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Big to little, little to big

After last week’s monster of an email, I want to offer something shorter and a bit more Zen this week.

So, the normal advice to authors is to proceed from big to little. First, get the basic idea for your novel. Hammer out your elevator pitch. Plan the novel out around that. Find the big markers first: set up, basic trajectory, denouement. Sketch out your character in the broadest strokes first. Define the basics of setting and theme.

Then go round again. Add more detail. Make sure story is talking to character is talking to setting is talking to story.

And again round, always refining the details, taking that first big vision and translating it into a useable blueprint.

Then you start writing. You bash out a draft, with Jane Smiley’s advice in mind at every point: 

Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist.

And then you edit, working again – as before – big to small, big to small, big to small.

First you check the major plot turns are working, that your story-seals are watertight. You check that the basic structure is OK.

Then you might get onto pacing at a relatively gross level: is this scene needed? Could we compress these two chapters into one?

Then smaller and smaller, until you are fixing sentences, turning 12-word sentences into 9-word sentences and noticing that, gradually and over time, the whole book is getting faster and lighter in the water. Better. More saleable.

I said at the start with this was the ‘normal’ advice and it is. I give it myself. I think that the basic model is the way to go.

But …

It’s not the only way to go, is it? The week before last, I wrote an email (here) about one author’s attempt to secure an agent. The gist was that the author was great, she’d done our UNWC course which is super-great, and an agent LOVED her work, yay, … except that the agent ended up saying no anyway. The email turned into a bit of a meditation on elevator pitches and trying to stay true to that basic original vision with every page.

OK, All standard, wholesome fare. Except that when I do these emails based on the actual experience of an actual author, I always change names. A Kay might become a Carlotta, or a Carlotta the Mighty, or a Silesian princess called Karolina, or whatever the heck.

On this occasion, the author who inspired my email was a woman with a normal Anglo-type name beginning with J. I wanted to stick with that opening initial and find a woman’s name that appealed.

I went to one of those baby-name finder websites and scrolled through some Js. The name that most appealed was Jaroslawa, largely because I just liked the sound. Then I noticed that the root of the name means ‘fierce and glorious’.

So my Jaroslawa become an “accomplished circus trick rider, a part-time intelligence officer, and a highly skilled swordswoman”. In line with her general fierce gloriousness, and her ability with a sword, I said that when she received the agent’s rejection she “smote the heads off a couple of cabbages with her swordstick.”

There wasn’t any strategy here, no plan for the future. I just wanted a name beginning with J, found Jaroslawa, then discovered I had something ‘fierce and glorious’. Once I wrote the line about cabbages, I toyed with the idea that, over the course of the email, she would go through her entire kitchen garden decapitating vegetables.

That idea felt tempting but hard to deliver – how do you decapitate a runner bean? – so I took a different route, and gave her a castle, a forest extending to thousands of acres, and a hunt that accounted for a stag, some badgers, and so on.

Then she was in Ukraine, meting out justice.

Then finally, she “uprooted fourteen oak trees, tore the top off a mountain, hurled a cloud as far as Ireland, and quenched her thirst by swallowing a waterfall.”

In other words, she started out colourful but ended up in the realm of pure myth. And, because in the end we were only talking about agents and elevator pitches and the actual author involved quite likely does not have a castle or an extreme lust for bloodsports, the whole thing was pleasantly absurd as well.

Was the email better for those flights of fancy? I think it was. Indeed, if the email lingers in the mind, it’ll probably be because (a) there was a ridiculous flight of fancy that involved castles and cloud-throwing and that kind of thing and (b) there was some modestly helpful advice about elevator pitches.

The point of this analysis is simply this: I didn’t start out with the whole castle-and-cloud idea at all. I simply looked for an appealing name beginning with J. The whole thing started from there.

So yes, please, in general plan from big to small, write from big to small, and edit from big to small. That’s good advice and I mostly follow it.

BUT: be open to the purely adventitious. If you see something glittering and golden, then stoop to pick it up. Turn it over and play with it. Quite likely, the gods and masters and The Big will tell you that the geegaw you’ve just picked up will play no part in your book. In which case, OK, set it down.

But maybe not. Maybe by making time for this small, interesting thing, you end up with a strand in your book that would never otherwise have been there. I can think of countless examples in my own work where that’s been the case.

One small example: in my first Fiona Griffiths book, I had her be bad at cooking because that seemed like a sensible character move. But that little random element grew to be a significant running joke through the course of the series. At one point, she blags her way onto a commercial trawler pretending to be an experienced ship’s cook. That was a neat little plot device, of course, but it also tied up with my readers’ delighted awareness than anything involving Fiona and food was going to go catastrophically wrong. A minor early decision delivered on a larger scale much later.

A bigger example: at one point, I knew that my next Fiona Griffiths book was going to be about kidnap, and I started plotting out a perfectly sensible story around that basic idea. Then a clerical friend of mine, with an interest in church history, told me something about medieval anchorites, and my book took an amazingly different turn.

Big to small is always good, always right … but my goodness it’s also very sensible. And you’re an author, or want to be, which isn’t very sensible at all.

So sometimes, yes, pick up the little thing and allow it to derail the bigger thing. It’s fine doing that – a lot of fun – and your book will get better.

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Comments (1)
    • Interesting post, Harry.

      Only a fool passes up a golden opportunity to advance themselves/their work/their knowledge. 

      It seems to me that, whether plotter or winger, the first draft is exactly the place one should experiment. Inspiration after all comes more frequently at times when we do not expect it. Maybe going large could be a part of the plotting process? In which case we end up with two first drafts. 

      As seemingly no harm has come of you unleashing Jaroslawa onto the world, I shall rest easy and pack my pistol and antique Norse hammer away for another week! 

      Wishing you and yours a lovely Jubilee celebration!

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