Tag Archives: narrative

Draft after Draft after …

I’m endlessly fascinated by how various writing process can be between one writer and the next, but however idiosyncratic these processes might be there are certain stages that have to be negotiated. It has to begin with ideas. For me, these often come from dreams or from the trance-like state that walking can induce – the link between walking and writing, the process of flaneurs like Baudelaire and Benjamin makes complete sense to me. These ideas begin to assume more and more shape – notes and jottings, bits of research, character sketches, hopes of something amazing and doubts that it is ever going to take shape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt this stage, some of it starts to form. Maybe you write a timeline. Perhaps you write chapter summaries. You might be someone who writes detailed character sketches or even has a list of questions to ask each character. For me, it’s all about research at this stage. I look up the weather of the time and place I’m writing about. I research the politics, the social climate, the architecture of the streets, the landscape, the local food, historical characters who might turn up in the novel. Before beginning to write This is the End of the Story I read several academic tomes on Don Quixote and several novels that has a Quixotic structure. For the current novel, A Remedy for All Things, I read everything I can find about Attila and all of his poetry that’s in English translation. I also unearthed several interviews with Attila’s family members and with the sculptor who made the most famous statue of him. Then I read several books about the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and as much as I could find about Budapest in the early 90s. From these copious notes some rough sketches of actual story began to be written and the opening, which had been in my head since the first dreams of my new protagonist, Selene.

From the mass of dreams, ideas, characters, places and research notes, something new has to emerge. Writing This is the End of the Story, I had several vivid incidents that needed to be written. I had them clearly in my head so I didn’t outline anything and I didn’t think about what order to write them in. Each piece emerged and only later did I order and re-order and then go over the whole to make sure the way they fitted together was consistent, even though the narrative was non-linear.

Writing A Remedy for All Things has been completely different. I’m juggling three characters each in different time periods – 1937, 1959 (with flash backs to 1952-9) and 1993. What unites them is that the two main characters, Catherine (Cassie from This is the End of the Story) and Selene are dreaming each other’s lives on successive days in November to early December, days that were the last 28 of Attila József’s life. So the dates impose an essential framework on what would otherwise be a chaotic narrative and each date has two short chapters – one in 1993, one in 1959. With this framework it seemed sensible to outline early so I wrote summaries of each chapter and this enabled me to wrangle a sprawling plot into something manageable and accessible. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all way to write a novel, but certain stories let us know what they need – form and content begin to match if we attend to the material we’re working with.

In this case, with an outline in place, I wrote a first full draft. It was full of typos and inconsistencies. It was too obviously researched at some points (it’s skeleton showing through its skin), but lacking in detail at others. The prose was clunky and some of the chapters were little more than bridging passages, but I had a whole novel. It was time to get a clearer vision of what I might be working towards and to do that demanded that I stop for a while.

With the constant programme editing, events to organise for Cinnamon Press and admin to keep the press running, taking time off from my own writing isn’t difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to find the time to write at all, which is why having writing blocks courtesy of the Arts Council, has been such a blessing with this novel. But whether we have scraps of time or luxurious amounts of it, there are interludes when we need to stop and stand back. Time to get some distance from the first intensely immersive process. Time to dream and wander again. For a week or a month or however long you need (but not so long that it becomes remote from you), let it rest. Don’t read it and don’t let anyone else read it. It’s too early in the process and too vulnerable to being derailed at this stage. (If you have a trusted reader or a mentor, bounce ideas off them, talk in broad terms, get ideas about overall process, get encouragement and support, but don’t second guess the fragile first draft just yet).

I did keep reading everything I could find about Budapest in the right periods while I was letting the first draft settle. And I also had fascinating conversations about the place and events, about Attila József’s poetry and about some of the bigger ideas I was exploring, but I didn’t open the files.

I started the second draft once I knew I was going to be able to visit Budapest to hone the research and really bring the book to life. My aim was to revise the narrative so that any thin passages were fleshed out, so that the research was carried by story, dialogue and character, rather than cluttering the surface. I wanted to improve the prose, kill any darlings, rid the story of inconsistencies, smooth the pacing and keep the conflicts tense. The second draft is a good point to address any structural issues, and for me a key issue was how to use particular objects that revealed connections not only in this novel, but also pointed back to the first novel and potentially forward to the next, For Hope is Always Born.

When I finished the second draft, not long after arriving in Budapest, I immediately went back to the beginning and started editing again. The third draft saw a mixture of changes. Having gone through the structural issues I could concentrate on finer details. But, being in the place where the novel is set and with access to generous people who’d lived through some of what I was writing about and knew Attila Joszef’s work so much more deeply in its original language, also meant I could revisit some of the key ideas. In the third draft I completely changed my mind about one of the most pivotal events of the book, thanks to a conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Publishers. And I was able to add details about József’s life and about the places that Selene would have known only because I was able to visit important museums and sites and talk to people.

The fourth draft was a thorough edit of all of this, again reading for consistency as well as for every stray comma, typo or missing word. Drafts two, three and four came hard on the heels of each other because I had an intense time set aside to work in Hungary, but there were breaks, even if just for a day, and lots of conversations, as well as long walks and plenty more dreams to fuel the process.

And then I came home, got back into work and didn’t look at the manuscript for several weeks. Another rest is no bad thing and having worked on redrafting, editing and editing again, it was useful to get some distance. The hardest work to see objectively is always our own. I can spot tics and flaws in other people’s writing that I’m oblivious to in my own. If you get to this stage and want another view on the whole thing now is a good time to hand over to a trusted reader or work with mentor.

After all of this, it’s time to hone. This is where I am now – going over every chapter very slowly, realising that even in a fifth draft, there are typos, missing punctuation, phrases that don’t quite work, some glaring bits of overwriting. I’m in the last stages of honing, maybe a week to go and then it can go off for a full overhaul by an objective and very trusted reader.

When it comes back from that, I’ll be onto the final draft (or drafts) and then it will begin the editing process ready for publication. And, of course, the last stages of writing are only the first stages of having a book that needs to make its way into the world … a whole other process.


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Lacking a heart without dichotomies

I’m on my travels again for Cinnamon Press. Last Thursday the launch of Sue Hubbard’s exquisitely lyrical novel, Girl in White, a fictionalised interpretation of the life of Paula Modersohn Becker told through her daughter’s search for her mother on the cusp of Nazi Germany (Paula died of an embolism six weeks after giving birth to Mathilde). It’s a story full of human contradictions – the clashes between loyalty and betrayal, the flashes of integrity and the accommodations that are made along the way. Above all it’s a highly particular story and I was reminded of that forcefully, reading the last third of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist on the train on the way to the launch. Leo, an academic mentor to the main character makes the point that,

As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify, but to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction … to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in.

Literature disturbs the organisation … because it is not general …the intrinsic nature of the particular is to fail to conform … Keeping the particular alive in a simplifying, generalising world — that’s where the battle is joined.

Leo sees the world in clear camps, and I would want to nuance some of his own certainties, but I resonated with his analysis that the antagonism between political solutions to suffering and narrative treatments of suffering often revolves around this dualism (perhaps false like so many dualisms) between the general and the particular. In particular the main character, Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in several Roth novels, is unable to make the final leap to side with left wing influences in his life and join the revolution because, as he says of himself,

I lacked …a heart without dichotomies.

Of course a heart that is over-abundant in dichotomies can be reduced to a murky pool of liberal guilt and sentiment unwilling or unable to take any stand, but a heart with none would be ill equipped to empathise with Paula Modersohn Becker’s story or any human story. As a writer and publisher I hope to go on lacking a heart without dichotomies.


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Aporia, Narrative and Saying Goodbye to the Old Co-op

This has been an extraordinarily fruitful week for immersing myself in writing of my own. Part of the magic was timing, I was longing to get going again, but also this place. I always love coming to Hebden Bridge, but I only left the apartment once this week and then wanted to be back and writing again, so in a sense I could have been anywhere, but a steep sided valley is always good and this little apartment is perfect. The welcome was lovely, including freshly baked lemon cakes, and the place, the ground floor beneath the owners’ home, is beautifully set up and was once the Industrial Co-operative Society’s building so it has good ghosts, even though I don’t believe in ghosts.

For my last day I’ve been working on a couple of poems that connect more personal material with the physical location of Cwmorthin and its history. I’ve got one good draft and one ropy skeleton that needs a lot of work or putting out of its misery– we’ll see. I’ve also got lots of notes from Paul Ricoeur, exploring doubt further. Doubt is clearly an important through line in both the process of writing and the material, I’m discovering. Ricoeur says:

The poetics of narrativity corresponds to the aporetics of temporarily


In other words when we are at a loss in the face of time the human response is to narrativise, to tell stories, to construct poetry.

Ondaatje, whose work I love, says something similar in In the Skin of a Lion, about how art orders ‘the chaotic tumble of events’. Ricoeur also talks about how narrative is restorative – it validates the humanity of those written about, the writer and those reading, he considers. I like that. We tell stories to reconcile ourselves to time – to the huge events of cosmology, the big and the mo hidden events of history and to our personal journeys. As Ricoeur so brilliantly puts it:

The whole history of suffering cries out for vengeance and calls for narrative.



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