Editing and Time

Quite a combination…

A few days ago, I entered a competition by writing a short story about celebrating New Year’s Eve. As with everything I write for submission, I went over it many times and made a few changes here and there. When I was finally happy with it, I pushed the submit button and fired it out to the competition website. All was then good in the world.

Until last night…

I was tucked away in bed watching a little known TV comedy in the UK called Count Arthur Strong. (Personally, I don’t think it’s that good, but it makes me laugh so it’s become one of my guilty pleasures.)  This particular episode was about problems with changing the clocks back (and forward) for Daylight Saving time can cause problems.

After it finished and the credits rolled across the screen, I had a light-bulb moment…

The ending of my New Year’s Eve story had the main character lose his clock minutes before midnight so I ended the story with him starting ‘a steady count to three hundred’.  Not a problem? Well, my brain suddenly reminded me that I mentioned the time was 23:57 when the clock broke.  Three minutes is not three hundred seconds and so the final line that the whole story had worked towards fell completely flat.

I’d read that story close to three dozen times picking out grammar errors and tidying up the text to meet the word count.  On each run through, I’d completely missed the emphasis on the content of the story. Fortunately, I contacted the website and, as I was still within the submission period, they let me resubmit my corrected version.

So many times I read that we writers should keep the internal editor away whilst we write.  This particular episode has taught me to allow the writer back in when I edit.

Should you stop mid-flow?

Kingsley Amis once wrote, “the best treatment for writer’s jitters is seeing to it that you stopped the previous session in the middle of a chapter or scene or paragraph and so are today merely going on with something, not starting afresh.”

Now, this isn’t the first time that I’ve heard of this particular technique. On one of the creative writing podcasts that I listen to, the host was interviewing an author who proclaimed he did something similar; he tries to finish his writing day not when he was struggling to force out those last few sentences, but when he was mid-flow and muse was screaming into his ear.

There are two reasons that this resonates with me and they come from differing ends of the scales.

Firstly, I’ve had the times when I feel like my hands belong to someone else as they flitter across the keys and the blank page quickly begins to fill with black text. For me, however, those periods are few and far between and I’m not sure I dare click “save” during that creative storm on the chance that the lightning may still strike the next day.

Secondly, I’ve spent so much time staring at empty space on the PC screen that (for good or for bad) it has become part of my own writing regime. I see the white rectangle as a challenge and use it to motivate myself to start writing. I’m not sure how much of an achievement I’d feel by simply continuing on from a block of text that I hadn’t ‘finished’.

The problem I have with this technique is that whilst it may reduce the amount of downtime due to writers block / muted muse etc. it seems to do it at the expense of your most productive periods. Furthermore, if you’ve reached a point where you’re struggling and paused for the day, you’ve often got a few hours (and some sleep ) to work on what to do next. Using Amis’ technique, I can’t help but feel the block hits a lot harder, even if it is much less common.

Oddly, when I use an analogy of pushing a broken-down car along a road, I can see the merits of just pushing often enough to keep the car moving as opposed to giving it a huge push and then waiting for it to stop before pushing it again. (That reminds me, World’s Strongest Man should be back on TV soon.)

As with all of these techniques, some work better for some, but not for others. So, whilst I don’t think I’m going to consciously adopt this particular approach, I’d be interested to hear from others who work this way and find it useful.

The Funnel; a believability technique.

The funnel, or cone, is a principle that can be used to keep writers on track as their novel progresses both in terms of character and plot growth. Imagine a paper funnel, or cone, and view it side on.

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From this perspective, visualise the large, left-hand opening of the funnel to be the start of your novel. Then, moving from left-to-right, the diminishing funnel is your novel progressing. Naturally, the right-hand point is the end.

The idea is simple and abstract. The funnel provides you, as a writer, with an ever reducing set of constraints that should relate to your character. Whilst these constraints should not prevent your character from growing, or experiencing a wide character arc, they should prevent you from damaging your character in terms of believability.
funnel2At the beginning of your novel, you have the ability to dream up whatever you wish for your character – she could be a pirate, a scientist, an acrobat or even an amoeba! At this stage you have an unlimited number of promises that you can make to your readers. However, as soon as you begin to put pen to paper, the funnel constraints automatically begin to lock you in. From this point onward, it becomes more difficult to present brand new information to the reader.

For example, if you introduce your character as a mild mannered, gentile soul you shouldn’t really have him using dual Uzi 9mm hand guns suddenly half-way through the novel. Without any real foreshadowing, this would place your character far outside the boundaries of the funnel and risk turning the reader off.

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Whilst it is possible to achieve this, you should trickle the hints / information slowly to the reader to be able to maintain believability and, thus, remain within the constraints of the funnel.  The further out of the funnel, and the length of time your character exists outside of the funnel, affects the believability of your character. However, if, by the end of the novel (and the end of the funnel), your character is still outside the funnel, then you may fall foul of the old deus ex machina syndrome to pull things back in.

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For those who don’t know what this term means, it is a breach of plot believability introduced at the end of a novel to tidy things up; think of your protagonist waking up – it was all a dream! Deus ex Machina

One quick point I want to add is that the funnel can be extended to include plot. However, this can be considered dangerous if not managed properly. With plot, the funnel still has a start and end, but it sits over the top of the character funnel and allows a higher-level of constraints to be available outside of the character.

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The benefit of this is that it allows you to suspend belief of your characters as long as you remain within the constraints of your plot; a teenage boy flying around his bedroom is somewhat fanciful as it stands, but if the plot puts him on a world where everyone can fly from puberty onwards, it remains believable.

The disadvantage is that if it is done too often, or for too long, then your characters fail to grow properly and end up being driven on by what the plot demands of them

To finish, I’m going to mention a couple of films that I’ve watched recently as examples;

Good: Falling Down. If you watched the first five minutes of the film, then the last five, you’d consider the character unbelievable. However, the film introduces scenarios that break down the will, and normality, of the protagonist which allows him to exists, for times, outside of the character funnel. But I think that the plot funnel manages those spikes well as it portrays an extreme, yet believable, vision of a bad day at work.


Bad: The Expendables 2. Too many times our heroes face sudden death only to have Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris pop up out of nowhere to save the day. To pour salt on our wounds, Chuck Norris states on a number of occasions that “I only fight alone” but we often see him fighting alongside the Expendables. Believability is (pardon the pun) blown all out of proportion in this film and we find it difficult to see any characterisation beyond the real-life actors – they may as well had just used their real names.

Note: some people would suggest that, after watching the first Expendables movie, introducing famous action stars in cameo roles would fall within the plot funnel. However, I would argue that a viewer would need to have seen the first movie to understand that those expectations have been set.