Musings from a Non-Guru’s Butterfly Net
Write hot, edit cold.
Write drunk, edit sober — Ernest Hemingway
After decades of random scratchings I gave myself permission to become a writer. That was after I burnt all my old work. Big, big mistake. I wrote my manuscript Motherlands in a year — and felt pretty chuffed. Then Pantera Press made short shrift of my initial foray. It sucked, my writing sucked and in writerly fashion, I set to work on a daily basis. After a further four years of editing and re-writing, I have sent my 99,000 words off to agents and publishers in the UK.
Nowadays, I have a row of little portable brown Moleskine notebooks dated by year. I carry one with me everywhere. It’s my butterfly catcher. The butterflies I’ve captured are ephemeral glimpses of life, fleeting snippets from overheard conversation, sudden insights into our inner lives, and the lives of those around us. I observe, I listen, I sense. Tayari Jones’ book, An American Marriage, was born out of an overheard conversation about mass incarceration in the context of a love story.
Write what should not be forgotten — Isabel Allende
Bottom line: Just write. Daily. Regularly. Set a timer, e.g. 20 minutes or a word count, e.g. 1000 words. If you are writing a short story of 2000 to 3000 words, you’ll have half or two-thirds of your—wait for it— first draft in that first session. If you are writing a novel, the average novel is 80,000 words. For a novel, that’s 3 months for your FIRST of many, many drafts. But your terrain will be set. (I have my handy notebook close by, but I write straight on the laptop and file my story scraps in designated folders).
After that, take some time off. Write something else. Give yourself some distance. Read a few books about writing (see my list below below). Attend some courses through Writers Victoria, or Coursera (online). Be patient, diligent and reach out to other writers.
In short, here are a few very basic tips for story writing, from a Non-Guru:
THE FIRST DRAFT
• Throw down a few words/ title / slogan/ sketched image to represent your story
• Write it out as fast as you can. Put it away until later.
• Next session, take a coloured pen / highlighter and mark out the key story points.
• Start your story as close to the end as you can. Craft a short sharp sentence or two — but don’t actually give away the ending. This will help you focus on the POINT of your story.
• Plan for that unexpected twist at the end of the piece.
• Is the focus of your narrative character driven? or is it action driven?
• Follow the W-shaped pathway for all short stories and novels: we meet the character as a conflict arises, they spiral downwards, they rally upwards, they meet further challenges, they hit rock bottom, they overcome further challenges. The reader needs to see change.
• Decide how complex the story lines can be, given the limits of the short story.
BACK STORY and INFORMATION DUMPS
• Keep it short, sharp and relevant. It should not take the reader away from the action or the character.
• A short story can usually support two properly developed main characters; the others require no name and function as mirrors.
• Remember, the reader doesn’t have to like the character, but they do have to understand them.
• Don’t describe the main character/s. Allow them to show us what he/ she/ they is/are feeling/ experiencing, by things he/ she does or you can convey the main character’s thoughts in italics or in direct speech.
• Do not ‘head hop’ from one character’s mind to another’s. It is confusing and takes away from the power of the piece. You can show what secondary characters think by physical signals, or what characters say or do in response to each other.
• Its main purpose is to further the action or the characterisation.
• It slows the action, so be careful not to over-use it.
• Dialogue in prose is not the same as dialogue in life. It needs to seem natural and reflect the characterisation or the social mores, but it needs to be pared down to the essentials required to convey information about relationships, action, emotions etc. The standard niceties of daily speech are redundant.
POINT OF VIEW
• The writer needs to decide on a POV and stick to it throughout the work.
• First person brings a powerful intimacy to the writing, as in An American Marriage, told by three people in their own voice.
• Third person allows you, the writer more freedom.
• Second person requires enormous skill and is rarely seen.
• Voice is an essential element of sound writing. Your voice as a writer, is your idiosyncratic style: the type of vocabulary/ dialect etc and sentence structure, the way you structure your passages, how you deliver portrayal of people and events
• If you choose to write a piece in a particular character’s voice—for example, a child’s—then that needs to be authentic and consistent.
In summary, you are taking the reader on a journey. In early drafts, they may not see what you are trying to tell them. Indeed, in the early stages, you may not have total clarity on what you are trying to express. Writing is like sculpting. You have an exciting, beautiful idea, but like a beautiful chunk of marble, until you explore, chisel and polish it, your audience will shoot past you and your moment will be diminished. My stepdaughter, Tina Douglas, is a respected artist who one day spotted a piece of my artwork and asked to see more. I hesitated. Her words were, ‘Maggie, just get it out there. You’ve gotta toughen up’.
In that moment, I understood that I was allowing my discomfort and embarrassment to paralyse me. Her words conveyed an artist’s insight into the creative act. I felt supported, re-invigorated and – discovered a new subject to write about.
Practicing an art form is a way to grow your soul – Kurt Vonnegut
My favourite resources on writing.
Writing Fiction, Gary Disher
Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon
The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman
Save the Cat, Blake’s Blogs, Blake Snyder
Pity the Reader, Vonnegut & McConnell
The Elements of Style, Strunk & White (essential for editing, punctuation etc)
Write Hot, Edit Cold
You might find these other articles on my website useful:
The Trials of the Writer
There’s Good Stealing, and there’s Bad Stealing
COPYRIGHT: Magz Morgan 2021