A first novel is often produced from autobiographical material. Jeanette Winterson poured her experience of growing up gay in the Pentecostal church into her debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, while the poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, closely parallels her own descent into mental illness. But even writers not blessed – or cursed – with such interesting biographies can use our own experience as a springboard for our first large-scale fiction project.
I’m delighted to have had an article on this subject published in Writers’ Forum earlier this year which arose from Q&As I carried out with debut novelists. If you didn’t manage to catch it in the magazine, you might like to read it here, along with links to the original posts from which I’ve taken the quotes.
For Valentine’s Day, I’m reviving a post that appeared in October 2015 on the Reading Writers website, which is now defunct.
As the world goes crazy, I crave, in my reading, not escapism, but a reflection of the flawed complexity of human beings and the things we do to make life that bit harder. But I need to be in safe hands to do so. So thanks to Louise Doughty and Jane Rogers – both established British authors unafraid to tackle difficult subjects – for providing that in their latest novels. Although quite different in their focus, both involve the characters reviewing painful pasts and their own culpability in order that their next mistakes might be that bit smaller.
Although, like many writers, I find autumn to be the best time to tackle major writing projects, I’ve never yet been tempted to register for National Novel Writing Month. For me, the pace is too fast and the outcome too limited, but there’s nothing to stop me joining in informally, which is what I decided to try two years ago. Starting with three character sketches and a rough idea of the main plot points, I averaged a thousand words a day from the beginning of November onwards and surprised myself with a rough first draft of just under 80,000 words by the middle of January.
As I’ve been out and about talking about my novel, I’ve been surprised to meet – in stark contrast to the predominant aversion to spoilers – a couple of people who like to look at the ending, perhaps the last couple of paragraphs, before turning to the first page. Now, I like the ending of Sugar and Snails, although it’s been suggested that some might find the issues insufficiently resolved. (I do get asked if I’m planning to write a sequel!) Because it tells of a destination rather than the journey, I don’t think reading it in advance would constitute a spoiler (although, prattling on at one talk about how I was pleased with the ending, I did have a friend tell me afterwards she thought my ending wrapped things up too much).
The coincidence of Charli Mills’s latest post on the loss of a secure base with the buzz about the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth later this month (more on both later in this post) reminded me of this piece on fear as a motivator that has languished in my drafts folder for well over a year.
I’m a great fan of Emma Darwin’s posts on writing because, while they’re stuffed with useful advice, she never pretends there’s a simple formula (or two or three or two hundred and three) to make our novels novel and our sentences sing. That’s not the case in some other corners of the creative writing industry. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m particularly hacked off by an implicit assumption that the classic quest underlies each and every story structure: we just have to decide what our hero wants and thwart him in his journey to find it. While I can see how that works for some fiction, lots of the novels I read and love don’t go down that route. On top of that, human motivation is a complex construct: some people genuinely don’t know what they want and some are far too passive to follow their dreams. Some are constrained by circumstances or demons from the past and some characters sabotage their own desires.
With the echos of each other in the titles, I couldn’t resist pairing these two novels published this month, both involving parallel narratives. As I’m playing with a similar structure in my current WIP, I’m also interested in what these novels can teach us about a form that’s more difficult to pull off than we might think.
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of two novels.
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