Monday, 15 August 2016

Juggling with Story

I’m personally hopeless at juggling. Can’t keep balls in the air, let alone knives or chainsaws. But juggling words – characters – plots – themes – settings – the entire extent of storyland…that comes more easily. Maybe there really is a ‘storyland’ where lost and lonely characters are searching for the right setting, theme and plot. What writers need to become are  dating agencies, who juggle their clients, mixing and introducing until they get the perfect match.

So, what happens when this clearly isn’t happening in the story you’ve just begun, or the story you’ve been plugging away at for some time? Recently, a student wrote a personal observation of their writing, which they’ve been kind enough to allow me to pass on…

“I’m not very good at getting back into my writing after a break and this seems to happen frequently at the moment. So this story acted as a sort of warm up session tomy main one. I think this was a really important part of the process for me; that one story evolved into another. I always start writing my stories in a sketch book. Writing with a pen always feels more comfortable and I just try to write down as much as I can before I start thinking too much about characters or plot. I have tried it the other way around but it usually slows me down. I start putting the story onto the computer sometimes before I’ve got to the end and this seems to spark off more ideas. I then seem to go between the two – sometimes when my head is full of the story, I’ll jot a line or two down in my book – sometimes I’ll sit and tap away.”

I was rather impressed when I read these words. For a start, the student is writing down how she feels about the writing process. This is something I always recommend, but I know from personal experience that it is hard to ‘write about writing’ and this often it takes a back seat. However, writing in this way often gets to the nub of some of the hardest things about becoming a writer. For a start, watching and reflecting how one’s own psychology ‘works’ is extremely effective and can often break through problems like ‘creating a routine’, ‘gaining the confidence to write’ and ‘facing the blank page’. But actually recording these thoughts, as part of your writing life not only prevents you from forgetting them, but actually helps consolidate them and implant them in your mind and allows you to work on them.

What the student has done here, is observe herself writing a story that didn’t work, allowing that conclusion to be drawn (always a very hard one), then picking out of the ‘non-workable story’ the themes, emotions, characters and ideas that could still be used (or reused), and creating something new and more successful with them.

A..S Byatt
Courtesy of

“A good short story knows its ending before it is begun, it is always working towards its end”…so said A.S. Byatt recently in the Sunday Times Culture section. This may sound impossible to live up to, but she softens the blow a little… “A good short story establishes its own rhythm at its very beginning, and the reader has a sense of the rhythm reaching ahead, towards the end”…

Byatt suggests that we should ‘know’ when the rhythms of a story aren’t working…when, however much hard work we put into it, never come right, that is, “work towards its own end”. My student cleverly understood this – that you didn’t have to write ‘the perfect story’ first time round. Sometimes an embarrassingly fruitless version has to be ‘hatched’ first. I’m trying to think of an analogy that would fit this process – the only thing that springs to mind at the moment is that it’s like ‘creating’ a caterpillar, then allowing it to become a chrysalis and reform over days, weeks, months…before emerging as, yes, cheesy I know…a beautiful butterfly.

An awful lot of professional writers create their stories (for children and adults) with this try/miss/hit method. Many a successful novel started life as an unpublishable short story or metamorphosed from a play into a piece of crime fiction…or whatever. Many a colourful character began life as something very different, almost as if they were waiting for the right story to be part of. Famously, Tolkien’s Strider began life as a kind of hobbit. Tolkien had written the first draft of ‘Fellowship’ all the way to the Prancing Pony at Bree without actually knowing that Frodo and pals would meet any kind of king there. But once Strider stopped being a hobbit and became Aragorn, the way ahead must have been clear; the rhythm of the story assured.

Good systems include asking ‘what if’ after the struggle with the first draft is over (as well as before it begins) as well as ‘which bits’ and even ‘which story’? Moving, slotting, juggling and slicing chunks of story are also common strategies, along with ditching. Ditching, for the writer, is not a farming pursuit alongside hedging…it’s the heartbreaking knowledge that something must go. The first chapter is often the part that has to be ditched, because all it does is explain things too quickly, too openly. The great ‘dinner party tale’ of writers is that William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected by dozens of publishers until one actually read past the first chapter and told him they would take the book if he omitted it. Not many people have ever caught a glimpse of that first chapter.

Luckily, it’s almost never too late to come to these realizations. Even when you’ve finished a story and put it away (especially if you’ve finished a story and put it away because no one has wanted to publish it) you can return afresh and ask these questions of it:

• Does it know its own ending?

• Does it have a satisfying internal rhythm?

• Does it relentlessly moved towards the conclusion?

• Have you asked ‘what if’ in the right way?

• Would it work if you swapped the beginning, end and middle around?

• Would it work if you ditched the first paragraph, or even the first page?

• Are the characters still in search of the right story for them?

• Can you ‘talk’ to yourself about this story – writing down a reflection of what is wrong with it, as if you are your own mentor or tutor?

I'm one of the Bristol Women Writers
who contributed to this collection of
great stories.
I think this has to do with the 90% perspiration part of writing. The ‘brilliant idea’ does not flow out of even established writers like an endless, muse-controlled fountain. The secret trick that allows someone to finally come up with the ‘brilliant idea’ is knowing how to utilize what you’ve got – to look, think, go away and cogitate, then look again. I don’t think I am quite saying that every idea you have for a story is usable in some formt - that all you’ve got to do is search and find it - but I do believe that it’s worth trying, just in case.

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