People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.
– Harlan Ellison
After all the plotting and dreaming after all the deliberation and procrastination; you have to write your short story, your poem or your novel.
You can solicit advice, gather feedback, you can even hold a focus group and sit around the fountain of inspiration to see if you get wet – but in the end, you need to sit down in front of that blank page and make all the decisions – word by word, sentence by sentence.
Most importantly, you have to know why you’re making those decisions. If you don’t know why your protagonist wants the Seventh Sword of g’Neth, why she needs it, your reader will sense this and lose interest very quickly.
You need this certainty, this bone deep understanding, before you start sharing your manuscript with test readers. If you aren’t at that point, if the story isn’t strong enough to share, how will you be able effectively respond to criticism? It’d be like erecting a tent using only half the poles and guy ropes and then criticising the manufacture of the tent when it blows down in a gale.
Even worse, as you try to erect the tent after the storm has passed, you might be tempted to forget trying to work out how it should go up and just follow somebody else’s advice. You could still end up with a functioning tent, but if somebody asks you why the guy ropes are rigged like this or you’ll be able to say is because they told me too. Effectively it’s no longer your tent.
I think that is enough tent metaphors for a Friday morning. To be honest, my only experience of camping is at festivals when my tent is more at risk of drunken revellers tripping over the guy ropes rather than storms real or metaphorical.
I’ve real experience of this. In my early days as a writer, I met a TV commercials director who was interested in making the move into feature films. He planned to start out with a short film and was interested in adapting one of my short stories (The Mutual Pleasures of Brothers In Arms
). I was flattered, and a bit overwhelmed by the process. We attended a prestigious short film competition at the National Film Theatre (a young Shane Meadows won with Where’s The Money, Ronnie?
– the film was a hundred times better than any of the other competitors and you could see that he was going to be a success) and moved forward with our project.
I understand that film is a much more collaborative process than print fiction. Most directors will have a vision for what they want. You sometimes have to shape a film to suit the acting talent, or lack of. But we were working on a project based on an existing piece of work, not a fresh script, and at the start I had expectations of the script retaining some resemblance of the short story.
Slowly, scene by scene, it started to change and with those scenes went the story and more importantly, my understanding of what I was writing. I should have stuck up for what I thought worked, but I was young and overawed by a very confident and brash ad man. I stuck with it. Rewrote more scenes. Added characters. Killed of some characters. Then he wanted to change the films name. I hated his suggestion and for the first time stood my ground. I told him his new title – Prism – sounded like a make of toilet cleaner. Our relationship suddenly went the way of most toilet cleaner – down the pan.
Lesson learned: I had stopped making decisions for myself and tried to fulfil a brief in a vacuum of true creativity. That was only ever going to lead to me creating a broken and crippled story. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think Prism was ever released.
& why you should ignore this golden rule: see the previous golden rule.
Next time: Really love your partner.