I’m a King of Hearts kind of writer. That is, when I begin to write something, long or short, I have to start at the beginning and I only stop when I get to the end. (Even more Wonderland-like, I usually go back to the beginning at that point.)
Although I often think up stories in a non-sequential order, and my notebooks are crammed with jumbled chronologies and leap-frogged jottings about character, setting and plot, once I rest my hands on the keyboard I have to write the opening scene before I can move on, and chapter one has to be followed by chapter two.
Many writers, established and successful, do not follow this pattern. They’ll perhaps write the climaxes and tension-points before joining these parts and filling out the story. Or they’ll follow the adventures of a single protagonist for a while before working on further characters. Some canny writers start with the end and work backwards.
For creative writing students on the level three course ‘Independent Project’, the choices they make have far more to do with the goals they’re primarily pursuing; that is, to submit assignments to their tutor and make a final selection of work for assessment. The Independent Project course may be their last with the OCA; it’s often the assessment that gives them the final mark for their degree. At the same time, now they feel comfortable as writers, they’ll also wish to complete this longer piece of work for their own satisfaction, and for their own growth as a writer.
Students are allowed to dream about finishing that first novel! But with so many conflicting objectives in mind, achieving all this is not straightforward. Level three students can only submit a certain number of words to their tutor – considerably less than a completed full-length work. So how should they go about structuring their writing so that they accomplish the project they’re longing to complete, and gain the best results?
One of my students, Sophie Cartwright, now nearing the end of a creative writing degree, is keen to write a young adult novel. This is a positive step for her as a writer, and an excellent project to work with for an Independent Project.
But doing so presented enormous challenges, especially the conflicts between writing good assignments and constructing a good draft of a novel. For her second and third assignments she sent me two separate extracts from her continuing novel. She’d chosen two moments of tension within the story, but she was encountering problems; she had leapt ahead to write these sections without filling in the gaps between, and both of us noticed that this led to a somewhat lackluster narrative. The characters were thin on the page, as if they were slipping between the words, and because we didn’t quite care about them, the content wasn’t as tense or absorbing as it might have been. The writing also included things the writer needs to know about, but the reader does not. Because Sophie had only written what was needed for each assignment, she hadn’t been able to overcome these difficulties.
Sophie isn’t the first student – or the first hopeful novelist – to hit such an obstacle. It often happens if you disregard the King of Hearts’ advice. We examined her options. She wants her young adult novel to develop successfully, but she also needs to submit good assignments. We decided that she should try to write the story as she’d envisioned it, and how it is encountered by the characters, even though some of this would not be in a final draft and most of it would not be in the assignment work. It was my belief that she could achieve her academic goals and her writing dreams by doing this. Of course, it did mean an awful lot more work, but in my experience it’s the writing that teaches you your craft.
In her reflective commentary for assignment four, Sophie was able to be far more positive. She wrote…”I’ve been working hard to develop Underground since my last assignment. As suggested, I spent time going back to the very start and have written the scenes that I will not submit for assignment. This was extremely helpful, as it helped me to consolidate the characters and iron out plot inconsistencies. I originally used free writing to build the unwritten scenes, before going back and working through parts of the story that didn’t work. This added a deeper layer to the plotline and I felt that this worked well when it came to developing the characters for this assignment. Ernest Hemingway is quoted in the Short Fiction course: ‘A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing’. This has been absolutely true so far, and I hope that, by taking the time to ensure I know the characters and plot development, I have been able to write a richer and more engaging chapter of the story.”
As Sophie discovered, it’s all to easy to think that the scene in your head is ‘good to go’. But it is so much candy-floss until it’s written down. To write first and discard later in this way is crucial in getting to know your characters, their lives, and their relationships with other characters. New ideas are sparked and the structure of the story will develop as you watch them go about their business. None of this can happen if you leave the story jostling around in your head. You may discover that the moments of tension you planned to concentrate on are not actually the parts you want to send as assignments. There may be new, equally absorbing and driven sections you’ve now discovered as you wrote into the ‘hollow places’.
Since Sophie altered her approach to writing the Independent Project, her work has flourished, because she’s beginning to write like a professional. This is what the college expects their level three writers to aim for. At this level (HE level Six), a student is expected to demonstrate that they have developed their understanding of the concepts underlying their discipline. They need to show evidence of good judgement, especially in how they handle the Craft of Writing, and how they’ve developed their use of Language; their writing voice.
By the time they’ve finished the final course, they should be ready to springboard away from tutors and assessments and feel confident in their writing. Writing into the hollow places, being prepared to complete a lot of extra work and understanding what to discard from those first writing drafts are all essential aspects of taking that leap.