Salut et welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.
Each week I write about fiction writing with a focus on editing work to make it suck considerably less. Most of the time that takes the form of my looking at the first page of someone’s novel or short story – the first 250 words, in fact – and trying to find ways to improve it.
Notably, for the past few weeks, I have not done this. Here are my excuses:
It is the height of festival season and, as most of you know, I’m a stand-up poet and festivals are, if not my bread and butter, certainly my mash and beans. This year, my normal rush of festival appearances has been compounded by promoting my debut novel, The Honours, meaning that most weekends I’m doing two festivals and driving between them, instead of the customary, far more reasonable, one. I’ve been teetotal for 3 years, which makes festival season easier on my liver, but all the driving and tent-sleeping and adrenalised squealing at strangers reduces me to a shuddering, baffled wreck.
Secondly, I am on deadline. A month of illness and a recent bereavement have put me considerably behind schedule with the next novel and I really, really need to plough on through. Which means some sadly truncated blogposts.
Thirdly, I am doing my first live Death Of 1000 Cuts at 9 Worlds, in London this weekend. I’ve never been to a convention before and I am excited as there are lots of SFF authors there, plus scads of nerdy activities. Kind of amazing that I can pack my brand new decks of Netrunner cards in total confidence that, when I arrive, I’ll find people who have done the same and are willing to play. But I have to prepare not one but three extracts for that session, and so I am flat out this week.
Those are my excuses. Are they good ones? I hope so!
Still, what you want are not excuses but practical nuggets o’ info that will make your writing less shit. That’s what we all want, right? So that’s what you’ll get. I’m going to elaborate upon (some might say flatly contradict) my advice from last week.
Oh, and news. Thank you all for your suggestions and pony requests for new directions in which to take Death Of 1000 Cuts. Lots of exciting ideas. The consensus is that a podcast would be a Good Idea. So yes. I’m going to do it. I’m mega busy but I think I can squeeze it in. I imagine a regular 20-30 minute show, with an opening monologue that takes on one particular aspect of writing and then a critique of an extract, Barber’s Chair style to finish. I’d also like to get some guest authors on the show, as I think two people are more fun to listen to than one. And I’d like to read some examples of Best Practice from actual published books.
So that will definitely happen, at least for a trial run. Let’s test it out.
If you’d like me and/or this blog and you think we’re worth supporting then please order my debut novel The Honours for you and your friends.
The Honours is up the First Book Award at Edinburgh International Literature Festival. If you’ve read and liked it, please click this link and spend 30 seconds voting for it. I suspect the total number of votes will be quite low and so your vote could make a big difference. (also one randomly picked voter wins every novel on the shortlist)
Right. Writing advice? Writing advice.
Put On Your Plot Pants
A war has raged since the dawn of time. Two sides locked in eternal struggle.
One group, the seat-of-the-pantsers, write like this: they have an idea – they see a character who intrigues them, they imagine some new, dazzling piece of tech, they envisage a hideous monster, they think ‘hey, 1885 seems pretty chill’. All they have is a starting condition, a blank page, and either some fingers, some speech recognition technology or some other interface that allows them to assemble words.
And so they do. They see what the fuck happens. They press play on the scene and they discover how things turn out just like a reader would. This makes them keenly aware of the scene moment-by-moment. Pantsers often write completely sweet opening bids because they are alive to the reader’s experience and they’re thinking, with each sentence: And what happens next? What would be the most interesting thing that could happen now? What don’t we expect? The story is free to jack-knife off in lurid, spectacular directions, just like real life, because it’s not in hock to any invisible Grand Scheme.
The other group, the plotters, write like this: they have an idea – they imagine a world, or a society, or a person with a problem, or a Big Theme. So they open a file called ‘Novel Ideas’ or they whip out a bunch of index cards, or they get a big sheet of paper and some Sharpies. They start to plan. First, they brainstorm, spider-diagram, mood-board. They head to the library and spend an afternoon learning about artificial horse vaginas*. They write a substantial wiki containing the history of their imagined world. Then they write a chapter by chapter summary of what is going to happen in the story. Then they follow the plan until the book is finished.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Both pantsers and plotters are blinded by ideology.
You’ll know you’re a pantser if you tend to write a glorious first 1500-6000 words. Oh, what fun they are. Here’s a pit trap full of flesh-eating cockroaches, here’s a winsome socialite who turns out to be a cyborg, here’s a Japanese muscle car powersliding through the cinema’s plate glass window into a lobby containing an elaborate promotional Lego sculpture of Mothra. Who knows what it all means? Future Me can sort this mess out! Ho ho!
Future You cannot sort this mess out. Future You comes grinding to a halt. Future You suddenly undergoes an enthusiasm purge and never returns to the story.
You’ll know you’re a plotter if you spend a lot of time arranging out 7 book arcs in your head, and then making sensible notes and maybe doing that thing where you write each chapter heading on a different index card and shift them around (this is a literary novelist’s tick – an admission that the content is basically arbitrary and could happen in more or less any order) and then you write out a plan before slavishly executing it.
And then you reach an early chapter where the note ‘they follow him’ feels wooden and illogical now you’re down on the ground, in the scene, seeing through the eyes of the protagonist. Why would they follow him when they know Veronica is still upstairs? Wouldn’t they check on her first? But if they don’t follow him, that fucks up the whole scene, because they won’t see him phase through the alley wall. And if they don’t see that, then next chapter they won’t ask Ms Khan what the hell is going on, and she won’t lie to them, which means… on and on, your delicate little sand mandala scattered to the four winds by the flatulent arse of common sense.
So you fudge it. You add a note: ‘Retsuko thought about checking on Veronica, but decided not to – she’d be safe for now. She knew how to look after herself.’ Readers, not being complete fucking idiots, see through this and judge you. You might as well append a footnote: ‘I know this is bullshit, but I can’t be bothered to rethink my plan. Mea culpa.’
And of course you run into this problem again. And again. Whenever you imagine a scene in any detail, it throws up all sorts of options not visible on the rough map. Rather than change the plan, which would have cascading consequences throughout the story, you make your characters act like weird, subhuman automata. And your thrilling story turns to implausible dogshit.
So. I’m going to attempt to broker a peace. Neither of these strategies is a great idea, taken to extremes, but both have their uses. Asking ‘which is better, pantsing or plotting?’ is a bit like asking us to state a preference between a fork or a knife. I mean, that might be a bad example because, at a pinch, you can sort of mash through reasonably soft things with the edge of a fork, but still.
Here’s my tactic: when I sit down to start a new novel, I open a file called ‘Ideas’ or something similar, and I use that as a big hopper for fragments of research, little bits of dialogue I’d like to include, half-baked concepts, and sometimes for little monologues when I’m talking to myself going ‘what if THIS happened? But then the problem would be…’ etc.
Then I pants a few scenes from various points in the imagined book. There’s no point beginning at the beginning. You’re not qualified to write the first line until you’ve written the last. So just plunge in to scenes you think are exciting or interesting or show your key characters in a moment of change. Discovery write, knowing that you will inevitably chuck all this when you have a better sense of voice and world.
Then I write a few pages basically telling the story to myself, in very brief note form. This isn’t even a synopsis, it’s more like a clumsy exegesis of character motivations, e.g. ‘Mr X is doing this because he’s pissed off at Ms Y after the Incident Z. He thinks that blah blah blah’. That plus the floaty notions of these late game set pieces are usually enough to let me get started, from the beginning now, slowly driving into the novel chronologically.
The tough part is that I have to start knowing I have fucked up something fundamental. I know that, as I write, I will discover something about the world that upends everything and means I have to restructure the story.
It sucks. It’s inefficient and scary and a bit demoralising. But it’s the only way I know how to work. The alternative, as I see it, is strictly imposing the parameters of my story right from the start, and creating a leaden, unconvincing novelty ride for the characters to plod through.
I’m not sure where my stories are going when I write them. I certainly have an idea, but I can’t be certain. That caution usually proves wise.
I’d say I write about 30-60% of the first draft this way, before reaching so much resistance I have to stop. I’ve made some mistake, something’s not working. This is the time where I go back, ask what macro-level changes need making, then start writing out a proper plan. Breathe a sigh of relief, plotters! Your skills are required!
I don’t always know precisely what happens in each scene, so sometimes I’m writing clues for myself. Here’s part of an early chapter plan for part of The Honours:
‘We need to see Lansley opening something – a drawer, a breadbin, a bag. He is already obviously looking rather worn and frazzled. When he opens the thing “Oh God!” Sits down, shaking, lights a cigarette. For several weeks he has been finding dead (and increasingly decomposed) rats in pockets, cupboards, etc. What is it he opens? Or does he reach into the pocket of his tweed jacket?’
So I don’t actually know what’s going to happen, I just have some serving suggestions. Here’s how that bit actually begins:
‘Dr Lansley opened his black bag and screamed.
Everyone in the smoking room turned to stare at him. Delphine sat cross-legged on the carpet, her rucksack beside her, reading about the Frankish conquest of Italy in Volume V of Gibbon’s The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. She did not look up.’
So obviously there is a bunch of flavourtext that I added later, knowing the context and remembering who the viewpoint character is. I didn’t, on reflection, think it was plausible that he wouldn’t have noticed a mashed rat in his top pocket, a breadbin would put him downstairs in the kitchen (where he’d never go) and a drawer – while being something he might plausibly open – wouldn’t be something exclusively opened by him. These rats are being planted, and so his black doctor’s bag is the only place guaranteed to hit the target. The Gibbon’s bit I elaborated on the fly.
Look, we all work differently but I find the ‘tactical deployment of pantsing, followed by loose dots joining, followed by proper writing’ marries the best aspects of both strategies. It’s certainly not quick – if you have an ambition to be a prolific author, this is not the path for you – but I think it ultimately produces good work, containing both the unfakeable spark of spontaneity and the atavistic majesty of deep structure.
Do let me know if you have any questions or contrary experiences, by plopping your thoughts into the comments below.
*If you thought this sounds too specific to be made up, you’d be right. Congratulations. Have a biscuit.