February 2018 Goals

Polabooks Online

On the 1st of January, I wrote a post which set out four writing and reading related goals. I am pleased to report that I achieved the majority of these goals, as you can see from the summary below:

– Edit the first draft of my manuscript. I read (or at least tried to read) all 72,000 words, and as you’ll know from my previous posts, the verdict was not great. I added my notes to the physical manuscript, and made a list of all the most important over-arching changes which were needed. I then took a week or so off, before I sat down and thought about what the second draft might look like, you can read more about my subsequent conclusions here.

– Read The Buried GiantI read The Buried Giant at the beginning of January, and even wrote a book review!

– Read The Wake. I confess that this is the one goal which I did not achieve. I did attempt to read The Wake, but the bastardised Old/Middle English was a little too much for me at the time. I do intend to get round to it eventually, however, so watch this space.

– Update this blog once a week. The completion of this goal is perhaps the most surprising. I set out a very vague schedule in my head at the beginning of the year, but I am incredibly proud of myself for accomplishing it. Let us hope that I can keep it up!

This is the perfect time to set out goals for February, in the hope that this 75% completion rate might hold up for a little longer.

– Write 20,000 words of draft two. I have now started the second draft of my manuscript, and I have resolved to take my time with this one. It became evident with draft one that the scenes which were best were those which I had taken my time to think about, and write without distraction. Therefore, I am going to set my sights low in terms of word limit, in the hope that I will achieve quality, rather than quantity.

– Read ElmetI purchased a signed copy of this book today, and I am intrigued by the fact that the author is a fellow medievalist. I am not aware of any medieval influences on the narrative, but I am excited to read a book which has garnered so much critical attention already, especially as a debut!

– Read The Sealwoman’s Gift. I also purchased a copy of this book today, and I am extremely excited to read it! The setting is 17th century Iceland, and (although it’s superficial) the hardback cover is absolutely stunning, so I am very excited to give this novel a go.

– Update this blog once a week. Let’s see if we can keep this up! 🙂

What are your February goals? I’d love to hear them.


Book Review: The Book of Joan

Book Review (1)

I was distraught when I heard about The Book of Joan. A close friend sent me the review which was recently published in The Guardian, and I simply could not believe my eyes. Lara Feigel describes how “Yuknavitch takes three real people from medieval France and reimagines them in a post-apocalyptic future”. Without giving too much away, I had hoped that a similar sentiment might be applied to my project in the future. Although my medieval sources are not French, Feigel’s description of The Book of Joan as a story which uses a post-apocalyptic setting to reintroduce medieval characters to a contemporary audience encapsulates (at least on the surface) everything I have set out to achieve with my own novel.

I read the review in The Guardian on Friday, and on the same day I purchased The Book of Joan for myself. Over the weekend just past, I have devoured it, initially with the sole purpose of discovering whether or not my WIP was still worth pursuing, or if all my goals had already been accomplished by a more experienced and timelier author. Although I certainly achieved this goal, I also unwittingly discovered a narrative which was at times both beautiful and unbearable in its brutality, and simply impossible to put down.

Let me begin with a brief description, although that is a hard task, as the narrative is densely packed with action (both past and present) which is often alluded to, but not often recounted in full.

Christine lives on a space platform called CIEL, which floats above the dying earth in the year 2049. Only the most elite of the remaining population were able to gain access to this platform, where they now exist as white, papery figures with no genitalia and no human sensations like arousal, pain, or even sweat.  CIEL is ruled with an iron fist by Jean de Meun, who forbids any act even imitative of sexual relations, although both reproductive and recreational sex are equally unobtainable for these human survivors.

Jean de Meun’s nemesis is Joan, a warrior who carries a unique gift with her, bestowed in childhood. Her unique bond with the earth allowed her to lead a group of rebels against Jean de Meun, resulting in a war which very few survived.

What follows is a tale about the unstable link between creation and destruction, the full spectrum of gender, and the relationship between humanity and the earth. The scope of this book is epic, and much is achieved and covered in a relatively short space of pages.

The pace of this novel is thunderous, it gallops at a great speed, adding new characters and rules to the universe with blinding regularity towards the latter half. It can be hard to keep up, and hard to feel that you have understood everything you have read. In particular, the climax was not especially sophisticated, or well resolved, but there were some satisfying plot twists which were worth waiting for in the second half.

It should also be noted that the prose, although very pretty in some scenes, was often vague and laborious to read. The same adjectives were often repeated again and again to describe the same nouns, and many of the characters were prone to long spoken or internal monologues on lofty concepts such a love, death, and the meaning of life. These monologues were very messily constructed and often unclear in meaning, seeming digressive rather than profound.

Overall, my reading of The Book of Joan assuaged my fears. What made me breathe a sigh of relief was the lack of engagement with the medieval origins of the three main characters. There were certainly references and homages paid to their roots, but Christine and Jean’s narratives had very little relevance to the works which they produced in their own lifetimes. The Book of Joan appropriates suitable protagonists from the past, updates and reanimates them to match their setting, but does not simultaneously revive as many of the medieval ideologies, tropes, or symbols as I had anticipated it would.

With all this in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed The Book of Joan. The character of Joan was a particular highlight. Yuknavitch’s exploration of both gender and sexuality within this warrior is not only ground-breaking, but hugely empowering. Joan is a compelling narrator, and it is right that her tale should represent the very core of this novel, for she has the most incredible, unapologetic and unflinching story to tell.

I feel as though, by reading this book, and exploring its strengths and weaknesses, I have passed an important trial on the road to completing my own novel. More importantly, however, The Book of Joan represents a step in a new literary direction which I would like to follow, albeit with my own sense of style.

Seeking Out Conflict

adding conflictto a boring first draft (1)

It’s official – I completed another January goal: I finished editing the first draft of my manuscript. It was not a pleasant experience, as my previous post would suggest, and it became a real struggle to force myself to read line upon line of badly-worded, sloppily-phrased prose.

The most pressing problem which loomed as I finished reading the first draft was that the plot needed a drastic restructure. ‘Restructure’ doesn’t even really cover it – I needed to slash at least half of what I’d written, and replace it with something much, much more interesting. Namely, what my first draft was missing is the most important ingredient for all plots: conflict.

Stories thrive on conflict, and wither away without it. It’s an important lesson for any story-teller, and one which Tolkien touches on in The Hobbit:

Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.”

This passage comes when Bilbo visits Rivendell, and I vividly remember finding Tolkien’s descriptions of that wondrous haven so comforting that I found myself wishing, as Bilbo does, whether he might stay there forever. Unfortunately, as the narrator so aptly points out, that would not make a good, nor a long story. It is fair to say, therefore, that my first draft was neither a good, nor a particularly long story (although I certainly felt that it dragged on).

 Conflict is probably one of the first elements of a story which writers conceive, when they first come up with an idea. Without conflict, there can be no quest, no motivation and absolutely no progression. Can you imagine The Hobbit without Smaug the dragon? What about Paradise Lost without Satan’s plot to deceive mankind? Think about your favourite stories, and what would be left of them without the sources of conflict which drive them forward. Pretty grim stuff, right?

It’s fair to say that I did have a source conflict in mind when I began writing this WIP, but this means of motivating my characters onward did not prove to be quite so urgent as I might have liked. But seeking out a source of conflict, having already shaped a setting and characters, is quite different and, in truth, quite difficult.

It was probably not wise to start plotting for a second draft so soon after I had finished looking at my first, but, unfortunately, time is precious and with a weekend alone in the flat I thought it was the best use of my time. I started searching for a new source of conflict by asking myself some questions: Where must this tale end? What must be achieved on the way? What obstacle might prevent this from being achieved?

It took a while to get there, but once the idea came, everything started to fall into place. I am pleased to report that I now have a full outline for a second draft with a new and shiny source of conflict. This single (but significant) change has helped me to develop not only the plot, but also my characters, my sense of pace, and most importantly a story which is much more interesting for me to tell and (hopefully!) for you to read. Those three simple questions really helped me to pin down what my intentions are as the story-teller, and I’d really recommend that (even if you don’t end up in the same predicament I found myself in) that you ask yourself the same questions.

I have a lot left to do. My plans before the first draft were not comprehensive and, for the second draft, I want to spend a little more time setting out my plot scene-by-scene, exploring my characters’ backgrounds, and preparing myself for a more successful draft. All of these pursuits, however, have been made much easier by the fact that I now have a solid grasp of the conflict for my yet untitled WIP.

Moral of the story – as unpleasant as they might be, every story needs a Smaug, a Satan, or a tone deaf Pierce Brosnan (thank you, Mamma Mia).