Orange Prize shortlisted Monique Roffey came to talk at Nottingham University yesterday, as part of the National Academy of Writing afternoon. As with all NAW patrons delivering talks, she was asked to focus on process. Her talk was fascinating, and I found myself nodding avidly in agreement with such a lot of what she said about the long distance process of writing a novel. She also used some very visceral images to illustrate her points, which was rather nice. You can imagine that this part of her nature is something that feeds into her talent as a writer.
I've taught workshops called 'Getting Started on your Novel' at the University for a number of years now. These tend to run in two parts, with an inspiration session first of all, to get everyone writing, and then some guidance on how to plan and shape from there. I know what works for me and I describe this in detail, but I try to make reference to what I've heard from the other writers I know. One thing I've learnt, chatting to writers of all shapes and mindsets, is that there isn't a 'one size fits all' answer about how to write a novel. Monique's talk reflected this too. At the same time as giving us a real sense about how she worked as a writer, she outlined alternative ways of working. As a writer also now working on her sixth full length novel, so much of what Monique was saying chimed with me.
Roffey started by outlining her own experience. She has written five books and published three, with a gap of seven years between her first published book and her second, not that unusual, I'd guess, for a literary writer in the current climate. She talked about two books in between that had been hell to write and which she said really didn't work. Given her exacting nature and skills as a writer, I suspect they were probably a whole lot better than the abandoned manuscripts sitting in the average writer's bottom drawer. She stressed how important it was that she had written these books. Even though they hadn't seen the light of day, the fact she'd been writing, and kept herself 'fit and limber' as a writer was important. A novelist friend and I sometimes refer to this state as being 'in the zone'. It's true, I think, that a good simile for writing skills is fitness, or fluency in a foreign language. The key, even when things are not going your way, is to 'keep on keeping on', as a certain writer once said in a story.
Monique went on to say that she had a lucky meeting with a specific writer who had a lot of influence over her process. This writer was Andrew Miller. She met him first at an Arvon Foundation course, at a time when she had started to write but didn't have anything resembling a novel. She asked him - how do I write a novel? He had a simple answer - write 2000 words a hundred times. This reminded me of Stephen King's response to this question and his comparison to eating an elephant (one bite at a time) or building the Great Wall of China (one brick at a time). It perhaps sounds a little glib, out of context, but this works. The trick is one word after another... (as long as you realise I don't mean this)
Later, by sheer coincidence, Monique decided to do the MA at Lancaster University. Andrew had been there previously, doing his PhD, which was focused on his first novel, the very lovely Ingenious Pain. His dissertation was in the library, where Monique found and read it. From this, she learned more about Andrew's process. This first novel had taken him ten years to complete, and the essay outlined why this was the case, and what he'd changed. One of the first quotes she read from the dissertation resonated very strongly for me. 'We learn from each other.' I'm sure that almost everyone who's ever done a Creative Writing MA or BA will agree with me that this particular nugget of truth is what one gains the most from these courses.
Monique then outlined three potential methods of writing a novel in possibly the clearest and most illuminating way I've seen it done. I'm sure there are probably more methods but, for the moment, I'll stick to the ones she talked about, as these are the main ways I've seen people working. There was 'puddling', which involved writing scenes, saving them, building fragments till you had a novel's worth, and then assembling them in the right order. Then there was what she called the 'man method', mostly, I think for its macho sense of struggle. This was the one that I think too many aspiring writers try. It's rather iterative.
1. Write first chapter
2. Edit first chapter
3. Edit first chapter
4. Edit first chapter
n. Edit first chapter
Repeat for second chapter
Repeat for third chapter
As you can imagine, this is a rather tortured way to go about things. It has a romantic feel to it, though, as if one ought to struggle this way for one's art. However, it doesn't necessarily produce the best novels. As Monique said a few times, and I would stress 'Perfectionism is anti-creative.'
Monique then went on to describe what worked for her, which she called the 'drafting' method. I think this is how a lot of writers work. It's certainly similar to what I do myself, although most of my process happens on my laptop, which I take everywhere, rather than in notebooks or index cards or folders. Scrivener allows me to do the same things electronically that Monique described, although I'll admit, I did feel envious when she described her corkboard, index cards and ring binders. (I am a not so secret stationery freak.)
What follows here is the Roffey method, in so much as I interpreted what Monique said and paraphrased. (All mistakes are this author's etc etc.) Or perhaps I should call it the Roffey-Miller method. Or even the Roffey-Miller-Mantel process, as Monique also explained that she'd been very influenced by Mantel's essay Growing a Tale in this book. All I can say is that if it's good enough for these three, it's good enough for the rest of us. That said, I defer, always, to the need of an individual to find her own way through.
This is the method. Don't look away or stop listening...
Roffey keeps a notebook with removable pages, or carries index cards around. When thoughts come to her that are important to the novel, she writes them down. She pins these to a cork board. She might then write a scene or two. These get pinned behind the cards where they belong. Similarly, she may pin cuttings, research, pictures and other relevant snippets behind the cards. Over time, the idea grows through the stationery. Some chapters get completely written, some characters very clearly sketched out, others less so. When it's at a certain stage, Roffey takes these cards, scenes, clippings and so on, and creates a ring binder. At this point, she will make a 'stick bridge plan', which highlights the important scenes and cards, and she will make all of her decisions about narrators, point of view, tense and so on. These are things that can be changed later if necessary. (We'll come to that.)
Finally, when the momentum has built for the project, she sits down to write it. This momentum is important. As Monique puts it 'most first drafts get abandoned' and she puts this down to two possible causes; a lack of energy for the project, or too much perfectionism early on. My experience, working with writers for years now, is that she's on the money with this assessment.
She writes chronologically then, as opposed to 'puddling', and writes a thousand words a day for about three months. I have talked about this magic number before. It seems to be quite a common one that works for most people. Her take on this first draft stage was not to rattle through it but to make it the best you can at the time without going back to edit. She did say that she might have a little tidy of the prose, in the afternoon, but avoided the 'man method' of editing herself into an early grave. So don't rattle through it but, on the other hand, don't worry if it's 'rubbishy', a word she takes directly, again, from Miller's dissertation. After this, the devil is in the drafting. This is the bit when you're allowed to get iterative, and picky, and perfectionist. In fact, I'd positively encourage it. As Monique put it: once it exists as a first draft, it's much less likely to be abandoned.
You might realise, somewhere along the way, that one of your big decisions was wrong. This narrator needs to be unreliable and therefore first person, for example. Or there might be too many voices. Or the present tense you've chosen might be just too tiring for the reader. Key here is to keep on keeping on. Switch, there and then, but don't go back and rewrite. NEVER rewrite until you've reached the end of the draft, NO MATTER WHAT.
I could write about Monique's talk all day, as she made so many valuable points, but this is supposed to be a blog post and not a book length treatise. So I'll focus on three more of her gems of wisdom.
1. The notion of trying to embark on a big writing project, like a novel, without preparation, is as ridiculous as planning a trip across the Sahara and not working out how much water you'll need, what camping gear, etc, then acquiring it.
2. Good ideas tend to come in two forms. The ones that rattle around and stay with you, growing and changing over months or years, or the 'rake in the grass' moment. This one is where it's like you stood on the end of a rake and its handle hit you in the face and knocked you for six. (See what I mean about the visceral images?)
3. Determination is irrelevant when trying to solve a creative problem. You need to trust yourself, and relax, and wait for the answer to come to you. If it doesn't, then you need to ask yourself - was that the right question?
Sometimes, when writers speak about their lives and work, you get the sense that it's all too hard and I've even heard them say they don't know why they bother, usually to comic, self effacing effect. I got none of this from Roffey's talk. She was an evident professional talking about a process she had refined and considered. I was most impressed. I hope that my approximation of what she talked about is of use to those who might come by this blog.