Monthly Archives: August 2012

a hundred indecisions

and time yet for a hundred indecisions

and for a hundred visions and revisions,

before the taking of a toast and tea

(T.S Eliot: ‘the Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock)

The question I must ask today is: ‘when is a story finished?’

I ask this as a result of some valuable feedback I got from a trusted friend and reader. I believe that this feedback may have saved me some embarrassment. I believe it has gotten me closer to my stated goal – that being in the first instance to be a better writer and in the second to be a published author.

The trouble is that you sometimes need to go backward to go forward… or perhaps that’s not quite what I mean.

I am developing a new understanding of what it means to write, and as a result I have had to seriously reconsider my claim to having a finished novel manuscript.

I shall here use the metaphor of the sculptor. When recently I was in Paris I went to the Musée Rodin. I can highly recommend this to anyone in Paris. It was free the day we went to wander through the gardens, and it is in the gardens that some of his greatest and most famous work resides. One of the exhibits in the garden is the work which was unfinished at the time of his death. These statues and busts are in various ways incomplete, and in so being they give the most marvellous insight into the craft of the artist.

Rodin’s pieces give the unshakable impression that the artist is not so much carving a shape from the stone as much as he is removing the excess stone from the sculpture within. It is as if, where we see a block of stone, he sees what is within and labours to reveal it to the rest of us. By this reckoning the sculptors process is thus: select the stone, envisage the sculpture within, reveal.

How does this apply to writing?

I put together a 241,000 word draft for my novel (at one point it was over 300,000). I ensured it had all the narrative elements, that it finished on a climactic scene and that the main threads of the plot were resolved (and enough left loose that a sequel would work). I thought at this point I was finished, but now I think I was at the second stage of my sculpting analogy.

The 300,000 words made up the stone I had to work with. The narrative elements, climax, resolution, were my vision of what would be revealed within that stone.

What was lacking was the reveal. The feedback I got helped to confirm for me that I needed to act on those niggling doubts. They’d been there all along, but I’d denied them the gravitas they deserved. My sculpture was a hunk of shaped rock, but what I saw in it wasn’t necessarily seen by others.

So now I need to carve more stone away, shape the lines a little differently, cut-back and polish in some places, restore and reinforce in others. But this is a good thing. This is an essential part of the process.

There was a time when I thought that cutting words meant that the words themselves were wasted, but that’s not the case. Those cut words will determine how well the finished piece can be seen. All the stone that Rodin carved away from the sculptures he sought to reveal was important. Without the removal of that stone we couldn’t see the artist’s vision. Likewise the words we lose to the editing process are important.If such things were not removed art galleries would be full of stone slabs instead of sculptures.

So I’ve been neglecting the website a little in favour of carving words. That hoary old question of process over platform, and for the foreseeable future process is winning hands-down. I’ve also put on hold a short story in the final phases of development and the untitled novel project I had begun.

I want to get a pitch-worthy final revision done by November. So far I’m down to around 200,000 words, and I’m nearly a third of the way through the draft. At this rate I’ll get it down below 150,000 perhaps even to 120,000 words (which is a figure that has been recommended to me as an upper-limit for a first time novelist.

So head down, delete key on stand-by, and I’ll meet Prufrock for the toast and tea when I’m done.

 

 

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The need for (safe) risk taking

I have always been more a solitary writer than one who actively seeks a community of the like-minded. The reasons for this are manifold:

Firstly I haven’t found a strong community of like-minded writers. Possibly (almost certainly) this is a bit of a chicken/egg argument, as I haven’t really actively sought one out. When I have, and I was for a short time part of a group of writers, the ‘like’ in like-minded was quite strained – incorporating everything from Hard SF to Paranormal Fiction to Epic Fantasy – and didn’t really fit within the genre niche I was carving for myself.

Secondly I have (until recently – more on that to come) been quite guarded about what I was doing. It was really only when I finished the ‘Exile’ manuscript (I’ve posted excerpts from the prologue here before) that I felt I had something I wanted people to read. Sharing scenes, excerpts, even chapters felt a bit false because they were so de-contextualised.

Thirdly, and perhaps most tellingly, I was just in an utter state of fear that it would all be rubbish. I had this thing I’d been building and crafting and drawing forth from my own creative energies for years (over a decade). How could I risk putting it out there and having it savaged? How could I risk being told that all that time and effort was wasted? Wasn’t it safer to keep my work of genius locked safely away from the harsh judgements of those that would seek to judge it?

No.

Of course not.

And yet it was a prevailing mindset. I recognise it sometimes when I think of my boys growing up. My eldest is off to school next year and I’m excited for him, but at the same time some part of me wishes I could hold him back – hold him locked in time – so he wouldn’t have to go out there and get bullied and fail at things and have his heart broken and risk all the myriad tragedies and tribulations of a life lived. That’s fair enough isn’t it? I’ll just keep him here in this happy (mostly) state of early child-hood where I can enjoy the beaming smile I get when he sees me and he will never tell me he hates me and storm out, and no one will be able to say a bad word about him?

No.

Of course not.

 

We know lives need to be lived, despite – or perhaps because of – all the inherent risks in the living. Books need to be read for the same reasons (I just compared my manuscript to my son. How droll. Forgive me.).

So I sent my book out to some (highly) trusted readers. Close friends. Family. People who have read and enjoyed the books I believe inspired me in the writing of ‘Exile’. The feedback I got was positive, and in some ways and in some cases constructive, but really it was a comfortable and familiar blanket in which to wrap myself. I mean no disrespect to my readers in saying that – they performed their role perfectly. My point is I needed someone to play another role.

I needed the harsh, but fair, critic. I needed the bald-faced truth. I needed someone to cast aside the flatteries and the positive reinforcement and to go straight to the heart of anything in the novel which didn’t work. I needed a critical eye to find the faults I had been denying to myself: the faults I most needed to fix before I pitch this tale.

And I found my man, and recently he gave me what I needed. I’ll give you all more detail on what that is in a series of subsequent posts. It’s a work in progress. Suffice it to say that some fairly drastic cuts are recommended and some significant changes to characters and characterisation. That in itself doesn’t amaze me (though to be honest I was amazed by the extent of the recommended cutting). What amazed me most was how well the advice I was getting struck those loose nerves that I had been soothing over. Almost everything which was identified for me aligned perfectly to some sense of uncertainty I’d been feeling, or some concern about the manuscript which I would occasionally glimpse and turn away from. It had become a ‘wilful unseeing’ of the faults in my work, and I’d gotten so fixated on looking at words within a scene that I hadn’t asked myself ‘does this paragraph need to be here?’ ‘does this scene?’ ‘does this chapter?’ ‘does this character?’.

I feel the answers may be difficult to nail down, and maybe all these alterations will take something away from the manuscript which will be lost forever. This is the risk involved in following these recommendations, but I’m at least now at a place with my writing that I have the courage to take the risk.


The Narrative Present

After writing my last post I was curious to see that I had, without making any conscious desire to do so, framed the narrative in the past tense. This I assume is, of itself, unremarkable. But I later found in telling the tale, and writing it down elsewhere that as the event became more distant in the past my narrative voice shifted from past-tense to present.

Instead of ‘the car sped through the intersection I am suddenly telling people that ‘this car speeds through the intersection’. I’m describing the driver, I’m reporting the dialogue with the woman in distress, I’m explaining that ‘she just walks off’ after she denies the need for further assistance. All this in the present tense, as if it were happening as I spoke. The astute among you may have noticed that I’m doing it now in recounting these past tellings of the tale.

This is not a new, nor even entirely unexpected phenomenon, but it was one of which I was not even conscious.

Literary theorists would describe this as the Narrative Present Tense, but linguists might be more likely to describe it as the Historical Present Tense, and it’s use has been becoming more common, to the point that in 2010 The Guardian ran an article on its prevalence in that year’s Man Booker Prize nominees and Phillip Pullman’s apparently scathing rebukes (Pullman later responded).

The Historical Present Tense is quite rightly used in non-fiction – such as for accounts of history, or in journalism – such as in headlines. In conversation and other spoken modes we seem quite at ease slipping into the Narrative present to tell stories and relate anecdotes of our day.

‘So I’m walking past the shops when suddenly this guy jumps out and he asks me for a lighter…’ or some such. Note the verb forms: ‘walking’, ‘jumps’, ‘asks’. This type of story telling conveys the action as something immediate and ongoing. This is not a completed event, relegated to memory. This event is suddenly alive again. It is being played out ‘in real time’ as it were.

But does it have a place in written fiction?

The narrative present does bring the past back to life. A ‘revivification of history’ as it were. It can also mark a change it the narrative, using changes in tense to separate different segments, such as a character in the narrative relating dialogue in the narrative present. It can provide a ‘now’ – a present moment in the ‘life’ of the text – which separates that particular scene from those that come chronologically before or afterwards.  All of these things are useful, and if skilfully used will add to the quality of the writing, but as Pullman warns its overuse can denude the writing of the desired effect. By striving to be expressive, we rob our writing of the variegations of expression.

The Editor’s Blog has a good discussion on the pros and cons of both the past and present tenses as they apply to longer narratives (such as novels).

In the end, the important thing is to write good fiction and write it well. If the tense helps to make your fiction more powerful then so much the better. If it makes it seem that you are constantly shouting for attention, then you have a problem. Of course knowing the problem makes it that much easier to solve.

For my part I tend to prefer the past tense for extended pieces, but I’m playing around with the present for flash length fiction and shorter stories. The most important thing I’ve found (and most will agree) is to be consistent. Perhaps I’ll be able to polish something up into an example of how to make the narrative present  work for your readers.