Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Creative writing mentoring part 2

Where it all began: the fishing hut in the first page of my novel

 I was downhearted when I wrote my previous post. The key message that a session of creative writing mentoring had revealed to me, I felt, was that I was that I had barked up the wrong tree by trying to label my first novel as ‘young adult,’ and letting this influence the content and style as I wrote. In sum, my novel seemed to sit so far away from publishers’ expectations of what a young adult book should be like, that I faced a rewrite that would be a different book.

In the second session, part of a mentoring package I won on the strength of the first page, I admitted as much to my mentor. But despite this negative start, we had an extremely productive hour together. I outlined the plot revisions that I had sketched out between our meetings, that would make the story stronger even if I couldn’t face a stylistic overhaul. That set the creative juices flowing on both sides, and my mentor helped me to find ways of solving other problems that would support this plot without making compromises I was uncomfortable with.

 I’ll give two examples, really to show how engaged my mentor was with me and my novel, and how much input she was able to give in such a short time.

I had written about teenagers, in the modern world, but had not given them mobile phones or computers even though a late plot twist depended on smugglers using mobiles. This was because I personally find people texting and emailing in novels dull and somehow cringey, even though we all do it in real life, especially if it is not necessary for the plot. My mentor suggested that, given I wanted my main character to feel isolated anyway, and he already lives in a small town somewhere a lot like the Isle of Man, I could move his family home out of the town into the countryside, where mobile signal is difficult to get at all, and perhaps the broadband isn’t reliable either. This would create frustration (good) and get in the way of joining in with his friends’ activities (good)

In this second session I expressed my worry that the protagonist, a fourteen year old boy, does not really have a ‘thing.’ By that I mean something that he feels gives him identity, or defines him both to himself and the reader. He has no passion (a sport, a skill, a plan for the future), and this troubles him. I wanted the change he undergoes as a character to include, if not the discovery of a ‘thing,’ at least the possibility of one. This seemed to me to be something that mattered at that age, but by attempting realism by making my character lack a defining ‘thing,’ it made him harder to access for the reader. My mentor pointed out that, given he already spends time alone roaming the landscape around his home, it would make sense if he had acquired, without really noticing, an in depth knowledge of the coast – its caves and secret paths, features that are not on the map. In a novel that involves drug smugglers using the coast, and whom the protagonist is attempting to thwart, this would be a genuinely useful device. It is also exactly the sort of skill/knowledge that a person doesn’t notice they have, or thinks nothing of, until someone else is impressed and points it out to them. His knowledge could more emphatically save his friends and the day at the novel’s climax, as well as developing the character’s sense of himself.

Many other ideas came out of this session, and after much brainstorming and plotting I really am considering a rewrite. This is positive but scary, mainly because of the time it might take. I’m just beginning to embark on a Creative Writing PhD (a story for another day), and I want to move forward with my new stories, but I have a feeling this one is not going to leave me alone. For anyone considering shelling out on a mentoring package, though, I’d say that if you’re prepared to put in a lot of work, and if you really want to improve what you’ve written, it would be a worthwhile investment.

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