There is, I’ve been told, many formulas to novel writing. Or a template. Or a schematic. A way to follow. As a lecturer, I often advise novel writing students to take a novel they adore and plot it out chapter by chapter, section by section. That way you will see signposts, road blocks, story arcs, and motifs gaining ground. You will see how characters come to life, add their own story to the mix, complicate, puzzle and infuriate. You will note which chapters feature all the action; which are building to the reveal, which are written because the author wants to intrude. There is a technique, I will say. But that is their technique. Now, find your own formula. Plot your own journey. Let your characters find their way.
This week, I spent a long time doing just that. I got myself a massive canvas, a fine nib, and started to plot, chapter by chapter, Gone to Earth. What Mary did. And it’s true. Motifs appeared. Signposts came and went. The story gathered pace. Some chapters were explanatory – a breather after the action. Others told me less. Some I wondered of their point. I saw how she’d plotted out the big reveal. Understood when she wanted the reader to make the rest of the story their own. Then I wondered how much she’d borrowed from Hardy. Possibly Dickens. Jane, Anne, Charlotte and Emily. If she’d been at all reading John Clare. How she would interpret DH Lawrence’s ‘The Fox’.
The thing about formulas is that they need formulating. And that means you make up your own rules, discover your own method, create your own blueprint, invent. So I started with a blank canvas. Then stood back to admire her novel process as a work of art….
…. though it would be wrong to call it a formula. Not when there’s no algorithm for the individual imagination, what effects the emotive response to someone’s words. It’s why I look at this piece of art every time I head for my desk….
Because when I look at this – ‘The Little Hill’ by the wonderful artist Helen Garrett who took inspiration from Webb’s poetry, The Spring of Joy – all formulas cease to matter as my imagination takes hold.