In 2011 I wrote the first draft of a novel and having set it aside for a while to ‘cook’ I am now coming to the understanding that it was a recipe which was never going to produce a satisfying meal. This isn’t because I have doubts about the basic premise nor had I lost faith in the characters, it is because I didn’t give them high enough hurdles to leap over and in the end nothing is changed very much.
It is a time-tested signature of any good story that something or someone is significantly transformed at the end of an adventure, either by the aversion of a disaster or the improvement of a terrible situation. To engage us emotionally a story must present a problem which must be solved by people we care about and the bigger the problem and the greater the challenge to the characters then the more we connect with the action.
Obviously, outside literary fiction, most genres have their own route-maps but generally there are a certain set of things which we need to know to understand what the tale is about. Very much like a spoken joke - we need to know who’s involved and what the set-up is to ‘get’ the joke.
All too often; websites which claim to offer writing tips (as well as many training courses) suggest a formula which goes by the name of the ‘Three Act Structure’ but this is flawed in my view as it fails to offer a map to the middle or second act which is where the bulk of the action occurs.
Such a simplification of what is, potentially, an immense and very heavily detailed tableaux of events, the three act structure over-simplifies the process into a ridiculous series of signposts which may be of great use to a beginner but which are in fact little more than what ‘stabiliser wheels’ are to a young cyclist. It is best thought of as nothing more than a vague description of ‘beginning-middle-end’.
To put it briefly: the formula is often described like this -
Act 1. We are introduced to the main character or characters and the situation they are in. Then comes the first significant plot point which is a new development which sets up a reason to do something. Often, novels begin at this point and weave a backstory of Act 1 along the way.
Act 2. This is the commencement of the journey to resolution through conflict. Our characters achieve minor success and experience failure until such point as all would appear lost until a second and unexpected event occurs which changes everything. Right at the pit of despair the principal character is faced with their darkest moment when (surprise, surprise) the second significant plot point happens which takes everything up a gear.
Act 3. With everything to loose our main character now has no choice but to face their biggest challenge. Hopefully, they succeed and we witness a transformation of either themselves, others or a situation. At this point many loose threads are woven back in and the story packs up its bags and is over.
From this simplistic outline it is easy to see why many new writers become committed to the formula and also why stories which break away from it are often quite remarkable. The middle section - with its twists and turns - is exactly the landscape which could quite easily contain one or more new beginnings and significantly many more major plot points which drag the characters into many conflicts and conquests. In other words: it’s a place where the ‘real’ story takes place.
I am indebted to my circle of invited readers for their feedback on the first draft (and the many typos and inconsistencies they found there!) - all 147,000 words of it! (I do like to allow room to cut and slice on the editing table). However, having set it aside for a few months has allowed me to focus on the fact that, to my eyes at least, nothing really happens. Sure, some characters do some ‘things' but the stakes are not high enough for it to be a roller coaster of an adventure which was my original intention. From memory, there doesn't seem to be an event which is serious enough to make the novel buzz and it's that electricity which would take it from being a 'romp' (as one reader put it) into being an adventure.
Over the coming months I may blog more about this as it has come back to the top of my pile of things to do. Taking a year out to write scripts for my main character has been a remarkably enlightening experience. The radio series which he featured in allowed me to get inside his head a little more and armed with that knowledge I feel more able (and inclined) to give him some terrible things to cope with.
By the way, if you’re visually inclined here is a diagram which I found on the interweb which clearly demonstrates that there are far more than any three acts.
For the scriptwriters out there this is a pretty good blog about the basic ‘beginning, middle and end’ structure.
For any novel writers here is a pretty good technique to get your mental juices going.
Stay tuned. Ask questions. Get involved. It’s time for this book to grow wings.
Madeleine was blessed with sensational good listens.
English is full of colourful phrases and mysterious words that we often use everyday without ever thinking of where they came from nor what they actually mean. This is one of the things that makes the language so unique and rich with texture but when you analyse some of these ideas they quickly start to quake under the scrutiny of observation.
In writing, it is always agreed that one should avoid clichés like the proverbial plague and there are good reasons why this is prudent advice. The use of an over familiar phrase indicates that the writer has taken the safe and comfortable path of describing an event or scene in such a way that we are readily able to digest the various aspects very quickly. But by doing it through the use of pathways laid down by others they are missing the opportunity to bring new dimension and value to the idea being conveyed.
Take for example, the phrase: ‘He was as dull as dishwater’ (or often: ‘ditchwater’). Whilst we might understand the idea that a person might be as uninteresting as waste water - opaque, grey and unpleasant, by using this phrase the writer has failed to recognise that by renovating the familiar with a new and personal twist they could have illuminated the concept in the reader with a startling freshness. So, for example, a writer could have said: ‘He was as dull as a stormy day’ which suddenly has a range of connotations which can be expanded upon. It is this altering and highlighting of the ordinary which makes all art more original and inspiring.
The next example I’d like to examine is a case where an idiom has become so well used that the meaning is actually bizarre when the laws of grammar are applied to it. If someone was describing an attractive woman they might say that she was ‘Good looking’, or possessed ‘Good Looks’ however this description seems to defy rational language logic on a variety of levels. This can be demonstrated by changing one of the words. If the phrase had a rule which defined its meaning then it could be applied to a variety of other attributes. So, for example, if that woman had a beautiful voice would we say that she had ‘Good listening’? If she wore sweet perfume would we describe her as having ‘Good smells’? In actual fact - because they still make sense in a mysterious and antique way - we could, in fact, use those descriptions as they quite clearly reference the original phrase and throw fresh light on an old idea.
Finally, my attention is drawn to ancient words which become startlingly unusual when put under the spotlight. Just recently I was concerned about a splinter of wood which had become lodged in my finger and in conversation I described it as a ‘spell’. Aside from the etymology behind this particular word, it occurred to me that at some stage, somebody must have determined a series of measurements which define a ‘spell’ in terms of its size. At what size does a ‘spell’ become a ‘splinter’ or even a ‘sliver’? Is there an actual size? As big as a matchstick? (how big is one of those?) As big as a drumstick?. There seems to be a whole division of unspoken scientific understanding at work here and we seem to know instinctively the dimensions involved. But someone, somewhere, at some point must have taken time to put boundaries upon it.
English is pebble dashed with such words, phrases and ideas, many of which have fascinating origins washed ashore on the beach of our daily speech. As a writer, nothing is more powerful than researching, expanding and restoring them with a new and invigorating architecture. Conversely, a writer who is content to make the ‘ordinary’ tell their tale will remain forever; ordinary.
If you have written (or intend to write) your own text and you have used a spellcheck be sure that it is set to ‘British’ English (if you are writing for a British audience) and not ‘American’ English! Unfortunately, the software can not correct the ‘right’ word used ‘wrongly’. Here are some typical examples:
Its or It’s
Its is a word – it is how you attribute ownership to a ‘thing’ (the same as saying ‘his’ or ‘hers’). For example: ‘The Organisation in its Environment’. It’s can be an abbreviation for ‘It is’. The apostrophe is sometimes there to replace the missing letter: ‘i’. For example: ‘It’s cute’.
Your or You’re
Your is a word and means something that belongs to you as in: ‘This is your chair’. You’re is an abbreviation for: ‘You are’. The apostrophe replaces the missing letter ‘a’ as in ‘You’re great’ (you are).
CDs and MOTs or CD’s and MOT’s
When something is plural an ‘s’ is added: ‘CDs‘ etc. If the CD has an attribute, feature or possession you would add the apostrophe, for example: ‘The CD’s surface’.
There, Their or They’re
These are three distinctly individual words with very different meanings. There refers to a location as in: ‘Over there‘. Their refers to something which belongs to ‘Them’ as in: ‘This is their home’. They’re is an abbreviation for ‘They are’ as in ‘They’re having dinner with us tonight’- once again, the apostrophe represents the missing letter ‘a’.
This is commonly written as ‘Should of’ which is incorrect and doesn’t actually mean anything. It is often written that way because of the way that it sounds (as in: ‘Should’ve’).
Ring, Rang and Rung
These are three different words, namely: the present, the past simple and the past participle. So, for example: ‘I ring him every day’ – ‘I rang him last week’ and ‘I have rung him (some undetermined time in the past and it is affecting us/me now)’. In the North of England, it is not uncommon to hear people say: ‘I have rang him’ which is incorrect.
Right, wrong, right, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, right. (3/8 - see me)
There are many more and from time to time I will update this page. If you have your own favourite ‘pet peeve’ - comment or get in touch and I’ll include it here.
A small part of my mind has been closed off for about twelve weeks now. I have walked the corridors outside its door many times, hesitating to perhaps look in as if checking on a sick child. Each time, however, I have resisted the temptation and gone about my business satisfied that all was well within.
For a while I became concerned that what lay in that room had withered and died - faded away into nothing more than a clouded memory but something drove me on to persist with my absence and let it have time to rest. Instinctively, I knew that the thing which I had confined had been worked harder than it had ever been for some time and needed to recover.
On the sixth of December last year I completed the final chapter of a novel that I had poured myself into, intensively, for a little more than six months. Carving out an average of a thousand words a day, it staggered into bed at just short of one hundred and fifty thousand words. I knew in my heart that those words were, quite possibly, not assembled in the right order and might even be the wrong words for the job. Certainly, there were more than required but for the time being they served the purpose of painting the picture I wanted to release from my imagination.
Since that day in December I have made no attempt to put my fingers to the keyboard to write anything of substance. With the exception of a few journal entries I have observed a complete abstinence which has been due in part to having nothing of any interest to say. So complete was my exploration of the grand designs of my novel idea that I had exhausted every creative avenue and emptied all the resources I had for new ideas. Rather than face the futility and disappointment of flogging a crippled steed I concluded that a sojourn was better than a battle. Far better that I let it lie than try to ride the stumbling creature and fall, taking the humiliation which that brings.
I am convinced that my inactivity these last few months are not a case of writer’s block (which, in any case, implies that a writer cannot move forward) so much as a case of a writers ‘conclusion’ - a situation where a train of thought finally arrives at its intended destination. Having disembarked from the train I find myself now striding the platform’s length looking at posters for other exciting places to visit.
But now it is time to unlock that attic room. I have heard the plaintive cries from within and know that the thing is alive and well. Awakening from winter hibernation, it now seeks sustenance and attention which I once more feel capable of offering. Our time apart has been a period of recovery for us both as I have spent my time living a life and observing the very things which I have previously attempted to document. Now that the dark days and icy winds have receded, my internal store of snapshots and character sketches is renewed and together I believe that we can, once more, embark on adventures new as spring begins to surge around me. Sometimes a change is as good as a rest. When the words won’t flow - don’t force them (they are unforgiving). Do something else instead.
Writing is not about wanting to say something, It’s about having something that you must say. However, to say it effectively you have to be focused on exactly what it is that you want to convey and how it you want it to be understood.
In 1946 George Orwell wrote an essay called ‘Politics and the English language’ which is as pertinent today as it has ever been. Too often we read novels that have been ill-conceived in their construction to the degree that their content is lost in a mire of worn out clichés and over complicated prose. The proliferation of the E-book (and the ease in which new writers are able to market their unpolished works) has done little to halt the tide of incomplete literature and does nothing for the propagation of the craft of writing.
Writing is a craft at its highest level. The works that stand the test of time (and enjoy the most success) have a succinctness and authority about them which is undeniably and indisputably unique. Conversely, the amateur writer feels obligated to garnish every sentence with as many ‘tried and tested’ phrases and as much ‘purple prose’ as they can in the pursuit of not only self gratification (in terms of ‘creative expression’) but also in the naive belief that these elements are the core of literature itself.
Whilst reviewing my own work just recently, I was struck by just how guilty I am of these same crimes which actually highlights another aspect of writing which many self-publishers overlook. There is nothing more constructive and cathartic than editing in the process of creating concise and engaging literature. Surely, all writers would want their readers to hang on every word and if this is the case then they should make every word count. Each syllable should be a stanza within a symphony which unfolds like an organic whole revealing the story as a breathtaking adventure.
In George Orwell’s essay (which I strongly urge you to locate and read) he talks about the essential ingredients of good construction which are a solid framework for constructing a piece which is spectacular rather than simply adequate.
Orwell claims that every writer should, in every sentence that they write, ask themselves six questions. These basic pointers give gravitas and sincerity to each single line of typography and ensure that not a single column inch has been wasted in delivering the crux of the events. In the first question, a writer should ask: ‘What am I trying to say?’
This might appear obvious but it is an enquiry that many lesser writers overlook as they describe events that have no bearing on the plot in progress nor the characters within it. By leading us up a dead end street the writer has either confused us (which leads to a gradual loss of interest) or distracted us with unnecessary information which is, as a reader, frustrating as we don’t know whether to retain the information or disregard it.
Secondly, Orwell suggests that we examine what words will express it. This might seem a minor point to the casual reader (or writer!) but it is in fact the very thing which separates the mundane from the epic. When Shakespeare wrote:
"To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?"
He wanted us to see how it would feel to be an adolescent royal, intent on avenging his father’s death. This reference alone is material for a much larger essay and not one that I intend to pursue here but you get the idea.
Next, Orwell urges writers to examine the idiom which might make the idea clearer in the readers mind. In the case of Shakespeare this is clearly the visual impact of ‘slings and arrows’ as being an actual vision of not only conflict but death itself (which is the intent in this instance). The worst crime that a writer could make at this point is to use a jaded simile which does nothing for the impact of the premise.
This takes us neatly on to point four of Orwell’s formula: ‘Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?’ In most cases of modern popular (genre) fiction I’d have to say: ‘no’. There are far too many examples of over used phrases in most E-books for me to even quote such an example as I am sure you already know what they are. Suffice to say (as the saying goes) avoid clichés like the proverbial plague (as they say).
Next (but not any the less important) is the question which begs the answer: ‘Could I have put it more shortly?’. There is no harm in being concise. It makes for terrific tension in a novel. The shorter your sentences are the better they scan. The faster you get your ideas over. It’s exciting.
Finally, George Orwell asks us: ‘Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?. This is a question that is simply demonstrated by the (very often observed) clunky sentence. Whilst writers enjoy the indulgence of wafting eloquently, they miss the, rather obvious, problem (or otherwise) of ugly or run-on sentences which do (by and large) look, if I might say so, cluttered with punctuation - and what have you - to the point of obscurity. Just like the previous sentence.
Finally, I would like to quote Orwell as he translates ‘English’ into ‘bad English’ in his translation from the Bible -
"I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
Here it is in modern (Orwellian Pastiche) English:
"Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."
The first is literary, the second is almost ‘office speak’:
"Let’s diarise a window of potential to extrapolate the potentiality of the blue-sky, out of the box concepts we have at our fingertips on a get-go basis."
Some clichés, however, have a lot of weight in them:- ‘Keep it simple stupid’.
(Edited and corrected: 28/2/12)
I don’t doubt for a minute; the old adage that we all have a book, somewhere deep inside us just waiting to get out but, from what I understand of the way that the publishing game works, there are certain ingredients that you need to bake a successful cake.
The Cathedral of Wonderful Imaginings is usually ‘novel’ shaped for most writers and whilst many succeed in building a palace we are willing to visit, others create a shrine of obscurity that is devoid of any congregation and I began to wonder why that was. There seems to be something at work here between the pages of the very best (and worst) examples of these and I feel it’s something that any aspiring writer should at least be aware of.
It seems to me that ‘popularity’ does not always equal ‘quality’. There are far too many examples of current best sellers that are abysmally written and the same was true of the past. However, there is a common thread that unites the good, the bad and the ugly when they surface as popular and often recurring successes.
If you met a friend who told you that they had been to the cinema to see the latest blockbuster I am certain that your first question would be: “What’s it about?” Likewise, if you told your friend that you had just read a new novel, they would ask you the same question. Chances are, they wouldn’t ask you: “Was it well written?” A question like that would seem churlish or petty minded in ordinary conversation but it is the first thought of editors, publishers and academics alike.
For most of us, watching a movie does not involve a conscious critique of camera angles, plot development and edit points. We are (generally) looking to be entertained and are responsive to the unfolding of a good story. In the same way, most readers can forgive quirky grammar and the occasional hole in the plot as our suspension of disbelief is open to the spinning of an intriguing tale.
Without mentioning any names, there are plenty of currently best selling books on the market which the intelligencia say should never have appeared in print but for those who are gripped by the story, the construction of academically correct prose is of little interest.
Which leads me to believe that the single most timeless ingredient in any story is the premise - the actual ‘thing’ that it is about. If you can get that right then your readers will be with you. Unfortunately, the editors, agents and other gatekeepers feel quite differently and any aspiring writer should be well aware of that. The drive to keep every page tight and exciting is very important in such a fiercely commercial arena. If you can do both, the rich shores of literary fame are well within your reach.
One of the perils of embarking on the journey of writing, is the very likely possibility of ending up down a road with no exit route. A cul-de-sac (literally meaning “bottom of bag” in French) is a word which refers to a dead end street, a close, or a no through road and it’s a place that every writer fears, no matter how spectacular the houses are along that road.
During May and June of this year I was particularly inspired by my novel - so much so that I was averaging a thousand words a day, clocking in at nearly thirty thousand of the sparkly things by the first week of June. This was a wonderful achievement, in my eyes, and the completion of the first three chapters of the book heralded a great sense of relief. However, there was a theatre booked for the performance of a play I wrote which needed all my attention and so throughout the rest of June I was engaged with rehearsals and preparation for that.
The show went well and I came out of it with not only a feeling of pride that it was well received but also a commission to write a new play for the October Literary Festival in Malton. Without wasting a moment, I began work on that and turned round a first draft in a couple of weeks, organised a cast get together and had a couple of read throughs, which looked promising but this week realised it had been four weeks since I had worked on the novel.
I tried to re-start the impetus which I had going this time last month and found it very hard indeed to get the flow started and on one occasion only managed a paragraph in an hour. For whatever reason, the ideas were simply not ‘tumbling’ like they were previously. Now, it’s not like I don’t know the story (the whole thing is mapped out in my mind and I am aware of all the intimate details), it’s just that I feel like I am slightly trapped in the cul-De-sac created by the events so far. The magnitude and impact of the ‘set-up’ is slightly intimidating me at the moment and I feel as though I might not be able to match the dynamic and thrusting pace I had set down last month.
It’s not that I am worried by this, far from it, it’s just that it’s frustrating as I want to get back in the captain’s chair and resume steering the ship through new waters. But that cul-de-sac! Perhaps the work on writing scripts is something that I should embrace for the time being until the words are ‘bursting’ to come out again.
It is for this reason that I haven’t posted a blog for a few weeks and right now I am putting some thoughts down - as a kind of laxative, if you will and if your writing takes you down some blind alleys from time to time, my advice would be: get out of the car, take a look at the neighbourhood, survey the landscape, eat a sandwich and have a think - you haven’t lost your legs, you’ve just misplaced your roadmap for a bit.
NEVER give up.
A good writer should have their radar on at all times. Life has a way of hurling incidents that, when viewed with ‘novel-goggles’ has a perspective which makes them larger than life and absolute gold dust when it comes to the tricky business of inspiration.
There was an incident which happened to me today which I have to admit was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. So, as an example I guess it’s not typical. However, I wanted to tell you about it as it is still very vivid in my mind and I think it might inspire a bit of creative exploration in your own imagination.
I was waiting in line at a gas station. It was a clear, sunny day with a slight breeze. Ahead of me was one compact vehicle with a female driver. To my left were two other pumps with two and three vehicles respectively and to my right were another two pumps with about the same amount waiting there. It was a busy morning stop-off for us all by the look of it.
The woman in front worked for a real estate company, judging by the signs and livery on her small car but it was clear that she was unfamiliar with the workings of the gas cap. She struggled with it for at least five minutes before eventually (it seemed) breaking it off completely and it rolled under the white van to my left. She heavily stuck the pump nozzle into the hole and walked around the van to get the cap.
She must have been filling the tank to capacity as it seemed to take at least another ten minutes during which time I looked around at the other occupants waiting their turn. By now I had switched off my engine. Behind the van at my left was an old couple and behind me were two female students. To my right was an old man and his wife and behind him: a business man in a suit. Between the pumps I could see a mother with two small pre-school children in the back, but any more than that I was unable to see.
As I sat there just observing what was going on, I became increasingly aware of a terrible sense of dread overwhelming me. I began to have doubts about all kinds of things but wasn’t sure what they were. I had a cascade of fragmented dream sequences slicing their way into my thoughts but they appeared to me as shards of important things forgotten. I began to feel a prickling sensation across my neck and forehead as I grasped at these shattered bytes of what began to feel like an alternative reality in the same way that a hangover delivers you a handful of blurred polaroids and says: “remember this from the night before?” and try as you might, you have no recollection of the scenes before you.
Eventually, the woman appeared to have finished and I was more concerned about being late for work to notice how long she had taken paying for her fuel, but when she returned she seemed concerned that the car wouldn’t start. She fumbled endlessly with the keys and eventually got out and gestured to me to help her push it out of the way. As I stepped out of my car, I realised that I was standing in an inch of petrol which had spread from under her car and outwards to the kerb of the pumps and had flowed under my car and beyond, behind me under their car.
A forecourt attendant ran out from the cash desk and helped push her car forwards to let others through but seemed to not notice the several gallons of freshly seeping petrol that her car was oozing. I went to the back of mine and told the students to back up, or in effect I think in my mental state I actually told them to get the hell out of there, which they did pretty quickly. I too, started my engine up (which I instantly regretted) and backed up enough to get around the furthest pump to my left and past the tanker which had arrived with a delivery of fresh petrol. I drove away from the station, convinced that I hadn’t paid for something or had just robbed them. Such was the state of mental confusion I was experiencing. I have no idea what the outcome of the incident was, but as I never heard an explosion or heard anything on the news, I have to assume that they got the spill cleared up.
My mind was in a state of mosaic, almost hallucinatory paranoia for about two hours after that and it was only after lunch that I was able to check out on the internet, what might have been wrong with me. I realised that I was experiencing a ‘real time’ dream which was being fed to me from my memory. From what I could discover, I am pretty sure that I must have been suffering from a mild case of ‘Toxic Psychosis’ which is a side effect from inhaling petrol fumes, Wikipedia told me. Further, it said that in mild cases, a subject might experience a ‘detachment with reality’ and in severe cases ‘paranoid hallucinations’ and even death. I then recalled that the air inlet pipe for my car is just by the nearside tyre, about six or eight inches from the floor. Then, my ‘novel-goggles’ came on.
Take the above scenario; the characters and add to it a punk robbing the cashier at the same time. He has a stolen car which he can only start by hot wiring and add to that: the tanker fully loaded who clipped the kerb as he parked up, sheering a strut at one end (which now hangs precariously against the concrete and will spark if he moves forward or backward.) With me so far? Ok, this is where it gets exciting. The businessman has just lit a cigarette and the old woman with the old guy (remember him?) is now having am asthma attack, which he is unaware of as he pays. Top it all off with everyone tripping out on the fumes as they sit on this ticking bomb and you have one hell of a great story - who’s going to rescue them? Will they rescue them? How are they going to do it? Will they all fry?
I don’t have an answer, but I’d love to see what you could make of it. I may well do something with this set up at some point, but for now I just wanted to share with you the endless possibilities of real life as a ‘story starter’. Keep your eyes open at all times, just in case that ‘big idea’ comes right up and says hi.
P.S. if you do want to have a go at writing this story, I’d love it if you’d let me know, so we can all read how it ends up, and I’d be kinda grateful if you kept my name on it somehow as the person it happened to or at least inspired your version. Have fun.
I find it completely fascinating the way that the mind is able to process ideas and thoughts in ways that we least expect . This is most obvious when we analyse our dreams and find that there have been certain aspects of our lives that have been lurking there in the shadows whilst we go about the daily business of whatever it is we have to do. For example, the other night I was awoken from a fairly disturbing dream in which I was on a small boat cruising down a canal but the boat had a semi translucent bottom to it and I was very aware of the fact that I kept seeing the outline of two alligators as they sussed out the possibility of climbing aboard.
Now, I have to point out that I don’t have a boat nor have I ever sailed in alligator-infested waters but if you take the dreamscape analogy as a starting point, there are a multitude of possible interpretations to my nocturnal cinema show, (none of which I am particularly interested in right at the moment) but it illustrates a point: deep down, we are constantly thinking about all our thoughts and experiences and re-defining them with analogies, images, similes and bullet point versions of the core premise of any particular issue.
This is a particularly useful skill when it comes to writing and I have found that in the development stage of any story, one of the most powerful tricks is to recount my own tale in my own words from memory. I have found that the planning of any creative writing can not only be a hothouse of ideas it can also be the mausoleum of the essential elements of a story. Too often I have found that by drafting out ‘who-did-what’ to such a microscopic degree causes me to become entrapped in the web of detail, when what I needed to be focussing on was: ‘actually’ what the story was about.
This is a method, or even a pre-requisite of great and timeless folk tales: no one ever said that you were supposed to recount the ‘actual’ descriptions of Red Riding Hood, nor the specific details of exactly which route through the forest she took but I bet you could verbally tell the tale and that’s the crux of the matter. By telling a story from memory, you are cutting to the core of the most important details.
I would say, from my personal experience, that the best way to edit a piece of work is to write as much as you possibly can, about every aspect of the entire saga: from descriptions of the interiors to the smell of the antagonists jacket, then put the whole thing aside for a while. Let it cook by itself in your mind, and read it through from time to time then - forget about it for a day or two. Finally, sit down and re-tell the whole thing as best as you can remember it, and you can be sure as hell that the sections you can recall are all ‘the best bits’ which is a good indicator of all the parts that either need editing out, or (if you’re really honest) don’t need to be there at all.
We all know it’s wrong and yet still we embark on that long climb up a mountain to shave a yak. It’s something that most of us do at some point or another (oh yes we do) but how can we recognise the warning signs?
In terms of writing, the tell tale warning flags are there right from the start and sometimes go something like this: We get the ‘big idea’ and decide that to make a good job of it we must buy a notebook, so a trip to a stationery store is planned. Whilst there, we are captivated by shiny objects and think that maybe a new pen might help us along the way as well. Back at home, we mull over the twists and turns that our new characters will take and we make a few tentative scribbles in our new book with our new pen, but feel that ‘something’ is missing.
Returning to the computer to really ‘get to grips’ with the masterplan, we think that maybe some proper software will help as well, so we start downloading lots of applications that promise us ‘major success with minimal effort’ only to find that they actually provide ‘minor achievement with maximum effort,’ so another trip to the store is planned.
By now, our head is full of a thousand details and we feel the need to start following advice from a hundred writers, both published and just starting out and decide that a pinboard and index cards is the way, so we return, armed with the necessary items and still - not a single sentence has been crafted but oh! ‘those ideas’ … they’re coming thick and fast.
"I know" you think, "what I need is a proper desk area. Every good writer has a proper space to call their own," but you review your home and realise that most of your time is spent improvising with the location you have available. Looking at the corner of the room you think that what’s needed are some shelves, nicely flanked by that new corkboard, so you start re-arranging the furniture and planning a re-fit.
Enthusiastic friends on Facebook and Twitter message us with eager enquiries: “How’s the book coming along?”
"Oh, just fine," you lie, as you watch Youtube videos of cats on skateboards in the name of ‘research.’ Then you come to the conclusion that putting up shelves is not as easy as you thought it was and you simply ‘must’ get some new tools to complete the job, so once again you trek off, up that mountain, to tool up. Standing in the hardware store at the checkout with a hammer, (some weedkiller and a houseplant) the assistant asks: "Home improvements?"
"No," you hesitate… "writing a novel." At that point you should look closely at the expression on the checkout guy’s face.
The truth is that equipment won’t help. Too many enthusiastic efforts are held back by obsession on the ‘means’ rather than the ends. Be true to yourself: work with what you’ve got. We all have different methods and we’re all looking for the ideal but the bottom line is that writing is primarily about just that: writing. Get everything down, no matter how poor it might look at first. A story is like a jigsaw - you need all the pieces to see the big picture, so the quicker you can sketch that out, the sooner you will have a better idea what it’s all about. Then, you might realise, you don’t actually need a new hammer to write a book.