Novel Masterclass

4th August 1995 at 01:00
Write a novel only if you know there's no alternative, advises Michele Roberts. Since proverbs are seen as one of the most cliched forms of folk wisdom it is possible to utter, I hereby offer you a list of my favourites, straight from the horse's mouth, in order to warn you to take everything I say with a large pinch of salt.

In for a penny in for a pound. Don't start to write a novel just because you think it might be a nice thing to do, or because you think you ought to, in order to demonstrate your creativity. Just be-cause we all use language everyday for talking and for telling stories, it doesn't follow that we've all got to write novels. Some of us turn out to have a flair for gardening or mud-wrestling. Only the ener-gy of desire, passionate and obsessive, will steer you through the difficulties involved and sustain you through the months and probably years of hard work required. Don't write a novel in order to get rich quick; you'd do better going into the City. Most novelists are poor and have second jobs. Don't write a novel in order to become famous; this cannot be guaranteed. Don't write a novel for cynical reasons; you will write badly. Write a novel only if you know there's no alternative.

You must love language, your demanding medium. You must love playing with it, attending to it, endlessly re-working it, learning from it what can and can't be done with it. Language isn't just a transparent pane of glass through which we view the real world. It is part of the real world. It is matter. Shaping it affects how we see things. Think of liquid glass, blown glass, stained glass. Think of a windowpane that is dusty or cracked or absent. Words are your stuff, as material as paint or clay, to be put together in patterns and shapes (otherwise known as novels) that may end up figurative or abstract or somewhere in between.

A stitch in time saves nine. In your daily life you are probably required to bestow kindness, sympathy and sensitive attention on others. Start now to direct these helpful energies towards yourself. You will need them later on when you get stuck or depressed or feel it's not worth keeping going. Start now to cultivate the writer's virtues of unsociability, love of solitude and silence, selfishness, and aggression. Selfishness allows you to do what you want: write a novel; rather than care for others most of the time. Aggression allows you to be destructive: of old literary forms; of your own cliches; towards language itself. You break up old word-patterns then re-shape them into new ones. Be childishly cruel and curious, picking the wings off a word-fly in order to see how it's made. Childishness has no shame in recognising and valuing a subject tabooed by the grown-ups. You can go back to being a nice person when you are not writing. Also, start now to record your dreams, as a stock of images and new ways of seeing, and as a source for recognising the wilder excesses of, say, lust and rage within yourself. This will enable you, later on, to tap deep psychic energies for writing, to create realistic characters (if that's what you want to do), and to find the necessary vibrant forms of expression.

Don't run before you can walk. Do just a little bit every day. Don't be dismayed at how bad it is. Re-write it next day. And again next day. You might have half an hour for writing each day. Write exactly fifty words: a good exercise in honing and pruning, in realising how you can juggle with words to make them fit, how they go on being plastic and malleable as you play with them. Steadily, your little bits will mount up. At the end of a year, see what you've got. Going step by step you realise a novel is an integration of bits and pieces. You don't have to map it all out in advance, unless you're writing a tightly-plotted thriller, and even then it's fun to surprise yourself. Don't feel you have to be totally in control. Advance bravely into the unknown, step by step. I always start with a visual image which is currently obsessing me, which might ranslate into a question. Exploring this image, trying to answer this question, is the route of the novel.

You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Perhaps you don't want to. Perhaps a hide wallet is what you're after. But in any case, form is everything. The demands of the subject help you invent a form. Stretch yourself, to find out what you really want to write about. Then create a form that expresses that, so that the form and the subject become part of each other, inseparable. I was recently writing about a woman who was neurotically obsessed with making lists. The literary form I used, therefore, to express her in action, was the list. I discovered that her lists functioned as her diary, and that what she left out, or lied about, was as interesting as her attempts to tell the truth. So let yourself experiment with lots of the forms into which written language composes itself. Don't assume that you have automatically got to write in the past tense, in the third person, using a more or less omniscient narrator. See what suits your subject best.

You mustn't put new wine in old bottles. The new wine of hot or cool modernpost-modern consciousness sometimes, paradoxically, enjoys maturing in the old bottles of folk-tale or fairy-tale, for example. My problem with conventional realism and naturalism is that, by surveying (usually from above, in the manner of that old-fashioned author God on his cloud) the surface, this kind of single-voiced narration often leaves out the unconscious, the soul, all the deep feelings of the body. A chaotic plural narrative coming from the inside, the underneath, the edge, may be more telling and powerful. It all depends on what you want to do: follow convention or bend it. We all, I think, write out of our wishes and fears, our own fantasies of desire or anxiety; the pressure of these, once recognised, will help you hear a voice, get to know a character, find a form. People often say: oh you mustn't write about yourself. But you can write about the things you haven't done yet but want to. You can write from a part of yourself you disapprove of. I can write about nasty ladies because they exist inside me, bitchy and murderous. You can get lots of comedy this way, not just horror. It's good to break your own rules once they start feeling oppressive. I've had a thing for ten years about how I must not write omniscient narration, so I am currently writing one, because it's the story of a woman who wants to control others, to straitjacket them in her stories. Similarly, having listened to the critics tell me for 20 years that confessional writing, especially by feminists, is a Bad Thing, I have finally plucked up courage to let my feminist nasty lady walk into a confessional and start confessing to the person on the other side of the grille: who may be a priest or you or my aunt.

All that glisters is not gold. Be ruthless about re-writing and re-drafting until each sentence, each paragraph, and so each chapter, and finally the whole thing, is as good as you can possibly make it. As the novel progresses and changes you will find that you need to re-write, anyway, as you discover your focus, your tone, what kind of narrative you need to write. I think it's a sign of strength and commitment to be prepared to re-draft. Why should you have to get it right first time? If a first draft comes out badly and glibly, with great ease, then you often feel complete despair at your worthlessness as a writer; then you simply have to set to and find ways to slow yourself down. Pretending to be a camera helps. You can jump-cut scene to scene, slow your speed, change focus. You can take a scene 20 times if you need to. You might decide to include several of these in the end, not just one. When you have performed your alchemy, and got your gold, and included a glister too if that's what you need, then, and only then, are you ready to approach an agent andor a publisher. Most unknown writers are judged by their first paragraph or first page, so this needs to be as well written as you can possibly make it. Don't be afraid if this takes a long time. You learn the craft as you go. You improve with practice. Somebody once said: genius is eternal patience. Well, we can all strive towards that. Your first novel may be fresh, original and passionate. It won't, perhaps, be your best. That's all right. You don't have to be an over-night success, a child prodigy. Take your time.

A friend in need is a friend indeed. Writing is a solitary business, and from time to time it's good to have someone to talk about it with. Ours is not a public, cafe culture, in the main, so you have to organise to meet other writers, whether this means supper with a friend or finding the right sort of local group. The Bront s had each other, but nearest and dearest aren't always able to give you the critical support you need. They may not like your writing. They may not like the new, assertive, selfish you. Whereas other writers, the right ones, may help you spot your strengths and build on them. A good course can help in this respect, especially for beginners. It can help to find a peer group even if you want to be an eternal outsider. Writer friends can help you deal with writers' block and see it as normal, the usual start to the writer's day. They can swap gossip and advice about publishing. In an ideal world, the publishing editor who takes on your novel will be brave and caring enough to comment on your text, and will respect your decisions about re-drafting it yet again.

Bon courage.

Michle Roberts is a novelist, poet and short story writer. The Daughters of the House was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the WH Smith Literary Award in 1993. Her novel Flesh and Blood (Virago) is out in paperback.

The McKitterick Prize is for first novels, published or unpublished, by authors over 40. Closing date December 16. The Betty Trask Prize Awards for first novels, published or unpublished, of a romantic or traditional nature, by writers under 35. Closing date January 31. Details: The Society of Authors, 84 Drayton Gardens, London SW10 9SB (0171 373 6642). Details of the Treasure Islands competition referred to in last week's masterclass can be obtained from Children's BBC Radio 4, Broadcasting House, London W1A 1AA.

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