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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Author: 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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