This is exactly how I’ve been finding my writing recently. Since December last year my novel has taken most of my headspace. It was going really well until I had a massive wobble early April where it was growing to such an extent, I wondered whether I was writing one novel or two!
I’m pleased to report that I’ve got it under control and, with some help, I’m back on the right track. I’ve made my first pass of my second draft and now have a cohesive story, I just need to do another pass to shape it properly before I’ll have a full story with everything in the right place.
In those weeks where it felt like the story was swallowing me up and eating me whole, I searched the internet and chatted with friends for help. There’s a lot of talk about the different approaches to writing, some asking are you a plotter (someone who plans the story out before they start) or a pantser (someone who just sits down and writes ‘by the seat if their pants’). But it was the George R R Martin quote above and his experience of being a ‘gardener’ that really helped.
When I first started writing I wanted to be a plotter but it just didn’t work out. I’d spend so much time thinking and planning it through that I’d over plot and over plan, killing the story. I’ve learnt over the last 10+ years of seriously concentrating on my writing that I write to find the story, not flesh out a predetermined plan -well not for my plays or my fiction work anyway. I enjoy the mental conundrum of following where the characters are going, their wants and needs, and how they’ll get passed the obstacles in their way. I enjoy learning through doing and writing is no different. If I plot it all out beforehand, I know what the story is so I don’t need to write it. Where would the fun be in writing a story you already knew?
But unlike a pantser I have to have an idea of where it’s going. I need to have a sense of an ending to write towards or a situation or problem to find the character’s way out of. I think and ‘brew’ a lot on an idea or a character or an image before I start. I find it quite painful when I sit down to write, and I haven’t done enough ‘brewing’ and nothing comes. Sometimes I can just take an idea or a thought for a walk (in the same way that visual artist Paul Klee talked about taking a line for a walk) and something may appear. When I used to do morning pages (a method of clearing your mind before you start your day in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) I’d often end up writing a story of some kind. And over a period of time that can stack up into something bigger, if the characters are ones you want to see again, but that’s very rare for me (and not the point at all of morning pages!).
I remember going to a talk by playwright Debbie Tucker Green where she said that most of her writing, at the time, ended up in the bin. I don’t know anything about her writing process but I wonder whether she may be a gardener too, planting seeds, seeing how they grow and having to except that sometimes conditions just aren’t right and it shrinks up and dies, and other times you plant a tree where you thought a tiny marigold would bloom.
That’s definitely where I feel I am with the novel at the moment (and I have a tree smiling down at me). I was hoping to have the second draft finished by June, but I need to get my topiary shears out and get the branches and leaves under control. I’m now hoping I can finish this draft by the end of the year.
What’s been inspiring me lately?
I’ve been reading more fantasy books to help with the novel which has been really fun. My recommendations are:
All Soul’s Trilogy by Deborah Harkness
Ok so I’m a bit late to the party with this. If you haven’t heard of this book, you may have heard of the Sky series The Discovery if Witches? Well, it started life as a trilogy, which I was totally sucked into over the last few months. It made me think a lot about what experience I want the reader to have whilst reading my story, and pacing and how to use exposition. Once I got into it I couldn’t put the books down. I needed to know what happened next and it delivered.
Night Circus and Starless Sea, both by Erin Morgenstern
Again, perhaps a little late to the party, but I loved both of these beautiful imaginative magical adventures presenting new worlds I really wanted to discover. They made me think more about world building and theme, and how you tie that into your central story.
I am not your Eve by Devika Ponnambalam
This is just out this year, and it’s not a fantasy one. However, it’s a beautifully told tale of Gauguin’s time in Tahiti and his muse (and child-bride). Retellings of Tahitian creation myths are interwoven with many different points of view, told in different ways. This really got me thinking about point of view and how much prose you need to tell a powerful story.
My bullet journal is a constant source of inspiration
I think I’ve mentioned this before and I’ve nearly gone through a whole bullet journal for the novel project already, but using it to track how much I’m writing, my reflections on those session, bits of back story I want to remember and lists of turning points, for example, has really helped me keep all my thoughts together. It’s kept me loving the writing even when it isn’t working, and is a constant place of comfort.
I hadn’t done any art for months because I’ve been concentrating on the novel, but I visited the Louise Bourgeois exhibition Woven Child at the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre last weekend. She is such an inspiration, turning her life and her obsessions into art. Focused on her textile work, her simplicity of image was super inspiring.
I immediately came home and spent the next day playing around with my inks, watercolours and sewing machine and created these small pieces:
I’ll be taking a break from the novel now to clear my head, so more art to come in the next month I think. Keep up with my Instagram @lucyaveryart to see what I’m up to. I’m really looking forward to getting back to my art, partly because it gives me a different perspective on my writing.
I used to think that everything I did had to be starkly different from each other, though my friends could always tell what a ‘Lucy Avery play’ was… However, I often found myself fighting my instincts to work with a particular motif or images again because I was worried I’d be copying myself or that just wasn’t what writers did. Now, with the confidence art making has given me, I think of all my artistic work (written and visual) as a series of pieces where one is inspired by or in response to the last.
Working in a series is common in visual art, and I’ve found it so freeing. I’m finding some of the images I’ve used in my plays coming back again, and the novel is giving me the opportunity to go deeper. For example, at the moment the novel begins and end in a pool of water like Godless Monsters does; birds are a big part if the story, as they were in The Birdcatcher; and animals are key to transformation in the world I’m creating, as they are in my play in development, which I do hope to get back to, Ursa.
When I shared this with one of my writing friends she said “it sounds like some of these motifs/symbols haven’t finished with you yet. Let them have their way.”
So I am. I’m letting the novel take its time, letting it be what it wants to be, and I’m letting my art making happen when it wants to. I really am flowing the artistic flow. And if you are feeling artistic, I encourage you to do the same. As you just never know where the flow will take you or what that seed you plant will grow into! The journey is such a joy.
Until next time.