Trying and failing to write a story

When some people see a crowd of dancers moving in time with each other, they are forced onto their feet by an urge to join in.    They start to move slowly in time and gradually pick up the steps as they go.  They watch the dancers around them and modify their own body movements to match as closely as they can those around them.  They become part of the thing they enjoyed to watch and so come to enjoy it even more.

I’d never do that; I wouldn’t dance in public if you paid me a million pounds.  Genuinely.
But I’m not immune to seeing something happen and deciding I’d like to get involved; whenever I read something I am pulled by an urge to pick up a pen and try to turn some thoughts into words.

I’ve always enjoyed writing and I write a lot.  I keep handwritten journals which I update most days.  Not for any reason other than the act of putting pen to paper and building forms with words.   It’s a challenge to take the ideas which live and breathe in my head and see if I can record those ideas on the page.  To see whether I can lay cold, flat words onto the page in a such that when I read them back, they jump from the page and play out my memories as colourfully as before.

I write blog posts too. I’m writing one right now, in fact.  And blog posts are about the only place I write using a keyboard; I still do most of my writing – cards, notes and even professional notes at work – with a fountain pen. Those disposable fountain pens you can now buy have helped to keep me away from succumbing to the scourge that is the Bic biro; I can still flourish my g’s and y’s at the end of a line with a swirl without having to carry a pack of ink cartridges around with me.

My writing thus far as almost always been relatively short.  In a blog post, for instance, I tend to take a small number of ideas, toss them into the air with abandon and then attempt to catch them one by one and bring them back together all within the space of a couple of paragraphs as though I grabbed three clementines from the Christmas fruit bowl and flung them into the air only to catch them nimbly and plonk them back amongst the walnuts and dates.  Juggling clementines rather than throwing and catching them is more demanding of dexterity, and the more clementines you try to juggle, the higher you throw them and the longer you try to do it for, the harder the juggling gets.  The temptation to let one of them drop or catch them all and put them down becomes greater the longer you go on; especially if you’re only used to juggling three pieces of fruit for only a few seconds at a time.

And so when a friend asked if I’d like to contribute something to a written project she was curating, I was apprehensive.   I have never written anything for publication before and wasn’t sure that I should make my first attempt at juggling in front of an audience.  I did take up the challenge though, and although I never got my work across the finish line, the journey to that point was interesting enough to make the expedition worthwhile.

I held ten thousand words as my target and I nervously watched the word counter creep up in Word as I typed.  Some of the chapters started on paper on train journeys and in hotel rooms and got typed up after the fact, and some chapters were born digitally and never knew the freedom of ink on paper.  I got to nine thousand words before feeling the story was told and I should stop.  But the work was far from done.

I have never written fiction before, other than song lyrics and the creative writing exercises back when I was at school so I had no choice other than to apply the same rules I apply when writing factually.   I’d start with the story.  The first priority for me was to get all of the story told.  It didn’t matter whether the prose was terrible or whether points were laboured with repetitive vocabulary; I wanted simply to get the story told.

Placeholders throughout the text set instructions for future drafts..



I was done with the first draft, at least.

But then came the hardest part – to take the plodding, pedestrian verbiage and turning it into a string of imagery-laden sentences of which I could be proud. I set myself the goal to avoid wastage in my wordage.   There should not be a word which didn’t carry meaning.  Not a single word should stand which wouldn’t impact the narrative should it be struck out.   I hacked away all the meat from the bones whilst watching the word count fall, shoring up any gaps I left on the way.

Eight thousand. Seven thousand. Six thousand.  The words slipped away without a struggle

I became ruthless with the fluff I’d written.  The entire subplot about the plant pot was carved out and thrown away; along with the pointless back story for the man who worked at the pub.  The words fell away like the deep vermillion leaves of autumn, forgotten and rotting to brown in a gutter.  What remained was stark and bare; shake it hard and there was not a single leaf left to fall.  Every word had purpose and reading through the story, the plot told hurtled like a freight train towards the conclusion.  I had told the story I wanted to tell, and nothing more.

But in my recklessness, I had thrown away some necessary distraction in favour of a soulless trudge towards boring resolution of plot which hadn’t been given chance to simmer.  I had stripped the burlesque dancer of feathers and fans which allowed only snatched glimpses of a nipple, and left a naked person standing there.  Nobody wants to see that.  And so I had to find some feathers and wave them around a bit to keep my secrets deeper into the act.

And so I set about adding smoke and mirrors.  Shops gained names, characters who passed by in the street gained height and sometimes hats and the world of the story became full again with the sounds and smells which serve not to progress the story but to cradle it as it finds its feet and marches forwards.  Plot points were left unresolved until slightly later and mysteries in the story given longer to smoulder away against the mind rather than snatching them away as soon as they began to burn.

The prose I produced was richer but something was still troubling me.  It took me a while to get there and many times reading through what I’d written to punch my fist through the chest and grab the heart of the trouble.

I had managed to conjure up images with the words and managed to string the words together in such a way that I enjoyed reading each sentence.  The story I had tried to convey had come across as bright as day and as dark as night with at least fifty shades between.  But I’d missed something much more fundamental; the story I was trying to tell was a really crap idea in the first place.


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