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I recently watched a BBC programme, Simon Armitage, Writing Poems, in which the poet took the viewer/reader behind the scenes of some of his poems to reveal elements which went into writing them.
‘Like most poets,’ Armitage says. ‘I try and get the form of a poem to somehow represent or resemble the subject matter.’ In his poem, A Vision he uses a town’s abandoned plans for a utopian future as a metaphor to explore society’s, and by extension our own, lost and fruitless dreams. The poem, he says, ‘is very architectural … it looks orderly and it looks structured.’
This struck a chord with me as considering the shape, the layout – the form of a novel is something I enjoy and like to take time over. It is after all the realization of a pile of pages, the manuscript into a physical object, the book.
The form is of course an important element to the reading experience. Whether to divide the book into chapters or parts, how to show a shift in time from past to present, how to move between different points of view need to be handled carefully so that the reader isn’t confused or shaken out of the flow of the narrative. There is scope, though too, for a little fun and a bit of decoration.
In ‘Laughing as they Chased us’, I gave my chapters titles, not numbers. The titles were phrases or partial phrases drawn from the text of that particular chapter: ‘can’t stop myself’, ‘feel empty’, ‘let me talk’. These words expressed the intensity of emotion captured within the chapter and I felt and heard them as I would a lyric.
In my second novel I divided the book into parts by season which both acknowledged and deepened the significance the weather had to the story. Not only did the seasons and weather evoke the Englishness I wanted to celebrate but it was influential in the motivations and actions of the characters.
In my novel, ‘Summer Circles’, circles, spots, dots and circular patterns appear throughout the book –the corn circles, chairs set out in a semi-circle, freckles on a face – and the cyclical nature of life is suggested at within the rural landscape and through the main characters, three women at different ages and stages in their journeys. I visualized the form of book like a Venn diagram, the circles representing the relationships the characters had with the world and with each other. Certain scenes in which all the three characters interact are repeated three times from each different viewpoint.
For several days now while I’ve been walking the dog or on the bus, or running my eyes down my To Do list (see March post) the knowledge that I still haven’t written my June Blog Post has become as pressing as the post remains elusive.
A blank page is rarely a problem for me when I’m writing fiction. ‘Throw the idea down and see what you can make of it,’ could be one way of describing my process.
I touch type and work directly onto a laptop. I can get the words out as quickly as I think them which has two, seemingly opposite, effects of providing distance from the words appearing in front of me while allowing me scope to contemplate what I’ve written.
Don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t be without my notebooks either. Handwritten notes are the form I use to make observations and examine my writing life. The notebook is the place where I study my characters, explore scenes and settings and work out themes and plots. Working on the laptop allows me to delete, add, and move words, paragraphs and even chapters as the work evolves. It gives a tangible feeling of freedom and of craft.
The reason for the Blank Post is because, at the moment, I’m teetering on the brink of a final manuscript. I’m obsessed with the glacier-creep towards the end of this edit. I am living for the small filip which each finished page gives me. Time spent on anything else feels like pages torn out of the book.
A couple of months ago I took part in an Opinions and Lifestyle Survey for the Office for National Statistics. Prior to this, a letter had arrived in the post saying I had been selected from 63,182,000 “to help shape Britain today and tomorrow.”
Enclosed with the letter and explanatory leaflet was a book of first class stamps as a thank you or perhaps encouragement to take part. For me, neither postage stamps or an appeal to my citizenship was necessary. As a writer of contemporary realism, numbers feed my hunger to know the habits and tastes of my fellow nation-dwellers and this was a real chance to glimpse behind the scenes.
The friendly woman with her official badge who had turned up on my doorstep one evening returned on the day we had agreed for the interview. I said this was my first ever survey and she said this was the first time she’d interviewed a novelist. I like to think that she seemed pleasantly surprised by my enthusiasm and we settled in the living room with mugs of tea, a fat file of question cards and my attention-seeking cocker spaniel who the lovely Dorothy was very patient with.
Questions on air travel, airports and flying, on tax evasion or was that avoidance? on alcohol, on my use of IT, were just some of the subject areas in an interview which lasted well over an hour. My enthusiasm waxed and waned: questions didn’t allow for context, the structure of the answers didn’t cater for nuance but it felt good that someone was asking these questions and that somewhere, later, out would pop a batch of fresh statistics.
These days everyone’s collecting data: service industries, financial institutions, shops and supermarkets, as well as, of course, the mother of statistic gathering: the government. What kind of tea I had supplied Dorothy with, and which make of kettle I use, is no longer purely my own business.
Big Brother omniscience is the sinister aspect to insatiable data capture but the flip side is that we now have access to the strangest information.
A few months earlier, at Christmas time, I’d enjoyed Damian Carrington’s article in The Guardian about the ‘Christmas Effect’ on the National Grid. While capitalism promotes the individual, statistics prove that common behaviour remains heavily in play. I relish the thought of “TV Pickups” – the national heaving of bums off settees as we head towards the kettle while TV credits roll after a popular programme or the fact that for the grid, Boxing Day morning is the “most peaceful national moment of the year”.
In the same issue of the paper there were also statistics about people who had split off from the herd. On Christmas Day in 2012, 392 people bought a car on eBay, 1,548 filed their tax returns while 674 died.
Setting the idiosyncratic against common behaviour is a gift for a writer. Behind those numbers are stories of heartache, boredom, loneliness and excessive pragmatism.
I am currently editing my next novel. The book has already been through a number of drafts and is now a weighty 90,000 words. Weighty because I have printed it off and the pile of paper is gratifyingly thick but also because the book is finally feeling substantial in content: the plot, the timelines, the research and the settings are, for the most part, worked out.
I have read through the printed pages twice: the first time, quickly, to get a feel for the atmosphere, the readability of the book. The second read-through was slower, more reflective. I was on the lookout for surfaces and shortcuts, for false notes and weak spots.
I am now putting those thoughts and addressing those questions directly onto the next draft on my laptop. This is the time when I can strengthen the core themes that shape the story and give myself over to the characters.
There is an intensity to this edit which is different to all the others. It feels both precarious and immersing. This novel is told from a single, male perspective – the father of a family in crisis. It’s hard to break away from the relationship I am building with him although work, family, day-to-day life frequently intervenes. It feels as if I keep getting up and leaving in the middle of a confidential conversation.
Haruki Murakami’s book, What I Talk About when I Talk About Running was first published in 2008. I clipped out a review at the time but it wasn’t until this year, that I happened to buy it.
In those five years ill-health has ended my running and slowed my writing. For a few weeks I hesitated to read a writer who might arouse new yearnings for past capabilities.
Despite its classifications this book, as Murakami says, is not a manual on running or fitness, nor is it a conventional autobiography. The author’s personal history and creative process are revealed only in terms of his preparations for running marathons and triathlons. Essentially this is Murakami’s philosophy on running and writing: the two components which form his essence.
The writer hangs his hat on the Buddhist proverb: ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ You feel the fibrous determination in the muscles that he wills into action even when they are failing. It is the same disciplined attitude he applies to his ‘career’ in writing.
Murakami can’t imagine people liking him and perhaps such a dedicated way of living might daunt a new runner or writer but there is still plenty to enjoy. He is funny, his observations are full of heart and he generously exposes his flaws.
When Murakami quotes Maugham’s aphorism, ‘in each shave lies a philosophy’ you understand that this is a man who is patiently carving out his space in life. Most appealing are the intimate moments he shares, those small moments of ceremony: writing in his notebook, buying new training shoes, the counting of miles run.
I worried this book would awaken unwanted emotions. Instead I was gently reminded of the enchantment of daily life. It made me want to sit down, stretch my legs, reach for my notebook and write.