I have a pair of shoes that are so comfortable I hardly feel I’m wearing them. But they are falling apart, to the point that they really need to be thrown out. This morning a new pair arrived at the door. I ordered online to save time shopping, and to spend more time this week writing. I opened the box, unwrapped all the paper, et voilà – a new pair of shoes. They were different, except for the fact that they were actually the same! Yes, I ordered the same pair. So the first pair presumably once looked much like the second, although I can’t remember them ever looking that fresh and zippy!
I tried on the new pair, shuffled, took them off and tentatively put my feet back into the old pair. But something stopped me: a voice inside my head that said, ‘You’ve just ordered a new pair. Why are you going back to the old ones? They need to go in the bin.’ Hmm. I took them off and tucked them away. They have yet to reach the bin. As I type, I’m wriggling my toes inside the new ones. When I look down they look great, but they are not as comfortable. ‘It’s OK,’ I tell myself. ‘You’ll just take time to get used to them. Keep them on.’
Isn’t that what’s it’s like with writing that doesn’t work? Some of it is scruffy but comfortable. You cling on to it in the vain hope that it might work, but you know deep in the pit of your coffee-and-biscuit-filled stomach that it won’t. You know the reality is that you will need to cut, ruthlessly, until your work is, in places, almost unrecognisable. You will need to throw away the holey parts, the frayed edges, the parts with missing pieces that will never be filled.
It’s amazing how much emotion or sentiment is attached to some pieces of work, which is why you need good beta readers and good editors and an open mind. As you write, and as you reread, you have to develop the ability to see your story through the eyes of someone with no emotional investment in your work, someone who is prepared to throw out the parts that you want to keep. It is possibly one of the toughest parts of the process. Sometimes whole stories need to be thrown out, sometimes its beginnings or endings and sometimes it might just be sections.
What can you throw away that isn’t working? What can you cut to make your writing tighter?
‘A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn’t spin a bit of magic, it’s missing something.’ Esther Freud
‘Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.’ Will Self
‘I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth–what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc . . . And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with.’ Alice Munro
‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. This sounds easy, but in practice is incredibly difficult… Common phrases have become so comfortable that they create no emotional response. Take the time to invent fresh, powerful images.’ George Orwell
‘Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.’ Zadie Smith
‘Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.’ Elmore Leonard
‘Don’t say it was delightful; make us say delightful when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers Please will you do the job for me.’ CS Lewis
‘Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.’ Joyce Carol Oates
‘My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.’ Anton Chekhov
‘Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.’ Margaret Atwood
‘Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion.’ Franz Kafka
‘Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.’ PD James
Long before the first word of a novel is written down, there is an original seed, a thought, a scene which plants itself in the author’s mind. Once there, it grows and evolves into possibly a longer scene, a chain of ideas, a few characters and events, and maybe a whole novel.
The question is when do you start to plant the seeds in soil, water them and let them grow? When do you put the first words of the very first chapter down on to paper? It might seem like a strange question because most people imagine that the whole story just comes to you, like the carousel in Mary Poppins, and then you just sit down and write. But it’s an important question because the process of forming a story and growing a seed, if you like, is the bedrock of the whole narrative. The when of starting a story is often overlooked, but starting in the right place at the right time can save hours of painstaking editing and redrafting.
The answer, I have come to realise, is as late as possible. This is different to starting a story as late as possible in the plot and avoiding back story or long chunks of scene setting. It is waiting until your ideas have formed more than just a thought or an image, but a theme, a reason for the story, a conflict or a desire of your protagonist.
I have found the same thing applies with writing short stories, although the process is considerably shorter and you can afford to play around more with the text and change direction if you need to.
With a novel, the longer you leave the seeds to germinate, the more ready they will be to plant and grow in to the full and final plant product. It may seem counter productive to wait, and it might feel like a waste of time, but if you can wait until the ideas are more fully formed it will save heart ache in the long run and give you a clearer picture of the full story.