Friday, October 13, 2006

An alarming discovery

This week I made an alarming discovery. It came about as follows:

From time to time I have been known to write a short story. Once, and only once, I sat down at the keyboard, with nothing more in my head than a first line, and I wrote a short story in one session. I made it all up as I went along, characters, plot, the lot.

Usually, however, I am a careful planner. Perhaps over-careful. Sometimes you can lose spontaneity that way.

Anyway, about three years ago, at least, I found myself with an idea for a short story about a woman aged around sixty, confined to a wheelchair, who tells a visitor how, years earlier, she had murdered a man with a shotgun, and got away with it.

Quite how and why I ever had this idea I shall never know. It is clear evidence, you may think, of a disturbed mind, doubtless the result of some traumatic (and long-repressed) incident in childhood.

But there it was: the kernel of an idea in my mind. The narrator/murderer even had a name: Clarrie.

Time passed, and I would think about this story occasionally, while shaving, or driving from A to B. And after a while Clarrie turned into a man, by name of Lucius. Lucius would not be confined to a wheelchair, but he would be crippled, as a result of being born with a club foot. And Lucius would also murder somebody with a shotgun, and get away with it.

Further time passed, until, in the early summer of this year, I decided that it was high time I got on with writing the damn thing. So I did some structural work on the story, as distinct from just letting it ferment at the back of my mind. And it became, for better or worse, a fairly major project, in the sense that it required some serious thinking.

Anyone who commits a murder had better have a credible motive. So I worked on the motive. And then I thought, well, yes, this is all very well, but just describing how one man kills another isn't very interesting; in fact it's rather sordid. So what can we introduce by way of twists, or surprises, ironies, misunderstandings, and so forth.

About a month ago, I began to actually write the story. I had imagined that it would run to 5,000 words or so. But by the time I'd finished it, it was over twice that length. This was made necessary, I thought, by the need to provide the leading characters with enough backstory to make what they did not only credible but justifiable.

At last it was finished. It had turned out to be much more of an effort than I had ever imagined, so I was glad to get it out of the way.

While writing this short story, and even before I wrote it, it had occurred to me that, since the story was related in the first person, it could easily become a one-man play for the stage. Now you know, and I know even better than you, that the likelihood of such a one-man play ever being produced is very low indeed. Nevertheless, it was worth, I thought, preparing a version in script form, and seeing if I could find an actor aged 60 or so who might be willing to do it at, say, Edinburgh.

So I sat down to do the stage version. Wouldn't take long, I thought.

The first problem was that, at 10,500 words or so, the story was too long for a one-man play. I wanted it to be about 7,000 words, so that it would run for perhaps 50 minutes on stage. (These calculations are, by the way, preliminary; don't take them as infallible.)

So I set to work to trim the story by about one third.

Now I had imagined, as I wrote the short-story version, that it had swollen to 10,500 words simply because it was necessary to introduce lots of backstory in order to make the characters' actions convincing. But what I found, when I started to trim, was that there was masses of fat in the damn thing. It was prolix; repetitious. It was, to my dismay, flabby.

OK, to some extent I could justify this by the fact that the story is told in the first person. And a man who tells a story to a friend may well repeat himself occasionally, digress a bit here and there, go forward and backwards in time in a slightly disorganised manner. So, some of this repetition and vagueness was understandable and legitimate. But much of it was... well, unintended.

At which point I gave a deep sigh.

Here I am, with more than fifty years of experience in writing fiction behind me. I must have written, what, two million words of it? I have also devoted thousands of hours to studying the art of fiction. And this is the result? A story, which, when examined closely, turns out to be flabby.

And so my alarming discovery of the week is this: as the years go by, writing doesn't get any easier. Or, by the look of it, any better.

I find this rather depressing.


Anonymous said...

Writing is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent depression ah er perspiration:)

pundy said...

Don't be depressed. At least you've still got most of your critical faculties. Good writing is about editing, isn't it?

Dr Ian Hocking said...

Interesting post, Michael. In the ten years or so that I've been writing seriously, I've found that my verbal fluency has increased and I write better quality prose...I'm not sure if my storytelling itself has improved at the same rate. Maybe because stories can be quite different, and it's difficult to bring direct lessons to bear on your next tale. The mechanics of writing, however, seem to be more focused and easier to work on. Rules get ingrained like 'don't use adverbs' and 'passive sentences are rarely a good thing' - I'm not sure that the rules for a story (Robert McKee-esque stuff notwithstanding) are that transparent.

Anonymous said...

Er - I hate to say this to such an experienced party, but have you let anyone else read it? I mean you've lived with it so long, you may be discounting as flab stuff that a reader, who hasn't kown your characters for x years, would enjoy.

Readers like to wander through a wood, I think, and discover stuff for themselves. That will involve a bit of repetition, inevitably.

Only economic reports say things once and once only. And dull stuff they are. I've written 'em.

Anonymous said...

How harsh we are on ourselves--far more than anyone else. I agree you may be letting yourself be overly careful and thereby not getting that spontaneous "rush" that comes from a story just flowing out. And give yourself a break--you haven't done this for a while.

That said, however, I've read enough of your writing to know the story is excellent already.

Anonymous said...

Flabbinness allows for a good grip, doesn't it?

What has struck me about writing, though I've never tried my hand at fiction, is that I am not the best judge of my achievements.

And I tend to write far too dense prose, never allowing enough pause. Flabbinness is a virtue.

Maria said...

Aw, don't be so hard on yourself! I'm a flabby writter too. I have to tell myself all the background story before I can tell the story. Then I have to take out about half of it. But that is just the way it is. You know in the end you're going to have a fabulous story, you just have to diet a bit after the big party and all the wine!

Dina Baxter said...

I am reluctant to raise my voice in the midst of company possessed of experience so much greater than mine, but... I happen to find your discovery heartening, not depressing. Wouldn't it be terrible if one day you woke up and writing wasn't challenging anymore? If it became easy, wouldn't that make it boring? And if it were boring, would it not also be unpleasant? I think it's the difficulty of properly translating concept and intent into words that makes writing worthwhile.

Elberry said...

i've found writing is as much about editing as Writing (in the Jack Kerouac "I dashed it all off in an afternoon while drunk, and every word was gold" sense). It took me about 12 months to write an okayish first draft of a first novel; i imagined it would take six months to edit - it took about 2 years. i've effectively written the same novel at least a dozen times, sometimes shifting scenes about, sometimes scrapping & revisioning huge chunks, sometimes just deleting a sentence.

i'm glad of the publishing industry's blindness (as i egotistically see it!), as i've a far far stronger work now than when i first tried to get it published in 2004. You're absolutely right, GOB, that a writer needs a lot of practice at the craft. i doubt i'd ever see the editing as just tidying up - it's rare that any writer has turned out good work in the Romantic Kerouac sense, without revisioning. i see editing as holding up a diamond and turning it slowly as the light changes, and as the writer & his world changes, to focus on different facets, and so on the whole.

epikles said...

There are many different ways to write the same story, but most of us write all of our different stories in the same way. We set up assumptions and demands and try to meet them. No wonder it gets wearying. Who says there has to be "enough of a backstory"? Who says we have to explain the movitation? Who really understands another motivations anyway, our own let alone someone else's?

You might, someday, consider the possibility of starting over from scratch, throwing out all of the methods you employed this time, going back to the original idea you had, deliberately sabotaging all of your usual techniques .. in other words, refresh.

but, if it isn't fun, it probably isn't worth doing.

EJ said...

I would tend to agree with those who have expressed the thought that you may well be too close to the story to judge its degree of flabbiness. After I've gone several hundred times over one of my stories or novels, I come to believe every single word is crap. Perhaps you should let someone else give it a read.

Anonymous said...

I think the minute it crosses your mind that you've mastered this craft it is probably time to give up.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Michael, for inspiring my post on this subject. Thank you for your honesty and courage.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of verbal flab and murder by shotgun, could someone over there please come (to Washington) to collect Mr Christopher Hitchens? The party's over.

Caroline said...

I am depressed now.
But shouldn't it always be difficult? Isn't that the deal with crafted work?
Isn't that where the eventual pleasure comes from?

archer said...

Stephen King said it in On Writing to my entire satisfaction. Stories are found objects. It's the storyteller's job to be a sort of paleontologist--to reveal the thing with pick and brush

Occasionally, according to King's very useful metaphor, you find little petrified thises and thats. Sometimes you find yourself digging out something more interesting. And sometimes--I love this--you find that you've unearthed a monster fossil "with all those great big grinning sharp teeth."

Anybody who buys this analogy (and I do, myself, because it accounts for the infintely varigated crinkles of our human brains and minds) need never despair. What you unearthed is incomplete or defective or maybe missing a hyoid bone.

Dig elsewhere.

Annette said...

Any chance of us reading it please?! You may be to close to the story. Perhaps you need to take a step back and see it in a different light.(as they say)!
I am by no means a writer, not by any means, but I have just written my first ever murder.I am obsessed with " the perfect murder" I would love to read yours, please?!

Jpatrick said...

I think writing peaks the moment the author is able to detach emotionally from it.

Of course, that moment may take decades.

J. W. said...

"I am reluctant to raise my voice in the midst of company possessed of experience so much greater than mine, but... I happen to find your discovery heartening, not depressing."

I shared the same thought but for a different reason. I'm sitting here, a junior in highschool, trying to write(an awfully tricky business too, I've discovered, much to your amusement I suppose) and the fact that, despite your experience, the writing still isn't perfect, well, that makes the future a lot brighter for me.

I know I'm already half-mad to try to become a writer, but at least I know the task will never become dull or repetitious.