Thursday 15 September 2022

Twelve days to birth an editable Chapter 1 - by Rowena House

What a month! After years of research, six-to-eight months of detailed plotting, and several false starts, the drafting of the work-in-progress finally began in earnest on 28 August 2022.

As it’s still going well (enough) this is a quick blog as I don’t want to lose momentum, especially as today I’ve reached a special moment in the story, when nineteen witches are brought into the courthouse for the trials of their lives.

This moment requires a detailed deconstruction of the original trial pamphlet to try and work out exactly what my protagonist, the pamphleteer, could plausibly have known about them at that instant, and what other information and opinion about them were definitely, most likely, or possibly retrofitted afterwards.

Since themes of time, memory, truth, and co-constructed narratives all weave together in the story, such details are important to me. Yes, it’s yet more research, but research intimately linked with the fiction, where I quote the pamphlet, and elaborate on it, weaving my words with his. How I’m going to deal with the issue of plagiarism for the PhD I’ve yet to work out. But I’m highlighting all direct quotes so I know what’s him and what’s me.

But I want this blog to be a snapshot of this month’s process, rather than looking again at the narrative. Specifically, what it’s been like using a detailed chapter breakdown to begin a first draft.

Turns out, it’s hard to write a story even with a plan. Yeah, I know. Who would have guessed.

By the end of Day one of a twelve-day retreat, I had a thousand new words, very few of which now remain in the draft. In fact, I cut the same number of words on Day two. Luckily, several write friends were kind enough to keep me company on Facebook and What’s App during this time, and they all pointed out how necessary and typical it is to get things wrong.

Day Two’s words were better than Day one’s, which was nice, but they still didn’t make the cut. Day three, I edited a prologue first written in October 2020 as the start of a novella-in-flash. I’m not sure it belongs in this version of the story, but it does introduce the idea of the trial being a stitch-up, a conspiracy. Which, plot-wise, is useful in giving the reader more knowledge than the protagonist from the get-go, and process-wide, it reminds me about the forces of antagonism manoeuvring off-page. The prologue can stay for now; the delete button is always on hand.

On Day four, I tore up the lot and started again. At 02.33 on Day 5, I was on FB muttering enviously about Hilary Mantel having got the voice for her Cromwell trilogy straight off. The breakthrough came when I told myself off later that same day. I’d got a plan but wasn’t sticking to it. Borrowing from the military (and Scuba divers) I wrote a new motto: You’ve planned the book, now write the plan.

Basically, stick to it (the plan) and stick at it (the draft).

Those blinkers helped me yesterday, too, when detailed study of the pamphlet caused a creative wobble over the sheer misery inflicted by one lot of human beings on another in the name of an impossible crime. Despite my best intentions, writing this story is sometimes depressing. At which point I start wondering if I’m wasting my one wild and precious life writing it. But here we are again today, sticking to it, sticking at it.

Day six of the retreat included pacing out the front boundary of an important place in the story: Knyvet House, which became Downing Street and site of the PM’s and Chancellor’s official residences. Roughly, the frontage of the property in 1612 stretched from where the Cenotaph is today to the beautiful WWII women’s memorial on Whitehall. As best as I can work it out. I also wandered around legal London again. Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, and Staple Inn, and visited tombs in Westminster Abbey. Another time, when I've learnt how to get my photos onto the new laptop, I’ll post some of the amazing pictures I took of places where you can still touch this point in history.

Day seven (I think) was the sort of day you really can’t afford to repeat too often. Seventeen hours writing and editing, interrupted by packet soup breaks and a couple of cheese sandwiches. A productive day, during which I totally ignored my new rule ref. writing the plan and consequently had to ditch the lot on Day eight. Not a happy bunny.

Days nine and ten were frustrating, too, with the words seeming contrived and unoriginal. But then, around midnight, I chucked everything out and started again, leap-frogging the story’s inciting incident entirely, and writing the protagonist’s reactions to it instead.

And there it was the next day, saying, Will I do? And, yes it would. An experiment which cut five thousand words down to about five hundred, but they were all that was needed. A launch pad of pure character, just him and his inner thoughts, with plot and backstory only implied. I am editing it, natch, but it’s enough to say Draft 1 got started properly on 5 September 2022. Or the 6th since by then I’d lost the plot at bit. Anyhow, phew.


Hilary Hawkes said...

Goodness! What a lot of hard work, as it often is. But wonderful when you suddenly find what works too :)

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Hilary. Progress still v slow but that foundation just about holding up. The interplay between the original text and mine working better. Onward!

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Hilary. Progress still v slow but that foundation just about holding up. The interplay between the original text and mine working better. Onward!