Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Summit in my Sights

If you've been paying attention to this blog, you might have noticed I've been writing a novel...and for rather a long time. It is just over nine years since the original scene of Echo Hall popped into my brain - a woman overhearing a conversation at night time, only to discover the participants are not there - and I've come a long way since then. It took seven and a half years to complete my first draft  and take a rest half up the hill. That version was  65,000 words too light, full of narrative inconsistencies, weakly drawn characters and rather too much melodrama, but it gave me something to work with. IAfter a short break, I  ploughed on upwards with energy and vigour, finishing my second draft last November. At that point I could see I was nearing the summit and now I am happy to report, I definitely have it in my sights. It has taken me a mere four months to redraft the latest version, which is nothing short of miraculous for my work rate. Thanks to wonderful critique at the York Festival of Writing and from my lovely twin Julia Williams and lovely friend Anne Booth, who both read the whole thing, I've had plenty of advice about how to improve it. And it's been a lot of fun.

After Christmas I was full of energy and focus. Throughout January and February I rose at 6 most mornings, completing an hour's editing, before waking the household up. I was particularly inspired by a writing challenge set down by a twitter friend Imran Siddiq (@flickimp) who kept me on track with a weekly review of our mutual achievements. And at the end of Feb, I was lucky enough to have a  fantastic weekend in the Gladstone Library. I promise to blog about  the marvels of that wonderful place, but for now I will say I had a fab time working for 3 days flat, and came back with only 1 part to revise. Life being what it is ( I did run the Reading 1/2 marathon in March) I slowed down after that, but by the end of April I finally completed the draft.

This time round has all been about re-shaping. Having worked pretty linearly before, I decided it was time  to take each separate story and look at them as a whole. So I worked on  Parts 1 &5, 2 & 4 and 3 in succession.

Part 1 & 5 are written in the first person, and tell Ruth's story in 1990/1.  The opening needs to be the strongest part of the novel and my feedback suggested it wasn't quite cutting it. Ruth was too weak and wishy washy, her husband Adam too mean,  and his grandfather mellowed far too quickly. So Part 1  has had a complete make over and a whole new chapter. Chapter 1 has moved to Chapter 12, and Chapter 2, to Chapter 1 (which funnily enough restores some of the original material back to the beginning again).  The remaining chapters have moved forward to compensate, and  been spliced and diced to change the narrative pace .This has made it easy to fill out the chapters that were a bit light in Part 5 and rework some of that material. . Though it was only just as I was finishing that I finally worked out something crucial to Ruth's back story which explains a lot about her indecisive nature. . There's a lot of work still to do, but I think most of the criticisms have been dealt with.

Parts 2  & 4  follow Elsie's story in 1942/3. These too have had quite a re-write. One of the most radical changes is to place it in the present tense. These sections are supposed to be based on diaries and alternate between Elsie and Daniel (her husband's cousin) points of view. I tried writing them as diaries but that felt wooden. So I wrote them in the third person in the past tense. Changing this to the present has livened them up I think and given the sense of immediacy I was after. The other major changes here have been to do with pacing. Some key scenes have switched from part 4 to part 2 which gives a better shape to the arc and I've fleshed out some chapters that were a bit thin.  This part of the novel was always the strongest and I think the changes are all to the good.

Part 3 is  all about Rachel, and covers the longest period, 1911-1924. This has been the hardest section to write. It's narratively important as what happens to Rachel, her sister Leah and their husbands Joseph and Jacob, lay the foundations for the resentments, conflict and tragedies that follow. But it's been difficult to get the narrative voice right, and pacing has been much more harder over thirteen years then  two. I think I've solved both. I always had the idea that Rachel's son Daniel was telling this story, so last time round I made him the narrator.  It was OK but the voice wasn't right, and I wasn't quite convinced he and Elsie could have sat on a hillside long enough for him to tell it. I've found a plausible reason (I hope) to locate them indoors, and by making it clear that this is his imagined reworking of his parents' past he is able to be the omnipotent narrator I need him to be. The last draft ended in a rush. I was so glad to finish and get on to the next section that I killed off four key characters in the space of a few pages. It was all a tad melodramatic, so this time round I've added four new chapters, allowing the ending room to breathe. We reach the same conclusion but I hope it's more satisfying to the reader.

I've also intentionally worked on improving connections between the three stories - some obvious (repetitions of locations, seasons, events) and some less so (odd lines, emotions). I've added some more political speeches which might need toning down but I think  are necessary, and after reading Adam Hothschild's moving To End All Wars  remembrance has become an important theme.

So all in all, the view from up here is looking quite good. The sun is shining and I can see I'm closing in on the top, though it'll  take some effort to get there.  I still have narrative defects and character flaws to iron out, and I'm a long way off the language doing justice to the story I want to tell. But I've come this far, and nothing is going to stop me now.

I can't wait to get going again.


The Goldfish said...

This is really exciting to read about. One great advantage you have is a willingness to let others in - with my first novel, I couldn't talk about it, I couldn't summarise the plot, and allowing the first person to read it (at the point it was pretty much finished -just a few edits since) was one of the single hardest things I've ever done - I compared it at the time as being photographed naked, I was that scared.

I've since got over that and it really helps. I mean, other eyes - the right eyes - can only help. And we write to be read, after all.

I'm so glad you've met this milestone and really looking forward to reading your completed masterpiece!

John Wiswell said...

That's a very complex story to tackle even for a seasoned fiction writer. I wish the best of luck as you dive back in. It's great that you have critics you can rely upon.

Virginia Moffatt said...

Thanks Goldie - yes it's hard to share your work, but it's the only way I find to be sure of where you are going.

And you're right John, if I was a little more sensible I'd have started with a much simpler tale. This kind of snuck up on me...hopefully I will pull it off!

Icy Sedgwick said...

Glad you feel you're getting near the finish line!