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What I Wonder: Writing as a balancing act. Do I keep or change or adapt?

December 20th 2022.

Yesterday I wrote for a heady 8 hours. I ended the day by reading aloud what I’d been working on to my husband. The final question left resounding in my mind was a discouraging: oh damn. Is this flat?

I wondered whether, in my recent focus on plot, I might have neglected voice.

So this morning I took myself out for a hot chocolate. I tried to read through what I’ve been working on the last few weeks, but my brain couldn’t see it clearly. I journalled instead, which is how I usually unstick and encourage myself - recalling what progress I have made.

After reflecting on how the week in general had gone, I wrote this question to myself:

How is writing going?

And because fair few of you said you’d be interested in hearing more about my writing habits and processes, I though I’d share my reply.

At the moment, I wrote to myself, writing is a balancing act.

A month ago, I really wanted there to be more action in my opening scenes, so I’ve been working really hard on that. I’ve worked on a more rounded antagonist; I’ve developed her role in the story – coming up with what I think is strong idea to integrate her better.

The result of all this work, I noticed last week, was that antagonism possibly weighs more heavily in my opening scenes than it actually should. I’ve swung the other way. It’s only the first half of the first book of a trilogy. I want it to open with a bang, but not spend all my bangs (as it were) in the first sixth of the whole thing.

Now, the poor opening chapters are stuffed so full of intrigue, mystery, problems and threats (and I’ve got so excited writing them) that it would be easy to miss the central element of the book – which is meant to be relationship.

So this last week I’ve been correcting myself, trying to pare back my swashbuckling-ness to a healthier balance. The mystery thread I’d been cramming into the first 6 chapters, I’ve considered stretching over the whole first book.

I’ve also turned my attention to scenes that are much gentler in nature, that deal with the central relationship. They’re slightly slower scenes, and I want them like that. I was working on one of these scenes yesterday, tidying it up.

Quick pause while I explain what I mean by, tidying it up.

I’ve had this world and its characters in my head since I was 13 years old. I worked on it intensely for a few years back in my early twenties, and as a result, I actually already have 60,000 words. I think that 60,000 words is actually the messy first draft of two books, not one. But some of the scenes and passages of writing I’m really attached to, because they feel like the original.

So ‘tidying,’ is the messy process of reading and assessing chapters I’ve already written. I’m checking them for viable plot and pace. I’m questioning everything, sifting through the interweaving elements of the story to make sure they balance each other correctly. I don’t believe that all old writing is bad writing. I also notice, when I write new chapters that I think are necessary, that I actually am a better writer now than I was at 25. It can feel like I’m choosing between new life and old originality.

Some novelists swear that good writing only happens in the re-writing. They say that ease of form is only the result of arduous redrafts. Others return that you overbake your writing when you re-work too much, taking it away from it’s original pace and flow.

So as I ‘tidy,’ my older chapters, I am trying to protect the original pace and flow and life. My original ideas are good. I’m also trying to be honest about the weaknesses and replace things that, even though I’m sentimental about them, don’t actually work.

Keep or change. Or adapt. Keep or change. Or adapt.

It would be simpler, possibly, to hide the old manuscript in a drawer and write the whole thing fresh from the beginning. I’ve attempted this with a couple of chapters. What comes out is really lively and strong. But I nearly always come to a sentence and think – ‘I’ve already got this right in the original draft. I’ll just go get it.’ So I open up the original document and weave the two together.

I seem to be settling on adapt – as opposed to purely keep. Or purely change.

The hardest element of the book I must apply this ‘Keep/Change/Adapt’ question to – is tense. It’s really important to me that the characters have a strong voice. This usually comes with a first person, present tense narrative. But it’s also really important to me that the book reads like the novels I’d like it to sit alongside – a middle grade tradition of writing that sticks to the third person past tense.

So, I spent yesterday ‘tidying,’ one of my slower, relational chapters. By the end of the day, it was tidy (plot-wise) and I was pleased. Then I read it aloud. That clenching feeling came into my throat. And as I've said I thought- damn, is this flat?

My ever-kind brain replied: You idiot. Surely, voice is everything.

Plot-wise it is stronger, which is good, I’ve been working on that. But voice-wise – maybe it isn’t?

I said before that writing in third person past was important to me. and it is, but when I was 24 and writing this, I don’t think I had grasped some of rules of writing in that form. For one, I leaned too heavily into the omniscient narrator voice, over the imbedded character voice. I – the narrator – would comment on my characters actions, sharing information with the reader before the characters themselves knew it. I also head-jumped, which is where you jump from the point of view of one character to another mid-chapter.

Both of these things, I now understand to be ‘bad form.’ Now, bad form in writing is a fluid concept and seems to change from one half-decade to the next. But I do agree that, for middle-grade and teen readers especially, head-jumping is confusing. And omniscient narration keeps you out of the head of your characters. And to keep a 13-year-old turning the pages, they need to inhabit the mind and problems of your Main Character.

So why stay in third person past tense at all? – my husband asked last night. If voice is so essential, solve that problem by changing it to first person present. Or first person past. Or third person present!

I go back and forth on this one.

Firstly, I’d be nervous to go whole-hog present tense- because it seems to me that it becomes exhausting for the reader when stretched over a three-book story. I think it’s incredibly engaging for a short novel. But I *think* that it wears on longer pieces of writing. Suzanne Collins wrote in present tense for Hunger Games. And wasn’t the first one electric? And didn’t it wear by the second and third?

The books I’d most wish to emulate stick to third person past tense– Harry Potter is written like this. So are Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. So also is the recent Middle Grade runaway hit– Skandar and the Unicorn thief by A.F Steadman. There seems to me to be something reassuring and recognisable about the third person past in middle grade fiction.

The solution? Stay in third person past – but give the reader a lot of internal dialogue – the character’s thoughts. And external dialogue – conversation between characters. Stay with one character at a time and don’t describe things that they wouldn’t personally think or see.

Again, I’ve avoided total change or total keep. I’ve leaned toward adapt.

Still, you’d be amazed how much I slip into narration, rather than character voice. I’m actually so ashamed of this that I’m embarrassed to say so! It feels like admitting that I can’t do a forward roll.

But listen to this:

‘Pandora woke, rolling over to release the arm she’d slept on during the night, and waited for the blood to rush back into it. Her face hurt.’

Then compare it to this:

She wasn’t at all sure about this. A hair-brained scheme. A disaster waiting to happen. But she was doing it anyway. Obviously. Because it might work, and then all the others could stuff their nay-saying back up their noses.’

The first extract is third person. The second extract is still third person. It just feels like first.

The shift is incredibly subtle. But it makes all the difference. The second version is what I like to call ‘sparky writing.’ When I don’t hit that tone, it can feel flat. Not bad writing at all. Just not as good as it could be.

It’s obviously discouraging, to feel you’ve just gained clarity in plot and pace, only to realise that you may have missed the most essential ingredient- voice.

It doesn’t mean (I don’t think) – I should write the whole thing in present tense. Or first person. It just means the balance between description/narration and voice is off.

I want to not have noticed. I want to not care. I want to ditch the whole thing and start from scratch- writing it all ‘fresh,’ from the beginning.

I don't seem to be able to do either. I'm trying to preserve the original, and I'm trying to bring to bear on it all that I have learned in the last five years.

So today I sat down to try and write something sparky. And honestly, I managed 500 words and they were not sparky at all. So I went to a coffee shop and wrote this instead. I don't know if that's progress. But it's something. And tomorrow, I will try for sparky again.

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