On a recent visit to the Charles Dickens Museum in London, organised by my writing coach and mentor Jacqui Lofthouse, I was interested to learn how Dickens’ career as a novelist began. Starting with his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, almost all of his novels were initially serialised in weekly and monthly magazines, before being published as books.
That’s quite a challenge for an author: as each chapter was published, he was making story, plot and character commitments that he couldn’t subsequently change. As a writer, I shudder at the thought. Computer technology has transformed the craft of writing by making execution so much easier and faster. No wonder so many people write novels now: the speed of research, the quick, easy drafting, the cutting and pasting, the spelling and grammar checking, the searching and replacing, the weaving of a new thread through a tale already woven, the radical decision to change point of view, adding or deleting a sub plot here or a character there. And that’s without even thinking about the specialist software packages like Scrivener, which will meticulously save and categorise your character sketches, scenes, chapters, plot turns and research and cross reference them into a mesh so complex that your brain will implode. These packages are similar to MailChimp and the like, designed to make your online life proceed at the speed of light, once you have put in your ten thousand hours of technical skill building. Reader, I expect my tone has given me away: I tried them, but prefer to muddle along with my home-made system. I bow to those that do invest the time to get it all working so intricately though.
I recall reading about James Joyce’s method of managing his handwritten pages: he pegged each one to a string threaded around his room, to review, edit and make further notes, and/or change their order. Presumably he then wrote the whole thing out by hand, in his best writing, ready to go to his publisher. Can you imagine? No wonder so few people wrote novels back then.
The downside of all that ease of execution and perfect workflow is that the writer is left with nothing but the confrontation with the story essentials, the really difficult (but fun) part: ideas, characters, plot: in a word, the creativity of it all. That’s what I am currently facing in my novel in progress, Halo. It’s a contemporary tale, in the young adult crossover genre, with a dash of magical realism, of identical twins born in a remote principality in the far north of Iceland, separated at birth and adopted in clandestine circumstances, one to a Greek Island, the other to Hollywood.
On the island of Chios, Polyxeni is on a mission: she wants to find her real mother. Adopted by Anastasia and Costas Papas, her glowing white hair and grey eyes are a stark contrast to the swarthy inhabitants of her island. If only there was one other person who looked like her, she wouldn’t feel quite so alone.
In Hollywood, Rosy, the adopted daughter of Grace and Quinn Foster has been cast as Rapunzel in a Disney movie, thanks to her long shimmering white hair, and her mother’s influence. But a small patch of Rosy’s hair has fallen out, jeopardising her coveted starring role. Grace is on a mission to find an exact match. Where on earth could they ever find such other-worldly tresses?
I’ve been working on Halo, off and on for a couple of years, and plan to focus on it more intensely over the coming year or so, then I hope to get it published.
In the meantime, what was good enough for one of the greatest English novelist of all time is certainly good enough for me, so once a month, I’ll publish a chapter on my website for interested readers. I would love to hear any comments or feedback you have, as unlike Dickens, I can easily make changes if I feel inclined. If you subscribe to my blog, future chapters will be delivered directly to your inbox, automatically.
This approach worked well for Dickens nearly 200 years ago, and it worked spectacularly this century for E L James and Fifty Shades of Grey. So maybe….?