From time to time I have what you might call a prosaic crisis, where I wonder if I’m actually cut out to write prose or whether I should stick to poetry. Yes, I know that these blog posts are in prose, but writing an engaging post is a very different thing from constructing a novel; something which seems utterly to defeat me.
I don’t know where exactly the blockage lies; but maybe help is available, so when a special offer from Mslexia plonked into my inbox; a guide to novel-writing for only three quid, I felt a twinge of that old excitement. I clicked on the link and read the blurb:
‘Starting with the early sifting of ideas, helping you decide what exactly your book will be about, it goes on to help you create engaging characters, to devise a plot and narrative voice that will keep your reader turning the pages, to work on description and dialogue (and the balance between them), on to editing your work: page by page, but also from a structural perspective.’
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. It’s perfectly standard stuff – and yet it somehow filled my insides with lead, because once again I felt ‘this isn’t where I’m at.’ I don’t mean I’m above all that, nor that I don’t need to structure a novel or have interesting characters or whatever, just that…
I don’t even know how to explain it. I don’t know what I want, I just know what I don’t want. And that is it.
When I write poetry I feel I’m on the edge of a cliff. Not always, but often: there’s a sense of pleasurable vertigo, of the wind whipping through your brain and flinging your hair in bundles this way and that. To be engaged – fully engaged – in the writing of poetry is to be on the high peak of living, a place where words flow through you and are shaped and ordered by your hand. I experience an amazing thrill in working with words, chopping them up and exploring their sound and their sense.
So why can’t I do this with prose? Well, when it comes to turning a phrase, I can – but there’s more to writing a story than having an instinctive feel for phrases. And this is where my heart begins to sink, when I think about things like plot and character and action. Whenever I consider plot, I begin to die inside. I bimble along with my writing and then a little voice perks up and says, ‘Surely something ought to happen round about now?’ and then I cry ‘Must something happen? Can’t I just carry on like this?’
I’m not so bad at dialogue; I’m pretty good at description and I think I can convey character and internal thought. But plot? Dear god – kill me. Kill me now.
My prose bores me at the moment: I need something to get the pulse racing; like when I was writing my first novel about a woman trapped in a nuclear bunker and wanted the novel to go right back to the beginnings of life on earth, 300 million years ago. I was really excited about this, but the novel took years to complete and came out at barely the length of a novella; a form that’s increasingly difficult to publish. What excited me, though, was to try to get some idea of what three hundred million years is like, to which end I began this doomed exercise:
Sometimes I think I’d give my eye teeth to have a normal sort of idea; to be able to say to people ‘I’m writing a novel about a Bulgarian taxi-driver who … ‘ see? I can’t even take that idea any further. Instead of which, I’m writing a novel based on a series of Tapestries and the Fibonnaci series. See what I mean?
‘Doomed exercise’ pretty much sums up my life right now…