When the book you’re writing isn’t the book you’re writing

I could write an entire blog on the pain, pleasure, anxiety, excitement and sheer bloody endlessness-ness of novel-writing (and I may still go that way yet). I started writing mine a long time ago, inspired by the kids and community I’d worked among while teaching in Chapeltown in Leeds in the mid-90s. Words spilled out of me to begin with, and I quickly wrote about 10 chapters. Then life started to conspire against me – a busy job, a Masters degree, then having two kids in relatively quick succession. At that point sleep became a much bigger priority than publishing anything. By the time I had started to claw back tiny vistas of writing opportunity we were in the process of moving out of London. Then my job was made redundant. And other crappy stuff happened in between both those biggies. I spent a lot of years scribbling ideas in my big red notebook or telling myself my story in my head and nowhere else.

By the time I picked up my half-written novel again I realised that it just wasn’t working for me any more. The world had moved on. I had changed. The market for young adults had been over-run with lustful vampires and sexy werewolves. Worst of all, while I’d been becoming a mother, other, younger writers with the energy and time I used to have had crept up behind me and published their books while I was napping. This was brought home to me with a CLANG when I read Annabel Pitcher’s brilliant My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece. After the first few chapters all I could think of was ‘Shit. She’s written my book.’ (This isn’t strictly true: My Sister… is nothing like the book I was going to write, but it does contain many similar themes and ideas, and is a much stronger book than mine was turning out to be).

When I re-read my own novel I realised that it was no longer the book I thought it was going to be. It couldn’t be that book any more. So what to do? I wasn’t ready to give up just yet. Luckily I happened to stumble on the Query Shark blog (Twitter has its uses). It gave the brilliant advice of asking yourself four questions of your main character:

  • what does she want?
  • what’s going to get in her way?
  • what choices/dilemmas does she face?
  • what terrible thing is going to happen if she chooses Choice A; what terrible thing is going to happen if she doesn’t?

My main character is Chloe, a 15 year-old girl living in a small town, who meets Asif, an older Muslim boy. I could answer the first two questions about Chloe without any trouble at all. But with questions three and four, especially four, I was clueless. Worst of all, I realised that it didn’t matter at all what Chloe did – there were no consequences, good or bad, for the choices she had to make. And that is a death knell for a story.

So now I’m re-writing. And it’s frustrating, and I felt sad, but this time the book I’m writing is the book I’m supposed to be writing.


4 thoughts on “When the book you’re writing isn’t the book you’re writing

  1. I’ve checklisted the four main character questions and think I’ve got that sorted. Great blog post about writing process and like the warning about write it before someone else does. Scary stuff! I feel that quite keenly myself.

  2. Loved the blog. Nice and short and will have to read the monster book. Is writing a blog like tidying your bedroom when you should be doing your history essay on a Sunday afternoon? Xxx

  3. Pingback: Return to the blog | Lucy Marcovitch

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