30/01/2014

A Novel in a Year (by Louise Doughty)

As with many of my interests, I find myself avidly collecting books on a topic, inspired by reviews, recommendations, and sometimes just the intrigue of a title. I don't remember why this one leapt out at me; it's some years since I bought it. I had never heard of Louise Doughty, although she is apparently a journalist and broadcaster as well as a novelist.

Whatever the reason for buying 'A Novel in a Year', I decided that I would write my novel four years ago. I started reading this book at the beginning of 2010, and - as far as I recall - read a chapter each week for, perhaps, three weeks. I did a couple of the exercises too... at least, I think I did. I have no idea what happened to them. Then I skimmed through the book, wondering when the novel-writing would start, and couldn't find anything relevant. And then I forgot to pick it up the following week. So it sat on my currently-reading shelf...

I finally finished it today, having re-started it a month ago. The difference is that I ignored the layout and the intended time-frame.

What this book consists of is 52 short chapters, which were originally published as weekly newspaper columns. Every other week there was a short exercise (so, 26 in all) which encouraged reader participation either by letter or on a dedicated website forum. Apparently there was widespread enthusiasm and involvement, and a great deal of discussion. Essentially a huge online writing support group was formed for this period - and some examples are given of submissions based on the exercises in later chapters.

However, translated into book form, and it's not going to work like that. For one thing, there's nowhere to submit responses to the exercises. Worse, there's nobody to discuss the columns and assignments with. And, as I quickly discovered four years ago, when a book is only picked up once a week, it's very easy to forget about it altogether.

So I decided to re-name it in my mind as 'A novel in a month'. I knew I could easily read a couple of chapters each day (they are only a few pages long) and planned to do six exercises per week, taking a break on Sundays. I started by doing the exercises in a notebook, and then progressed to the computer when I realised there was some method behind the apparent randomness, and that it did encourage at least some ideas for a possible novel.

It's important to remember that this was originally a newspaper column; that's the style of the book, and as such it's very well done - light-hearted, with plenty of personal anecdotes, and some gems of good advice thrown in. However, this is not a guide to writing a novel. The title is a bit misleading. What it contains is ideas to kick-start creativity, to inspire people to think or, alternatively, to get a stagnant novel going again.

So exercises included things such as biographies of our characters, writing incidents from the point of view of someone in another country, inventing a scene when someone breaks a thumb, re-writing paragraphs without adjectives... and a whole lot more. I didn't think all the exercises were necessarily relevant, but decided to do them all anyway, and unsurprisingly found that pretty much any writing exercise can lead to something more constructive.

I don't know that I learned anything new about the novel-writing process from reading this, but I found it quite inspiring nonetheless. I have to admit that I thought the last few exercises a bit disappointing - looking back, looking forward, noting what I had learned, etc. I had fallen behind on my timeframe, so I finished the last seven or eight chapters in one sitting without doing the last three or four exercises, which felt a bit as if the author ran out of ideas. To be fair, they would have been a lot more relevant to the original year-long newspaper column project, and would have given the participants plenty to talk about as the year came to an end.

Still, I thought that the bulk of the book was very readable and much of it was inspirational. I would recommend it to anyone who has read umpteen guides to writing, and perhaps, like me, have started several novels that have not gone anywhere. This is a different kind of approach, and I found it refreshing.

I doubt if the ideas I came up with will actually go anywhere, but it was enjoyable, and helped me to see how a non-chronological approach to writing can help to show the big picture, which in itself can inspire the hard slog which inevitably goes with any serious writing project.

'A Novel in a Year' is not currently in print in the UK, although apparently it is in the US; it's also available on both sides of the Atlantic in Kindle form.

Review by Sue F copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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