• Natalie Gordon

From stew to chapter one: the power of journaling and an "impossible" deadline

Plot vs Character?

I read an essay on writing this weekend by Hilary Mantel (in The Agony and the Ego) and it made me reflect on the novel I’m currently writing. Her key message was that you shouldn’t force a plot, but you should develop your characters, and out of your characters, the plot forms. I’d remembered also reading a while ago some advice from Patricia Highsmith that you should only start writing when you can’t stop yourself, when the characters are clamouring to be put onto paper. I’m heavily paraphrasing – it’s a while since I read her book, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

So, I thought about the pain of getting to my first 5,000 words and wondered, ‘has it been painful because I’ve been forcing it?’ I came to the conclusion that I haven’t been forcing the plot or the characters, but I have had to force myself to sit down and commit some words to paper. Sometimes, despite the joy that writing brings, it can be hard to get beyond all the self-doubting ‘what if’ questions.

The Jumping off Point

The novel idea has been stewing in my head for over a year, while I’ve been busy doing other things. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been jotting down ideas, playing with fragments of writing, trying to seize the ideas in my head and shape them into something more tangible. All the while, my possible characters have been growing personalities. At some point, I’ve just had to write the words, ‘Chapter One’ and plunge in, in order to get that elusive first chapter on the page. I know from experience, that once I’ve done that the rest will follow – even if it changes later down the line. That doesn’t matter: it’s the jumping off point which I need.

Two things have helped with that, which I wanted to share. Journalling and a deadline.


Fans of “the morning pages” (see The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron) will be familiar with journaling, the idea of free writing and just letting what’s in your head into your journal. The rules I use are: set a timer for five or 10 minutes, pick up your pen and just write without stopping, not crafting perfect sentences or editing or stopping to think along the way, just writing. You can use it in the morning to dump what’s whirling around inside your head onto a page. You can take a random line from a novel or poem and then continue to write, using it as a creative writing prompt to warm you up. You can give yourself a starting line, such as ‘the book I am writing is…’ and explore what your subconscious thinks it is. You can motivate yourself by starting with ‘I write because…’. If you’re stuck, you can use it to write your way out of a problem, for instance starting with a line like, ‘my character behaves like this because…” and see where it takes you. I’ve done all of these things, but this last week, for five mornings in a row, I’ve started with, “my book is about” and it’s helped me to get to chapter one.

A Deadline

Secondly, I set myself a real and ambitious deadline. I had taken a week off work, which coincided with the deadline for entry into the Bridport Prize. I had two days to write 5,000 words if I wanted to enter. The novel didn’t need to be a completed work. Could I do it? There was an outside chance. So, I decided to give it a go. It was in my head, I had a vague outline for the first three scenes and I went for it. Amazingly, I hit the deadline and I entered my first (and only) 5,000 words alongside a 300 word synopsis.

And so?

I harbour no expectations of making the long list with a first draft written in 48 hours, but I now have a jumping off point and a 300 word guide for the rest of the book. Foundations and direction. Not bad for two days work. Oh, and at least a year of stewing.

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