Unrealistic expectations and pleasant surprises
Every morning when I woke up in my little bedroom in Moniack Mohr and drew back the curtains, a different view greeted me. Sometimes there was a thick mist reminiscent of the eerie haze permanently surrounding the house in the film, The Others. On other days I awoke to a beautiful blue sky and a wide vista stretching out to the hills and mountains beyond. One morning there was even a very vivid rainbow sprouting from a mountain, arcing upwards. It shouldn’t have been difficult to get inspiration, feel at peace and write, write, write; except for the factor of ‘unreal expectations’.
I’d been anticipating this course for over half a year. I wrote nothing for about two weeks prior to the course; believing there was little point as Arvon would probably fundamentally change my view of my novel. I’ve never been in the presence of a bone fide ‘published author’ before, let alone two, and I was eager for their views on my writing.
My first tutorial wasn’t until 2.45pm on Tuesday, therefore I wasted much of the day being unsure what to spend my time on. The half hour tutorial seemed to pass in a flash. I was pleasantly surprised at my tutor’s thoughts on the 2,000 words I had sent a month beforehand. Sue Peebles, author of The Death of Lomond Friel, gave me some good, detailed advice on particular aspects of my writing. She was also very encouraging, quoting her favourite line from my piece.
Despite all this encouragement my main reason for coming on the course was the need to pull my sprawling novel into a coherent whole, with a firm spine running through it. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I sent my novel to a literary critic about two years ago and part of the feedback was to stop thinking of my novel as one book; that it was more likely to be three or four. Instead of trying to chop, which was distorting the story line, I should expand certain areas where critical scenes were touched upon but not explored. They recommended an end point for book one, and suggested I work on that; which I have done. The problem I found was that every time I attempted to fill in the gaps I sometimes created more. My word count was going up and up and I still wasn’t pulling the things together; it’s like the Magician’s Apprentice only with words instead of water.
Now I believe this is the first time Arvon have run a Novel writing tutored retreat, so there were bound to be some teething problems. However, something everyone noticed was that, instead of the eight to ten students expected, there were in fact fourteen. That’s fourteen novels all at different stages of development for the tutors to get their heads around (bearing in mind we had not been asked to supply synopses, but 2,000 words extract from the novel prior to the course). It’s also fourteen different sets of problems; some people were at the planning stage, some having difficulty developing their characters, some felt they’d gone off tangent and needed reining in plus a host of other issues I probably haven’t even considered. I obviously didn’t help; trying to develop a sprawling fantasy. I mean how could I get help strengthening the central core of my novel without being able to get my tutors immersed in my world? I think perhaps Arvon has a bit to learn with this particular format. Less students and more preparation in terms of students supplying a synopsis, a few words of prose and a brief overview of what exactly they are struggling with probably would have helped the tutors.
The tutors did their best, given all these issues, to provide as much help and advice as they could. Sue helped me confront a thought I’d been batting away from my consciousness for some time: the second storyline in my novel had to go – a whopping 80,000 words removed at a stroke! (Depression hit the day after, but hey I’ve got two or three more books to write and no doubt at least some of this 80k will be included).
Alan Warner, author of Morvan Caller and The Sopranos to name but a few of his works, provided another perspective. He, unlike Sue, has read fantasy and so had a good take on the challenges of the genre. He recommended some good reading material and we talked about how to portray battle scenes without them being too formulaic and functional (ie he swung his sword up and to the left then…. etc.). Alan also gave me a perspective on what he understood from my extracts about my world (he was kind enough to read about five chapters of my book in total). It made me realise some things, well defined in my own mind, are not coming across on the page. In places I assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader – especially regarding the key themes of blood and magic; these are my central core. (contrastingly, in other places I am not trusting the reader enough; I build up a scene, create an atmosphere, hint and cajole and then write blatantly what the situation is – the reader doesn’t need that, they’ve understood it from my build up.)
So, as a result I know that I need to do a number of things;
- Scan novel to look out for: tautology, areas where I don’t ‘trust the reader’ and areas where I’ve assumed too much knowledge.
- Strengthen my own understanding of the role of blood and magic within my novel – and then stick with it.
- As the 80,000 words I took out were all about a young girl call Agnes, I want to develop the two other female characters in the book to ensure there is a good gender balance – but that’s a another story all together!
(Part 3 of my Arvon experience – will look at overcoming fears and making dreams come true).