Tag Archives: Re-Writing

Writing Fiction: Going the Other Way

If you ever want to try the maze at Hampton Court, there’s a very simple solution – so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know it. Always head away from the centre. It’s a classic of the maze-maker’s art. The brain wants to go one way; the right choice is the other.

Some posts ago, I was talking about the liberating experience of giving up a piece of writing which I had held onto for several years (‘Pace and Poetry’). In the last post I talked about receiving an editor’s report which called for a far more radical change. It identified something which I know to be true but goes to the heart of what I write: an overwhelming sense of gloom. Normally, this is balanced by humour, but sit me in front of a plot for too long and I’ll create something that is heading downhill fast. And before anyone steps in with examples of the many successful gloomy books – high five, Dostoevsky – please bear in mind that this is something that has always been a concern for me.

The issue is highlighted in the main male character. A gloom merchant and, any way you cut it, not much fun to be with. Every agent and editor who has read the novel has identified this character as a problem. I have too (see posts passim). But I’ve got a solution. A forty-eight-year-old male character, is about to become a twenty-nine-year-old female. I’ve started writing her, and she’s a great joy. Nothing is perfect in her life, she complains a great deal, but her sheer vim and vigour make her a delight to write. I could be wrong. Maybe, after a few chapters I’ll find she doesn’t work, but I suspect not.

Trouble is, this means re-writing at least half to three-quarters of the novel. But fuck it. Six years of noodling around with the original character have not borne fruit. Swathes of writing will need to go by the board. But the pay-off will be what it has always been: learning how to write; gaining confidence; finding, ironically, my own style.

My brain is desperate to take the easy way, make a few alterations and resubmit. But my wiser self says no, we’re going the other way.

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.