Novel writing demands two necessary habits…
We can now drop the word ‘aspiring’ to describe you as a writer. You are a writer and you plan to be a writer for the rest of your life. So, as a writer you have developed two necessary habits; that of writing first thing in the morning before outside influences, the Today programme, the Guardian or family badinage have deflected your original ideas, and, second, that essential discipline of treating writing as a regular, contractual, unbreakable commitment. These habits have yielded, at a basic level, the benefits of improved fluency and, in parallel, control over the unconscious flow of ideas.
Dorothea Brande says that no life is too busy that it cannot find opportunities to write. I might phrase that differently; more strongly. If your life is too full of its many non-writing activities then you have to either change your priorities or, frankly, give up writing now. Looking at highly professional writers who turn out regular volumes of work – think, for example, of Ian Fleming who allocated eight weeks for the actual writing of a Bond novel; Alan Ayckbourn who, rather like Mozart, has the play fully formed in his mind so that writing takes only a brief couple of weeks and corrections are minimal; or Dickens, who worked to a weekly or monthly schedule and had the early chapters of a novel in print while still working on the later ones – and then tell yourself that, even if you intend to remain an amateur writer, you are not a real writer unless you write.
Analyse your material as a stranger
Now is the time to read over what you have been writing uncritically in the mornings in order to develop your fluency. Devote at least a week to this and do it diligently. Analyse your material as a stranger to your work would have to do. Your early morning sessions have been to catch your imagination while it is still fresh and undistracted. Discover what your tastes are and note those areas where you feel your writing is at its best. Consider now what writing veins are there for you to quarry. Above all, answer the question: what interests you? Let me quote now a big chunk of Dorothea.
In my experience, the pupil who sets down the night’s dream, or recasts the day before into ideal form, who takes the morning hour to write a complete anecdote or a passage of sharp dialogue, is likely to be the short story writer in embryo. Certain types of character sketching, when it is brief and concerned with rather general (or even obvious) traits, point the same way. A subtler analysis of characters, a consideration of motives, acute self-examination (as distinct from romanticizing one’s actions), the contrasting of different characters faced by the same dilemma, most often indicate the novelist. A kind of musing introspection or of speculation only sketched in is found in the essay writer’s notebook, although with a grain of drama added, and with the particularizing of an abstract speculation by assigning the various elements of the problem to characters who act out the idea, there is promise of the more meditative type of novelist. (Brande, p.85)
Self-examination, honestly done, is what is required of you now. How are you with dialogue? Do the characters genuinely interact or are they simply moving the plot forward by a series of statements in an unrealistic manner? How well do you create your characters; do they step off the page and enter the mind forever, like Becky Sharp or Holden Caulfield? How long or short are your sentences; do the long ones need breaking up into their individual ideas or are you a second Henry James? Do certain words or phrases recur too often – as regards to that; a month of Sundays; ravishingly beautiful; and then – which would suggest that you need to work on your vocabulary and breadth of reading?
Make an interim choice and devote your writing time to that area of your work where you have strengths but also work on the weaker areas by spending time consciously writing passages that, after a day or two, you can reappraise and mark out of ten. Plan your writing time with more seriousness than ever before and stick to your personal timetable. However, build into that timetable enough time for leisure and recreation, bearing in mind, of course, that reading is mandatory!
Plan regular (monthly) reviews of your work and identify areas for improvement.
In the next lesson we will talk more about reading as a writer.