Working it through

Rodin's thinker smallI have no wish to be considered sexist or anything, but if I deserve it, so be it. Men, it seems to me, have the ability to ‘think things through’ and I don’t. I would love to close my eyes and consider the consequences of every action of my protagonist, or every choice I, as author, make, and half an hour later return to this world with decisions made and a very clear picture of my story.

This is the reality for me. I have the gist – the story that can be told in a couple of lines which, by the time I’m finished, will be reduced to one line of the kind a deep-voiced American can intone to coax you all to the movie. ‘Two men and all that’s left of them is a bronze horse, a gold ring and a nation.’ That’s the back-of-the-envelope bit and I find it easy.

The first draft is sequential tale-telling. This happens, then this happens, then this happens and at the end… Oh phooey, I don’t know what happens at the end. Perhaps I’ll find out on the next draft.

And then it comes, the hard work, the real writing. On the story I’m working on right now, first draft got to Chapter Twenty. It was third person in my usual style. Then I thought, this would be a good story for the young’uns, so why not make it Young Adult? My YA version, in first person, gets to Chapter Fifteen. Then I thought, first person isn’t working, let’s start again. That version gets to Chapter 6. I’ve just started again, fairly settled now with my original idea of third person, usual style!! But I have to do the work to know how it will pan out. No sitting back in an armchair, feet up on a stool, puffing a pipe.

And then there are the step-by-step choices. The slave needs some disfigurement. In the first version, it’s a limp; by the third version, it’s a lump on the neck. All that has to be untangled eventually so that the poor fellow isn’t suffering more afflictions than the story requires.

The real horrors are the subtle choices of characteristics. My hero is a sceptic. My hero is religious. My hero despises rites. My hero consults Oracles. Saying he is a bit confused and doesn’t know his own mind, well, that works in real life but not in story, and these subtle things are harder to spot than lumps and limps. Each time he speaks, which is he, the sceptic or the believer? I have a great deal of sorting out to do (which is why I am here blogging instead of getting on with it) and I truly wish, in this respect, that I was a bloke who can think things through, because my method of groping through fog sure is not a recipe for contentment.

My equivalent to pipe-smoking and pure thought is trance. My current trance music is Ann Heymann’s Queen of Harps (Irish harps use metal strings and Ann’s idea that, in ancient times, these strings might have been silver and gold, has produced stunning results – she makes the harp sound like bells). If I put that on, it relaxes the brain, makes images flow, and when the heroine’s hair, which so far has been black but is now suddenly the colour of sunrise, then, well, I’ll sort that out later (and hire a good editor).

If the music doesn’t work, there’s always the chores. If my windows are looking clean, you know things aren’t going too well at the desk. A fellow author said over the garden fence, as I was weeding, ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Well how do you think?’ I replied tartly. ‘I mean, look at my garden all spick and span!’

Does anyone else have these problems with choices and whether to make them in the head or on the page? Am I right thinking it’s a female thing? I’d be very glad to hear from the boys on this.

The cartoon by Burton, by the way, was sent by a friend and I’ve no idea where it was published.

11 thoughts on “Working it through

  1. Really interesting this. Don’t think it’s a male/ female thing.I was having this very conversation about process with a couple of other artists, one male , one female.It helps to understand that there are two actions that need to amalgamate in order for anything to be created….the concept and the making or crafting. The concept is complete in seed form but adapts to circumstance as the crafting takes place in the same way as the young plant weaves it’s way upward around stones in the soil until it reaches the air, and then manoeuvres itself into a path of maximum light. You feel your way intuitively through the process.Anything less than this and you would be a machine.Happy growing, Cheryl.

    • I asked one of my male students and he reminded me that he’s often complaining about being in a dark room with a weak torch, and so I’m quite wrong to think of it as a gender thing, and Margaret is right to say it’s a genre-thing. But of course, this applies to all arts, as you say, and who wants to be a machine? So thanks to you two, I’m now happy to be groping and feeling my way. It has also helped me to apply the advice I have been giving my students to myself!! I’m now interviewing all my characters and asking them things like, ‘What would you do if you found an animal caught in a trap?’ and find that they all react quite differently, as they should.

  2. I don’t think it’s a male-female thing, because I’m sure I’ve spoken with female writers who do think through all their plot moves etc. ahead of time. I like to think it’s a distinction between writers who go for the shallower genre-type novels and writers who get deep into the psychology of their characters, because I have exactly the sort of trouble you describe, Linda. But I’m not sure it’s that either. Just something we have to live with, if we’re the million-drafts sort of writers.

  3. Love the post, Linda. I can completely relate to the frustration of draft after draft of changes that don’t pan out. I actually have a book that’s won some awards and here I am, revising it again hoping to snag an agent. It’s a ton of work no matter what phase you’re in. I very much appreciate your observation of cleanliness levels and their correlation to how successfully my writing is going. I will now think of you whenever I begin dusting!
    Thanks for the refreshing break,
    Jodee

  4. While I did write my first novel three times for voice, I still knew what the general plot line was for the most part. I have elaborate timelines, for the world, for the local history/politics/cutlure, and how my characters fit into them. I find that if I don’t have all of it laid out that I spin my wheels too much. It was easier in my first novel because I knew the ending. I’m writing my next book now and I don’t know the ending quite yet and I do find it more problematic. I do write fairly deeply as I go. Rewrites tend to be more superficial, correcting grammar, rearranging some scenes, cutting the junk, etc. We all think and process information differently though, so it makes sense that we write differently.

  5. Linda,

    I’m in touch with my feminine side (I love Abba and Air Supply) but endure the same struggles you and others have mentioned here. I’m grateful for all your comments and the inspiration to keep going.

    Time, I’ve discovered, may not heal all wounds, but it often lends clarity to those irksome questions–what music the hero hears in his head, what color his father’s pipe is, what plants look best or die in his mother’s garden–that ensnare us from time to time.

    Plodding with you,

    Jim

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