Sunday, 6 May 2007

All the time in the world

One of the things I was reflecting on about last night's Doctor Who ('The Lazarus Experiment') was how the action takes place in real time: the Doctor arrives, adventure unfolds - there are several changes of setting, but largely we follow what is happening as it happens. It's an obvious structure for television drama, although - again, obviously - not a necessary one: look at how different experiences of time are managed in 'The Girl in the Fireplace', to name just one example from the same show!

But it set me thinking about what it is that I might have been struggling with in writing in recent months, and I'm starting think that handling the passage of time has been my chief problem. Vignettes come very easily to me, but one review that I get quite frequently is, "I like this, but it's only a taster, there should be more. This story needs to be finished." Usually, on getting a review like this I'm confused: I go to a lot of pains to make vignettes coherent and self-standing, and I tend to think, "But I told the story I wanted to tell - how could there be more?" I've tended to think this sort of response is a function of that continuous story-telling impulse that is the mark the fanficcing mind ("Yes, but what about this gap here...") and I've moved on to the next vignette. Or to the next short story - and my short stories do have an unnerving resemblance to the form and structure of my favourite episodes of television, with tight structures and closely interlinked plots. (Intentionally, in some cases, like Closure or Proof.)

Because at the end of the day interconnectivity is what interests me (and what the novel seems best suited to treat). Because I most passionately believe in our deep connections to each other, across physical space and historical time, and I believe that obscuring these connections is the source not just of injustice but of individual unhappiness and social anomie. All of which I think are bad things, if that isn't clear, and which I have this furtive urge to mitigate.

I know I've tried to represent this connectivity formally in the past: I've constructed interconnected plots before (Hollow Men being the most complicated, I guess, but I think the multiple first-person narrative stories were a stab at it), but recently I've been hitting a wall in writing something long. Eighteen months ago I started on a novel which has everything going for it - an original setting, some great characters, some gorgeous symmetries and imagery, some beautifully crafted scenes... and it's completely stuck. I simply haven't been able to progress it beyond a certain point. I've rewritten the first 60,000 words over and over again. And now I've put it aside and thought, "OK, well, nice try, but let's leave it at that."

And then I woke up this morning, and I thought - it's about representing time, isn't it, about representing the passage of time. What I've been writing before has dramatized the effects of a set of interlocking circumstances as they erupt into some specific real-time action. And of course the novel can do more than this. And of course this is why you're reading and thinking about historical novels, And it seems so simple when I write it down, and I feel so stupid - that it takes so much for me to realize that I really can do whatever I want in this sandbox.

To think that all you need is a pile of paper and a working pen, and the time and space for thought and self-examination. What a thoroughly bizarre and wholly compelling pursuit this is.


Ika said...

Awesome. That sounds a bit parallel to my recent realization that Feelings Are Plot Too, which similarly sounded like something I knew (or should have known) all along, but reorganized the way I thought about structuring. Yayy.

How are you going/did you go with the Doris Pocock, btw? I've read precisely two DPs, of which one (Self Or School?) was deadly dull, despite dynamite title, and the other (Catriona Carries On) was one of my favourites ever. Currently J is making me read all her slashiest ones, including Pat's Third Term in which she quite literally sleeps with the Head Girl.

Una said...

Yay's the word! Now all I need is to creep back to my quiet place and start throwing words down.

Thoroughly enjoyed the Doris Pocock, which from its relentlessly long sentences and triple exclamation marks seemed to have been written in one night under the influence of coffee and/or speed. It tells the story of the tumultuous affair, ahem, difficult relationship between poor but plucky daygirl Glenys Farrar and rich and jealous boarder Drusilla Moore. Glenys has a talent for art and for making friends and for helping other people get ahead of the game. (On the cover she has bright red hair and specs, which is why Katlinel got it for me!) Drusilla is vastly jealous (of all her gifts), and very lonely. It's one of my favourite stories, of course, poor boy and rich girl, with Glenys having a touch of Blake-generosity and Drusilla a touch of Avon-snarkiness. Do you see what wonders you have worked in my reading habits?

Anyway, worth a read, I'd say - can supply if J doesn't have a copy. The others sound wonderful. Didn't you find Self and School at the Haunted Bookshop? It's gutting that it's disappointing. M. and I regularly intone the title at each other: "SELF? OR? SCHOOOOOOOOOLLL?!"