Kill your darlings; cut, cut, cut; start in the middle of the action, get out early… all great advice for short-story writing. And I know it works. But for a couple of weeks I’ve been stuck on a draft, and I can’t see a way through. Each time I cut a paragraph, or re-write dialogue, the new version looks better; until I realise I’ve made it worse. I might as well delete the page numbers, throw it all up in the air and start again.
I know this is how I work, but I hate this bit. When I start a piece, I have only the slightest idea where it will end; and no clue what will happen on the way. One of my writer friends, on the other hand, waits to start until she knows where she’s going, and how she’ll get there. I just have to get it down – then try to work out what I’ve got.
So I try to cheer myself up by looking at old stories and drafts. On my pc are over a dozen versions of one piece, that I began five years ago, and which only recently achieved its ‘final’ shape. It’s encouraging to look at the end result and remember the struggle to get there; but it’s also strange – as if it happened to someone else. And surely it wasn’t as painful as the current one is proving to be? (My pain pales into insignificance, though, beside that of US author Richard Bausch, who turned an 800-page novel into his short story, All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona. How? ‘Just like a kidney stone is passed,’ he told interviewer Carole Burns, for her brilliant book ‘Off the Page’: Norton 2008).
I make tea, pace about, and stare out the window, where the garden path has disappeared under a sweet pea vine. Not the ladylike, scented sort, but the hooligan variety that rampages across everything and has no scent at all. Every time I go out I feel the splat and crunch of flowers underfoot. I’m cross with myself, cross with the flowers and bored at the thought of tackling the job. I’m busy! I don’t have time. And I’m meant to be writing.
But something is niggling at my writing brain…
Before I know it, I’m kneeling on the path with my secateurs and twine. I untangle the main vine stems. In places the stalks are knotted together; some of them snap, and can’t be kept. Tendrils are getting in the way, or connecting to the wrong stem. Too much flowery growth: not enough structure. Is my story the same? What does my main character want? What’s his secret, that drives the narrative, and reveals his motivation at the end? On the vine there are lots of shoots going nowhere: I pull them out. I find the four strongest stems, and tie them in. I cut off the extra flowers, and put them in a vase.
I go back to the story and try to look at it afresh. I wield my story secateurs – the Delete button. Cut, cut, cut. I find the structure, and clean it up. Everything must serve the story. Give it room to breathe.
Not there yet: but it’s reading better. There’s clarity, and forward movement.
Outside, the garden path has re-appeared. The vine is covering the ugly fence. And on my desk, there’s a vase of sweet pea flowers.