Help, Mr. King! My polytunnel needs editing

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I have written elsewhere how gardening and writing become mixed up in my life. But just see what happens when you don’t rein in your gardening writing, when you let your setting run riot. Words, like plants, need a certain space to perform well; to be the stars of the show; to say their piece effectively.

I never intend to over-create. In fact my internal critic warns against it, whether gardening or writing. The polytunnel mayhem is of course easily explained: I simply had to  plant out every last tomato seedling. How could I not, when I had nurtured each one through the cold spring months that seemed never ending?

All I can say if you write like this, and then don’t engage in some ruthless excision tactics, you will not be able to find the tomatoes for the overgrowth.

On the fiction writing front, Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir) would call this kind of chaos “a thicket of description”. It’s what happens when writers become too attached to the minutely researched details of their setting, and then feel they can’t sacrifice a single beloved element.

It can also happen when you start a story in the wrong place, and then flounder about trying to write yourself to the right place. It’s like planting all your tall-growing tomato plants at the front of the bed, and then wondering why you, or anyone else can’t see what’s going on behind with short varieties. This, then, is also a setting problem: you have not planned the planting scheme and stuck to it (more or less).

All of which is to say, there comes a point when you have to take out a whole batch of words and shoot them – this so the survivors have room to expand and thrive (the excess tomato plants you could of course give to someone else.)

Stephen King explains the situation further (pp 138-9). He gives an example of using a real location as his setting for a piece of narrative, in this case the Palm Too restaurant in New York. It is somewhere he knows. As he starts to visualize the place, he summons the first four things that strike him. These, he says, are likely to be ‘the truest and the best’ details. He also says he can  make up a few other things too, but there is really no need for more:

“This isn’t the Taj Mahal we’re visiting…and I don’t want to sell you the place…it’s not about setting, anyway – it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story.”

Put another way, you could say that fiction writing is never about the writer. To create, you need to GET OUT OF THE WAY. And the better you succeed in this, the better the story. This is not to say that the writer’s experiences and cast of mind do not inform/infuse the narrative, but think conduit and transit time, rather than compendium drag.

Words are fiction’s conveyance to transport readers out of themselves and into the lives of others in new/penetrating/exciting /inspiring ways. The words need lift, energy, vivacity. Anything that snags transition must be cut.

This is probably the hardest lesson for the starting-out writer to believe, let alone put into practice. But it is a truism: less is almost invariably more. Not believing this is one of the reasons we have slush-piles, and why publishers now mostly shut their doors to unsolicited submissions. It’s the reason why I have too many tomato plants in my polytunnel, when I could have made the best of, say, half a dozen of the strongest plants.

But then as Stephen King advocates, practice (lots of practice) will yield improvement. So I vow to improve in my prose and in my planting. For now I leave you with Mr. King’s brief words on the means to create viable settings:

“The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh imagery and simple vocabulary.”

100_6937 N.B.: use only the brightest and the best tomatoes, and not too many.

Happy writing!

 

Related: Errant muse? But there’s still life at the allotment

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Secrets, conspiracies, tragedy, dark comedy

– a fast-paced novella of interwoven tales

set somewhere in East Africa

Release Your Inner Artist

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We are each of us born brimming with potential, creators in the making. But then something happens – at least for most of us it does. Somewhere between the childhood dreaming, and the adolescent wake-up call we make a decision. For each of us this will be the result of particular, often very painful circumstances, but the outcome will be the same. From that point on we will tell ourselves we are not good enough, and what we do is not good enough and that even if we toil until the crack of doom, it never will be good enough. We give up. Surrender, often before we have given ourselves half a chance. Somehow – through repeated expressions of contempt, denigration, ridicule, bemusement from peers and elders – we learn that it is dangerous to be too extraordinary, and that if we persist in following our dream we will end up alone, and worse still, hated.

At the same time, reinforcing our sense of uselessness, the dominant culture peddles the notion that geniuses are born, and that true talent is ‘natural’. In other words Beethoven’s symphonies, Shakespeare’s plays and Picasso’s Blue Period simply manifested themselves via the gifted hands and minds of said geniuses.

This model of spontaneous creation, artist as divine conduit, somewhat like spontaneous combustion, does not take into account the actual years of preparation that preceded the creation of these works.

To compound this whole misunderstanding of the creative process, there is then the popular belief that ‘inspiration’ is the be all and end all, when in fact it is only the starting point for any work. Added to this are the ideas that you must ‘wait for it’ and thus be someone ‘special’ to receive it at all. Yet in reality ideas do not happen in a vacuum. They  need triggers, and you need to actively invite those triggers otherwise it is indeed a self-fulfilling prophecy; do not engage and sure enough, nothing will come.

I have no idea whether or not geniuses are born rather than nurtured, but my own feeling is that the nurturing has an awful lot to do with it. We all have capacity to create something. We are all artists. What we go on to create, should we be determined enough to follow our inclinations, will be influenced by our experiences, past, present, conscious and subconscious, and by the encouragement, assistance and wisdom we may receive from considerate others.

Sometimes we are lucky to have long-lasting mentors who are generous enough to stand by, ready to open our eyes to new ways of looking and making; sometimes we have to do much of this work for ourselves.  In this sense, then, it is a quest, an honourable labour. The learning process can take a huge amount of time and dedication. It might take a lifetime. There are craft skills to learn and hone, stimuli to absorb and decipher. Most of all, there are failed attempts and mistakes to learn from.  But nothing in this process is ever wasted: every part informs another part, even if you are the only person who knows it is there.

The final onslaught that the dominant culture visits on the creative process is the commoditisation of art, judging it by its selling power. I include in this the idea of competition, and the presumption that it is in some way useful to judge one piece of well-crafted work against another piece of well-crafted work.  Of course it creates publicity, and boosts sales, but this is a distraction from what really matters – the work itself, and how it ‘speaks’ to people.

Creating art is a mediumistic pursuit not a commercial production. Our gut reactions, whether as creators or observers tell us the difference. It is about integrity, craftsmanship and telling the truth at some level. It is about doing the best we can. And we can all choose to take this path, and make of the journey what we will. The things we create are worth creating. So I say again, we are all artists. And if you don’t believe me, imagine yourself at life’s end when you still have hidden, and unrealised in your heart that story you longed to tell, the picture you did not finish, the film script lying in a box in the attic. How does this make you feel – not to have seen them through?

So what are you waiting for then? Set free the captive. Who knows what wonderful things will happen next.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

This post was inspired by Bill at Pinklightsabre and his poem Moon Song for Marz

Thank you, Bill Star

 

Related:

How I Write: telling the truth in fiction

“Tell my wife I am trolling Atlantis…

 

…and I still have my hands at the wheel.”

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My mind seems to be drawn to the sea just now, hence the posting of this video. But what a line this is – “Tell my wife I am trolling Atlantis…” As a writer and teller of tales, I have a huge admiration for the storytelling talents of songwriter, Billy Joel. He is a troubadour of our times (well of mine anyway); a poet, musician and social commentator. So I hope you enjoy this multi-stranded creation, musical flash-fiction if you like, and so well constructed. Please do look at the full lyrics too, at the link below.

The Downeaster Alexa by Billy Joel

Full lyrics HERE