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Learning to transform

The Acherontia Styx – or lesser death’s head hawkmoth - has a bad reputation, mostly due to the skull-like markings on its back. It is no surprise therefore that it plays cameo roles in literature such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs. But I happened to cross a beautiful, six-inch bright yellow and orange beast of its former self on the dog walk this morning. At the time, I had no clue what it was or what it would turn into. But a quick internet search answered my curiosity, and I marvelled at the transformation from larva to moth.

Am I ready to start my own process of transformation?

I am writing my first novel, and this week I gave myself a tiny pat on the back for reaching the end of act one (first draft of course). If you have been reading some of my previous blogs, you’ll know I am a bit of a structure geek, and have been trying to learn as much as possible about story outline, scenes vs sequels, character arcs, plots and backstory. And yes, I recognise these learnings take time to apply, and there is much more to come. I am trying to forgive myself for all these naiveties while still trying to stay on course. And so I paused – wondering whether to backtrack and read then edit, or to continue pressing forward. In other words - am I ready to start my own process of transformation?

I was reading an interview with Sandra Scofield this week where she talks about her latest book The Last Draft. Some of her advice applies regardless of the draft version. She points out that “it’s very easy to get ahead of yourself when you start a novel” and advises not to “get all caught up in being fancy arty.”

You can see my dilemma – on the one hand, I don’t want to dwell too much on the first act at this stage. But I already know there are elements I’m not happy with. I’m not convinced the reader will love my protagonist or be hooked enough to keep reading. So surely I needed to get that right before moving forward?

So many possibilities for bringing my opening act to life

My novel genre is historical fiction, and I found myself asking ­– how does Hilary Mantel bring her characters to life? I re-read the opening chapters of Wolf Hall, and admired how she launched into the first scene with gruesome action in the present tense, keeping the language simple as if to reflect Thomas’ young age and education at that time. Yet within one chapter the book shoots forward twenty-seven years and the young Thomas is now a lovely thread of backstory. The approach opened up so many possibilities for bringing my opening act to life and making my protagonist more interesting. Thank you, Hilary!

Encouraged by this lesson, I wondered how many more books I should re-read or discover right now. I was torn – because all I want to do is to keep on writing, and if not writing then editing. So it was heartening to hear Philip Pullman on Radio 4 this week, reading from his book Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling. He said he was not the type of author to constantly read books in full and instead preferred to delve into a book here and there when the need arose. So that’s what I’ve been doing: from Sea of Poppies to Jane Eyre to London Fields to The Mayor of Casterbridge. I’ve been delving into the first acts of these books and studying the cause and effect of these writings.

I think I have the courage now to re-read and edit my first act and then continue straight on to act two. It turns out the Acherontia Styx caterpillar molts four times before it pupates. So I'm calling this current stage a molt, knowing there will be more molts to come before the final transformation.

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