23 September 2022
Rachel Elliott, author of Flamingo, on how starting from scratch is never starting from scratch
I’ve always been drawn to outsiders – people at the edge of things, the margins. The quiet ones, the underdogs, the voiceless; the dissenters, nonconformists; or the scrappy, nervous, lost. These are the stories that interest me most. And one of the joys of writing novels is the scope for inclusion – I can give anyone, or anything, a voice. But this is also my biggest problem.
I have written three novels, and this ‘problem’ has been there from day one. It was first detected by my agent. After reading the original version of my first book, Whispers Through a Megaphone, she explained – with her usual blend of tact and kindness – that I had included many different characters, which was fine in itself, but I had given space to each of their stories. Maybe I had overshadowed the three people this book was actually about?
She was absolutely right. This was exactly what I had done. Which left me with a daunting task: The Big Rework. How to tackle it? I wanted to remove several characters completely. I wanted to change the atmosphere. I could take a delicate approach, carefully removing unwanted elements, making space for the main characters to expand into. This was the safest option, and the quickest too, or so I thought. A reassuring number of words would have remained in place. But it didn’t excite me as much as the idea of pulling the whole thing down.
Does excitement matter when it comes to writing? It does to me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over time, it’s how important it is to try and savour the quiet process of writing, to be in the present moment instead of looking ahead. As Annie Dillard famously said, ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’
So I started from scratch, with music and memory. I usually write with music playing, but this time I created playlists for each of my main characters – songs that captured their mood, personality, or something of their situation. (I’ve continued to do this with every novel.) I opened a new document, wondered what would happen.
And what happened was this: I had so much fun. It was liberating and immersive, which I think stalled the self-doubt. I kept nothing from my original version, but nothing went to waste, because starting from scratch is never starting from scratch when it comes to writing. The three main characters were still with me, and I gave them a new environment, more room to move. The process felt almost architectural – it was about space, light, design – and my blueprint was memory. It was surprisingly fast, I was finished in a few months, and this novel was published the following year. As we finalised the text, my editor suggested the idea of ‘brushstrokes’, to use her lovely term – detail painted in for texture, depth or clarity.
I haven’t repeated such wild demolition. But I still give too much space to peripheral characters, I think it’s part of who I am. I’m fascinated by people, by how we all see and experience our lives, which is perhaps why I’m also a psychotherapist. With my second novel, Do Not Feed the Bear, I gave an incidental character whole chapters of her own. My editor asked if this was necessary. The answer was no.
By the time I wrote my latest novel, Flamingo, I was super alert to this. Or so I believed. Again, I devoted several chapters to a minor character because her story had enchanted me. Did it work, her inclusion? Yes. Did cutting her back, as my editor suggested, allow something more powerful to happen? Also yes. In one of the spaces I created while editing, two characters in Flamingo began to dance. And their dancing was beautiful. And it wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
And there’s the rub, the paradox of fiction. Novels embody an author’s questions, searches or fascinations, but we also have to overcome these for the sake of the story, so it can breathe and unfold, find its form. We have to get out of the way.
Rachel Elliott is the author of Whispers Through a Megaphone (longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction), Do Not Feed the Bear, and Flamingo – published by Tinder Press and available here
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