Monday, November 05, 2007


I used to be quite good at taking exams. I'm old enough to have done finals at University that were an examination of the entire course, rather than just the three month module that finished things off. Six three hour papers in a week, if I remember it correctly. One a day from Monday to Saturday. My entire academic life hanging on those eighteen hours of mad scribbling.

I had a fairly simple strategy when it came to sitting each paper:

  1. Read through all of the questions once.
  2. Decide which ones to answer.
  3. Consider the individual question for a few minutes before even beginning to write.
  4. Re-read the question at the beginning of each new paragraph.

It was always slightly freaky to be sitting there in the quiet examination room, staring at the greasy hair on the back of the head of the person in front of me and seeming to do nothing for up to ten minutes, whilst all around my fellow undergraduates were manically scribbling. But I got a better degree than most of them, so I must have been doing something right.

These little pointers are probably no use to anyone anymore. Written exams are just one of those quaint little things they talk about in history lessons. Tests are generally multiple-guess these days.* It makes them easier to mark, and easier to fulfil whatever new educational target has been handed down by the government of the day. But I have found another arena in which these simple rules are quite useful, and that is writing.

OK, so you can't exactly read all the questions from an exam sheet, but you can ask your own as you bash out the basic plot for your story. Then you can decide which ones you want to answer - i.e. how you are going to construct your individual scenes. It obviously makes sense to think before hammering out words, though nowadays I have a window to look out of rather than staring at John Sullivan's thinning locks.

And perhaps most importantly, it's essential to go back and re-read the question every so often. You must remind yourself of what it was you set out to achieve.

For the last few weeks, since getting back from Iceland, I've been spectacularly failing to obey my own principles. I've got the basic idea for the plot in my head, and that's been enough, apparently. No need to think, just clatter away at the keys. I may be only one monkey, but if I keep going long enough, something good will come of it. Surely. As for the structure of scenes. Bah, who needs that. Just write whatever the hell comes into your head. It's great, really it is. Free-form writing.

What a load of pish.

For each of my novels there is a manual. It's not a formal thing like the hieroglyphic mess that comes with a new telly or washing machine, but it is, effectively, a manual. I have heaps of handwritten notes, even more typed. I have a scene list that might be likened to a shooting schedule for a movie, though Vincent might disagree. It's meant to make the process of writing easier without being too proscriptive - there's nothing worse than having too rigid a plan.

Except perhaps having no plan at all.

Today I realised just how badly I had taken my eye off the ball with this book. Having scribbled onto my whiteboard what I thought was a brilliant new direction to take one of the pivotal characters, I finally went back to my notes to check something else and discovered that he should have been that way from the beginning. For a week I've been dithering over another aspect of the story only to find that there it is - all sorted and perfectly happy in my scene plan. Why the hell didn't I just look there in the first place? What the fuck did I think I was doing trying to write new scenes without first referring to the plan?

I'd like to blame my current lack of focus on the ongoing nothing-happening that is my attempt to buy a house. I think this is partly justifiable. It's hard to concentrate when things are poised so delicately and could topple forward into completion or backward into pieces at any moment. And it's not a casual thing to do, committing oneself to a debt that big.

But mostly that's just an excuse. Like an idiot who writes a novella for his exam paper but gets a D minus for failing to answer the question, I've forgotten the cardinal rule.

Read The Fucking Manual.

* and I still don't know how someone can get less than 25% in a four answer choice multiple guess paper. I mean, by the law of averages you should get one in four right. You've got to be wilfully stupid to do worse than that. And yet I know people who've only managed 13%.

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