I’ve just dug up this little report, written in 2013 as part of my final submission after the Guardian/University of East Anglia Certificate course on the Novel. I thought that rather than deleting it I would share it, since it may be of interest or use to others. My novel ‘Timed Out’ has been accepted for publication and will be out within the year, and I am hugely grateful to the tutor, Adam Foulds, and my brilliant felllow students, one of whom, Rosie Millard, is ahead of me, with her clever and funny novel ‘The Square’ due out in August.
What I’ve learned
I have had to unlearn some habits attributable to my academic background and to my more recent forays into short story writing: a tendency to summarise (‘telling, not showing’) and an unnecessarily tight style, where I could make my writing more vivid and resonant; and I have tried to bring more quiddity into my writing.
It has been a great pleasure to practise reading more carefully and learn from our tutor and from other writers who are masters of the economical and beautiful use of language. And in studying the works-in-progress of my classmates, I have often found myself giving criticism that I then realised could equally well be applied to my own work.
Discussing my novel with people who do not know me has brought home a truth I only half-knew before: that just because something actually happened does not mean it looks believable in a novel. I have had to adapt and fictionalise some of the ‘memoir’ parts of the novel in order to deal with this problem: for example, inventing and showing motives for characters’ behaviour where in my ‘real life’ experience these motives were not evident.
Another important thing I have learned from the feedback is 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 about parents to someone whose parents are very old: both of these puzzled some of the readers. And in some places people mistook my meaning because it was not well expressed: for example, a badly worded description of sex came across unintentionally as a rape scene.
One of the hardest things has been to appraise the sometimes diametrically opposed suggestions, for example, ‘I love your understated style of writing, the way you don’t excavate’ versus ‘But what does she feel?’ Some of them advise more ‘backstory’ and ‘flashbacks’ and others do not; and some want a greater proportion of cheerful or humorous episodes and a happier ending whereas others find the balance satisfactory. Initially I was rather perturbed and confused by these discrepancies, but as I have grown in confidence I’ve become more comfortable about examining the different opinions and then choosing my own way. (If I ever get advice from an agent or publisher I may have to think again!).
Areas for Improvement and the Task Ahead
While there’s still a need to iron out infelicities and inconsistencies and clarify what’s obscure, the biggest task confronting me is to weld the draft into a coherent, properly shaped novel instead of a series of episodes (‘that happened and then that happened.’) This I think I will be able to achieve. I have made a start at weaving the storylines and themes together and keeping the characters in play throughout rather than allowing them to appear and suddenly disappear. (This is quite tricky when writing about Internet dating, which necessarily involves lots of short-lived episodes; and in the case of the two child characters it is difficult to have them playing much of a role until they can speak.)
What concerns me most is that I have to decide whether to excise the parts that have been the greatest challenge to write – regarding the protagonists’ thoughts and discussions about religion, what constitutes ‘a good life,’ Humanism, etc. – leaving the book as a bittersweet romance about a lonely woman looking for love on the Internet. This might result in a more coherent but shallower (and even shorter!) piece of work. It might then stand a better chance of getting published but probably it wouldn’t be the kind of book I would want to have written.