Category Archives: Writing

Writing Fiction: How Many Drafts?

At the end of my last writers’ group before the summer break, one of my colleagues approached me in the corridor and asked me if this was going to be the last draft of my novel.  I could have read her wrongly, but it seemed to me she was suggesting that it should be the last draft.  I understand.  Thirteen drafts surely suggests that you’re just hacking over old ground.  What about the liberation of new turf?

Except that in the course of the last eight years, by ploughing back and forth, changing characters, plot, dialogue – you name it – I have been learning how to write.

At the moment, I’m sowing in a new plot line.  What has surprised me is the pleasure of doing so.  A confidence in the voice.  The way solutions have presented themselves.  Perhaps it’s because I know the field (sorry about this, I’ve got stuck in a metaphor), and there are joys in staying here a while longer.  I’ll finish when I know that I have truly transformed it to something I can happily leave behind.

I’m not there yet.  There may be many drafts to come.  I hope not too many.  But I’m willing to stay.


Writing Fiction: Buddha and the White Rabbit

Most rabbits look terrified: the wide-open eyes, the twitching whiskers, the muscles tensed to bound off at any moment.  It took Lewis Carroll to suggest it was because they were late.

I have a white-rabbit mind.  Constantly aware of how much time I have left, it makes sure that I do everything I need to, but is always keeping an eye on the next task, and the next, and the next.  It leads to a shallowing of experience.

Take meditation.  In a body scan, it is quite possible to spend an endless amount of time with the physical sensations in, say, the left calf – why you might want to is a question for another time.  But my white-rabbit mind is constantly saying, ‘You do realise we have the rest of the body to get through, and, since we have timed this for thirty minutes, that means getting through the rest of the left leg quick-sharp if we’re to do the right leg, pelvis, back, etc. etc.’  On, it yatters, pocket watch in hand.

But let me pay tribute to it.  It gets me out of bed in the morning, it gets me to the meditation mat.  It makes sure that I turn up to work and social events on time.  And nothing happens unless you turn up.  Cheers to the White Rabbit.

The alternative frightens me even as I think of describing it.  It would mean putting the watch down on the grass, loosening the waistcoat, hunkering down.  Much like, well, the Buddha.  In the classic lotus pose, he is the model of absorption, engaged in a thorough exploration of experience.  The little I know from this is that unexpected things happen; I achieve depth – which is often different to what I thought it was going to be.  Also, in rare moments, an inner-wisdom arises.  One that has been stifled by the daily FM radio of existence and the foot tapping of my white-furred friend.

The downside?  Basically, loss of control.

The White Rabbit gets me to the laptop, it ensures I complete my writing task for the day.  But all the time, it is distracted by what will be happening after.  Writing becomes shallow, risk-averse, lacking the possibility of depth.

The Buddha sits down with his laptop and thinks, ‘What now?’


Writing Fiction: Lesson Re-Learned

It was only afterwards I could see the irony.  I was re-writing a scene in which a young comedienne tries to break through an elderly woman’s reserve in order to get her to write better jokes.  It was based on a previously written scene in which a male character had tried to do the same thing.  It felt lumpen.  Passionless.  Writing by rote.  It reminded me of a time when I had very much enjoyed writing because I would just write whatever came into my head.  Very cute.  But not much use.

I edited what was written down and it looked empty and characterless.

Then, the comedienne decided to clear the tea things.  Lift a small table out over her head.  It began to start.  The writing became fuller, the characters interacted.

What she is trying to teach the old woman is what I learnt in comedy many years ago.  Get to the emotion, the rest will look after itself – there is nothing funnier than anger about inconsequential things.  And now I find it underlies the way in which I write.

The unexpected thing for me is that I haven’t had to completely change the idea, just allow the main character to take over and handle it in her own way.  To paraphrase Merce Cunningham, rather than say no, say yes, and find a way to do something.

So, a writer who is trying to write a scene in which a young woman tries to break through an elderly woman’s reserve, has to break through his own reserve in order to write better writing.  I’m sure there’s a joke here somewhere.

(With thanks to Jodie Cole for the quote.)

Writing Fiction: The Truth Bone

The question that occurs to me as I watch someone singing a fantastically-flat version of ‘I Will Always Love You’ on X-Factor is, why don’t they know? When the producers at the real audition tell them they have been selected to appear before Simon Cowell et al, and they look around at the other contestants practising perfect octaves and superbly-choreographed routines, then catch a glimpse of themselves in the mirror and fail to remember anyone ever telling them they can sing, why doesn’t it occur to them that they might be the sacrificial lambs for next-week’s show? Maybe they do know. Perhaps it’s the gung-ho, I’ll show them, spirit. Most likely, they have about as much self-awareness as the rest of us.

Six months into writing a new character for my novel, I am getting feedback that suggests she is working. As one fellow-writer said, ‘It feels as if you’re really enjoying writing her.’ I am. That should be the give-away, shouldn’t it? So, why did I spend six years writing the character she replaced, when I was repeatedly told by agents and editors that he was the weak spot? Partly, because I started the novel with him. And, as he was a version of myself, I had a strong emotional connection. Also, I kept producing writing about him that I was very proud of. Any advice to change the character, I interpreted as requiring a change to an aspect of him, rather starting again.

I produced eleven drafts of the novel before replacing him. At each, I must have felt that it was as good as I could get it. I certainly put the work in.

This is not just to say that the secret is to listen to what other people say. That would make it easy, wouldn’t it? There are more than enough examples of those who defied other people’s opinions and went on to write classics.

So, how do you know when what you are doing is the best that it can be? Probably, you don’t. There have been many useless artists who believed that what they had produced was genius, and many geniuses who killed themselves because they thought they were useless.

What I want is a truth bone. A simple emotional reaction that will tell me I am definitely on the right track. But I haven’t found it yet.

Clues might be consistent feedback from several respected quarters. Also, enjoyment. Not just having fun in the writing, but genuinely liking the characters, plots and descriptions. Most often, it’s trial and error. Learning hard lessons about what works and what doesn’t. But, it is easy for me to deceive myself, queuing up behind the X-Factor stage, never really knowing whether I’m going to get the bum’s rush or the standing O.

At the end of Ed Wood, the eponymous director sits at the premiere for his film Plan 9 from Outer Space. As viewers, we know that it will later be voted the worst film of all time. He stares at the screen with a broad, hopeful smile. ‘This,’ he says, ‘is the one I’ll be remembered for.’

Writing Fiction: Light in the Dark

Going back over the wodge of first draft – of the twelfth draft – chapters has been a dispiriting exercise. The character who had become so clear by the end of that draft, is, at the start, vague, ill-defined, and largely absent. My feet begin to drag, my heart sinks.

Combine this with the usual travails of life. On Monday, having struggled with a chapter before going to work, I then went in and ran a training course. It was a disaster. The participants clearly knew more about the policy that I was there to tell them about than I did, and feedbacks were mediocre. This is for a client who gives me a lot of work. Visions of the contract collapsing, combined with the general enervation of the day, left me in a state of turmoil. In the evening, having hoped to have time to recuperate, I ended up having an argument-by-text with my girlfriend. I went to bed feeling tinges of a depression that occasionally bugs me when things seem hopeless.

In the morning, feeling lousy, I meditated for half-an-hour and something happened. I experienced, briefly, a sense of everything changing, all of the time. I came out of it feeling more optimistic.

Then, after breakfast, it was back to the editing. Another clunker of a chapter, where the bright, bubbly character was absent and there was lots of middling-to-middling writing. I started to lift out what I could, and suddenly had a picture of her in a car, late at night, driving past McDonalds and feeling virtuous. I set aside the editing and started to write. And there she was burbling away in her own style.

So, what to make of all of this? Perhaps, that Edison quote about life’s failures not knowing how close they were to success when they gave up. Or just the way that inspiration comes out of the darkest places. Perhaps more, that it’s my general experience of writing: it comes when it comes, and my role is to be open to it.

Writing Fiction: Climbing

Pulleys confuse me. How can it be, that you can hang three-hundred metres up a rock, pull on a thin rope in front of you, and somehow your body rises? Where, if you just stuck two hands under your bum and pulled, nothing would happen.

Thank god for them, though.

Some time back, I wrote about having been advised to rewrite my novel and imagined myself hanging from a rock, not knowing whether to carry on up, or lower myself down. I got back on the rock. Little pulley rises, until, I can today announce that I have finished the first draft – of the twelfth draft – of my novel.


The new chapters are a mess, of course. And god knows what I’ll find when I actually go back and read them properly. Some have been edited for writers’ groups, others are still in a raw state. I suspect the character will come in-and-out of focus, she will say things that no longer make sense. But I am hoping there will be nuggets for me to collect, passages to expand on.

My metaphor for success in writing has been the ladder in Snakes and Ladders. Perhaps I should exchange it for that of a pulley. Small rises against the rock and, in the end, a great distance covered.

Writing Fiction: Unfinished

There’s a great exhibition on at London’s Courtauld Gallery at the moment called ‘Unfinished.’ Incomplete art works from their collection. In Virgin and Child, painted by Parmigiano in 1527, Mary appears to have an extra foot. She doesn’t, it’s just that the angles are wrong. Also, there’s a large patch of brown paint in the lower right-hand corner, and the Virgin’s clothes are only indicated – by fat ribbons of paint.

My first-draft chapters are almost always in a state of disrepair. Big clunky paragraphs, from which sentences will later be lifted, naff dialogue which need several more goes, characters who say things out of turn…and character.

Early on, I learned this was okay. It was even desirable. The freedom of being able to write off the top of my head brought big errors and unexpected rewards.

I’ve just written a chapter that I knew had to have a certain kind of resolution. But when I started, she was ranting about him in her head, and he was staring at a sandwich. I let it run and things started to happen in unforeseen ways.

The final result was a mess. The first two paragraphs, at least, will have to go. But there are hopeful signs: a line of dialogue in the middle, some neat choreography at the end. I’ll just have to see how it works out. Maybe, shift a foot, paint in the background, fill out those ribboned clothes.