Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Back to the Drawing Board . . .

My novel-in-progress, An Honourable Man, is about the dichotomy between public and private persona, and the whole novel hinges on an apparent chance encounter. This chance encounter is based on a real-life episode: a few years ago I bumped into someone in my local shopping centre and, after exchanging apologies, realised I knew him from somewhere. He recognised me, too – the problem was neither of us could place the face. We chatted for a while, neither of us revealing we were not sure exactly who the other person was and how we knew each other. Both of us asked quietly probing questions (you know the sort of thing: ‘How are your family?’, ‘Where are you working these days?’, ‘Are you still . . . er . . . ?’). I think we went to school together, but I’ll never know.

In my novel, the chance meeting happens between a man and a woman. The question I asked myself was ‘What if there was a sexual chemistry between them?’ And what if, instead of simply exchanging a few pleasantries, they embarked on an affair? But what if one of them then turned out not to be who the other one thought they were?

This is the sort of thing that can and probably does happen in real life, but I knew that fiction is different from real life in that it has to make sense. So I gave one of the protagonists a motive for wanting to meet the other character, and then made them engineer the ‘chance’ meeting. I also came up with what I thought was a clever device for showing the vulnerability of the other protagonist. I thought it worked okay, and the trusted readers I showed the manuscript to seemed to have no problem with it. So I completed the novel and entered it in a competition run by A&C Black.

The runners-up prize in the competition was a critique from The Literary Consultancy. Although the feedback I received was generally good (‘a readable, pacey piece of fiction’) the reader had real difficulty with the contrived ‘chance encounter’. More importantly, she thought my ‘clever’ device simply didn’t work. It made the character concerned sound ‘more mad than sad’. She said it spoiled the whole book.

This was tough feedback to take – after all, the ‘chance encounter’ was the foundation I had built the whole novel upon, and the ‘clever device’ was the key to understanding one of my main characters. But I could also see that the feedback was absolutely right. Problem was, I didn’t know how to make the novel work without that central episode or the insight provided by my device. So I put the manuscript away for a couple of months and concentrated instead on editing the Deal Writers anthology, and on writing a few new short stories of my own. The short stories helped clear my head a little, as well as putting some much-needed cash in the bank!

Now that the anthology has been safely put to bed (I don’t have a precise publication date yet, but it will be going on sale for £3.50 plus P&P in the next month or so) it’s time to dust off An Honourable Man and to hunker down to some serious rewriting. It feels like a massive, daunting task. I think I know how to handle the rewrite, but I won’t really know till I write it, will I?

So, here goes . . .

8 comments:

Mary Witzl said...

This is so interesting, Paul. The fact that you can take that sort of criticism confirms my already high opinion of your writing skill and integrity as a writer. I can imagine how you feel: I wrote a novel with a premise that my family did not think was enough. (I have an odd situation: my family are all discerning readers and shrewd reviewers, and if I please them, it's as good as money in the bank. Try telling that to agents and publishers, though.) I am now trying to rewrite that novel, which I still feel has promise, but it is tough going. Much of it has to be deleted rather than reworked.

I like the sound of your premise, and I am old enough that I can picture this happening. Might it be that your premise is good, but the way you presented it could stand some fine tuning?

After getting my own critique from The Literary Consultancy, I am now a convert. If only I had enough money to send all my manuscripts to them...

Kanani said...

I've plugged your anthology.

As far as "clever devices go," you have to make sure you keep your book character driven, as opposed to falling into one of those plot driven books where the characters are flatly supporting a plot.

"Mad than sad" could mean a lot of things. But do go through and make sure your characters are lapsing into any clich├ęd reactions and that you really give them some heft.

Paul said...

Mary - I think it's inaluable for a writer to have discerning readers who will be honest and aren't afraid to tell you if something isn't right. It's even better if they can tell you WHY something isn't right! But I agree how tough it is to do rewrites when you are deleting stuff at the same time. I also agree about TLC - I thought the critique was spot-on and like you I would use them more extensively if I could afford it!

Kanani - Thank you for the plug. I've left a comment on your blog. Thanks also for the advice on character v plot. You're right, this novel is definitely character-driven so I do need to be sure I get the characterisation right!

Julia Buckley said...

Sounds like a really compelling plot to me. I have massive respect for the LC, but I think it might be worth remembering that you only have one person's opinion there (albeit someone's who hugely knows her stuff). You seem to agree with most of her feedback though, so if it works for you it's probably right. Good luck with the reworking.

Eryl Shields said...

Hello, I'm totally new to this writing malarkey so forgive me if I present myself as rather naieve but...

What's not to make sense of in a chance encounter, of the sort you experienced, that results in an affair where the public persona of one of the characters is quite different from the private? Also, doesn't 'giving' a character something they wouldn't actually have always give one's work an air of contrivance? Lastly, why is a 'device' needed to show a character's traits?

I need to know these things if I am going to get on at all.

I come by way of Mary and Kanani by the way.

Paul said...

Hi Julia - how's your novel coming along? You're right about the TLC comments only being one person's p.o.v. but I do think she was pretty perspicacious overall. I did have problems with dropping my clever device (which wasn't really that clever - I made the male protagonist have imaginary conversations with his ex-wife to show he hadn't really gotten over her yet, and used the ex-wife's 'voice' to point out things the protagonist knew but wasn't facing up to). So I've had to find a different (better?) way to show both his emotional vulnerability and his foolhardy behaviour. If I don't like the rewrite when I get to the end I shall just paste back the ex-wife's 'voice'!

Good luck with the Long Ducker, by the way. I once ran the Harrow half marathon and I remember that ******* hill very well!

Hi Eryl - nice to meet you! Hopefully my reply to Julia will have answered a couple of your questions. As for the chance encounter in fiction - I think if it's incidental to the main plot it can be okay, but when the whole novel turns on it then readers think it seems far-fetched. Truth is stranger than fiction - and that's a truism as well as a cliche: a piece of fiction has to make sense to the reader, and sometimes real-life events don't make much sense.

Mary Witzl said...

Paul -- I've just gotten back a critique of my full novel from a very astute, no-holds-barred friend (a Yorkshirewoman, too), and this very point came up. In my own life, I've experienced a series of coincidences that amazed me, so I decided to work a series of coincidences into my novel, making them pivotal. My friend pointed out that although coincidences occur in reality all the time, in fiction they are dodgy. Damn it, I'm afraid she's right. Now I've got to rework the entire ending.

Julia Buckley said...

yeah, the hill - phew!

As for the novel, not much happening lately, trying to find some way of spurring myself back into action.

I just haven't been feeling very writerly lately, not sure why. If there wasn't such a time lag between booking and the start of the course, I'd probably book another Arvon. But I'd really like to get cracking soon.