Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Bridget Jones approach to writing a novel

Bridget Jones's Diary - the best-selling novel that spawned two films - started out as a column in the newspaper I worked for, The Independent. For quite a long time no one paid much attention to it. There were people on the paper who didn’t realise it was fictional.
It was written by Helen Fielding, and one day I decided to commission her to write a funny piece for the comment page. I rang her up, but she couldn’t do the article. Instead we had a chat about Bridget. “I think she’s getting a bit too stupid,” I said. “I know what you mean,” said Helen. “Maybe I’ll give her a new job.” Remember the bit in the film when Renee Zellweger slides down the firemen’s pole? That was the new job.
I thought about this conversation occasionally when I was writing When I Was Joe. It felt quite comforting that someone could write a novel without really meaning to write a novel. Writing a series of newspaper columns seemed much more possible to me than planning out a whole novel. I didn’t know how to write a book. I did know how to write a feature.
A newspaper or magazine feature needs a purpose - a point, a story, something to say. It needs an arresting start and a good pay-off. It needs quotes which are relevant and interesting. Each feature has a job to do – conveying information or opinion. Space is tight, so you can’t waste words.
I decided to approach writing a novel as I would writing a column in a newspaper.
So, I set myself the target of writing a column-length chunk of novel every day. Each chapter had to have a good start and a good end. I started off by thinking about what the story of the chapter would be, and how the information would be conveyed. If it’d really been a piece of journalism I would have been thinking something like ‘I need to find out about Ty’s relationship with his mum…need to get some quotes from Nicki and Ty, need to tell the readers why they can’t go home…’
I thought of Bridget Jones - the column - the other day when I was talking to a journalist friend who thinks she might one day write a novel. She sees novel-writing as being very different from her current work, writing features. I see it as pretty similar. I thought of it when I read comments from brilliant bloggers who’d like to write books. If you can craft a good blog post, you can build a novel.
And I thought of my conversation with Helen Fielding when I talked to my editor about why he thought chapter 17 of Almost True had to go. “The thing is,” he said, “I think Ty’s getting a bit too stupid.”


  1. Nice post. I think it depends what kind of book you're writing. I don't think When I Was Joe or Almost True would work in any other way BUT the freedom or not having to end everything squarely appeals to know how crap I am with endings.
    *Plentymorefishoutofwater - One Man's Dating Diary*

  2. What a great idea! Good post.

  3. Sometimes we have to reign in our characters :)

  4. That's very interesting that you approached writing Joe in that way. I think it shows, in that your chapter endings are the strongest I've read in a LONG time. Did you do the same with Almost True?

  5. Fish - your blog is a classic example of one which could morph into a novel really easily. You just need more of a plot.

    Yunaleska - even when we do we learn something about them

    Cat - sort of. Some of Almost True was chapter by chapter, some came in bigger chunks. I'll write more about its writing process nearer publication, if people are interested.

  6. Mmmmmm, I had a, (what I thought was) a great idea for a beginning and an end. However, the middle was a bowl of spaghetti which somehow ironed itself out as I went along. Thank the Gods for word processors, I don't think I could have written my manuscript on just paper. In fact I know I couldn't have.
    I'm not saying this was the best approach because it hasn't been published yet... in fact it's seen more rejections than Quasimodo did at his Graduation Ball, but that's how it panned out for me.

  7. Great post Keren - it took me a roundabout way to come to the same realisation. It's all about the story arc ( as Candy would say). Every chapter has to have it....thinking of each as story in it's own is an excellent way of concentrating your words....

  8. Wow! I'm sort of wondering now if I am able to write a good blog post. Because if I am, there is hope. You say it so it must be true or almost true?! But if I'm not, then there is just no hope whatsoever. Hmmmm... Great post.

  9. This is a brilliant post Keren, and really interesting too.

    Belle du Jour turned her blog into a bestseller so I guess there's hope for all unplublished bloggers!

    Kate x

  10. Becky...everything on this blog is almost true...but then that's life really.

    Kate - not just her, quite a few others. Wife in the North (not my favourite blog, but did very well) and the secretary girl in france who blogged about her work. And Allison Pearson's novel 'I Don't Know How She Does It' (terrible title) was also a column which turned into a novel.

  11. The question is, how do they get noticed?

  12. What an innovative way of writing a novel.

    I work for my students newspaper and have done journalistic work outside of that atmosphere as well, and I find that novel writing and news writing are completely different, though I can see why you'd think that feature writing is closer.

    Your book sounds very interesting! I'm going to check and see if our school library has it. Is it published in the U.S.?

    This has inspired me. I may post excerpts of some of my own fiction work on my blog.

  13. Hi Brightened Boy,

    It's published in hardback in the US in September..until then your best bet is to order it from The Book Depostiry which does free international shipping. The link is on the top of the column on the right of this blog. Welcome to the blog!


  14. Thank you! I am dying to write a novel and have so many ideas, but they're all based on the bridget style. I've now started a blog to keep track of all those ideas and the characters as they develop. Maybe one day these will develop into a novel.

  15. Good luck with it beyondthegangway!