So, yesterday I had to cut over 6,000 words from the current draft of ‘Tider’. It caused me a whole lot of pain to do that, I can tell you. It took my word count right down from where it had been – up there in ‘almost finished, look at that!’ territory – to ‘wow, I have so much more work to do on this’-ville.
I know it’s for the best, and all that; I know I was removing useless stuff, words that had blown in from somewhere far away and had taken root, and started to eat away at the foundations of the story like ivy on a wall. It didn’t make it any easier to hit the ‘cut’ button, though. I hope this affliction doesn’t burden everyone who writes, this ‘every word is sacred’ mentality; I guess it can’t, because if it did, nobody would ever write anything. Ever.
I thought today, then, I might blog about Things Wot I Have Learned as part of my writing process, in the hope that other people will learn from my colossal buffoonery.
Sometimes, no matter how much effort you make to force something to fit into a story, it’s just not going to work.
So, you’ve had a brilliant idea. A flash of inspiration brighter than Alpha Centauri. An image which, when it occurred to you, made your knees weak with the sheer beauty of it. A sentence – a Booker Prize winning sentence, you feel sure – has dropped into your head straight from the Muse’s fingers, fully formed. You love it more dearly than you love anything else in the world, and you must use it. There must be a place to display this evidence of your brilliant and inquiring mind.
Except there isn’t, because the idea you’ve had – when you really think about it – is completely off the wall, and just doesn’t fit with your current project.
Often, when I’m writing, I find my brain splaying out in all possible directions, soaking up information and ideas from everywhere but the page it’s supposed to be looking at. I catch myself thinking about details I’m planning to use in other books, or getting distracted by plotting a sequel to the book I’m currently working on. This is not because I’m some sort of writing genius, I hasten to clarify; it’s because I’m an easily-distracted flibbertigibbet. My brain sometimes gets a bit scared at the idea of being stuck into one idea for an extended period, and it feels the need to ‘stretch its legs’, a bit like a toddler who’s just learning to walk. And, like a toddler, on occasion it will get itself lost or tripped up. It will go foraging in the garden of my mind and come back, its hands full of worms and dirt, showing them to me as if to say ‘isn’t this a brilliant idea, huh, huh?’
Invariably, it’s not. But, my brain being what it is, sometimes I’ll look at this new idea and think it’s not half bad, and then I’ll try to incorporate it into whatever I’m working on. When it doesn’t work, instead of going ‘oh, well. That’s that, then,’ I can tend to get a bit anxious, and allow myself to slip into a panic-vortex. ‘Why isn’t this working?’ I’ll wail, tearing out my metaphorical hair. ‘I’m useless at this whole writing thing! I must go and become a plumber/sheep farmer/nuclear physicist instead!’
What I should do is this: Calm Down. It’s an idea, and there are ideas everywhere. There will be others. Put this one aside somewhere, carefully noted and prettily packaged, and come back to it another time. Then, get back to what you were doing before you were rudely interrupted. I’ve often sidetracked myself and written thousands of words on the back of a tangent which came to me in a panic, and all that happens to those words is that they get junked. This causes pain. You don’t want to do it more than once.
Oh, look, let’s leave a totally random ‘note to self’ somewhere on the manuscript, because of course when I come back to this in a week or two or ten, I’ll know exactly what I meant by it.
I actually find it hard to believe I do this, because I’d like to think I am in possession of a reasoned, logical mind most of the time. I know, for instance, that I have a pretty poor memory, and that leaving notes for myself is something I’ve done since I was old enough to hold a crayon. I also know that nothing is more confusing than navigating through the half-written carcass of a novel; it’s a bit like trying to find your way through a howling sandstorm on a planet with which you’re not familiar. The ground keeps shifting under your feet and you can’t see beyond the end of your nose a lot of the time. So, of course, the perfect thing to do is leave yourself a cryptic clue which you’re pretty sure was intended to flag a vital plot point, with absolutely no explanation of what you meant by it. When you come across it again, you might as well be faced with the Voynich Manuscript for all the sense it makes to you.
Normally, if you’re me, this triggers another panic-vortex: see above for hair-pulling, gnashing of teeth, and so forth. You convince yourself that without figuring out this note the whole book will fall apart in a world-rending schism, and the story will crumble in upon itself, and your life will end.
None of this is true.
What I should do is this: Calm Down. Keep writing. Finish The Book. When redrafting, revisit the note or the randomly-inserted sentence, or whatever it is, and see if you can remember what you meant. If you can’t, see if you can give it another meaning (usually, though you won’t realise it, this ‘new’ meaning is exactly the same as the original one); if you can’t do that, then consider removing it. The world won’t end. Trust me.
There are so many lessons you learn when trying to write a book. So far, I’ve learned more about myself and how I cope with the world than I’ve learned about writing, but perhaps that’s to be expected. If I could distil what I’ve learned, it would be something like this:
Finish the Book
Calm Down Again
I hope this helps. Have a great Friday, and take it from me – writing is easier if you remember these golden guidelines.