When doing text work with writers or actors, an image I come back to again and again is dropping pebbles into water. Whatever the size of the pebble and whether that water is a puddle or a river, if you drop a pebble in it you will get ripples. The rings move outward from the point of impact and dissipate until the water settles. If an actor talks too fast – or the writer responsible stuffs in too many ideas or just doesn't spread them out enough – the text will be too dense to sink into the audience’s mind. You need to give enough space for the ripples to dissipate before the next idea/pebble is dropped. Writing works the same way.
At the pre-agent stage, a writer doesn't have an external voice directing them towards an uncluttered, sleek pace. It can be difficult to find the right space and weight for characters and concepts, difficult to avoid overwhelming meaning with quantity. But, on page or on stage, if the meaning isn't coming across there’s no point buying the ticket/book. I am not advocating minimalism here: I'm warning against it, at least in the early stages. A final draft is a very different thing. That’s been edited with the equivalent of a director, lighting designer and stage manager. At the drafting stage, the splurge can be easily overlooked in the politeness of not wanting to hog the limelight.
Hog the limelight.
How? All you need is vomit.
Vomit Your First Draft
The ‘vomit draft’, should you be able to face it, is the best thing that can happen to a writer or their book. I'm stepping back from my usual ‘every writer is different’ here*. Turning off your inner critic/editor/English teacher long enough to finish a vomit draft is a massive thing to achieve but it’s still easier than noticing you've lost years to an editing addiction and still don’t know what you think happens at the end. Seriously. If you can, splurge. If it’s not beneath your dignity, or squeamishness, Jackson Pollock your draft all over that computer. You cannot edit something you have not fully explored. Write the hell out of every passing thought in your first draft stage. Make your words count by fully exploring them. Drafts should start off long because you are exploring what’s underneath the small words that are left. The thing about words is that they are only real if they are effect, not cause. They only work if there is something truthful, real and physical going on underneath them. Do not apologise for them. Give them all the space they can stretch to.
Keep a Writer’s Diary
Having created more space on your blank page (okay, your perception of it), do the same with your week. You will create a couple of hours just by labeling them ‘writing’. It also gets you into the habit of labeling other things and seeing where your time really goes. You will get an insight into what your creative periods really are (not always when you think they are) and whether you are, in fact, slaving over a hot notebook/laptop at what are your brain’s right times. I’ve been a big fan of the Mslexia Writer’s Diary, which Green Ink Writers’ Gym will be in for the first time this year. The thing about a Writer’s Diary is it doesn’t just offer advice, information and competition deadlines; like anything you look at in your space every day, it underlines who you think you are.
Invest In Your Layout
Presenting a manuscript to a reader – whether it’s Penguin Random House or your mum – a good amount of white space will let them know their effort is respected and generally get them onside. If you don’t invest in your layout, you set the writing at a disadvantage as surely as the actor who talks too fast and doesn't give the ‘ripples’ of each idea time to dissipate. If you wouldn’t turn up to a job interview or first date without paying attention to what you look like, neither should your manuscript. If you do, don’t be surprised when someone else gets the job. White space is the new black.
Space: Taking and Filling It
Tip 1: Use no more than you need – Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill (2007)
The third chapter of this modern gothic ghost story is two lines. Our protagonist placed the McGuffin on top of a cupboard and ‘decided to stop thinking about it.’ Hell, do we know that’s not going to work…
Tip 2: Say no less than you want – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
In Year Eight when I’d just discovered a) sarcasm and b) letting fiction say the things you’d get told off for saying or doing yourself, my protagonist in Diary of an Unwilling Student complains that if she wrote a sentence as long as the one Charlotte Bronte is ‘allowed’ on the first page of Jane Eyre, my English teacher would ‘skin me alive’. I hadn’t yet understood about language and literature going through fashions just as clothes and music do, and that contemporary taste dances along with them. Sometimes I’m still angry that both Hemingway and Eliot are ‘allowed’ to do things I can’t; what I realize now is that I need to know the rules of my time enough to communicate, but use rather than follow them. Jane Eyre was already my favourite book, so I suppose I was being sensible and questioning what I loved as well as what I hated. That’s another reason it’s a good idea to…
Tip 3: Keep a book you love on your writing space. Refer to it, think about what you love and how you have a chance of getting it out there. Like the Writer’s Diary, it’s a constant visual reminder of who you are, of owning your physical space.
Tip 4: Make a template on your computer for your chapters. If every time you start a new chapter you already have the margins, you are less likely to break your thought train.
I'm off to play with Scrivener, as I'm thinking of leaving Word for it (jury out and tweets welcome – what do you think?). I'm also going to check when the new Writer’s Diary is arriving. Go and write a chapter before I'm back in two weeks, please.
* I’m not. Every writer IS different and there are good writers breaking every rule going – but try the rules to work out which ones YOU need to break. And, if there’s one you probably won’t, it’s this.
Rachel Knightley is a freelance writer, director and teacher. She runs Green Ink Writers’ Gym, resident at Waterstones Piccadilly, for writers of all genres and levels of experience. As Green Ink Theatre, she produces an annual Sponsored Write and new writing showcase, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support (Waterstones Piccadilly, Tuesday 18 October). She teaches Creative Writing, Speech and Drama from home and in theatres, schools and universities. www.greeninkwritersgym.com