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Making the skeleton dance

A friend is suffering from something which I think we all are at risk of: a passionate desire to write something, and a poisonous sense that everything they might write - every kind of character, situation, theme or plot - has been done before. And better. And worse. And in corsets and in spaceships and in Brixton. So why bother? What's the point? How can any of us, ever, say anything new? Anything worth writing, let alone worth reading? Let alone get it published? And I found myself replying like this:

There's a bird's-eye map you have in your head, a big but un-detailed map of the whole bookish terrain. You can see an awful lot of books, but only their most obvious features. And in those obvious features, they have a lot - too much - in common. Yes, there are only seven basic plots, and if you reduce a book to it barest bones - the blurb, the elevator pitch, the synopsis - it'll look like one of those seven (which is why we hate constructing those so much).

One reasons stories like fairy tales and myths seem so archetypal - are the archetypes of all our stories - is that they don't have particular, individual detail. Stepmothers are bad, princes are good, trees are trees (only oaks in Victorian dressings-up of them), cats are magical. There are very few individual motivations or peculiarities - it's all generic, in the true sense of the word - because we're dealing with the basics of human interaction (see Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment for Freud, Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots for Jung). Which is why we have such fun with re-tellings and modern fairy tales and things: they play with the bare bones of our archetypal stories like a skeleton dancing at the Day of the Dead, and dress them up in silly clothes so that we re-see them. Of course fiction isn't like that: we have a couple of millenia of drama and now novels dedicated to bringing alive the individual human consciousness, from Oedipus to Hamlet to Hedda Gabler.

So, "It's not the subject, it's all in how you do it!" we cry, and it's true that what makes a book itself, rather than something else, is how those basic bones are fleshed and clothed and made to dance. That can sound trite, but only if you think of "how it's done" as a matter of window-dressing, of style over substance. But, actually, "how it's done" is about substance, because it's substance that the reader reads. They experience that world as substantial: full of texture, solidity, things and people, bricks and mortar, ravens and writing desks, which you build and make convincing, as Gardner says, by making everything particular: individual, peculiar to itself, a little surprising, a little bit new, not what we knew exactly, or so exactly what we knew that Granny's writing desk (or raven) lives again.

This is one reason (in fact the main reason) that I don't read fiction reviews, or booky blogs, or Amazon stuff or other chitter-chatter about books. And I don't browse the fiction in a shop as a pleasant way of killing time or staying out of the rain. The only books I really know anything about, if you see what I mean, are books I actually decide to buy, and then read. All those other ways of knowing about books - picking up the minimal details of lots and lots of books - just stretches that bird's-eye map even further, like the kind of computer game which draws more of the island as you move. It shows me the terrain, which I might otherwise explore for myself, entirely in terms of other writers' footmarks. Then I only have the choice of walking in one set of footmarks or another. Whereas if I haven't seen it thus, with the paths trodden and the snaps posted, it's all there for me to explore. And since I'm a different person - because everyone is - and so a different writer, my portrait (not map) of my journey over the terrain and what I write about it, will be different.

This is also why I have rather mixed feelings about the frequent injunction to "study the market", which is said so often by editors (and therefore agents) who need to sell books which do what they say on the tin, to readers who know what tin they're looking for (which is most books for most readers). Of course you should read well and widely of the kinds of book you're trying to write, but I think that understanding of the kinds of bones that your story's going to need (mixed metaphor alert!) is best acquired not by mapping the terrain from a helicopter, but intuitively, by prowling through the jungle. You want to be entering the room - or rather the jungle - with an electric torch, as Virginia Woolf puts it, not judging it as an artillery commander.

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Fundamentally, saying "it's all been done" is a bit like saying "But I've done sex". Yes, you have, and yes, it was with your gender of choice - there are only two, after all - and yes, unless you're into something really weird, the possible permutations and actions are actually quite limited. And yet each combination of you, the moment, and the partner of the time is different, whether it's one of the gourmet weekends of your student life or a friendly quickie with your spouse of twenty years.

Thinking of which, I got very stuck recently, because the classic situation (yes, it was that kind of situation) I'd spent half a novel setting up suddenly looked like not a trope but a cliché. And if it was a cliché, who was going to care about it? I certainly didn't. I got stuck for the rest of the day. It was only when I went back and re-read quite a bit (which is something I almost never do in first draft) that I re-discovered these characters' particularity, and that of their situation. And then I could realise and write that scene as it would have been to them. Our characters, after all, don't know that they're clichés, they're just humans in human situations. They're real people to themselves, and so we should be able to make them real to us.

So that was my main idea. But it has a tailpiece - a coda - because anything which can stop you in your writing tracks is a costume hung on a peg in the wardrobe of your Inner Critic. I said:

On a completely other tack, could it be your Inner Critic? The anti-writing demon? The part of you which is in charge of protecting you from writing? The Inner Critic is a master of disguise, and can put the right costume on for the situation you're in at the moment. Saying "it's all been done" is a very good disguise for the Inner Critic, because it works powerfully on the well and widely read. It hasn't managed to persuade you that you shouldn't be writing because you're no good, nor because you should be saving the world or schmoozing the boss or baking for the PTA cake sale, so it tries something else: "It's all been done".

No, it hasn't all been done, because YOU haven't done it yet.

 

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