And so to the novel…. some differences between novel writing and playwriting.

I’ve not been completely honest when writing this blog. I’ve tried to document the process of making three performances in real time – I’ve reproduced interviews, previews, reviews – I’ve mapped techs and photographed rehearsals – I’ve thought about theatre, live performance, drama, whatever you might like to call it…. and all the time, at the back of my head, the back of the queue, has been this…. The novel in progress….

The unfinished novel has been with me for some time now, longer than I care to admit. It has languished for years, unattended and forgotten, on floppy disks and yellowing paper in folders; it has been revisited, fiddled with, shaken and mussed up a bit, then abandoned on spare external hard drives; it has been relaunched and reinvented, printed off and sent out into the world to be critiqued, blue penciled, in odd rare moments even admired…. But enough is enough. It is time to get that much loved unloved neglected unforgettable joy in my heart pain in my side mass of ideas, action, and plotline finally off my desk. It is time to complete the definitive current draft. It is time to get the manuscript to my new literary agent, as promised.

Writing a novel is very different to writing plays. I can only comment from my own (as yet) incomplete experience, but whilst certain theoretical elements are similar – storylining, creating characters, structuring the work so it is dramatically effective – the practice of making this happen is completely alien.

Part of it is to with size. I can hold the whole of a play in my head at one time. I can lie half-awake, surface-sleeping, running chronologically through a play in progress, projecting the action onto the theatre screen of my mind, checking the throughlines, the tempo-rhythm, the pace and flow of it all. I can think of a character and all their attributes appear to me, their slights and disappointments, what they really need and what they think they need. I can juxtapose them against other characters, project dynamics and interactions, revolve them 360 degrees, understanding them fully as I control how they are shaped and revealed by the action of the play.

I try doing that with my novel and I’m swamped, drowned, water-boarded by the mass of material hurrying through my brain. It’s too big to hold it all in my mind at one time, and in any meaningful order – and that’s a frightening and quite new concept to this dramatist.

‘I know how to make a story arc!’ I seethe to myself. ‘I understand showing not telling, making paradoxical, credible, motivational characters who are driven to take action, I fully comprehend the practical, ethical, and dramatic implications of cause and effect….’ But when it comes to putting it down in a sensible, workaday way in this novel….??!!!!  Well. There you have it – you can see by my offensive, over the top punctuation and exclamation marks. When it comes to transferring my so-called transferable skills as an experienced dramatist to the first time novelist, my organic computer-brain says no.

But I am very determined. To have any kind of career in this business, you need to have will power and staying power, the optimism (some define it as stupidity) and resilience (ditto) to keep banging your head against the wall, for hours, even years, on end. I will fulfil this ambition to write a book, an ambition held since I first was able, alone, and all by myself, to magically translate strange markings on a page into the palpable and memorable fear of the little red hen whose very sky was falling in. My late mother always maintained this ambition to write was even earlier, existing before I could trace the alphabet, or unable to hold a crayon in any way but chimp-like, with my whole fist.

So this is a very long and very powerful desire. And although I haven’t yet published a novel, I have published plays and essays, collections and short stories. And now it is time to try with this incomplete manuscript. I have an enthusiastic and encouraging new agent. I have over 90 thousand words written already in a third draft version. Now it’s just the final polish (‘just’?!), the final push – and I like to think I’m ready for it.

8 responses to “And so to the novel…. some differences between novel writing and playwriting.

  1. Good luck with your novel Kaite! 6-7 years later and you are still an inspiration to me – I dip in and out of your blog. Jane (Exeter Uni 2005-2006 MA Playwriting).

    • How wonderful to hear from you, Jane! Hope you are thriving and also hope you’re still writing.
      So many thanks for your kind words re-the latest challenge before me. I’ve put it in the public domain now – i’ve ‘outed’ my unfinished novel, so I have to finish it now!
      Encouragement hugely appreciated – thanks so much xx

  2. Wow, if you have drafts on floppy disks, you have been working on the novel a long time. Still, they are better than chalk on slate.

    Sounds like a great project and a different muscle you’ve been stretching. You have such beautiful imagery in your writing and a splendid imagination that I bet the novel will be a stunner and not limited by technical feasibility and budget requirements of the theatrical arts. What sort of genre have you decided to dabble in? Is it radically different from your plays, in content or thematically?

    I feel like I want to say something profound about this but think a blathered conversation over wine one day would be better… because all I have in my head at the moment are half sentences and ideas about novel vs words to be spoken aloud.

    Shakespeare I can’t bear to read in my head but I love to speak. Actually, I really struggle with reading scripts in my head at all, I have to speak them.

    A good book on the other hand ticks over in my mind just fine. Poetry I could read quietly in my head-voice or speak aloud. It’s a funny one, poetry, that kinda lives in the middle and often makes me need to dance. Sad or happy or just a bit weird it makes me wanna move more abstractly than a play.

    • I’ve been working on it a very long time. Since Prehistory.
      Thanks for your thoughts, Kiruna. There’s lots of things I want to say, and will, anon. Love how poetry effects you.
      One thing though – several well known and deeply respected novelists say in order for the novel to do that nicely ticking away in the reader’s mind, an important part of writing the novel is to read it aloud. One grand dame even records herself reading it, then listens to it, making furious notes and changes on the ms itself – so I think you’re onto something, here… x

  3. Next time I see you, I’ll ask you about your progress on the book over a cup of political milky tea filmed by a group of Lesbians in Liverpool for 5 years luv you xox (N.B. No offence to Lesbians and Liverpool, this is just a reference to our past BSL conversations)

    • For those who don’t know the naughtiness of Jean St Clair, do look at my posts on this blog about BSL (The Mrs Malaprop of British Sign Language). There are also some links to Jean’s bilingual work on ‘In Water I’m Weightless.’

  4. Can’t wait to read it 😉

  5. Hope you’re thriving, lovely one! Let me finish the damn thing first….

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