Monday, 12 November 2012

Getting the story down

As writers we all have different ways of getting the first draft of a story on to the page.  Some believe in writing it down without worrying too much about grammar, punctuation and scenery, while others like to fill in all the details - to get it almost perfect - before moving on.  (Sometimes the latter can be confused with procrastination, but as long as you can tell the difference between the two that's okay.)

We are, at present, in the month of NaNoWriMoI’m going right off the topic here but bear with me, this has relevance. For those of you who don't know, NaNoWriMo challenges writers to get down 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. And at least one writer I know (Go, Kerri!) is churning out thousands of words a day.  This NaNoWriMo phenomenon, coupled with the fact that I am busy revising and redrafting my completed manuscript, have together given me cause to think about how the words are put onto the page.  



When you type or write the words on to the page for the first time – and I’m talking fiction here, writing a novel or a short story – you create a scene that is fresh and original.  It hasn’t been seen or written before.  Let’s say, for instance, that the scene contains two children, a boy and girl, at the beach.  The house they’ve come from is up on a cliff.  The beach is secluded and there’s no one else there. The sea water sparkles and glimmers. The children squint into the sun. The tide is out and the sand glistens with moisture. Waves, edged by froth, push and pull at the shore’s edge. Occasionally the sand is decorated by a sea shell or a striated beach pebble. The boy has a stick. He’s bent over, concentrating on drawing lines in the hard wet sand. They’re going to run a race. The girl, her hands on her hips, watches him. She thinks the boy will easily beat her, but then she sees that he’s given her a head start, that she could actually win...and so on.



Now, if I were churning out this story, racing to get the words onto the page – as I assume the writers in NaNoWriMo are doing – I wouldn’t have all the detail I do. I would put the children on the beach, get the boy to draw lines in the sand, let the girl think she could win, which she does, and get them into the sea water, which is my goal in this scene. Once they’re in the water I probably would include more detail, because the boy nearly drowns and the girl has to rescue him. But then, in an effort to get the words on to the page, to get the story down, I would move on – to the next scene.  And let’s assume I wrote the whole narrative in this fashion, without thinking overly much about the scenery or the setting or what either of the characters were thinking.  


Fast forward to where I’ve got the entire narrative down, and I’m revising. Editing, redrafting, etc. I’ve gone back to this scene and I’m filling in the gaps – the colour of the sky, the texture of the sand, what the children are wearing.  But the scene is no longer fresh or original. I’m not seeing it for the first time. I’ve been here already. And because of this I can no longer see it adequately.  It’s all a little dull. A little muted. And it’s really hard work to get myself back into it, because the second time around I seem to be looking at it from an outsider’s viewpoint, rather than actually being in it. 



This is my experience as a writer. And this is why NaNoWriMo wouldn’t work for me. As it is I have a hard enough time slowing down and smelling both the roses and the weeds when I’m creating a scene. But I am learning from my mistakes. I know now that the most effective way for me to write is to dawdle in a scene the first time round, and not try and race through it in an effort to get the words onto the page.

I’d be interested to hear what other writers think…




1 comment:

  1. Hi Kathy, I'm posting as Anonymous seeing I never succeed in getting a comment posted using any other profile. But it's me, Andrea.

    I was always told the important thing is to "get the words down", no matter how rough that first draft may be.

    It may have been good advice for the first draft of my first novel, just to give me the confidence that I could get a lot of words down and complete the shape of a story.

    But, like you, I've come to the conclusion that it's worth "dawdling" and including all the detail on the first pass - even if later I come back and change it.

    After all, the "plot" of most novels can be summarised in a few sentences, and many "plots" are very similar or have similar elements. What the reader enjoys, what makes the book unique, is the detail.