Mourning the end of University of East Anglia/Guardian six months course on the novel, I want to record what I think I have learned. Please send me comments or additions from your own experience.
Have had to unlearn some bad habits – I think attributable to my academic background and my forays into short story writing. (Those are my excuses anyway). These habits included (may still include!): a tendency to summarise (‘telling, not showing’); and an unnecessarily tight style.
I learned to bring more quiddity into my writing. (Look it up: Chambers says ‘the inherent nature or essence of everything’). ‘Quiddity’ is one of the grand new words I learned from Adam Foulds. Another was a Greek word which I’ve forgotten and I think means ‘thusness’.
Learning from writers who are masters of the use of language, from Shakespeare to James Joyce to Adam Foulds himself, to seek out beautiful, resonant and economical words.
Discussing my novel with people who did not know me before brought home an uncomfortable truth: that just because something actually happened does not mean it looks believable in a novel. I was forced to adapt and fictionalise some of the memoir-ish parts in order to deal with this problem, for example, inventing and showing motives for characters’ behaviour when in my real life experience their motives were not discernible.
Another valuable lesson from the feedback was that what is obvious to me may not be obvious to everyone else. For example, that a woman might be pleased to be told her breasts are too small; that a three a.m. phone call portends bad news if you have very old parents; both of these puzzled some of my readers. And in some places people mistook my meaning: for example a badly worded account of sex came across unintentionally as a rape scene.
One of the hardest things has been to evaluate diametrically opposed suggestions. For example.’I love your understated style, the way you don’t excavate’ versus ‘But what does she feel?’ Some want more backstory and flashbacks and others do not; some want a larger proportion of cheerful or comical episodes and a happier ending; some would like less or no discussion about religion and humanism and care of the elderly and just a simple bittersweet tale of an older woman and her Internet dating adventures. But as I’ve gained in confidence I’ve become more comfortabe about examining the differing opinions and then choosing my own way. So for now I have kept flashbacks and backstory to a minimum, left the reader to do the excavating, retained the sadness, the humanism and the social problems. If I ever get advice from an agent or a publisher I may have to think again!
I could go on…but I won’t. In the next instalment I will try to sum up what I think is the task ahead of me.