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Lots of people think writing is easy, or should be easy.

If you have an imagination, you can tell a story – right?

But that’s like saying if you can imagine a house, you should be able to build one. Surely there’s nothing too involved there? Dig a foundation, lay down some bricks, build four walls, throw a roof on top – what could possibly go wrong?

It annoys me (I’m easily annoyed) that people think that writing is easy, like writers can sit at the computer and hammer out 9,000 words in a single sitting. No problem.

Unfortunately not.

Writing is painstaking. Whatever’s in your imagination has to be articulated onto the page. You need to find the right words to build the right sentences. The right sentences need to construct the right paragraphs. The right paragraphs need to evolve into a narrative that makes a cohesive chapter. Each chapter has to contribute to a compelling story. And within all of these constructs – even the smallest ones, like finding the right word – there’s so much that could pojssibly go wrong, e.g. a lack of clarity, overwriting, repetition, etc.

As a writer, you’re always evolving – at least until your mind packs it in. But as you’re evolving, you’re learning. You discover new ways to do things. You also learn where you’ve been doing things wrongly, e.g. you might have an over-reliance on exposition, or have favourite phrases and words that you use (every writer has them – I used to love ‘ominous’).

As you learn, the filter through which you write changes, so you curtail these habits – not all the time. Early drafts should be a spill. The filter can act as a net to catch some stuff, but you should always just aim to get everything you need onto the page, and that doesn’t mean stopping to check every keystroke.

With TFSoLY, I’ve bullet-pointed a number of things that I’ll have to either go back and revise, or write into the story. They’re not small things, either. If they were, I’d do them right now. These are big, BIG things. But, right now, it’s important I get the rest of the story down, so I’ll know how those earlier parts will need to work when I do go back and attend them.

Something I’ve found extraordinarily helpful is what I call my Shit List. This is a list of words or phrases that I overuse.

Once I’ve finished the early draft, I’ll run a FIND & REPLACE, highlighting every use of these words or phrases.

Some examples from my Shit List:

  • eyes / gaze / glance / stare / look: an easy habit to fall into, connecting the characters to other characters and/or the environment.
  • turn: my characters are always turning – turning to or away from other characters, or to look at things.
  • spun: my characters are always spinning – dramatic flourishes and all. How can you not love a dramatic flourish? It’s a reason we should still wear cloaks in today’s society.
  • seem: I’m often writing that something seems [fill in whatever comes next].
  • just: my Pantera editor, Lucy Bell, picked up I overuse this – I’m unsure why. I think it’s just become ingrained.

There are others, but these are enough as examples.

When I worked as an editor, I found a lot of these common – especially the eye action. Writers love eye action. (And the word ‘suddenly’, which I refuse to use anymore – it’s such a melodramatic way to inject urgency.)

Just Another Week in Suburbia is approximately 80,000 words, and went through about thirty drafts – including some sizeable cutting of things that didn’t work, and writing in new material (including a whole new final act). August Falling is approximately 83,000 words, and went through at least twenty-five drafts – including writing in some new complementary scenes to round-out the story

Now, by drafts, I mean I read them from the first word to the last word (and some scenes and/or chapters repeatedly). That’s a lot of reading and revising. In the case of Just Another Week in Suburbia, that’s reading roughly 2,400,000 words to get those 80,000 words as right as possible (with help from feedbackers, and my wonderful editor Lucy).

People who aren’t writers or editors see only the final product, and don’t realise how much work goes into getting it as good as it can be.

Writing’s not easy.

(This was actually meant to be a post about mental health – well, I guess that can come next week. Sounds ominous, hey?)

 
Last Week’s Lie: I claimed I’d been bignoting myself. I’d never do that.

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You will rarely write anything where you don’t – at some point – hit a stumbling block, a wrong turn, or a dead end.

I hit my first wrong turn in TFSoLY, which is a result of me still trying to feel my way through the world and find out more about it. I like the introduction of the two central characters, but then I wanted a tour of the protagonist’s daily life.

Only the way I was doing it wasn’t working – a wrong turn.

Taking a wrong turn is a bigger problem than hitting a stumbling block or a dead end. A stumbling block is a minor annoyance – something you can work through. Often, with a stumbling block you can use a patchwork solution that will hold until revision provides alternatives. You hit a dead end and that’s it. You know that’s not the way to go and you need to take a different way. Usually, that’ll take time to discover. You might ruminate on it for hours, if not days (and, granted, there’s more extreme cases).

But in taking a wrong turn, the words are coming. I happily wrote 500 words about Luke’s daily professional routine. We got to see the bar/bistro he worked in (as well as learn a bit about its history), and met two of his co-workers, as well as his boss. I could’ve gone on and on. But, as I wrote, the editor in me was examining the scene and declaring it was already too long, and if I continued it that it would grow longer without adding too much to the overall story.

When this happens, I always correlate it with trying to find exactly where I want to go. It’s like driving to a location you’ve never been before, and only having a rough idea of how to get there. You might have to take a few wrong turns and explore a few wrong streets before you work out that’s not the way to go. But in taking those wrong turns, you usually will work out the right way. The problem is how much time and energy you waste on exploring those wrong turns – hopefully it’s not so much that you become disenfranchised with the whole project.

Ultimately, I cut the scene and stuck it in a new file – TFSoLY (EXTRACTS). I’ve done this for all my major works (books and screenplays), archiving these cut scenes, the way DVD and BluRay releases of movies nowadays feature DELETED SCENES.

Interestingly, Just Another Week in Suburbia and August Falling didn’t need EXTRACTS files because the early drafts emerged relatively well-formed. Still, to be fair, after Just Another Week in Suburbia was selected for the Hachette Manuscript Development Program in 2013, the wonderful Bernadette Foley – then the fiction publisher for Hachette – gave me such precise feedback about what I should be looking at in the early draft of JAWiS, that I cut and rewrote about one/third of the book, which then became the draft that Pantera Press accepted. Those cuts now exist only in earlier drafts. Such cuts weren’t required from August Falling, but my fantastic editor at Pantera, Lucy Bell, provided me such comprehensive feedback that I worked out what areas I needed to develop.

Anyway, the biggest extracts file I have is 8,000 words, which is not a bad effort given it’s for a novella that’s only 20,000 words. In that case, much of the original openings were cut. For one of my screenplays (which ended up being optioned in 2006), I got to 95 pages (of an intended 120), felt it wasn’t working, and cut 90 pages and started over. I have heard of authors who’ve cut much, much more of their work.

But now I do feel I’m on the right course. I’m sure there’ll be other wrong turns, but I like the way TFSoLY is going.

 
Last Week’s Lie: I said while handwriting my book way back in 1985, I’d survive on a diet of tea and cigarettes (true), or seven or eight Red Bulls. That part of the sentence is a lie. Red Bull was created in 1987 in Austria, and didn’t arrive in Australia until 1997.