Monday, 22 June 2009

Are stories living things?



Are they? I only ask because I’m sure I once killed one. You’ve heard of fratricide and patricide. This was a case of ficticide.

I didn’t mean to. I meant to nurture it until the day it would fly from the nest and bring back a lovely plump book deal wriggling in its beak.
Instead, it suffered the equivalent of being eaten by a neighbourhood cat. And it was all my fault.

Here’s how I did it.

Exhibit number one:
This is just a hunch, but I think the fact that I didn’t do any writing had something to do with the story’s failure to thrive. What I did instead was endless planning. This was an attempt to distance myself from the way I wrote its predecessor. My first attempt at a novel was put together in a state of wild abandon and unplannedness [yes reader, I was a panter of the highest order]. The result was a plot that had, shall we say, a loose and relaxed structure. In other words, it was rubbish. So this time I intended to plan my story to within an inch of its life.

Exhibit number two:
I was always waiting for the right time to get stuck into it. I had the excuse of a newborn baby at the time, but in my heart I know that wasn’t the real reason. The delay was really because I was waiting for news on the first book [ie, the rubbish one. Try and keep up]. I waited for a whole year to hear from one agent. In which time, I hardly wrote a word of my new project.

Exhibit number three:
You’ve heard the phrase ‘careless talk costs lives’? A tutor on a course once cautioned against talking about your plot too much before you have it on paper. She said that ideas are fragile, ethereal entities that visit us when we least expect them, and can also leave when they feel like it. I found this out the hard way. Instead of WRITING IT DOWN I talked about my brilliant idea to any poor fool who asked the question, ‘How’s the writing going?’ The result was that every time I opened the document and tried to write something I just felt bored. Why bother going to all that effort when I’d already described it in detail?

In the end, I did so much planning, prevaricating and blabbing that it brought on a crippling attack of writer’s block. I just couldn’t make this story work. When I made the decision to can it and move onto something else, it was a huge relief. But with a big dollop of regret. Maybe it might have been halfway decent if I'd only treated it well.

So here ends this cautionary tale. Look after your stories. After all, if you don’t, who will?

20 comments:

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Oh my gosh, Caroline, you have just very succinctly summed up my own position with my second book. Is it too late? I fear that I may have 'killed it' by doing all these things. It is certainly not thriving. Do you think you'll ever go back to yours?
All that you've written makes total sense and is excellent advice to pass on to others. Hope the next one flourishes!

Olivia Ryan said...

How very true! You've really made me think ... especially about all the times I've had ideas for stories but haven't got straight on with writing them. By the time I've started the writing, the freshness of the idea has gone. Hope you are nurturing a story now and keeping it alive!

Derek Thompson said...

I've a long-ish story that has lain on a shelf for 5 years - is resuscitation out of the question? I suppose one alternative to ficticide might be having an Intensive Care team on stand-by throughout the gestation: supportive friends (pref. other writers), some sense of a goal, 2 large cannisters of motivation and regular health-checks on it.

CarolineG said...

Thanks all for taking time to comment. I love the idea of a creative resusc unit! Suzy, all I can say is that in my own case, opening the file brought on a horrible feeling of dread. It was like the opposite of creativity...instead of a feeling of openness, it was a sort of claustophobia! It was a huge relief to let it go. But I do also think if the will is there, it's never too late..

Samantha Tonge said...

I find you guilty and will let you off with a caution this time:)

It is so true, that talking to people about your plot in the early stages can take away some of the sparkle - unless the audience is my husband who is made to listen to all the minutiae!

Of course, let us not forget that some stories are rightly killed - a kind of being cruel to be kind. When i look back on some of my wackier projects (in my case one starring an agoraphobic called Acacia), well - let's just say RIP.

CarolineG said...

Lol, Sam! Although I'm quite intrigued by the idea of agaraphobic Acacia now...

Roderic Vincent said...

Caroline, that post is really helpful. I've been holding off from starting the actual writing of story number three, but now I'm encouraged to just let the story tell itself, at least for the first draft. It's easy to see the planning and the writing as separate stages, but perhaps there is a more healthy way, writing as planning. I'll give that a try.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Caroline, what a lovely post! And I want to be that Robin's mummy! I never talk about the story I'm writing till it's done. Not even to my husband. If it's a serial I occasionally ask for suggestions about a title but that's only when I know for sure that the idea is a go-er because I have the ed's assurance that it's working.

It's a shame you've killed this one, but you never know. Ten, fifteen years down the line you may feel like reviving it again. If it's a good enough idea it won't leave you alone, I expect.

Luisa said...

What a brilliantly written post. I loved reading it. Here's to many flourishing novels!

The Write Woman said...

Oh yes - I must confess to having buried quite a lot of corpses in my time! Some of them have tried to get back up again after they're dead, too - and I've had to kill them off a second time!

PS: loved the robin!

CarolineG said...

Thanks, Geri, Luisa and WW!

Geri, hmm...I do think this one is never to be, sadly. When I found myself thinking, 'Why do I have to write it? Why won;t someone else write it?' I knew it was doomed...

Susannah Rickards said...

What a fab post. So many hard truths in among the wit. I guess that's why so many novelists have a few manuscripts under their bed. My WIP was in danger of being structured to death, so this is timely wisdom. Thanks.

CarolineG said...

Thank you, Susannah. I'm sure it's not too late to save your WIP from death by structuring!

emmadarwin said...

Great post! It's true about not talking your novel out. Mostly, I think, as you say, because then you've slaked the urge to tell the story. And partly it's because at that stage a story is very vulnerable, and you can be knocked off course by all sorts of superficial reactions. Anyone can make anything sound silly, and you won't know if they're right till you're much further into the book.

I once started a novel with a post-card, and friend (who liked my work) looked at the front page and said, 'Oh, I hope it isn't full of letters, I hate letters in novels.' So I dutifully eschewed them for years. Guess what The Mathematics of Love is formed of and around?

But matter persists, and the souls of dead stories live on. If the ideas were worth writing, they'll be worth writing again, either deliberately (A Secret Alchemy has elements of virtually all its predecessors), or you'll just find that your core ideas and concerns just keep reappearing. Like staring at your newborn and realising that she's got Great-Aunt-Gwen's chin...

emmadarwin said...

Meant to say, by 'has elements' I mean elements of ideas and characters, not chunks of prose. I think it's very difficult to dust an MS down and re-work it into something satisfactory, not least because you're not the same writer that you were five years ago. The joins will probably always show in style or structure or both. Plus it's awfully easy to get lured into staring at slabs of it and thinking, 'Well, it's fine, it does the job, I'll leave it in', when actually the individual trees may look fine but the wood doesn't work at all.

Whereas it might well work to leave the old words un-exhumed, and start procreating afresh. Betcha it'll have its father's eyes...

CarolineG said...

'Plus it's awfully easy to get lured into staring at slabs of it and thinking, 'Well, it's fine, it does the job, I'll leave it in', when actually the individual trees may look fine but the wood doesn't work at all'

Oh gawd, that brings me to problems with the WIP, but that's another story!

I like the idea that souls of dead novels live on..

Emily Gale said...

I think your post has come into my life just in time, Caroline. I've been "about to start" a novel for a couple of weeks and very unlike myself I've been making copious notes instead of getting on with it, which is not my usual style at all but this time I have a publisher breathing down my neck asking "What's it about?" Replying "I don't want to talk about it" doesn't seem to be an option, but I don't want to discover the story in note form - I love the thrill of finding the story along the way.

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Fab post and isn't it strange how it seems timely for a lot of people? I'm thinking about book three, and relising after reading this that I'm doing an awful lot of thinking, planning in my head...What is this? I'm a panter! Now, where did I leave those pants that I fly by the seat of? Its time to WRITE!

emmadarwin said...

Emily, 'I don't know what it's about yet' is a perfectly good response. If you can think up a single line, so much the better, but it can be a line which describes the opening situation, not the story.

One of the things I'm slowly learning is how to tell agents/editors etc. what I need, which may including NOT saying things about what I'm doing, not showing them work in progress (I never, ever do that) and so on.

Emily Gale said...

I'm sure you're right, Emma. I think it just takes a while - after that grueling time in search of a publisher - to settle back and concentrate on how you work best rather than fretting about the publisher losing interest.