Adrift— the process of writing


Adrift is a novella written by Lois Parker and Rod Griffiths. This is our first jointly written longer story, though we have produced a collection of short stories (Voicing Dementia).

This story began as a prompt in a writing group.

"If she ignored the hole in the upturned hull and the few drips of water leaking in, everything was fine."

Lois started writing without any clear plan, imagining an old upturned boat on a beach and someone sleeping under it. She set herself the task of trying to create a feeling of being in the moment, of a sense of the space within the boat and the place the boat was in. As the fingers sped over the keys she began to be intrigued by the world that was unfolding. Who was this woman who had taken herself off to Cornwall and ended up sleeping under a boat? Why had she left home? What event had triggered her into such an extreme position.

As she wrote the need to find some completion to these questions became more urgent and was accompanied by a fear that the reason for her flight might be something awful. As she became fond of the character she wanted the reason for her escape to be something that wouldn’t destroy this liking.

Lois gradually discovered enough about Jenna, the woman sleeping under the boat, to understand how she came to be there. By then the story was ten thousand words long.

When Lois read the story to Rod's his first question was "What happened to Patrick, Jenna's husband?” A predictable question but it hadn’t been explored in Lois’s story. For that period of living under the boat Jenna had been so focused on her own inhabiting of this new space that Patrick had barely been part of her thoughts.

Rod sat down to write the husband's story.

In any piece of writing there are several levels of knowledge in play. The widest and most comprehensive knowledge set can best be described as 'What the writer knows in order to write the story'. Below that in the knowledge hierarchy is what the reader needs to know in order to understand the story, and below that are a smaller series of sets, what the characters need to know in order to be in the story. When writing the story it is best to think of this knowledge as being discovered or intuited rather than being told.

Rod needed to construct both what he knew about Patrick and what Patrick knew in order to make sense of what Jenna had done and perhaps to find her. Rod did not know exactly where Jenna was, in Cornwall certainly but exactly where was a mystery; Patrick knew even less.

Jenna's story included a message she had left on their answering machine and an email she sent after a few days. Jenna's story also told us that she had planned to go to the dry cleaners before she detoured into a different life. Those were the building blocks from which Patrick's story had to be constructed. The only other piece of knowledge was that Jenna had a sister, Sandy, who was married to an un-named husband. Their relationship with Jenna had broken down in the last year and the couple had moved away.

None of that is much of a clue as to what sort of character Patrick might be or even what sort of marriage they might have. The possibilities are endless. Patrick might have been very annoyed and immediately changed the locks and set about filing for divorce on the grounds of desertion.

There are a range of abrupt and furious possibilities but they don't lead to much of a story, or not the sort of story Rod thought fitted what he knew of Jenna and Patrick. Patrick had to be a more complex character and of a disposition that might lead to a happy ending; he had to want to find Jenna.

This has two main characters, each on a journey of discovery. Because they are separated the discovery had to be self discovery to a large extent.

One clue about their relationship lay in Jenna messages; "Hello love. Sorry the casserole wasn't in the oven. I'm fine. Don't worry." The dry cleaning was another clue.

Patrick was the sort of husband who came home to a meal prepared by his wife and did not collect his own dry cleaning. A husband on the domestically helpless end of the spectrum. Perhaps it is a far reach to conclude from that that he couldn't scramble an egg, but it seemed a reasonable assumption. The possibility of having Patrick unable to even boil an egg was considered, but that seemed to be taking helplessness too far. The actual detail of making a scrambled egg is not difficult, the more difficult part is cleaning the pan afterwards because the stuff sticks very firmly, especially in a normal pan and if it has been too hot.

Every line of Jenna's messages was useful in constructing Patrick's story. "Please water the geraniums," not only revealed that Jenna was a gardener but also that Patrick wasn't. Later when a recently divorced woman chats him up at a party Patrick is able to use the geranium message to explain that Jenna can't have left him— surely no one abandons a relationship and still expects the geraniums to be watered. Patricks changing relationship with the geraniums is a proxy for his feelings about Jenna, moving on from tearfully clutching a Jenna scented pillow, to forgiving the geraniums was another step on his journey.

As a writing process creating Patrick's story was very different from that which Lois used to write Jenna's story. There are said to be two 'methods' to write, one is to plan the whole story, usually with an outline as well as sketches of each character and scene which are all completed before the narrative is attempted. The alternative, writing by the seat of the pants, is the total opposite. No planning is involved, the writer simply starts writing and sees where it goes.

Some people are purists and insist that their method is the "One Right Way". Which ever method is used there is inevitably a point at which a first draft exists and from there an editing process is usually necessary to throw out the parts that don't work well, to tidy up the grammar and maybe to add depth here and there. Sometimes radical surgery is needed, perhaps to start the story in a different place or end in a different way.

The editing process usually makes nonsense of the arguments about planning or pantsing. Which ever method was used to get to a first draft there may be many changes before the manuscript is finished.

So it was with Adrift, once the two parts were put together it became clear that they would have to be interwoven to help the reader through the story. To make that work the timelines in the two stories had to be integrated. In some of the time periods there was more of Jenna and in others more of Patrick. The nature of the story made that likely, but to help the reading process some extra material had to be added to make the narrative more balanced.

One might think that integrating a joint narrative would be easy when each character is operating largely independently, but there is still nervousness about treading on each other's creative toes. We each felt protective of and identified with our character. As the process continued it was possible to catch oneself thinking “I” and “You” rather than he or she.

How was it as a husband and wife effort? It was certainly fun, and has left us wondering about the next story we can work on together.