Writing Fiction: Pace and Poetry

Apparently, there is a very simple way to find a water source in the African wilderness. You make a small clay holding tank with a single hole: big enough for a monkey to put its paw through but not to take it out if it is holding something. You place a rock of salt inside and lay a trail leading to the tank. Eventually, the monkey comes, eating salt along the way. It reaches into the tank to get the last bit. You approach and put a collar and leash round it. It cannot run, because it will not let go of the salt. Leave a few hours until its thirst is raging and then let it go and follow, holding the leash. It will go straight to the water.

Stupid monkey, huh?

Except writers are the same. There is beautiful writing they will hold on to forever, even though it spoils the rest of the prose. The phrase, kill your darlings, is a truism: by letting go, you save the whole. It’s something I have tried in the past. But never with pleasure, and often feeling I was sacrificing more than I needed to.

But recently, I’ve been going back over my second novel (about a comedian) with the specific purpose of increasing the pace. There is one paragraph in the second chapter I was very proud of. Over the years (I do not exaggerate), no matter what changes I made to the setting, the order, even the characters, this passage stayed. It was:

He could remember routines going back to the Eighties. The guy who did a whole set based on the varying quality of teaspoons; Arnold Brown counting slowly from one to 100; Eddie Izzard raised by wolves. In quieter moments he turned them in his mind like Faberge eggs. Here, the beauty; here, the craft. You could talk all you wanted about set-up/punch or misdirection; sometimes it just came from a separate comic universe. But you couldn’t just write it on demand.

On Friday, I finally took out the middle. So, now it reads:

He could remember routines going back to the Eighties. The guy who did a whole set based on the varying quality of teaspoons; Arnold Brown counting slowly from one to 100; Eddie Izzard raised by wolves. But you couldn’t just write it on demand.

And guess what? Everything around it began to flow. This is a milestone moment for me because it is more than just taking out something because I think I should. I can see and feel the difference. And it’s good. Doing so, I have a clearer sense of the difference between pace and poetry, and the way that the former can be held up by the latter.

The challenge will be to see if I can carry on doing this. Because, some things are just so hard to let go.

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