Strangling the Gardener – Things I Learned

When you finish the first draft of a novel, your natural instinct is to tell someone. The predictable response amongst writers is for the listener’s head to detach and start rolling through the air, drawing breath through unknown means and screeching the word ‘rewrite’ until the walls begin to close in. Dark circles blossom beneath the wallpaper. Is it blood? It might be.

This advice isn’t bad, but it does represent a kind of scattergun approach that many writers take to teaching the craft. There are maxims: ‘read more’, ‘rewrite’, ‘loathe yourself’; which are hollered at caps-lock-strength across the blogosphere, presumably for the sake of upblogs or diggs or whatever else is used to show public approval. Writers learn them quickly, distill them into snappy blogposts (ooh, aggregatable!), and pass them along. Little is really learned. Now I’m going to take the part of the screaming head, performing aileron rolls through complex rotation of the ears as I tell you what I’ve learned in the process of rewriting the same novel nine times.

Asking someone to read more is all well and good, but to learn style you must read closely. To learn depth you must read critically. To learn anything that you might apply to your own writing, it isn’t enough to read – you have to study. Reading the entire works of Terry Pratchett will qualify you to love him, but you won’t be able to turn a phrase like him until you dissect the books, take them to pieces – figure out what they do to you, and why.

Reading chili

Chili! That’s the analogy I’m reaching for. Watching someone make a pot of chili won’t teach you how to make chili. You can read a student cookbook and follow it closely and make something that is definitely chili, but you still won’t really know how to make chili. It’ll be a bit bland, a bit easily savoury. You might add some hot sauce to make it ‘real chili’ and then it’ll all go tits-up. No. You learn how to make chili by eating chili for ten thousand hours, by tasting all different kinds of chili and finding the ones you like, then eating those until you find yourself complaining that variant #312-b lacks the vital richness of the butterbean, and that the endlessly-spawning endochili from the spice bushes of Gamma-IV has one shake too many of Worcestershire sauce, compromising the delicate balance between umami and sweet. Your knowledge is now specialised, and tart. You might be a little lost in the office Bake-Off discussions, but you understand – really understand – how to make chili. You pack your chili up with a professionally-worded tasting note and send it to a publisher, making sure to follow their submission guidelines. It spills in the postbox. You’re under investigation for destruction of mail, and no-one will publish your chili. Jail time.

Recap: the student cookbook is a ‘writing advice’ blog, or possibly some literary reviews of dubious character. It’s the endless maxims you’ll get if you ask for tips on the internet. You will see people who repeat these lessons writing things that you like, or even admire, and you’re painfully aware that whatever you try you aren’t quite reaching the same level as them. Your stories are bland. They’re easily formed and grow into pale, lifeless things. All they say is, ‘Keep writing! Keep reading!’, and you do, but it just doesn’t seem to help. They’re giving you the wrong maxims. Here:

  1. Read what you like.
  2. Find what you really like and read it closely. Write a review of it, thinking carefully about its structure, how the characters play off of each other and how their actions influence the plot (or the other way around). How do the characters change? Certain things made the book better – but why?
  3. Write down the things you learn. Argue with them, and yourself, until you learn more things. Write those down. Repeat. Keep a list of these things and knit them into a story of your own. Finish it. Review it. Learn more.
  4. You’ve learned a lot about writing this thing you like. Read more widely until you find something different you like. Rinse and repeat.

Yes, this is just ‘read more, write more’, but these are the implicit things people aren’t telling you to do, because good writers have learned to do this in the background, semi-consciously.

This is meant to be a blog about what I’ve learned in the process of rewriting. That is what I’ve learned. I also learned this:

Plans are stifling

You might feel like plans are empowering, but they aren’t. At least, the feeling that your plan is keeping your story on track is an illusion. No matter how hard you focus or how many thousands you funnel into the sticky hands of sticky note manufacturers, you will always get to the end and find that your finely-tuned mechanism is actually full of holes. Characters veer off-course, important motives vanish completely, and the necessity of future events robs your characters of their volition. Let’s say you plan for Alfred to strangle the gardener in Act II, which leads to the begonias in the front garden dying in Act III, which in turn leads to complaints from the neighbours, who uncover the crime in Act IV. You then sketch out a real, living Alfred who has his own hopes, pains and nuances. He becomes a fleshy, believable character. The more you work on him, the more free will he develops (that is to say, in a pretentious writery way, that some behaviours start to seem more in-line with his character than others) and the more natural his choices seem. Alfred is growing. However, your entire plot hinges on him strangling the gardener, and you now have to restrict Alfred’s development so he never becomes someone who wouldn’t strangle the gardener. Congratulations, you’ve now murdered the person Alfred might have been. His character will be less real, less relatable and less interesting because your carefully-set-out plot has caged him.

That’s an extreme example. You’ll probably notice if your murderer isn’t murdery enough and fix it – the real threats to your story are the details. Places, objects, interactions; all elements of a plan that dictates where your characters must be, what they must have, how they must live. By adhering to a narrow view of the story you will be forced to walk straight past more interesting routes that you never would consciously design. The subconscious is always ticking away, forever creating new stories and knitting themes into clever patterns, much cleverer, more subtle and original than the things you clumsily throw together from bits of old tropes in your conscious mind. Good plots, in this way, aren’t made. They are grown. I blew a hundred thousand words before I noticed my plot didn’t work. Characters did U-turns from self-involved to politically-driven because the set future dictated they must, and they missed out on fulfilling their potential as a result. My story sabotaged itself.

So, lesson #1: don’t strangle the gardener.


One thought on “Strangling the Gardener – Things I Learned

  1. katieclysm October 29, 2015 / 3:48 pm

    I am often shocked by the level of wisdom that you have with regards to life and writing. And not just a little bit envious, because when I was 23 I was still at the tail end of trying to be a Gillian Flynn “cool girl”. This is an excellent piece and really explodes pithy advice into something that is actually digestible and useful.


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