Create Challenge: How I Wrote 'Dreaming in Stone'

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Minorvogonpoet says: 'This is my entry for September's Create challenge. Well, I claim it meets the requirements, as it's about education, and about English, which is a school subject.'

How I wrote 'Dreaming in Stone'

William Shakespeare suffering from writers block

I blame the University of Sussex for getting me into the novel writing buisiness. All right, I had been writing stories, on and off, for 24 years at least. But most of them were short; few exceeded 3,000 words. I followed a couple of open access courses at the University of Sussex and thoroughly enjoyed them. So I decided to enrol for the Creative Writing Programme, which was supposed to run over two years, comprising one morning session per week and a couple of Saturday workshops. This had the odd consequence that, for the first time for forty years, I was an official student!

In the second term of this course, we met a new tutor, Susannah Waters, who is a published novelist. She proved enthusiastic and ready to offer helpful feedback. I came up with an idea for a story that I called Dreaming in Stone. It centred on an English couple, Brian and Alison Delaney, and their teenage son, Steve, who follow their dream of living in France. They buy an old house and barns, with the intention of doing the property up to serve as bed and breakfast accommodation. They get into debt and have trouble with the French authorities.

When I started I had a vague idea where my story was heading but, as I worked, it changed. You can reduce the plot of a novel to three parts – beginning (exposition), middle (development) and end (resolution) but we were encouraged to draw up seven-point plots. Although I did this, the process of writing was more organic than planned. I pruned my story and it grew, I grafted pieces on and it grew a bit more.

I was lucky to be in a supportive group of students. We read and commented on each other's writing and did what Susannah called 'hot seating': interviewing each other's characters. However, when I read out a synopsis for my novel, my group said it was too dark and my anti-hero, Brian, was too one-dimensional. The character of Brian is key to my story. Originally, I saw him as a man who tended to mood swings, indeed I considered making him bi-polar. However, I'd failed to show him on an up-swing – sociable, energetic, full of bright ideas; instead he seemed always depressed and drinking too much. The idea that I needed to scrap a chief character made me consider giving up but, instead, I went back and rethought him.

I decided to send my heroine, Alison, to work in a French restaurant, where she meets and falls for the chef, François Allombert. At the beginning, it had been easy enough for me to write about a house in a French village, because I could draw on personal experience. Now, I had problems with research. I used a book called From Here You Can't See Paris, which is set in and around a restaurant in the Lot, and I found Google maps surprisingly useful. When I wanted to send Steve to a lycée, it was easy enough to find facts about schools in France, but harder to get an impression of what it would be like to be there.

In the midst of all this work, the course finished and the University of Sussex decided it couldn't afford to run them any longer. This just resulted in a change of venue, as the courses moved to New Writing South in Brighton and I booked the next one – Advanced Writing Workshops. My next setback came as I waded through the middle part of my supposed novel and realised that it was likely to be too short. Whereas I knew what was going to happen to Alison, I was less clear about Brian and Steve's stories. I tried to make Brian attempt to run a business buying and selling antiques, which is doomed because he doesn't really know what he's doing. However, my tutor was beginning to complain that she wanted something to happen!

I changed my idea of how to end the story several times. Originally, I imagined Brian crashing his car as he returns drunk from seeing a woman friend, Carrie. My tutor discouraged me from pursuing this line, as she said it would be repetitive, as Brian has been to see Carrie before. That made me think that Brian might accidentally set fire to the house and die as a result. I quite liked the idea of burning the house, as it is a key character in the story and its destruction changes everything. However, when I tried writing the scene, I couldn't bear the idea of Brian dying in the fire and brought him out alive! The result is a subtle end: not exactly happy, but with at least some hope for the future.

Having finished my first draft, I found it was still too short for a novel – only 46,000 words. However, I don't intend to scrap it just yet. I shall read through it and decide what parts need extending – Steve's story, for example, could be developed into a proper sub-plot. Some scenes might need to be cut and others moved, but I'm hoping that my redraft will be longer by the time I finish.

I've found the process of novel writing fascinating – starting with a little flame of an idea and building around it, until I have ended up with a fictional world that is plausible and more or less coherent. I offer my best wishes to any researchers who are working on their own novels. I would love to hear from you.

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