False Starts and Oranges

False Start (Definition):

  1. Athletics, etc. a start in which one or more competitors cross the starting line, etc., before the signal is given.
  2. An unsuccessful beginning to anything, esp. one that is followed by a successful start: after two false starts he managed to write his essay.

I make many false starts when I begin a new piece of writing. Sometimes, it is not until I have written a piece in its entirety that I decide it needs to be re-done in a different tense/voice/point of view. It is not unusual for me to change a story from first person to third then back again to first, or to write a story in present tense only to later wade through and change it to past tense, then, later still, back to present.

Author, Cathy Day, had written numerous drafts of her novel “The Circus House” in third person before realising, “… it wasn’t a third person story at all. It was first person narrated by a storyteller’s voice”.  After finding this narrator voice, Day revised all the third-person stories. That, she said, was when the book “… really started to come together.”

In relation to the ‘planner/pantser’ dichotomy, I definitely sit more comfortably in the ‘pantser’ camp and, perhaps, pantsers generally have more false-starts as we ‘figure the story out’ along the way?

At a workshop I attended some years ago, Cate Kennedy suggested being clear on who is telling the story, why and to what end. She encouraged writers to ask, “What will one viewpoint allow me to do that another point of view won’t?”

I recently started writing my second novel, a story I have been thinking about for a few years, waiting to have time to bring it to the page. The first four chapters flowed fairly smoothly; I knew who my main characters were, their ages and, broadly, the issues they were grappling with. But in the past week, I have had a major re-think and am now wondering if I should write the story as an historical piece, with the main character much younger and facing different (but related) challenges. I’m wondering if the initial chapters were a false start.

Of course, once we move beyond the false starts and have a complete story to work with, we must then determine when our story is finished. That is, when we have got it ‘right’? Recently, I posted this Truman Capote quote on twitter:

“The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.”

I have been guilty of submitting stories before they were ‘absolute and final’. In the rush to meet a submission deadline, I have ignored weaknesses in the narrative. I now try to pay attention to my inner voice when it snags on a word or a line, or a scene I know (but don’t want to acknowledge) isn’t quite right. I’m not worried about the false starts – they will always occur and are part of the process of getting the story’s natural shape, but at the other end – after that last edit – I have begun to ask myself, “Is it as final as an orange?”

2 thoughts on “False Starts and Oranges

  1. This is such a comforting post Karen because I think as writers we often feel ‘lesser’ somehow if our stories don’t initially work – as if we’re not sufficiently talented, or not writing in the correct way. It’s so reassuring to know that many of us have starts, changes, stops, revisions etc.
    Being a pantser, too, often it takes me a lot of thinking, re-writing, or even scrapping much of a story & saving just one paragraph, to work out where I really want to go.
    Hoping one day I’ll write that perfect, round orange 😉


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