Saturday, July 28, 2007

How Jane and I wrote Plotting for Beginners

This is for new readers of this blog (as the post has already appeared in the December archives)...

Sue’s View

When I suggested to Jane that we should write a book together, we weren’t even friends. We attended the same writing group and never saw each other outside the meetings, but we emailed often, sending each other work to critique.

In our first emails we discussed creative writing and how to get published, but soon our correspondence became a daily one with humorous descriptions of domestic and family trivia. Many of Jane’s emails made me laugh out loud, and I thought they were wasted just sitting in my Inbox. I wanted to have them in a book I'd started to plan. That’s how the partnership began.

I did 80% of the actual writing in terms of arranging words on the page. Sally Howe is the first person narrator and I wrote in Sally’s voice: it was vital to keep her voice clear and distinctive. Jane wrote Gus's letters, and Kate Wensley's emails in different voices.

But obviously, the work and creativity involved in writing a novel is so much more than what the reader sees. Some people assume that because I wrote Sally’s voice, the book is really mine with Jane helping out. NOT TRUE. It was a fifty fifty creative project. We plotted the book together and developed the characters together and agreed on themes, texture and style. I see us as a comedy writing duo, with two people throwing out jokes and material and ideas but only one able to sit at the keyboard at any one time.

Writing a novel with someone else is a bit like a marriage. It needs commitment from both sides – and if one flags, the other needs to support her and carry on. Also like being in a relationship, you can have double the fun. But the price is a willingness to compromise.

Galton and Simpson once argued for three days about one line in a Hancock episode. Jane and I both love the other’s writing, and we rarely argued about how to express something. But there was one expression I wanted to use - “the great Wen” (meaning London) – which Jane, as editor-in-chief, kept cutting. Next time I sent her a draft I would put it back in, and she would cut it again. This went on for months. She won in the end. She is a fine editor, ruthless and strict with impeccable taste. (But if she dies before me and we have a second edition, I shall re-instate the great Wen.)

We did sometimes argue about the actual material. I might want to include something and she would say it was “yawnsville” (her ultimate put-down.)

I loved developing our characters with Jane. We find the same things funny. When she suggested a trait for a character I often laughed in delight and recognition. We brainstormed by email. When we were in the middle of the book I couldn’t wait to see her latest suggestions and I would rush to read her email before getting dressed in the morning.

I love living in a fictional world. Living there with someone else who shares your sense of humour is even better.

Writing a novel is very hard work – even when you love to write - and it can be lonely. When I wrote Plotting for Beginners with Jane it didn’t seem like work, and I only found it lonely when the huge demands of her normal life enveloped her. But co-writing spoils you. Jane injected such a lot of fun and sparky creativity into our book that when I first embarked alone on my next novel, Zuzu's Petals, I felt as if I was rowing the Atlantic solo.

An email from Jane’s kitchen

hi sue

re twosome piece

don’t forget to mention that

you have placed loads of pieces in the nationals whereas I have poems in a box file (which I am usually too busy to send off)

you have one husband to look after and hours to write whereas I have three teenagers, a hairy dog, four cats, a horse and a rabbit (not yet fed today incidentally) plus a couple of businesses, so when writing have to make do with hit and run snatches

you are entirely driven and I am a complete lazy arse

I work in the chaos of the kitchen on the family computer (“bloody hell, mother – sue hepworth’s sent you seven emails today”) whereas you enjoy the luxury of a study area, albeit one which doubles as a corridor and is in danger of being re-designated as an en-suite

you nearly dumped me after you sent me the first page and I emailed you back to say it was rubbish and I learned to precede any criticism with at least five points of effusive praise (you didn't know that did you?)

we both think the other's writing is fab

I can never remember who the characters are (my excuse - they change their names so often) so when you say is it all right for keith to like jelly? - I invariably email to ask - who the hell is keith?

you obsess about plot points and midpoints and I like to visualise the plot as a structural framework we hang things from

I love to pare things down – record so far cutting 15,000 words in one morning

you are the definitive keeper of the main text - which means that you can slip things back in which I cut out

we are symbiotic

we couldn't write this sort of book if the process wasn't fun - I want to capture the enjoyment we have and roll it onto the page for the reader (omigod - what does that sound like?)

you are well more pushy than I am and incredibly tenacious in a way which always astonishes me and which I totally admire you for

you would like to be a best-selling author and have a national newspaper column (which I know you would hate after two weeks) whereas I aspire to work on a shopping page

best first thoughts

love jane

6 comments:

Anu said...

Thanks for this, having just read Plotting for Beginners I appreciate the insight into the process.

Everyone's got an opinion and my dollar's worth says one arbiter of good taste's big Wen may be another's yawnsville, but as coloring devices the former's ref's tentacles may reach into a 60plus-something's mindset, whereas the latter would better reach the under 40's set who may never have been on a Rural Ride. Depends where you want to drive this tour bus I guess.

The end result was so enjoyable. As a partnership it really works.

Best spud harvests

Anu.
:D

Hitch said...

Thanks a lot for sharing this.
Well, perhaps like all beginners, I have the constant struggle to do it at my best..and plotting has been such a huge pain!

This read really helped me see a lot.

Sue Hepworth said...

Hi Hitch, Plotting is the bane of my life, but I did find The Weekend Novelist by Robert Ray helpful, when I was working out a way to approach plotting (that suited me.)

Lucy said...

I admire your commitment! I have your books..I am a fan!

Sue Hepworth said...

It's really great to hear from you Lucy. Writing is a lonely business, so when people say nice things on the blog, it's very cheering.

2siamese said...

Your blogs are making me late for work!!!