In Part Eight we're starting to think about story-building. Each post in Write Your First Novel is a series of short prompts and exercises which are designed to lead, step by small step, towards the first draft of a novel. It doesn't assume you already know the technical vocabulary that writers use, and the full series to date is collected together here.
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Apologies for the gap since Part Seven: I am genuinely making up this series as we go along, and things on other fronts have been a bit busy. But I hope that you are comfortable with what you did, or didn't, write in that gap, because either is fine. Perhaps you went back to earlier exercises and tried them on different characters or situations; perhaps you forged ahead and played with new ideas or processes; either way, good for you. Or perhaps you were just plain busy elsewhere too, which is how life is.
But perhaps you wanted to do more, thought you would do more, and are now beating yourself up because actually you didn't. One of the many things that writing your first novel helps you to learn is how to handle your writerly self, and its relationship to the rest of your life. And to that end, if you are beating yourself up over a lost writing opportunity (as with lost money, or excess calories or alcohol), it's worth briefly looking back at how and why that opportunity was lost, not to judge yourself but to get curious.
Were you too optimistic about how awake you are at dawn, or midnight? Did you sit down at the notebook or the laptop, and end up piddling around on social media? Did you feel too guilty about fending off the demands of partners, children or pets? Have a brief think about that: why you didn't sit down, or why you didn't fend off interruptions, or why you did, but didn't stick it out through and beyond the first perhaps effortful ten minutes of writing-work, when the water is cold and you can't believe you'll ever warm up. Draw any useful conclusions without scolding yourself, and then put it behind you. I say to myself, "OK, that was then, and this is now. So what do I do now?"
From Part Four and Part Seven you should have two first-person versions of a scene, based on Alex trying to get something, and Bobbie's experience of the same events. "Trying to get something" is the most usual label for the basic drive, but of course that might be "get rid of". And "something" needn't be an object: it might be a deal, a meal, sex, power, a friend, money, a secret, an adventure, a night's rest, a warm coat, an escape or the means to make it, a safe place or the person who has the key to it... Alex's need or desire powers the scene, and their actions and the obstacles they have to cope with create and shape it.
By the end, Alex either got the something, or they didn't. If they got it, what does that mean for what they do next? If they didn't get it, what does that mean for what they do next? In other words, by the end of the scene, by definition, Alex's situation is not as it was at the beginning. So I hope it's beginning to show why I call scenes the basic units of storytelling: the change at the end is the beginning of the next scene, and it's the chain of changes that creates the novel.
That's not to say we have to work like a playwright before stage lighting, having to get bodies on stage, see the scene through in real time, and get them off again. Such is the fluidity of prose fiction that a scene might be a three-sentence memory, or a set-piece courtroom drama. This is something that's really worth noticing when you're reading like a writer: with some writers the story progresses chronologically, and you know when the narrative is in "covering-the-ground" mode, and when it goes into a fully-formed scene of dialogue and action. With others you're hardly aware when a scene starts, because the narrative slips to and fro between the two modes; perhaps the events are not told in the order they happened in; and very often you will only get the crucial parts of a scen which, told in real-time, would have been full of diversions and irrelevancies. More on all this later.
Before you start, make a new file for your Alex scene - I'd call mine AlexV2 - and if the Bobbie version brought out anything useful have a quick scribble to add those things and bed them in, but don't worry about polishing. If you're longhanding, just squiggle the notes in where you can so you have a sense of how this new version would work
2) Read over the action of this new version. Now describe it - summarise it - in three sentences. No more. The first sentence describes the basics of where Alex starts physically but also mentally/emotionally, including what they want. The second summarises how Alex acts to get it, and what happens - again, physically and mentally/emotionally. The third summarises the situation at the end, also - yes, you've guessed it - physically and mentally/emotionally.
Does that sound easy or impossible? Some writers have done it in their heads before I've finished speaking. Others gaze at me like a rabbit in the headlights, then brace themselves, knuckle down, and emerge ten minutes later looking exhausted but triumphant. And on the face of still others I see distaste, or even fear - and an understandable reluctance to go down this horrible-looking rabbit hole. The dislike and fear, I think, is that in stripping out the flesh - the words, voices, textures, ideas, details and images - that that make our stories (and by extension ourselves) individual, we will see nothing but a skeleton. And all skeletons look the same...
Unfortunately, doing this kind of x-ray is the best and simplest way to get a grip on the essential nature of storytelling, and on your story. The good news is that if you keep doing it, you become a radiographer: not only do you get better at sensing the invisible, ghostly flesh that shows round the bones, the skeletons themselves become more and more individual and characterful. And don't worry - even if after doing this exercise your relish for this little scene has got rather tarnished, you're not tied to it forever: this is just a training story.
2) Now look at the end of your scene. What in Alex's finishing situation might lead on to the next event? How might they think, feel and act? What might happen when they do act? Will the same thing/s get in the way, or will there be new one/s? What might Alex do to cope with them? Jot down some notes to pin these ideas down.
3) Look at the beginning of your scene. What might have come before it? How did Alex get here, feeling and thinking what they do, needing to get what they try to get? Working backwards from how Alex arrived in this scene, think about the scene that led up to that arrival. Was Alex wanting the same thing then? Did they meet the same obstacles, or different ones? Where did that previous scene start? Jot down some notes to pin those thoughts down.
That's it for today - although, if the three-sentence summaries were fun, or they felt challenging but useful, and you wanted to try turning your notes for 2) and 3) into more three-sentence summaries, I wouldn't stop you. But if you don't want to, or not yet, then go with that instinct.
One more thought: maybe you were irritated by my banging on, further up, about where Alex is physically and mentally/emotionally, but it's at the heart of the crucial difference between plot and story. As Paul Ashton, who runs the BBC Writers Room, puts it: story is the journey you make, plot is the route you take. Plot is the practicality of action and reaction - what characters do - and that's what creates the chain of events that lead us through the book. But it's the reader's mental and emotional engagement with who the characters are, and how they characters cope and change in those events, which keeps us reading.
Emma’s memoir, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, (currently on Amazon at 99p on Kindle and only just over half-price in hardback) 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.