Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Too much information

I'm at that stage in the process of writing a novel where I hate just about everything that I've done so far.

Fortunately I'm wise to this stage, having encountered it a few times before. It is the doubt that creeps up when you're alone. The realisation of better ways that a certain scene could be written, and the knowledge that many of the things you've slaved over these past days and weeks will soon be writhing in death-agonies on the cutting room floor. I am certain that most of what I've done is little more than mouldy old dog-wank,* but I can't go back and change it yet. The first draft has to be finished, even if it's bent double like a little old woman under the burden of its annotations.

So what is the problem? Well, I think it stems from my tendency to be very literal. This is not the same as literary, of course. That wouldn't be so bad.

No, the difficulty I have is in weeding out the essential from the mundane as I try to unfold my story. So there are passages where characters walk down corridors or drive long distances; bits of beautifully described pouring of tea; whole chunks of story there only to make it obvious that time has passed; too much introspection.

Some years ago, I was asked to run a series of workshops on report writing. At the time I knew very little about report writing, but I had written several hundred reports. This, in the eyes of my employer, made me somewhat of an expert. The fact that the client was particularly happy with my reports, whereas most of the other consultants constantly had their efforts returned with corrections, made the case unarguable. And anyway, who was I to turn down the extra work?

So I boned up on report writing. This essentially involved reading a couple of very short books, which I distilled down into one even shorter sentence:

'know what it is you want to say before you start to write.'

I gave this advice to many employees, and was paid large sums of money for doing so. It was all rather fun, too. But like all good things it couldn't last. That particular project came to and end, and so the client stopped complaining about the appalling standard of the reports he was receiving.** The company for which I occasionally work assumed that all was well with its other consultants now, and the workshops stopped.

But I thought I'd taken that distilled nugget of wisdom to heart. It's not so much about rigidly planning every single scene as just thinking things through before hitting the keyboard. What needs to happen in this scene? Who need to find out what? Where do they begin, and where do they end up? Once you know that, the rest is easy.***

But if you don't know that, and you still insist on hammering out words, then what follows is a lot of what I've been doing up until very recently. Lovely descriptions of unimportant things. Endless conversations that take forever to get to the point, because basically I'm not sure what the point is. Too much meandering as I try to puzzle out what's going on.

Partly I could excuse myself by saying that it's a complicated plot. But that doesn't really hold water. It is complicated, yes. So I should be striving to make the flow of it as easy to follow as possible. I could say that I've been rather distracted by other events, and that's quite possibly the real reason behind the rootlessness. But mostly I've just been lazy, not taking the time to sit down, stare into the middle distance and think through each section before my fingers launch themselves at the keys.

I've realised that now, and things are going easier. But it's going to be a real bugger when it comes to the first rewrite.

* an expression I've been meaning to work more into my blog posts.
** and they were bad. Really, really bad.
*** OK, maybe not easy. But it's not like the blood-sweating I've been doing over the past couple of weeks.

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