For the last year I have been lucky enough to have a fellowship post at Aberystwyth University sponsored by the Royal Literary Fund. This involved me sitting in a pleasant office on campus one day a week so that students (and staff) could come and consult me about writing issues. These ranged from queries from undergraduates about punctuation (whatever do they teach in schools these days?) to major structural issues in PhD theses. The idea is that novelists are ideally qualified to help students write both better English and better essays, and thus hopefully get more out of their courses – and better marks.
So from one hour to the next I found myself grappling with subjects such as Mary Shelley’s concept of sexuality in Frankenstein, the specific chromosome present in albino Palomino stallions, the psychological behaviour of dog owners when visiting vets, military law in Afghanistan, the music of an obscure Polish filmmaker or a report comparing the marketing techniques of Toyota and Ford.
But whatever the subject, the problems were normally pretty similar. Voice, grammar and choice of vocabulary were relatively easy to deal with, but the real reason those hoped for grades weren’t being achieved was lack of planning and structure.
Rattled by deadlines, students generally started writing too soon, before they had completed their research, mustered their thoughts or decided on the argument they wanted to make. So either they would get poor marks, or they would get stuck half way through the essay and come to me for help.
It is much the same with writing novels, scripts or even short stories. It is so easy nowadays to switch on the PC and launch straight into Chapter One. ‘I can always change it later’ is the mantra. Yes, of course you can tweak and edit, cut and paste. The good old days of Tipp-Ex and retyping are long gone.
But what it’s not so easy to do is change the theme, the voice, the plot progression, the character motivation or the story structure. Life becomes so much easier (and stories more readable and saleable) if those elements are sorted out first. It’s when those go wrong, (as they so often do,) that you find yourself, like Nick Clegg, with a half written novel in your bottom drawer.
So my advice to students and creative writers is much the same. Don’t start too soon. Mull, research, make endless notes, and mull again, until the moment comes when the story (or essay) is there, complete in your mind (or your notes), and all you have to do is write it down.