30 Days of Nano: Day Thirteen

Happy thirteenth day of NaNo! It’s the day your novel gets its tongue pierced and tells you to go feck yourself.

'Thirteen' good film, but seriously bloody scary for anyone who has a teenaged daughter...

‘Thirteen’: a good film, but seriously bloody scary for anyone who has a teenaged daughter…

At least it’s not a Friday, right?

Is your nano-novel having a teenaged tantrum? I left mine alone yesterday, entirely without supervision. Heading back there now to check it hasn’t trashed the house in my absence…

5 minutes later

Fixtures and fittings still in place. An empty bottle of vodka inside the toilet cistern and some fag butts under the bathroom window, but otherwise all seems much as I left it.

An hour later

Hmm. Well, this is a bit annoying. Until today, I had all of my nano words in a single Scrivener file (easier to tot up the word-count that way, as I reasoned) but every five thousand words or so there were strange blank spaces appearing (as if the words had been struck-through, but the strike-through itself was invisible, if that’s not too horribly complicated an image to fathom). Hence, a decision was made! Create a new project, solely for nano, split everything in that way too long document into separate scenes, give the scenes little titles, and see where we are. (It turns out it’s the work of, oh, about six seconds, to click: Project; Statistics and tot up the total.)

Where we are, people, is 410 words down on what I thought my word-count was. I’ve heard mutterings, on the internet, about Scrivener word counts not being entirely reliable, and I’m as confident as a jelly-head like me can be that I haven’t accidentally deleted something. So I’ll have to push on, writing 410 extra words on top of the double quota I already had to do today, anyway, because yesterday didn’t happen, blah blah, world’s smallest violin, etc. 410 words is a small price, though, because two important things have happened:

  • I’ve been reminded of things I’d forgotten I’d written (continuity errors ahoy!)
  • I’ve gained a bird’s eye view of proceedings (insert proverb here about ‘wood’ and ‘trees’ and not being able to see one for the other).
I heart Scrivener.

I heart Scrivener.

I know I’ve gone on about Scrivener before (here), but I really, honestly, do recommend it for those of you writing novels. If you do what I’ve done, and name every scene, you’ll be able to look at the spine of your story, so far, while you’re writing, in that left-hand column there (see above). I much prefer finding the spine in a book that has flesh on already, instead of the more traditional way: spine first, flesh later. Which isn’t to say I’m a ‘pantser’ (a person for whom plotting is anathema). It’s just that plotting ‘cold’ doesn’t work for me: I need to plan a bit, write a bit, plan a bit, write a bit. Realise my original plan was bullshit and start all over again. It takes longer that way (unsurprisingly). But, for me, it’s more truthful. I can’t get on board with a scene – no matter how ‘vital’ to my plot – if that scene doesn’t yank my chain somehow. And there’s simply no way to know what will yank your chain, when you actually sit down to write it, and what will leave you colder than David Cameron in his underpants than to… well, to actually sit down and write it. 

I don’t think I’m that great at the nuts and bolts of plot, but I do know when it isn’t working (I’m in good company, here: Stanley Kubrick – one of my top five directors – often knew what he didn’t want, more than what he did want). I make up for it, I hope, by being pretty good on theme and unity. I try to convince myself, quite often, that what I’ve got is okay, serviceable, perfectly good – but there’ll always be a niggle, until I’ve condensed all the disparate elements down to their absolute minimum. As I wrote about here, you don’t want any extra baggage.

Trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, it probably is.

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The wooden teacup: crimes against ‘show, don’t tell’.

When my daughter was little I had an idea for a picture book called ‘Where there’s fun, there’s mess’, the idea being – ostensibly – to have parents relax about chocolatey fingers on pearly white sofa cushions and mud in the hallway and landslides of toys on bedroom carpets (but, probably, honestly, more about making my own slutty housekeeping feel like a virtue).

I never wrote that book, but luckily the author Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Lifewhich was called to my attention by the lovely writer Mary Nathan last night. In Bird by Bird, Lamott likens real-world mess to writing mess, and reminds us how vital the latter is to that all important ‘shitty first draft’ (which calls Hemingway’s dictum to mind: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’). Lamott rails against perfectionism (the desire ‘not to leave so much mess to clean up’) and its deathly end result, that horrible writerly trait of ‘tidiness’, which ‘makes me think of held breath’, as she says, ‘of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move’.

As the title says, this is a book about writing and life, and some of her larger statements gave me an ‘ouch’ moment or two of recognition regarding my life, as opposed to my writing (I’ve made no bones about my recent depression, as interested parties can read about here and here and here…). But at least, when it comes to writing, it’s never too late. Perfectionism – and, worse still, its twisted sister, avoidance – have wreaked their havoc in my Real Life (here’s Lamott on the subject: ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life’ – too true), but the good news is that I’ve slowly entangled myself from the tyranny of writerly tidiness over the last twelve months (partly by ‘blurting’, as Ray Bradbury called it, about which you can read more here, and partly by hearing my mentor on the Escalator Literature Scheme describe a large chunk of my book as ‘boring’).

We all have default settings as writers, and this is mine: a belief that by piling on nice-sounding words that sit nicely together, like some kind of OCD-inflicted bricklayer, I’m taking a shortcut away from the messy necessity of that shitty first draft – when, in fact, what I’m doing is SUCKING THE SOUL from my story. First drafts oughtn’t to look like this…

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… but this:

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Which brings me to my personal nemesis: the wooden teacup.

We coined this phrase, Mary and I, last night. It so happens we’re both writing books set largely in houses – in elegant houses where people drink tea, sit on chairs, flutter eyelashes, notice the wallpaper, listen to footsteps approaching, remark on the weather – and while such detail doesn’t have to lead to smallness (by which I mean heartlessness, emptiness, woodenness) the sad truth is that laying the nice, neat bricks of your scene in the sort of careful prose that rightly belongs in the editing phase means you’re likely avoiding the fun of the story as well as the mess. If you’re too keen to keep it all tidy – the literary equivalent of ‘picking up after yourself’ as you go along – you’ll find yourself with ‘wooden teacup’ writing: fussy and finicky, lacking a heart (thanks to Mary again for identifying ‘heart’ as a necessary factor of any decent scene – not, of course, in the sense of Hollywood schmaltz, but instead as the single thing that keeps it all beating).

In her excellent blog, the novelist Emma Darwin identifies a culprit for what she calls this ‘blow by blow’ writing: a misinterpretation of that hoary CW chestnut, ‘show, don’t tell’. Now many of you doubtless don’t need reminding of this, but I do: unlike playwrights, for us novelists ‘there’s no necessity to write the whole of a scene in real time’, as Darwin says. This shouldn’t have been a revelation to me in the last twelve months (since I’ve pretty much spent my life writing) but the humbling fact is I used to know this perfectly well, when I wrote less self-consciously (i.e. before I was published), but somewhere along my word-blocked journey to Madder Hall I taught myself to show, show, show, no matter how painful the showing, and gave up on the humble art of ‘telling’ as somehow too easy. A lot of the trouble comes from writing in close third person (not a can of worms I want to open here, but watch this space…) without that sense of an author to step in with his or her observations, but what I’ve effectively done is crippled myself – ‘cramped’ myself, in Lamott’s word – by failing to ‘use the infinite contractibility and expandibility of time in a narrative’ (and now I’m back to Darwin – who goes on to hold up her own dirty hands and admit that she, too, succumbs to the wooden teacup once in a while, when ‘tired or stressed or not very well’, ‘pulling the action blow by blow out of [herself] and sticking it on the page’). I urge you to read her post (when you’ve finished reading this one…) and read it right through to the end – where she has some vital observations on the writer as not just a camera (perhaps thank Christopher Isherwood for that), but editor, voice-over and cinematographer too…  

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn't yawn... Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn’t yawn… Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

So the revelation is this: YOU CAN SKIP THE BORING BITS. And if you don’t know what to skip to, then here’s revelation number 2: YOU HAVE NO HEART. (Not you personally, natch – your scene.) All that clinking of teacups and scraping of chairs and offering of matches (the other thing my characters do with mind-numbing regularity is light cigarettes – the book’s set mostly in the 1970s, which is my excuse and I’m sticking to it)… well, zzzzzzz. It’s all so polite and so dainty and sometimes the prose, as it lands on the page, has a cool sort of flow of its own – but what’s prose without story? (A poem, I suppose…) What I aim for now in my first drafts is something as rough as a fishwife’s cackle, that somehow, in spite of the flailing proseholds the interest. Has heart. I want clutter, not teacups, because ‘clutter is wonderfully fertile ground’ (says Lamott), and amongst it are treasures. She quotes Kurt Vonnegut: ‘When I write I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth’. The point is, the world (of your book) is your oyster. In real life you might spend a disproportionate amount of time drinking tea (she types, whilst slurping) but characters in novels really shouldn’t (unless of course you have some juicy subtext in which case the drinking of tea is a prop, as it should be, and not the scene’s purpose). Take stabs at the page with that crayon and see what comes out. Write in longhand on paper. Switch person from first to third, or vice versa. Switch tense, back and forth if you like. Let the thoughts tumble out, let the thoughts become words – don’t be crippled, or cramped, by the need to ‘keep tidy’, to let words dictate thoughts. Read Ted Hughes’s Poetry in the Making  and remind yourself that writing (whatever form it takes) starts with finding out what you want to say before caring how you say it. Avoid the blow by blow, unless each of those blows really matters. Remember who’s telling the story – that’s you – and as novelists (unlike pesky humans) time is our toy, our plaything.

And, lastly, I want to quote a nice, fat chunk from John Gardner in his book On Becoming a Novelist which, for me, covers pretty damn neatly the question of ‘show, don’t tell’ and warns all aspiring novelists against wandering into wooden teacup territory:

‘The writer with a truly accurate eye (and ear, nose, sense of touch, etc.) has an advantage over the writer who does not in that, among other things, he can tell his story in concrete terms, not just in feeble abstractions. Instead of writing, “She felt terrible,” he can show – by the precise gesture or look or by capturing the character’s exact turn of phrase – subtle nuances of the character’s feeling. The more abstract a piece of writing is, the less vivid the dream it sets off in the reader’s mind. One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways: the abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what is meant when writing teachers say that one should “show,” not “tell”. And this, it should be added, is all that the writing teacher means. Good writers may “tell” about almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings. One may tell the reader that the character went to a private school (one need not show a scene at the private school if the scene has no importance for the rest of the narrative), or one may tell the reader that the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the characters’ feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events – action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting.’

We could, but won’t (because this post is far too long already), take a detour here into T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the objective correlativebut frankly if you think ‘spaghetti: tell’, ‘despair: show’, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Let us see the story unfold in concrete terms (as opposed to abstract), but dunk too many pointless biscuits in too many pointless cups of tea and you may just find you have something wooden where your story’s heart should be.

 

Bike rides and bunting (and not sweating the small stuff).

Bikes rides. Bunting. Cuddles. Tea. Cocoa. Knitting. Sue Miller. Elliott Smith. Nick Drake. Carol Shields. Alison Lurie. Wallander (in Swedish, naturally). The League of Gentlemen. The Secret Life of Us. The Office. Modern Family. Hilary Mantel. My Mother’s Day card. Secrets and Lattes (on radio 4). Brass Eye… Just some of the things that have kept me going over the last three months.

Aforementioned bunting.

Aforementioned bunting.

And then yesterday… I did a little writing.

Pointless, awful writing. But, still. New writing. New writing that didn’t exist the day before yesterday.

Where’s it all going, nobody knows. I’ve confronted the cobwebby drafts in my notebooks and found lots of nonsense – with one or two pearl-like lines among swine – and (with tea cup in hand) I cracked open the Scrivener file on my laptop where Madder Hall lives and (sharp intake of breath)… of the sections I read, it is mostly dreadful. 

Hardly surprising. They usually are dreadful, first drafts. If I wasn’t already despairing of everything else in my life, I’d despair of the novel. But misery, so it turns out, has its positive side: it does give you a fresh perspective on writerly belly-aching. It makes you not care about agents or book deals. It makes you immune from the sting of those twinges when somebody writes something better than you. So my book’s mostly crap. I don’t care! It’s a shame, yes, that Scissors – a chapter I liked when I wrote it – is wooden and lumpen and filled with the sort of dialogue that can only be written, not spoken. But never mind, eh. Push on, push on. I’m so low in myself that any words committed to paper are worthy of celebration. It’s liberating. (Sort of.) I’m free to write shit, and be proud of myself just for writing at all.

So, to sum up… I’m still in the gutter. But gradually, painfully, starting to look at the stars again.