Hello and welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
For the first time in my many-faceted and frankly baffling life, I’m ‘doing’ Nanowrimo. That is to say, I have resigned myself to the arbitrary daily wordcount goal (is it okay to make ‘wordcount’ a compound noun? It feels unnecessarily German but whenever I put a space I get guilty, as if I’ve found two sleeping otters holding hands, and put them in separate cages) of 1700. Most days that figure has to be significantly higher, because I’ve got gigs and, you know, going outside to do.
Usually people frame Nanowrimo as writing an entire novel. If you hit your average daily goal, you’ll produce 50,000 words over November. That is an eyebrow-raisingly short novel. That is like ordering a milkshake, and the waiter places it on your table in a shot glass. If you gave that to the boys, they would rue coming all the way to the yard.
But if, like me, you pass much of your time wringing your hands, wearing them down to tiny Lego-minifig-like claws with worries of creative inadequacy, it can be useful to hammer out a substantial volume of first draft material in a relatively short amount of time. Whether or not it is good is beside the point – although I suspect the simple ritual of writing everyday begins to take on a certain momentum, priming one’s mind and cultivating a degree of helpful match-fitness. What matters is that you’re producing wet clay which you can shape or discard later as required.
All of which brings me on to this week’s post. I will go back to page critiques, but it’s been a while since I’ve done posts on broader principles of composition and style, and they’re a little more straightforward as I bed down into this period of writing like a chap possessed. If you’d like to submit your own work for submission, please read the guidelines.
Oh, and please don’t forget that my first novel, The Honours, is available on pre-order. If you would like to see what happens when I try to put all this writing advice into practice, there you have it. I am doubled-over, vomiting great gushes of viscid, penny-strewn chunder because I have – possibly unwisely – put my money where my mouth is. Pre-orders help a novel’s fortunes a lot, so I would be most obliged if you’d click the link or google your favourite online retailer and order now.
You picture the beginning of a story. (Anyone can do that.) You try to describe it. (And anyone can try.) Your mind offers up a word, or three, or a dozen. (It’s no much different from what happens when you write a friend in a letter what you did yesterday morning.) You write the words down, the first, the second, the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh – suddenly you doubt.
– About Writing, Samuel R Delany
Writing fiction is a kind of fiendish struggle.
The writer sits at her desk like Batman manacled inside the intricate doom machine as the chamber floods, the diamond saw blade descends, the nerve gas seeps from holes in the floor. Every sentence presents choices and dangers. How should I describe this action? Which verb best conveys the sense of it? How can make sure that the sentence reflects the tone of the scene? How do the words I’ve chosen sit with the sentences that come immediately before and immediately after?
Planning, brainstorming, mind-mapping, mood-boarding, Proust’s Questionnaire-ing – all of these are fun and sometimes useful activities. But the real business of fiction, the real pain of it, the breaking down of muscles with micro-abrasions so they grow back bigger, stronger, is in the action of placing one word after the other, in the form of narrative.
Character, plot, voice – all these are emergent properties of the text. They have no existence in and of themselves – one cannot point to a single word and claim ‘here is character’ or ‘here is plot’. These properties arise from the word choices you make as a writer, word to word to word.
Now I’m not pointing this out just for the sake of sophomoric posturing – it’s an essential distinction, because when we plan, when we produce synopses or character profiles or brainstorm possibilities, we treat characters and plot and the potted history of our imagined world as if they had some independent existence. One might write a note to oneself to the effect that: ‘In this scene, Margaret arrives at the greyhound track. She is agitated, chain-smoking. It’s a cold night. She stands, watching the dogs. Then she spots someone who she thinks is Quinn, leading a dog back into the kennels. She waits and confronts him in the car park. He is not Quinn – he is too young – but she argues with him anyway, his dog straining on its lead as the confronation escalates.’
Now that is all very well – I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with a brief sketch like this – but it has next-to-nothing to do with the actual business of writing. And by the ‘actual business’ I mean ‘tricky stuff’. And by ‘tricky stuff’ I mean everything that makes a novel worth reading.
Writing a beat treatment or synopsis of your novel is attractive precisely because it excuses you from the uncomfortable, knotty work of constructing actual narrative sentences. But you never really test a scene, never really know if it can exist at all, until you start that process of encountering it through language. ‘Margaret arrives at the greyhound track’? Okay. What’s the first sentence, though? What’s your first word? There is no greyhound track, after all. All you have are your readers’ memories (if they haven’t been to a greyhound track they may have seen one on the television) and an ability to encourage them to access this memories, through particular combinations of words, which are in turn formed of particular combinations of 26 letters.
So do you just write ‘Margaret arrived at the dog track’? How clear is that picture in your mind? Actually stop and think for a moment? Is it day or is it night?
What if we wrote: ‘Margaret arrived at the dog track. It was night.’ But then we have our first discreet sentence ending before we discover it was night. The reader might picture the interior of a dog track mid-afternoon, only to revise this on the second sentence, the sun pinging out like a light bulb.
Okay. So the author at her desk hammers the delete key. ‘It was night when Margaret arrived at the dog track.’
How clear is that image to you? Where is she? Since I mentioned a carpark in the synopsis you might be picturing Margaret in the carpark. (if you are, glance down – is it tarmac, fine brown gravel, mud? Has it been raining?) You might instead be picturing her at some kind of turnstile. (is there a window? Is someone selling tickets? Is the pane glass or perspex? Wide, thin? Clean, dirty? What does the ticketseller look like?) Or she might be ‘arriving’ in the arena itself.
Is the most important thing to know that ‘It was night’? That unattributed pronoun ‘It’ is a vague way to enter the scene. ‘It was night’? What was? ‘Night’ is a general diagnosis, not an immediate experience of a human being.
Delete, delete. ‘Wet gravel crunched under Margaret’s shoe with a sound like crushed ice in the bottom of a Slush Puppy.’
Woah. You hear the sound you’re going for with that simile, sure, but the mood is waaay off. Delete, delete.
‘Wet gravel crunched under Margaret’s shoe.’ What kind of gravel do we mean, though? The gravel you get on people’s drives doesn’t really crunch. If it’s that fine type of brownish gravel you get in – say – carparks, then yes, sure.
‘Fine wet gravel crunched under Margaret’s shoe.’ Does it matter that it’s wet? Well, perhaps that contributes to the sound. But now we have two adjectives before we get to the noun – ‘fine’ and ‘wet’. Neither of which suggest the dark, lurking menace we were hoping to create with this scene. And we’ve lost the sense that this is in a carpark, let alone a dog track, let alone at night! Argh. Delete, delete.
And so on, and so forth. But through this struggle, this brain-mashing push and pull of decisions, of thinking, a whole fictive world comes shuddering into view.
I’ve been reading Samuel R Delany’s About Writing this week, and it’s the best book on the subject I’ve ever read. I recommend you resign yourself to paying the hefty asking price and snap up a copy. Delany talks about process with remarkable clarity, really burrowing down into the actual moment-by-moment experience of writing fiction, the semi-conscious means by which we select one word and reject a dozen others, and the on-the-fly revisions and hesitations that are so fundamental to the craft, even though they can feel – in the moment – like a lack of inspiration or a failure of nerve.
Just as improv involves developing your listening skills, writing requires an ability to really picture the fictional scene you’re working on. Then, you might question whether you’re looking hard enough. Is this really what I see? Or am I allowing my vision to be coloured by what I expect to see? (because, for example, it’s what I’ve seen in movies) Adjust as necessary.
Particularly important is allowing the description, in scene, to be driven by the main character. The above imagined scene was proving frustrating for our imagined author because he or she hadn’t yet made the decision of how close to cleave to Margaret’s experience of it. Once you’ve decided that, then whether she notices the scrunch tyres on wet gravel or the black-and-white television with its four security camera images inside the ticket booth, or whatever, gets dictated entirely by what sort of person you feel she is.
But you can’t discover these things by planning. They won’t reveal themselves as true or false until you drop down into the scene and start constructing it, haltingly, word by word.
Which – far from incidentally – I am currently avoiding. Time to get back to it. Good day to you, sir.