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A loosely-structured approach
on 7 October 2008
This book is a collection of weekly columns published in the Telegraph throughout 2006. At the time of writing this review the columns are still available to read on that newspaper's website. I was unaware of this when I bought the book and confess that I felt a bit grumpy at having shelled out for material I could have downloaded or printed off for free.
Anyway, leaving my chagrin aside, I began to read. The bones of the book are a series of exercises - 26 in all, one per fortnight. The intervening chapters contain advice from the author on the topic being covered, anecdotes from her own writing life and examples of the results of the exercises, selected from the many posted throughout 2006 to message boards (still viewable) on the website.
Exercises 1-8 are `idea-generating' and aim at simply assembling some material to work with. The writing subjects are unrelated to each other so you may end up with a random assemblage. The theory is that this should help you figure out roughly what you want to write about.
Exercise 9 asks you to summarise succinctly the plot of your novel.
Doughty then tells you to clear the decks for a ten-week intensive writing onslaught centred, in exercises 10-15, weeks 20 to 30, on your main character. You write a CV for her, create scenes where she is under stress, show what she wants from life and how she overcomes obstacles. I felt that this was the most focussed part of the book. It's also familiar territory if you've read these kinds of books before.
The later exercises cover technique. At this point, the author's sense of direction seemed to waver. `Some of the exercises that follow may prompt you to write episodes of your novel but it is important that you are also working on your book independently of the exercises...' she says, which I found rather confusing.
Doughty calls her own approach `disorganised' and `oblique'. If you dislike the idea of meticulous outlines or lengthy lists of character attributes you might find her approach refreshing. `Often, the only way to discover what happens next is to start writing and see what comes' she says.
For me, only time will tell whether this book will be useful in my quest to Finally Sit Down And Write the Novel. In the meantime I'll give it four stars and the benefit of the doubt. I also own 'the Weekend Novelist' by Robert J. Ray, which also uses the time-frame of a year but takes a much more meticulously structured approach. I'm hoping the two together may be a winning combination.