Friday, 12 October 2012

Chaos and Shape

The story so far, should you give a damn, is that in March, my editor told me something. I’m improvising wildly here but it was along the lines of; “The ending of the book. I like it. But I think it belongs earlier in the narrative. It would work better placed at the end of act one.”
I took this in for a moment; sequenced my thoughts. “So what happens for the next two thirds?” I said.
“New stuff” she said. The penny dropped. Ah. You mean – you’re asking me to write a new book. And she was. I think I took it pretty well – they talked me down from the roof, gave me brandy and took it in turns to slap me hard across the face for a while. The next morning things looked a little better.

Seven months went by; I finished the virtually brand-new novel, and – wouldn’t you know it? – my editor was right. It’s waaay better, not because I’ve become Hemingway overnight, but because the shape is so much neater. It is, I think, a coherent and shapely piece. I choose the adjective advisedly my friends because when I was but a student I used Jerome Stern’s book ‘Making Shapely Fiction’ quite a bit. (Not enough to learn its lessons, evidently, but still.)

If you’re not familiar, it’s a whole bunch of clever creative writing exercises, a list of dos and don’ts and an alphabetised dictionary of good practice all in one. Stern’s introduction to his book is interesting. He uses the idea of shapes as a vehicle for the organisation of exciting but unconnected narrative strands. “Shapes” he says, “show you how they can become fiction.” He goes on to cite an apparently common experience of writers, who begin by producing a story they’re pleased with. It just works. “That success” he goes on to say, “gives a pleasant confidence that’s dashed in the next story, which turns out to be a multi-limbed mess. In the first story, you probably had a natural shape that kept you from problems you didn’t know you couldn’t handle.” Hold on a sec, Jerome – multi-limbed mess? That was me! So shapes keep us from encountering problems we didn’t know we couldn’t handle. I like that. The book’s got a decent sized toolkit of interesting shapes and each has a short chapter devoted to it: Iceberg, Fa├žade, Bear at the Door, Gathering and so on. What isn’t there of course is ‘multi-limbed mess’, a shape I excel at.

So I’m hoping this lesson has stuck. Someday, I’m going to plot and write another book, and, if I’m lucky, work with an editor to knock it into – ahem – shape. I made it through the trauma this time, but I swear, if I put myself in a position where I risk getting the same advice a second time, I’ll spare everyone the trouble and just jump off that damn roof.