Charlotte's Web

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Carving and Chiselling


You’d think by draft seven, my novel would have reached a place of repose. You’d think after two and a half years of writing, I could wipe my hands and say, ‘This is finished.’ You’d think that by now, every plot connection would be in place, every character would justify her presence in the narrative and the beginning and the end would be singing hymns to each other.

You’d be wrong.

This process of learning how to write a novel by writing a novel has not ended. It has been a long and trying test of my patience, but it has also been a time to learn the craft. And the learning is not over yet.

I’m at the place in a manuscript where I know what happens to whom and why. I know my protagonist and her antagonists very well. I have a narrative arc, a beginning, a middle, a crisis, a climax and an end. I have a setting. I may even have a voice.

Now I’m at the point where every part of the story has to work for its place. I’m threading the connections together, trying to make them clear. It may be a mystery but nothing can be murky. At every juncture, I’m asking myself, ‘Why?’ Why does he say that? Why does she do that? Does this character move the story forward? Is that character just a nice piece of furniture or does she have a role? What makes the protagonist suddenly decide to do that?

Last night, I met my agent for the first time. She’s in Frankfurt for the Book Fair and I drove up to have dinner with her. She said writing a novel is like carving a statue. You start with a block of stone. You take a chisel and make a shape. When you have a shape, you stand back and look at it. Then you start again. Then you stand back and look. Then you start again. Each time you carve, you make an area clearer. Sometimes you have to go away and rest. After that, you come back with a new vision of how it should be and you start carving again. But it’s still not finished.

You keep chiselling until the planes are clear and crisp, until the piece of stone in front of you matches the vision in your head.

That’s where I am. Chiselling. Making sure the planes are crisp. So that one day I can sit back and say, ‘That was what I was trying to do.’

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

8 thoughts on “Carving and Chiselling

  1. I think it will be interesting to go through, let’s say, your third draft sometime in the future and take note of how the lines have been carved.

    Any chance of you writing about meeting your agent for the first time?

  2. Erm, no, I wouldn’t think anything of the sort, darling, having been at it far longer with far fewer positive results than you!!! But I *do* think two and a half years is a cracking pace and that you are galloping along in a most impressive fashion. Hats off from someone who seems to have shattered her slab. xxx

  3. Your post is so interesting! I’d love to hear about your meeting with the agent too. How did it go? Unexpected? Smoothly? Offsetting? It’s sometimes awkward to meet someone in person after a virtual relationship, both important on a personal and professional levels.

  4. For some reason this post made me think of Brahms and the fact that it took him over a decade to write his First Symphony. . .

    In the end you will have something beautiful and worth reading. So keep your tools sharp and don’t forget to wear your safety goggles when you start chipping away at that marble.

  5. I’m so glad you’ve met your agent! How exciting that must have been, and it sounds like she had some wonderful words of advice for you. Good luck with the chiselling – I have every faith in you!

  6. It’s a great analogy and I also agree that you are galloping along.

  7. I’m still trying to hack out that last chunk of stone, without which it doesn’t begin to resemble anything. Most recent trip-up character arcs! Main characters? Check. Main supporting characters? Oops…

  8. Brilliant, Charl.

    And you know what’s going to happen? After the work is published, you’ll agonise over some polishing you didn’t notice needed doing.

    Remember Steinbeck?

    ‘Although I have sometimes felt I held fire in my hands and spread the page with flame … I have never lost the debilitating ache of clumsiness and inability.’

    Something else … tweaking gives one such a good feeling. Substituting even one word, shows you have not lost the touch.

    The manuscript is a living thing and needs to be nurtured.

    Have a ball.

    Little Nuisance Angelina.

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