At the moment I’ve got two fiction projects underway. The first is a novel I’ve been working on since the beginning of the year. I don’t like to talk about the actual subject of the work while I’m still writing it (it lets all the hot air out), but what I did want to share was a realisation I had while working on it.
Sometimes, writing feels like multiple choice. At every point in the story, there are decisions to be made: how will this character act/react in this situation, where will it happen, when will it happen, will the outcome be positive/negative for that character etc. One of the things I love about short stories is that although you still have lots of choices to make about how the story will play out, it’s going to be small so you have to say no to any possibilities that open out the narrative too much and require lots more text to be written. It’s a process of closing down, working towards a narrowing point. The novel is very different though.
Crudely speaking, writing a novel requires that you open up possibilities for the first third of the book and then develop them, and only towards the end begin to close them down to a point. There’s a stage though when you get about a third of the way in when you look at all the threads you’ve begun, and see from each of those a whole bunch of narrative potentials fanning out, and all the ways that each of those new strands could interact, and then layer upon layer of possibilities spreading out from each of those. The branches of possibility you began with get more and more numerous till it’s impossible to keep up with them all and you feel your grip on the story slipping. What felt like a solid, clear, dependable idea at the start becomes a confusing blur of a thousand potential outcomes. I found a way through it though.
At first, I tried mapping the whole thing out. I taped four A1 sheets together and stuck them on my wall, then put each character’s name in a row along the top. Dropping down from each character I put a chronological list of events that happens to them, marking with lines and arrows where the events happen at an intersection of two or more characters’ timelines. This FELT like the logical way to do it. I felt blinded by all the possibilities and thought if I could just see everything on the page in front of me at a glance, then it would all make sense and I’d have control over it, the way I have control over a short story when I’m holding the whole thing in my hands at once.
In reality, the map made it even more confusing. The two dimensional flowchart of events did not represent the story as it existed in my head. I got to a point of frustration and I did what I’ve done since I was 13 when I get frustrated. I wrote about it in my diary.
I’ve kept journals on and off throughout my teenage and adult life. When I’ve been through difficult times, I’ve found it hugely comforting to work them out on the page. Putting things down in words brings them into a state of manifestation where they’re easier to deal with – like tipping flour over an invisible monster you’re fighting.
As I was whining in my diary about the novel, and how I was struggling with which of the hundreds of potential narrative branches to follow, the answers became clear. I was having a conversation with myself about it and getting sound answers. Writing down, ‘I’m not sure what should happen here, if X does xxxxxx, then why would Y then yyyyyyyy? And I’d write different answers, different solutions to the problems, and the right one would be immediately obvious to me, in a way that it wasn’t when I was just reasoning in my head or looking at a flowchart. It felt like interviewing someone who knew what they were doing better than I did. Sometimes, new creative possibilities came to me as a result of this conversation on the page with myself. I realised that my brain likes to think in sentences. I’ve been training it to do that since I first picked up a book in the pre-school library corner and fell in love.
So, work it out on the page. That’s my solution. What’s yours? Have you been in the same situation and found your way through the forest with another method? What works for you?
PS. The second fiction project I’m working on is brand new. I just started this week. It’s a new short story commission for Comma Press – the next in their series of writers-meet-scientists-and-get-their-minds-blown-and-write-about-it anthologies such as When it changed, Litmus and Biopunk. I’m so excited about it. The science I’m working with is just INCREDIBLE. I just can’t wait to live in the future. I apologise for the enormous tease, but I’ll blog about the project once it’s a bit further along.