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.”