Time for some serious plot wrestling

Cumbrian wrestlers

The end is nigh, and I’m excited and worried in equal measure. I’ve written 65,000 words of my new novel, Pressmennan, and reckon I have, at most, 20,000 more to go.

This is good because I’m keen to get finished so I can find out what the world thinks, but it’s also bad because I’m nearing the point of finding out what the world thinks.

So far, I’ve been focused on getting as many words as possible down on paper, preferably in a reasonably sensible and interesting order.

Now, with the various characters and their story threads well established, I’m moving into a new phase: bringing it all together. And that means some nimble footwork to ensure I don’t trip up as I wrestle a complex plot into submission.

Basically, everything depends on everything else. A passing comment made by a minor character 150 pages ago needs adjustment in light of something happening now. What someone else did or didn’t say in chapter one has to be clarified as it’s crucial to a scene I’m about to write.

And, if such and such is going to occur in a couple of chapters, I need to revise the groundwork laid when the characters involved first appeared.

In other words, each little detail, each conversation, each thought needs to be choreographed into a seamless whole. No loose footwork, no missteps. It’s making my brain hurt, but it must be done – and it must be done well.

Wish me luck!

PS: I’ve been named Oxford University’s Alumni Author of the Month for my novel Tandem. How nice is that?

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Into the dustbin of literature

Tom Gauld cartoon

This cartoon by Tom Gauld made me smile. I’m only on chapter three of my new novel, Pressmennan, and already one of the characters – a Swedish film star called Bibi – has been consigned to the dustbin.

When it comes to editing your own work, it’s not indecisive to make changes – it’s essential. Knowing when to hit delete is a skill every writer must learn if they want to be successful. And the parts to look hardest at are often the ones you’re most proud of.

As Arthur Quiller-Couch advised in On the Art of Writing: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

Sometimes the bravest and best course of action is to dispose of a character, scene or even a whole plotline. Occasionally, the wastebasket, electronic or actual, is the right place for an entire manuscript.

It’s where my first two went. It took me a while to realise I needed to let go of them, but once I did, I was able to move on and put everything I’d learned into writing Tandem.

Decisive use of the red pen is what made it publishable and turned it into the winner of the Hookline Novel Competition.

Journeys with strangers

Bookshelf


There are only two basic novel plots. This is something I remember reading years ago, and it has floated to the front of my mind over the past few days as I’ve started thinking seriously about my new novel.

It was the American novelist John Gardner who said it all boiled down to this: the central character goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.

It may seem simplistic but I think it’s true. All novels are about change. Something must happen to the main character, otherwise there is no story. And that change must be prompted by something they do themselves – a physical or emotional journey of discovery – or by someone else – the stranger – who does something to affect their life.

Think about the books you love and see which category they fall into. Pride and Prejudice, one of my favourites, revolves around the arrival of several (male) strangers. Wolf Hall is about Thomas Cromwell’s journey from poverty to power.

My first novel, Tandem, is actually about both. The Amazon blurb says: “Paula abandons her London life and travels through the night to a Scottish village where she once spent a childhood holiday. Desperate to avoid a painful loss, she tries to hide away. However, the locals are keen to know more about their unhappy visitor and she is soon tangled in the life of 12-year-old Sanders. Can Paula help her new friend? Can we ever run away from the past?”

So Paula embarks on what turns out to be both a physical and an emotional journey, while for the villagers of Craskferry, particularly Sanders, she is the stranger who comes to town and changes lives.

My new novel, Pressmennan, has just one plot theme: it’s all about strangers. What will your novel be about?

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