The hardest thing about writing is working out what you want to say.
It all looks simple enough. ‘I want to write a story about a robot gardener who makes it his mission to reforest the Earth.’ Great stuff. So you sit down and open a new document and…
Nothing. Nada. Not a sausage.
I’ve just got to the second scene of my latest rewrite of Australis. I’ve known for some time that I wanted the major rewrites to start here but now I’m there:
- Where am I going to set it? The original scene was a cocktail-style gathering, which I always felt uncomfortable about. Now I have the chance to relocate it, but… where?
- Who’s in it? Again, the original was a chance to introduce some key figures (and yes, I know cocktail party = clichéd way of bombarding the reader with names – another reason I wanted it to change). What do I do now? If I don’t introduce people here I have to introduce them later. Who has to be here; who must be shown up front and centre?
- What do they want? This is a little easier: there is a disturbance they want stopped. But what sub-motives are going on around me?
- What does the reader need to know of these sub-motives?
- What tension is there? Tension is what keeps the reader reading. It has to be there; but it can’t be too obvious. Can it?
- What motion is there? This comes back to setting: does the robot gardener have a workshop? Then maybe his visitor is handling his tools. In the cocktail party there will the supping of drinks and the chomping of canapés. But now I’m rewriting my scene in a more open space, who, how and where will people move to?
- How do I give all this information without going into reams of description? How can I be concise whilst still keeping all my balls in the air?
These are basic things but they have to be worked out either before or during the writing. Actually getting the words down – and the choices that reveal character, mood and so on – is the final task.
But even then, even when you know all this, when you think you have all the answers, you still have to get something down on the page. And that’s the hardest thing of all.
Atelodemiourgiopapyrophobia – the fear of imperfect creative activity on paper.
It’s not knowing what to say. It’s not knowing how to say it. It’s everything happening at once as the mind gets stuck in a logjam and can’t clear room to set one word after another.
And it’s just as hard in the editing stage as it is to set the first word on that white blank page. In some ways it’s harder: you have to change everything whilst also keeping everything.
For the time being I’m ignoring character, nuance and any form of subtlety – in other words I’m trying to forget the last of my bullet points. I’m concentrating on the broad strokes. Because, at this stage, any attempt to be note-perfect is bound to fail; there’ll always be something I’ve forgotten to say; something that needs adding. Concentrate on the basics – they’re hard enough as it is.
The first word brings the second. And the third. And on until the whole sentence is out.
And then you might have to delete it all and start again, but at least you know what doesn’t work.
Put everything down. Get everything together. Work on the aesthetics later.