pretty much pick up where I left off. Across the fortnight, with the same number of hours, I wrote roughly twice as much, fortnight after fortnight.
Your characters don't live life flat against a green screen: they act in an environment. We usually label this aspect of a story "setting", or "place", but that can make it sound superficial, merely decorative, like old-fashioned scene-painting. Similarly, you'll know the kind of book where each new place gets paragraphs, even pages, of description of the room, factory or landscape, but it has nothing to do with what the characters actually do.
But in real life we are always, unavoidably, physical beings existing and operating in a physical space: what the brilliant memoirist and teacher Mary Karr calls the "carnal world". And we experience that space through our bodies, which means through our senses as we act. So if you're in the business of getting your readers to feel as if your characters are alive in their carnal world, then what matters is that the reader experiences that world as your characters experience it. Which means knowing how you would experience it, if you were there.
So let's start with a warm-up which I've adapted from an exercise that Ali Smith used in a workshop I was in. You'll need paper and pen and the stop-watch on your phone, or a watch with a second-hand. If you can bribe someone to do the timing for you and tell you the next prompt, so you can keep writing, so much the better. Call it home-schooling...
1) Senses Pick one of the places that a character in your story might experience: new to them or familiar. Close your eyes if you like, and spend a moment bringing that place to the front of your mind. Mentally put yourself there: sitting on a wall, lying on a bed, standing in the bows, whatever.
Now start the stopwatch and in this order:
- Spend one minute writing down everything you can see in this place
- Spend one minute writing down everything you can hear in this place
- Spend one minute writing down everything you can touch in this place
- Spend one minute writing down everything you can smellin this place
- Spend one minute writing down everything you can taste in this place
- Finally, spend one minute focusing on what, if you were there, your proprioception* would perceive in this place
*Proprioception is the relationship of your body to itself and the space it's in. Some of this is touch, but it's much more than textures. Proprioception feels the pressure where your two legs meet if they're crossed, and the edge of the chair against the back of one thigh; it would be different depending on whether you're lounging sleepily, or sitting forward anxiously in a job interview. It controls the grip, pressure and direction of your hand on your pen as you write; it feels the changing pressure of each bicycle pedal as you pedal up hill, and how it's different over rough ground, or when you get to the top.
You'll probably find the later senses more difficult, but be strict with yourself, and make sure you stay for a whole minute with each one. When you're done, if anything else occurred to you about this place, in terms of your story, jot it down before it evaporates: if you're anything like me, you always think you'll remember, and you never do. Personally, I have lots of scraps and pages of paper headed Bits, for this kind of thing: don't try and sort them out now: just make sure you don't lose them.
2) Character in Place Now you know a bit about how you experience this place, it's time to think how one of your characters might experience it. I know you still only have the roughest idea of who they are, and what the story is: for now you only need to make some entirely temporary choices. This is still all in pencil, in other words: think of it as having a spreadsheet, and entering speculative figures to see what might happen if.
a) Bring that character to the forefront of your mind. If you want to look at your notes from Part Two, then do, but then put them away and let your imagination run and play onwards.
b) Given some of the pressures, challenges, or opportunities we were sketching in, now spend a little time imagining what kind of mood this character is in.
c) Decide roughly what their knowledge of this setting, if any, is based on. Some possibilities to think about -
- Is it some form of home (counting, say, their own office as "home")?
- Is it not theirs, but known and reasonably familiar?
- Known about, perhaps encountered once, but not in any detail
- Completely new, perhaps even deeply strange
d) Now imagine this character, being who they are, and in that mood, walking into this setting. See it through their eyes physically, but also from their "point-of-view" in the broader sense: the way their personality and mood selects and shapes what they notice and what they don't, and how they react to it or think about it. Remember that there may or may not be people or animals about, vehicles perhaps, also weather, time of day, and light (natural or artificial), to think about. Plus "noises off" and smells from places and things they can't physically see.
e) Write down what they experience and how they act, as they move in this space. Use first person ("I walked, I saw") if it's easier, or third person ("he/she walked") if you prefer, and past tense ("I/she walked") or present tense ("I/she walk) as you choose. We'll think about how those all work later in the series: what's important is to let their experience guide your choice of words for describing what they experience.
e) i. If you want to try the full-dress version of this exercise, don't let yourself write down the mood they are in explicitly, or label any other emotions, just let how they feel emerge from the words with which you evoke how they experience the carnal world of this place. But if that feels too difficult, don't worry about it.
How was that? If you want to think of your paragraphs as "a description", I wouldn't stop you, but I think it's not always a helpful word, because it tends to take you back to scenery-painting. Historical fiction and speculative fiction writers are particularly prone to writing pages of scene-setting, because of course they can't rely on the reader already having a mental sense and map of the world around their characters. But what we're really after today is evoking what writers call "lived experience": an evocation of what it actually feels like to be there, and react and respond, physically, emotionally and mentally to being there. That's why I always add proprioception to the traditional "five senses" list: you can't think about proprioception in a place without thinking about an individual person's body.
That's it for today. As ever, if after you've finished things go on occurring to you, just make a note of them.
See you for Part Four! And, in a shameless plug, over on Amazon This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin is currently 99p on Kindle and only just over half-price as a very handsome hardback. Although it's partly about my peculiar family, and partly about my trying to write about them, what it really is is a book about how writing happens, and how it works, and how being a writer works - or doesn't. So you might find it interesting...
Emma’s memoir, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, was published in 2019; the Daily Mail described her account of three disastrous years trying to write a novel rooted in her embarrassingly well-known family as ‘a fascinating journey…a masterclass’. Her debut novel, The Mathematics of Love, is probably the only novel ever nominated for both the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book, and the Romantic Novelists’ Association Novel of the Year Awards; her second novel, A Secret Alchemy, was a Sunday Times bestseller as well as earning her a PhD. This Itch of Writing gave rise to Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction which publisher Scott Pack describes as ‘essential reading’. She has taught for the Open University, is a regular guest lecturer and workshop leader, and mentors and tutors individual writers. For more about Emma, click through to her main website.