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2021: Celebrating The Writers' Greenhouse
10 YEAR anniversary!

Monday, 3 November 2014

Things I've learnt: write for the illustrator

I wrote Rope of Words over a period of 5 years: this series of blog posts is about its writing process and the various illuminations that came from sailing straight into the rocks at every turn. At least I have the advantage of hindsight, to know the story did work out in the end. The artist who illustrated it shared her process from the outset, with no such reassurance! You can see excerpts and images from the book here.

The Woman Who was a Bitch

"She wept wordlessly and with the wisdom of Solomon, they set about cutting the words in half: nim and bus, puta and tive, helio and trope, fir and kin, even and song. When they came to the odd-lettered words, though, neither could bear to destroy a letter, so they split them naturally, if unfairly: she got hoar and labe; he frost and astro. Each would leave with their half, knowing that there were certain things neither would ever be able to speak again."

I'd started Rope of Words as a fragment that gathered dust for another three years and picked it up again as a play project, when I needed something not too scary to work on. A friend of mine was also looking for a play project to find her way back into illustration after a year out with her new baby. We agreed that I'd write the story for her to illustrate.

One of the things we’re taught as writers, again and again, and that I remind my own students, again and again, is "show and not tell". It's a hoary old chestnut, it's extremely important, and it’s often difficult to do. It’s so easy to slip into just telling the reader what happens instead of showing them.  This is especially true when you get to emotional content.  I struggled with this massively, at one point in this story. One of its many dead ends was three pages of ghastly turgid purple prose, because I kept on describing what her emotion was like. That never works in stories. The story, starting strong and then trailing off into all that wearisome, overblown writing, went back in the drawer. (My friend, meanwhile, had already found another play project to work on.)

I only pulled the story back out in January 2012, two years later, when I decided I wanted to enter the BFS Short Story Competition. Those three pages were still a mess, I was still trying to describe what the emotion was like, but how could I actually show it?  And then I went back to my original discipline of writing for the illustrator, and decided I was going to be strict about it.  Every single paragraph had to have something to draw in it, and it had to be something different from the paragraphs around it, and it had to be something that would be cool to draw.  And that completely resolved the show-and-tell problem.

Surprisingly, it also meant that I sheared away all my character’s interiority: you never go inside her head, because everything is happening on the outside, like a fable or a parable or a fairytale. That was exactly what I'd wanted to capture, in my own idiosyncractic take on magical realism: that every psychological and emotional moment is something that happens, in story, not just an interior process. It also reminded me of the value of using the discipline of other art forms in my own writing and how much that enriches my work. When I get too focused on just the writing, without time to play with paints and guitar and food, I lose some of the richness and fun.

I still use write for the illustrator to resolve problems in my writing, even in completely different genres: each time the writing is getting limp and heavy, freighted down with a whole lot of thinking about stuff, I ask myself: "What would the illustrator draw here?"

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