Friday, January 11, 2013

Writing process: the novel as patchwork skirt

The novel I'm writing this year began as 26 colourful patches, otherwise perceived as short stories.

My other novels were, of course, written from scratch. The writing process is always a hard muscly battle between structure and story, with myself as a bewildered but ambitious adjudicator. 

With my first novel, The Limits of Green, I just jumped on the elephant of the story and held on like grim death when it bolted. Then I tried to impose structure as an afterthought. 

With more experience, I became more of a sumo wrestler than a novice arm-wrestler, but neither is a match for an elephant. Writers always attempt to prod, cajole or even programme the elephant to follow a structured path, and to some extent writers will always fail, because story must win. It's a fun fight although there is much at stake.

As I was foolish enough to reveal my current project, some friends inevitably ask, "How's it going? How much have you written so far?" 

I can't blame them, because I also announced my game plan prematurely: to write at least some words every day. Word count and duration are irrelevant: 100 words or 1,000 words, 15 minutes or 4 hours—I don't care. I just write something and the novel grows.

This book didn't start as a blank page: it started with 45,000 words—26 stories that must now be sprinkled evenly through the narrative. The stories are like multi-coloured patches that I have roughly pinned on a canvas skirt template. 

The main narrative begins as 26 bits and pieces of cloth. Right now, the narrative pieces are small, pale and shapeless. As I write, fabric will be removed and replaced and destroyed and shifted and shaped and stretched until the entire canvas is covered and the skirt as a whole emerges. 

I cannot predict what the general impression will be—bright or sombre, short or long, bristly or smooth, A-shaped or O-shaped, flat or textured. (It won't be frilly.) However, after the battle of structure and story, bones and colour is over, I hope to find something coherent, graceful and astonishing. 

I'm over real-life patchwork skirts, but in my youth I created a couple of beauties. One was constructed in tiers: that was so easy it was virtually cheating. The other was sleek and subtle, cut on the cross and featherstitched. 

Photo of a vintage patchwork skirt: found on e-Bay

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