Saturday, November 13, 2010

Excavating the interesting bits

I don’t keep a diary.

When I try, I’m terrible at it. I give blow-by-blow accounts of what I had for breakfast, what time I left the house, whether the traffic was bad or not, and whether the cat was in a mood. I tell, not show. Every second sentence starts ‘And then...’. I spend hours and hours writing and get hand cramp.

For special occasions, though, I do try to keep a diary. These things run to eighty pages over three days. I can look back and see what I had for breakfast on my 21st birthday, what it felt like to go paragliding and (ahem) land in the water, and exactly what our room looked like on a particular trip (I do diagrams too).

No one else could stand to read them but me. I use them as a memory cue, and it’s amazing how you can reimagine the atmosphere of a place or a time by reading your own words. The words themselves are, for the most part, rather dull, but it doesn’t matter because they’re hooking into my memory.

Writing something someone else would actually want to read is entirely different. You can’t just go through a character’s day blow-by-blow (except if you’re the writers of 24, and even they skip from character to character). People (for the most part) only want the interesting bits – the boring bits they can guess for themselves. The trouble is figuring out which are the interesting parts and how to get from one to another.

When I write first drafts, I tend to get caught in a blow-by-blow rut. It’s not as bad as my diary attempts, but you can still see the ‘and then...’s if you read between the lines. I get caught up in telling a true account of my fictional character’s day, and use up so many words that when I finally get to the interesting bits, attention has wandered.

Luckily I have made friends with my delete key.

Maybe keeping a diary would help. I would try to write down my day in ten minutes, picking out all the interesting bits and ignoring the rest. I’d get used to focusing in the right places, and wouldn’t have to depend so much on delete. So, a goal for the week: ten minutes a day of Interesting Diarising.

Have you ever kept a diary or a journal? Do you think it helps you with your writing?

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