Friday, June 26th 2020. Homeschooling and the submission of the final set of edits on my fifth published book, The Gallery of Stolen Souls both happened. What a day.
Two – or perhaps four – restorative glasses of fizz in, I turned to my husband and said something I never thought I’d say. “I don’t hate it anymore”, I told him. “That’s good”, he replied, possibly as relieved than I was, having been unfortunate enough to live with me while I wrote it.
Obviously, every writing project will bring challenges – what’s the creative process without a little struggle, after all. And every time you finish a book, published or unpublished, having overcome the challenges particular to that work, you get this idea that you’ve got everything sussed now, and that the next one will be a breeze on account of how positively steeped in writing experience you are. The truth is, however, that you’ve just hit that reached-the-top-of-the-mountain-but-what’s-that? – another sodding mountain! scenario. That is the point where you can either give up, for your own peace of mind, or strap your crampons tighter, dig in and realise you still have something to learn. You need to try some new tricks.
In my defence, my starting block for Book Five wasn’t the steadiest. It’s my own fault – still grieving from three close deaths, I embarked upon a story based around ghosts, murder and post-mortem photography. My research involved delving into the wonderful world of Victorian funeral rituals and lady poisoners. Talk about sprinting to the start line of a marathon. So, when I started the story, I was all deathed out and obviously struggled, subconsciously avoiding having to write about the ‘d’ word, for starters, which clearly wasn’t ideal. My book desperately needed some dead parrots, but my latent brain kept insisting that they were merely resting, stunned or pining for the fjords.
My daily word count was satisfying. Such a shame, however, that it had become mainly a story about a girl stuck in her house. Like a sponge absorbing everything negative in my own life and everything going on in the world, when I squeezed, nothing good was coming out. I was getting nowhere, and I knew it. The work had become less of a pleasurable project and more a fruitless struggle. The damn thing hated me. And I hated it back.
In an effort to clear the mental decks, I’d down tools for periods of time before wading back in. “You again,” I’d say to the WIP; “Do your worst,” it would sass me in return – a provocation that I took literally. Something had to give.
More output wasn’t the answer. Neither was moving things around – rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, as it were. What I had on my hands was dense, wordy and saturated, littered with unnecessary, mundane plot points. It became obvious that the time had come for me to commit some murder of my own. I simply had to get cutting.
And not just a trim either. What the work needed was the literary equivalent of shearing Sheila the Sheep. I commenced a cull – paragraphs here, unnecessary descriptions there, entire chapters were shelved and with the trimming came the shaping, and a sharpening of focus, and with it all came relief. Eventually a story had emerged from under a weight of words. New characters had light and space to come out to play. There was still a way to go, but finally, I felt like I could see where I was going.
Cutting is such a simple solution but it’s hard and feels counterintuitive. It can mean hours of work, thousands of words – each of them sweated over, some of them even quite good – just disposed of with a tap of the backspace key. “My words, my precious words”, you might think. What a waste of time and effort and creativity to cut them out. Those amazing descriptions, literary gems, lost forever.
Cutting – a good slash and burn – is, however, what every writer needs to do sometimes, and it requires bravery, honesty and humility. But ultimately, it’s worth it. Overcoming the urge to be precious about your work and killing your darlings will make your writing sharper and give fresh perspective and focus to your entire process.
It’s actually incredibly freeing. There’s a lightness that comes from allowing yourself to simply discard. Think about how good a haircut feels, or a good chat – unburdening is healthy, pruning helps plants to grow and flourish – it’s the same for storytelling. In Gallery, once I got the taste for trimming, names were changed, aimless scenes and pointless chapters were disposed of. The inner voice of an entire character was even wiped out at the very final stages of editing. In cutting his thoughts, but not his actions, I deleted pages and pages of writing that had taken days of work. In making him unknowable, however, he became more menacing than any description could have done. In shutting him up, I could finally hear him.
Coco Chanel famously recommended looking in the mirror before you leave the house and removing one thing. It’s sage advice when also applied to writing. Make a mental allowance at the outset that a percentage of what you write will be binned for the better and stick to it. Be ruthless and brutal. If that feels too hard, you can always set things to one side and simply pop them back in again if they could potentially come in useful somewhere else. Sometimes, however, they’re simply better gone, making way for something better, or clearing space for the rest of the work to breathe. sometimes the strength of the finished product is in what you don’t say, rather than in what you do, and you might like your work even more for it.
(c) Helen Moorhouse
About The Gallery of Stolen Souls:
In 1860’s London, change is on the cards for down-at-heel photographer, Samuel Temple, when he is commissioned by the employers of the enigmatic Mrs Watson to capture a special portrait. Little does he know, however, that the subject of the photograph will spark a dark fascination inside him, one which takes his life – and many more – in an increasingly sinister direction.
In present day Dublin, Louise Lacey is drawn to purchase a beautiful old camera for her home as a symbol of change in her own life. The arrival of the antique, however, triggers strange and terrifying events and Louise reluctantly becomes aware that she is no longer alone.
As Louise reluctantly investigates the source of her haunting, she is led into danger she could never have imagined, as it becomes terrifyingly clear that she is the victim of dark obsessions, both past and present.Order your copy online here.