Putting The Fun Back Into Writing

Copyright Freefoto.comMichael Fuchs, author of The Manuscript (my review of which, I see, has just appeared here), contacted me in response to my recent post about the first draft of Flashback.

If I understand him correctly, Michael makes the quite reasonable point that it is beyond difficult – i.e. impossible – to judge the literary merit of your own work, particularly the first draft. He cites my comments in the most recent post (see the post immediately below) and suggests that there isn’t a great deal of point trying to make a literary judgement on a first draft. While I agree with the point in general, I don’t agree – as you can tell from my tone – that I was attempting to judge the literary merit of my work. Why? Because a comparison of any two works of fiction on a scale of literary merit is like comparing the proverbial apples and pears; I would go further to say that some delicious-looking apples are far superior to a squidgy pair, but it is not the job of the author to work out the literary merit of his work. It either succeeds or fails on its own terms.

In a nutshell, I’d say that the first draft of anything is ‘shit’ in the sense that it exists in a ‘failed state’. In important ways, the first draft does not the many jobs of good fiction: suspension of disbelief, maintenance of tone, all that. These failures are like leaks to a plumber, or the BSOD to an over-worked techie. And where those failures exist, you should, as a writer, be able to spot them, correct them, and move through them all. The aim of the game is finish with fiction that works.

I don’t make these points because I disagree strongly with Michael (my reactions to Flashback are an assessment of the craft needed to complete it as a book, though I was interested to see if the skeleton of the narrative worked too), but because it nudges a lesson I learned fairly late as a writer: revise, revise, revise. When I was a kid, I drew a lot, and I learned the lesson ‘don’t do too much or you’ll screw it up’. I mistakenly applied the same principle to my fiction. ‘Well,’ I’d think, ‘this scene is a bit boring, but I wrote it in a state of creative flow, and I should respect the decisions I made at that point, when I was closer to the material’. *Insert Family Fortunes computer ‘uh-uh’ here.* For each word in a story to be the best-fitting word at that point, you need to fire an arrow into your mind and hit a bull’s-eye. The next one needs a bull’s-eye too. And the next. But you can’t hit one after another; you’ll have near misses. Scene boring? Why? Perhaps the character isn’t doing much, isn’t challenged. Fix it: Challenge her. Exposition? Excise. Description of the weather? Destroy with extreme prejudice. Adverbs? Nuke ’em.

You can have near-misses, too, at the higher levels. Is a character doing nothing? Then they shouldn’t be in the story. Confused as to why a character did something? That’s because their motivation isn’t clear. These leaks in the plumbing of a story are immediately obvious, and there’s no time like the present to crack on with fixing them…

Incidentally, Michael pointed me in the direction of this essay, the Nature of Fun – keepin’ it real in your writing, basically.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

2 thoughts on “Putting The Fun Back Into Writing”

  1. This is a good essay – as someone who has seen their second novel rejected by a dozen agents and a fistful of publishers, I have more or less forgotten that the whole gig is supposed to be about having fun. A year on from finishing the novel, I have come to this conclusion: writing with the ogre of prospective publication over your shoulder isn’t a good idea. Let me clarify this: if you’re writing with the notion in the back of your mind that your work is going to be assessed by an agent and readers, its hipness quotient or lack of it chewed over and discussed, then you’re effectively paralysing yourself, creatively speaking. You are writing for others, not for yourself, and part of this is that you end up more or less impersonating an authorial voice that seems to promise success, rather than finding yourself. The whole wretched preoccupation success makes a writer (in my opinion) less willing to take risks, to be playful and perhaps discover something about themselves. An analogy would be the difference between doodling in the margins of a notebook and being faced with an expanse of blank white canvas. Often, your best drawing comes out when you’re not faced with performance anxiety, and when you can enjoy relaxed concentration: I believe writing is much the same.

  2. Thanks for your comment. This reminds me of a thought that I wanted to include in the above article. It’s a distinction between external and internal questions. External questions are those you put to the audience/agent/publisher, and come from a particular direction (taste, marketing, whatever). Internal questions are those you ask of the fiction itself; these questions are answers that address weaknesses in the art itself. I’m not sure if I’ve made that entirely clear.

    Here’s an example. At beginning my book Flashback, I’ve got an affair bewteen two women. If I asked the ‘reader over my shoulder’ whether or not this element should be included, I’d probably get an answer like ‘A typical thriller demographic won’t like it’ – these answers tend to drag the fiction towards the centre of the bell curve. But if I ask the same question of the fiction itself, the story’s answer is: ‘Of course you need. If Jem and Saskia aren’t in love, why would Jem go to the lengths she does to help Saskia’? In essence, it works for the story, and, reader demographics be damned, I know that it makes the fiction better. I think that asking these ‘external’ questions immolates your fiction, and asking ‘internal’ ones elevates it…

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