the days go by…

Filed under: writing

I haven’t put up a new post here in a long time. Partly, it is the fault of Twitter, and partly, it is the fault of me. Anyway, I was looking at the great gap here between posts, and I realised that the gap is pretty representative of what I’ve been wrestling with in my writing lately.

I’m a chronological writer; I construct my stories cumulatively. The emotions, the events, the language all builds up as I write, and I could never, for example, write the climax of the novel before I’d written most of the middle. I might (and probably do) know what happens, but I couldn’t write it properly, without having to change it a lot after I’d written the middle, because I tend to add little objects and secondary characters and jokes and themes and just general *stuff* that I like to use again and tie up loose ends.

In my opinion, the advantage of this is that I’m able to build up the significance of events in an organic way. There’s a certain resonance of language and I know that the characters are following a coherent and reasonable sequence of behaviour. I know that I’ve got the character arc in the right order, and I know that my scenes are going to be relatively varied in setting, tone, etc because I can see what’s come before and plan what comes next.

The disadvantage of this is that it can lead to plodding.

I hate to skip stuff when I write.  I find myself a horrible pedant when describing action and when a character enters a house, for example, I have to physically restrain myself from describing how she finds her keys, unlocks the door, opens the door, walks in but only a step or two, closes the door, takes off her shoes, hangs up her coat, puts her keys on the table, walks down the hall to the kitchen, etc etc forever and ever to the point of infinite boredom.

So you can imagine how difficult it is for me to write a story about a pregnancy, say, without documenting EVERY SINGLE twinge, ache, puke, test, scan, appointment, and stretch mark.

Non-writers think that the hardest part of writing must be making the stuff up, but we writers know that’s not hard at all. We make up stuff as easily as breathing (sometimes, in hay fever season, it’s much easier to make stuff up than to breathe). We make stuff up about the people we pass on the street, about the lost sock on the pavement, about the bee that’s landed on the rim of our coffee cup, about that weird noise we heard at 3.23 am this morning.

The hard part is selecting what’s good and necessary. Knowing what’s okay to skip because it’s not important. Knowing when it’s okay to skip something that’s quite important but sum it up later, because it is important but not so important that it needs a whole scene to itself. Knowing when to combine two or three important things together into one scene because alone they’re not so important but together, they’re dynamite.

Skipping things drives me crazy, but it has to be done. So much of writing is selection and shaping of the big messy story that’s in the writer’s brain. And however much it pains the anal, pedantic part of me to leave big gaps in my story—if it’s done well, the reader never notices the big gaps at all.

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  1. Good to have you back!
    This is really interesting. I write chronologically too – I’ll occasionally sketch a scene out of sequence but I find it much harder. But re selecting, feel I do the opposite – skip blithely over things I’m meant to show, because they’re so obvious the reader must know about them, no? Or … I don’t need to dramatise that conflict, do I, because X mentioned it in that bit of dialogue … (smacks self on head).
    Good luck!

  2. Good to be back, Nicola! And looking forward to seeing you on the 28th.

    I wish I could skip blithely over anything at all… Funny how one writer’s difficulty is the exact opposite of another writer’s, eh?

  3. This is such a good post.

    I’m not a natural chronological writer but I have found, painfully, that it’s the only way to stay sane.

    Mind you, there are times when I write a scene because I have to know what happens but I also know that I’ll cut it out in the final draft. Readers aren’t anal. Well mostly.

    • What do you naturally do, Jenny? Do you just write the highlights first and then fill in, or do you skip all around? Why does chronological writing help you stay more sane?

  4. Julie this is a very timely post for me. I too find that as I’m picturing a scene in my mind, it’s like a film and I have to write down everything that’s happening to make sense of it. Weeding the dross out is soooo difficult but so necessary. I shall remember your wise post today as I sit down at my laptop…

    • I think you’re right, Cara, it’s because of being visual…if you see the scene happening you tend to want to write everything you see. But you don’t need it all!

      Nice insight, thanks. Good luck writing today.

  5. I couldn’t agree more about chronological writing. I tried writing an ‘important’ scene out of time-order. After wasting my time checking other chapters to see whether it fitted properly, I abandoned it and went back to sequential order.

    The important chapter turned out to be totally unimportant. I condensed the whole thing into a paragraph which was snappier and did the job perfectly.

    • I get quite a few scenes like that, Alison.

  6. I can’t skip scenes either, but get so worried about putting in too much detail I often end up skimping instead and have to go back and put more in later on!

  7. Such a timely post for me too! Often when I go back through a scene when I’m finished with the first draft, it becomes so obvious where I’ve added in extraneous details or skimmed over what could be an emotional moment in the scene. But at the time I’m writing it, it’s rarely so clear.

  8. This is soooo me! I thought I was the only one in the world that did this. Getting from A to C and missing out B is something I just can’t do. I’m editing a first draft but I had to rewrite chapter one – it’s been a nightmare to get right. Now I have to write a transition to ease that new first chapter into an existing second chapter which will also have bits cut out of it. My head is spinning!

  9. This is exactly where I’ve been the last week or two, also! I have to write in order, and if I haven’t finished A I can’t write B and C will never happen. But the other week, A turned out to be The Scene That Never Ends. I had one thing I wanted to accomplish in it, but the build up went on and on and I couldn’t seem to stop writing all the boring stuff that went on during the day before the important thing happened.

    Then I finally got past it, wrote scenes B and C, and realised, for some reason on a train somewhere near Reading (no, I REALLY WAS) that The Scene That Never Ends was actually The Scene I Don’t Actually Need. Which made me annoyed that I’d spent so much time on it, but I had to write that to find out. Dammit.

  10. Details, details… The devil’s in them.

    Wonder if you could help with this one?

    A lady slips in the shower and hurts her shin. She wraps herself in a towel which covers her from her chest to just above her ankle, and limps out of the bathroom. A friend comes in. They both sit down in armchairs facing each other. The lady says she’s bruised her shin and shows the bruise to her friend.

    Now, my query is about the towel. It’s wrapped around her; but, obviously, she’s not wrapped herself like an Egyptian mummy- otherwise she couldn’t walk. Therefore, one “side” of the towel is “open” or “loose”. But either of those words suggest that one of her legs is permanently or frequently exposed, which wouldn’t be the case.

    Her injured leg is on the same side as the wrapped towel’s “open side”. What I’d like to describe is the way the lady, in a sitting position pushes aside the “folds” of the “open side” of the towel with her foot as she raises her leg slightly to display the damage to her shin. Any ideas, please, such as ways to describe the “open/loose/unfolded side” of the towel?


  11. Is the towel actually important? Is there any reason why the reader needs to know exactly how the towel is situated…for example, is it going to be evidence in a murder, or become a new fashion to wear a towel in exactly this way?

    If not, and as the bruise is in a fairly inoffensive and easy-to-see place, I suggest “She showed the bruise to her friend.” I think the reader can figure it out, if they care to.

    Any help?

  12. I rather think you’ve solved the problem here, Julie. It looks like I was trying to use a sledgehammer on a nut that didn’t actually need cracking!

    Thank you.

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