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Phill's Blog

The First 50K Words Are the Easiest!

I’m working on Aftershock, the follow-up to my novel Paradise Girl.

In a couple of previous blogs I’ve talked about how when I came to write Paradise Girl I did it as a ‘pantster’, working with an overall idea and shape but basically making it up as I went along. Because Aftershock is a follow-on I already had some of the characters and the general situation, so I it seemed best to plan the whole thing carefully first. I therefore became a’planner’ and wrote a detailed 10K word synopsis complete with beginning, middle and end. I used some of what I’ve learnt from the excellent (and highly recommended) Into the Woods by John Yorke to ensure a well-shaped narrative structure. I thought that this would be a good opportunity to compare and contrast the two approaches to writing, because at heart I’m a pantster, but that sometimes means I waste time by going up blind alleys; being a planner might be more efficient.

I’m 50K words into Aftershock and I’ve now got to the hard bit! You see, I know how it’s going to end – I even know what the last sentence will be (spoiler: it contains a 4-letter word!) – but I have to get the reader to that point. The story has unfolded, all the cards are on the table and it’s time to start resolving things. The problem is, how do I tie up the loose ends most effectively?

It’s the old ‘show’ v. ‘tell’ issue. All the creative writing books you read, and all the editors you listen to, and from what I hear all the creative writing courses too, stress the importance of showing (i.e. giving the reader the evidence which will enable them to construct the narrative for themselves), rather than simply telling.

Showing is good. It involves the reader, but better still it makes them think, and this means that each one of them becomes a partner in the creative process. When I did my English degree the course stressed the central role of literary criticism. In other words, the writer sits on one side and the reader on the other with the text between them. Both make an input, and although there are broad parameters, the detail of the outcome is different for each reader, and it probably includes things that are new to the writer too. The act of reading, therefore, becomes a creative process.

Take Hamlet, for example. Shakespeare could presumably have had Fortinbras (or whoever else might be left standing at the end of the play!) explain to the audience exactly what had gone on. Why Hamlet delayed his revenge, what had motivated Claudius and Gertrude (there are hints that it was more than simple, raw lust), whether Hamlet knew what he was doing when he stabbed Polonius, and so on. All these and many other questions could have been resolved in that way, answered by the author. But the play would have been poorer and would also have lost much of its magic. And a lot of critics would have been out of business too!

However, telling is good too. Agatha Christie solved the problem by getting all her major characters together and having Hercule Priorate explain to them – and therefore to the reader – who had ‘done it’, why and how. Conan Doyle did the same, with Holmes interpreting the events of the story for Watson and telling how he’d solved the puzzles they presented. It’s an approach that gives the writer the opportunity to make clear exactly what has happened in the story (so the reader doesn’t miss anything) and how they want them to see it (so there are no misunderstandings). Many other murder mystery and thriller writers, and a lot of ‘Victorian’ writers of all genres, adopt this method. It’s economical with words, it’s clear, it helps the reader understand what’s gone on (look for those ‘ah ha’ moments) and, when well done, it leaves everyone satisfied. Best of all, it not only wraps things up neatly, it does it quickly too.

A story is, after all, something you narrate. Children will clamour for you to tell them a story, not show them a story (unless of course they’re wanting to see a video). The trouble is, adult and YA readers are not children, and we’ve all read books which are facile and tedious because there’s too much telling. In the hands of a master (or in the case of the venerable Agatha, a mistress) telling can be very effective. However, giving the reader the raw material to reach their own conclusions holds greater power. The downside is, it takes a lot of doing and requires a lot of words. As an illustration, I could tell you the moon is made of green cheese (telling); or I could send my hero, an astronaut, on an expedition there to bring back samples which are then analysed, and you could drop in on a conversation about the lab reports (showing). The latter would be more interesting; it would also be harder to write and it would take a lot more words.

So 50,000 into Aftershock, I feel that really I’m just starting, and the hard part lies ahead. Now where’s that plan? 

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