The Joy of Restraints: deadlines, themes and wordcounts.

BY CATHRYN BURGE

In theory, writing a story which might be included in an anthology seemed like a wonderful idea. In practice, it seemed like a very stupid one. Once I’d decided to go for it, every single story seed I’d ever had promptly withered and died. I wandered around for days trying to shake something promising out of my brain, but to no avail. Cue self-doubt and panic: I’d blithely committed myself to producing something and I couldn’t even think of anything suitable, let alone write it. Worse still, there was a deadline, an absolute date by which I’d agreed to submit a story for publication. It seemed like the only answer might be gin.

Forest. I rolled the word around my brain as I walked the dog. What sprang to mind when I heard the word ‘forest’? What pictures formed in my head?

Teddy bears. Yep, teddy bears. ‘If you go down to the woods’ and all that, swiftly followed by Goldilocks and axe-men intent on lopping the heads of princesses at the behest of jealous step-mothers. Ridiculous, I told myself; you’ll have to think again.

Its knee-jerk tendency towards silliness in a tight situation thwarted, my brain decided to go all poetic and philosophical on me. Death, it urged. Woodland burial! I told it to shut up. It did, and went as silent as the graves I’d refused to write about.

Meanwhile, time was ticking on. Two months had gone by and I still had nothing. I was annoyed that I was even surprised by that. After all, what did I know about forests, I fumed, stomping through the local woods, dog scampering on ahead. Then a miracle happened. Suddenly, it wasn’t me asking the question, but a character, and one who was even less familiar with forests than me. “What do I know about forestry?” I heard him whine. It amused me, so I listened. “I may have a checked shirt,” he went on, “but that doesn’t make me a lumberjack.” I could have hugged him! Well, I suppose, I did. Basing a story on a character who’d appeared out of nowhere, and who was appearance-obsessed and a bit of a diva, felt almost as daft as my original teddy bears idea, but this guy was all I had so I clung to him and encouraged him to keep talking.

I don’t think I’d have done that if I hadn’t had a deadline to meet, or if I hadn’t been given a specific theme to work on. I’d have waited for my muse to present me with someone – something – loftier … and would have ended up writing nothing at all. Instead, I started putting this irritating character in positions he’d hate and, darn me, if he didn’t start redeeming himself. (Well, a bit. He was still less than perfect.)

So, now I had this character who was completely ignorant about forests, it seemed obvious that that was where he must work. It wouldn’t have been his idea of the perfect job, so I realized he must have been somehow forced into it. But why? His backstory came rushing in. He was unemployed, and living with a friend, not family, and he had bills to pay. He wasn’t unemployed because of a lack of education or opportunities but because he was temperamentally incapable of holding down a job for long because ..? He was superficial and flighty, and believed most jobs were quite simply beneath him.

Before I realized it, my character had started developing a story arc. He had a past (a broken romance) and a present (where he was short of money) and they were coming together to drive his future. (At this point, I may have let out a whoop of delight – or at least a sigh of relief.) Although, when I say ‘drive’, it turned out that my character preferred more of a ramble than a headlong rush. Once I’d got him working on the forestry site, he wanted to flirt with everyone there, set up a few dates and take his time over choosing whom to grace with his favours.

Which is where having a maximum wordcount was a massive help. Left to his own devices, Louis (the best name, I felt, to suit his would-be aristocratic pretensions) would have bored his readers stupid with every little detail of his life. He’d have been talking skin care and fashion ranges ad nauseam, convinced that the whole world would find him as fascinating as he did himself. Luckily for all concerned, story submissions were limited to eight thousand words.

The first to go was the waffle. You know – all those filler words and repetitions that pop out spontaneously when you’re trying not to censor yourself as you write. But even then, I was still over the wordcount, so the next job was rephrasing, then firming up nouns and verbs in order to do away with adverbs and adjectives. Next for the chop was the unnecessary dialogue, or instances of characters essentially saying the same thing twice. Oh, and all the ‘he said’s and ‘she said’s I’d used when, actually, it was obvious who was speaking.

Some of the cuts I had to make to comply with the wordcount restriction were painful because I was really rather proud of the way they were written, but if they weren’t serving the story, they had to go and, at last, I was left with a well-constructed story where everything made sense.

Or so I thought! It’s amazing how many errors and inconsistencies someone who’s not lived with a story can find. So, after the feedback I got, there was more rewriting and more cutting back on bits I’d thought I’d already pared to the bone. But I did it and submitted the story – even if it was on the very day the deadline expired.

Like most writers, I want my stories to be perfect. It may be a ridiculous, impossible objective but it’s always there, nagging at me. And without deadlines and wordcounts, I’d be tinkering forever. Without a theme, the freedom to write anything might have overwhelmed me. For The Trees might not be Great Art but it’s a story that exists, with characters I grew rather fond of, and that’s thanks to the restraints imposed on it, not in spite of them.


[You can read ‘For the Trees’  in ‘Forest’, available now in e-book and paperback  from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com  and Smashwords (Smashwords is e-book only). – Ed.]

2 thoughts on “The Joy of Restraints: deadlines, themes and wordcounts.

  1. Hannah says:

    This was so fascinating! Writers talk so often about how we ‘should’ write, it’s really insightful to hear about someone’s real process. Not just creation but editing, all the hard work behind the scenes. Looking forward to reading the story!

    Like

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