I have found that I can continue working on a novel even under times of great stress or problems. For some reason, the writing process takes me out of the situation at hand and enables me to use different thinking modes. About eleven years ago, I found that playing Beethoven sonatas on the piano from memory had a similar effect. The playing acted as a diversion from the problem, but at the same time took on an almost “spiritual” dimension, similar perhaps to that of prayer or meditation. Strange, but true. As someone who struggles a lot with organised religion, I have benefitted in many ways and on many levels from music and writing.
In a recent article, I argued in favour of ongoing revision, likening the process to adding extra coats of paints. However, there comes a point where a novelist must decide to stop revising and send out their work. As a writer friend once said to me, “The more you tinker with it, the more you have to tinker with.” But when does that completion point occur?
A difficult question without a definite answer. I would imagine the point comes when the writer senses their work is ready.
I was playing the piano in front of a few people tonight. As I played, I thought a little about stage fright and how debilitating it can be for the performer. Fortunately, I felt more confident than I have in the past, but here are some of the ways stage fright affects musicians:
- A feeling of unreality. Pretty awful, especially when the keys of the piano seem to lose their distinctiveness
- Sudden shaking. This happened a couple of times to me over the years, once in the middle of a Chopin polonaise, the other time towards the conclusion of a famous Scriabin work
- Memory lapses while performing. Fortunately, this has never presented any huge problems
- A strong urge to get up in the middle of a piece and abandon the performance. Pretty frightening and common, although I’ve never walked off stage
- light-headedness and nausea
I’ve heard other musicians say they feel particularly exposed in front of a smaller audience. I would agree with that.
Personally, I feel that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help with performance nerves. I also think that not rushing the pieces makes a huge difference. Tonight, I forced myself to perform the fourth impromptu by Schubert from the first set (opus 90), taking the middle section slowly and paying careful attention to the dynamics. Not exactly a technically demanding work, but for some reason I dislike playing the impromptu in public, although I have done countless times. Perhaps it has something to do with the piece’s structure – ternary form – and the sense of feeling trapped in a work that consists largely of repetition.
I tend to compare novel revision to adding extra layers of paint. A person paints a surface, waits several hours, then goes back to it and adds a second (or third) coat of paint. Having recently done a spot of painting, I can appreciate the analogy far more than before. In fact, I would say that the writing process I enjoy the most is revision, the filling in gaps with the paint brush.
Revision allows a writer to pause and bring out distinctive character traits, dialect voices and scene setting. It enables a writer to develop stronger images and to deal with typing and grammatical errors. I tend to scribble notes with a pen when I’m revising.
Of course, I enjoy writing fresh material, but I find revision less drawn out and tiring. Today, I edited a chapter of 2,000 words, then went on to write approximately 600 new words.
Take a young attractive married couple in a clean town or village with lots of fresh air and pleasant scenery. The husband gets up early each morning, has breakfast and goes to work. The wife has a schedule too (maybe a job or children to look after). One day, something out of the ordinary happens and the wife suspects someone is targeting her, but no one appears to believe her. Especially the husband. Worse, the events that follow seem to suggest that the husband is the bad guy. Sometimes, he is, but not always.
A cliché? Well, yes, sort of. Having said that, building up paranoia in a story does work sometimes. It’s kind of personal, since my first novel explores this idea, alongside other ideas, although the question of paranoia isn’t the most important in the story. In my second novel, I do the opposite by taking a tough guy and delving deep into his troubled psyche, placing events along the way that lead him into danger.
Back to the stereotypical paranoid character…clearly, readers expect something more sophisticated today, a satisfying bringing out of the character. I believe the following tips might help:
- Instead of concentrating on paranoia, concentrate on the voice and marginalisation…the character has something to say, something crucial, but the other characters in the story brush it off as insignificant. Frustration results
- The character in question should not have willingly caused the problems they face. However, choices they’ve made in the past might limit their present options, making them feel trapped
- The character should have enough intelligence to see what is happening
- The character may have chosen to keep secret an event in their past
- The character should resort to desperate measures to bring a solution to their problem – measures that seem reasonable to them but crazy to the other characters
- The character should have at least one person who believes them
Just some of my thoughts.
Flashbacks and repressed memories make for interesting reading in fiction, but there’s a problem. So often, the subject can become another cliché, similar to an opening italicised dream.
Clearly, though, some people repress memories of a traumatic event and triggers such as a smell or a sound can cause those memories to come back, often resulting in distress.
Since fiction is all about character and since characters reflect people and their problems, I can see no reason for advising against the use of flashbacks in novel writing. However, I would suggest the following:
- Imagine that you are the character
- Introduce fleeting impressions of memory at first, relying on one or more of the five senses
- Make sure there is an adequate trigger for the first flashback, preferably a sound or a smell. Alternatively, discussing an event can trigger memories that a person wasn’t aware of
- Avoid using italics
- Develop the memory over the course of the story, especially the images and the impact on the character
- If the character is remembering a traumatic event, have some of the details echo
- Introduce something new each time you deal with the memory scene
I’ve reached the 65,000 word stage in my first novel, a psychological thriller, and am now dealing the above points. Rewarding and not too difficult. I’m enjoying it.