Thursday, November 18, 2021

Book Learnin', by Catriona

CRAFT: Have you ever tossed out 20,000 words from a work in progress? Why, and was it, in hindsight, the right move?

This question strikes me as both very specific (20K) and quite heartfelt. I'm assuming the Mind who asked it has done just that.

Have I done it?

Probably, but not in one fell swoop. A Gingerbread House took eleven drafts before it was ready to go, and as they swelled and shrank I must have tossed out more than twenty thousand words overall.

To give you an idea, here are just the first sentences in Chapter One from some of the drafts:

There was no mistaking the smell (except, come to think of it, that’s not true. It was all too easy to miss that one crucial note in the putrid bouquet).


All I really wanted to say was sorry. I’m sorry I was too late to save her, your loved one, your lovely girl. I’m sorry I didn’t put two and two together a lot quicker


Ivy had waited outside as long as she could, standing in the plume of light from the open door, looking up and down the street through the fog of her own breath, glancing at the sparkle of frost around her feet whenever a car passed her.


Dear ___________

I hope it’s okay that I’m writing to you. It was my doctor who suggested it. It struck me as selfish but she said there was no harm.


I’m not cut out to be a hero.

I'm getting flashbacks just from reading them. But the only time I've ever done something with - and it must have been about 20K words, funnily enough - in a block, as it were, was when I tried to write my third book the way I had been told to, at various workshops and classes I'd taken to attending.

I'd larked my way through two books having fun and not worrying about the process, since the product had sold (and got some awards attention (modest cough)). But this time I really went for it. A calendar for the timeline, character bibles, chapter plans, a list of beats and twists and where they should go in the story. I didn't have three acts, and I didn't ask what my protagonist wanted, or what was stopping her getting it; I hadn't been told to do that on any of the courses, you see. If I had been, I would have. (I've got an echo of my Granny MacDonald asking what Id have done if they'd said I should jump off a bridge. Fair point, well made.)

God, it was awful writing those words. I was bored rigid. The three chapters at the start of a book are usually pretty euphoria-inducing; nothing's gone wrong yet. That time it felt like typing up the minutes after a meeting. And not a very action-packed meeting at that. One morning, sitting at my desk with my face tripping me, I thought "Sod this for a game of soldiers" and added a dark stranger, maybe a ghost, maybe a villain, flitting acoross the winter fields freaking out my characters and then disappearing. I had no idea who it was or what they were doing.

And just like that the book was alive and I was happy again. 

I followed the stranger, some other assorted weirdos, farmers, WRVS members, a kindly minister, his grieving daughter, an undercover detective and a couple of toxic toffs, as they all racketed about rural Fife for three hundred pages until the puzzle was solved. 

And get this: the mystery worked. All the stuff I wrote wondering why I was writing it? It had a part to play in the denouement and/or resolution. Who witnessed that deed on the back road? Why the girls whose skipping song I had written out in full in what seemed like an extraneous scene. Where would the climactic action take place? Where else but in the spot I'd sent my characters to on a picnic that felt aimless as I typed. 

The only spadework necessary in draft two was to spread some of the seeds and clues back into those first three plotted chapters, beautifully formed, calendrically accurate, footnoted up the wazoo. And stone dead. 

I'm a pantser. It's not pretty and and it's not always fun but at least I junk my 20K words a bit at a time.



LPete said...

If I ever wrote a book, this is how I would write it: by the seat of my pants. If feels too much like work or writing a term paper to follow all the rules. Maybe that's why your books always surprise me.

Josh Stallings said...

I love this post, a great reminder once I suck the joy out writing by trying to be some one else’s idea of a writer, the work goes to hell. Besides real writerly wisdom, you give up the greatest phrases, “Sod this for a game of soldiers," is wonderful.

Susan C Shea said...

That mysterious figure that lights the match, how fortunate to have it slip up to your conscious self and set the story blazing. I agree that writing 'by the book' and with all the well-meaning advice clogging the works is death to your own story.

Catriona McPherson said...

LPete - It's so interesting that you know that. I wouldn't have been able to predict anything about my process in advance. I'm a lifelong list-maker and note-taker in every other sphere.

Josh - you're right. My friend Eileen Rendahl is a plotter and thinking about how I write makes her want to cry.

Susan, I'm convinced that the plotter/pantser thing is no more significant than the over/under toilet-roll hangers thing. 100 writers = 100 methods.