Breaking your back

Published on: 29 June 2009 Author: Patrick Ness

The award-winning author Patrick Ness, writer of A Monster Calls and other brilliant books, became our first-ever Writer in Residence back in 2009. In this blog Patrick gave some advice on writing short stories.

Patrick Ness

As part of my duties as Writer In Residence, I've been working on an exclusive short story for the site. An opportunity to put my money where my mouth is, I guess, whatever the hell that means. Being willing to actually bet rather than just talking smack? Yeah, okay, makes sense after all.

Moving on. I've been working on this story and have, without consciously thinking about it, followed the tips I've been putting up (and there'll be more to come after I finish the story; I'm only one man!).

I've spilled everything out in a super-messy first draft – and boy, am I not kidding about that one – written to a few key scenes, all towards an ending feeling I wanted to leave the reader with.

Which changed about five times as the story unfolded, so there you go, the tips are tips, not hard and fast rules. Bend them where necessary.

But today I've got it on my to-do list to really 'break the back' of the story. That's my job for the hours of this afternoon. This morning was accounting and correspondence. In the age of email, that takes forever. This afternoon, back-breaking.

(But while we're questioning clichés, where does this one come from? We all know what it means; I even looked up the idiom. It means getting over the most difficult part of a project. It's a gruesome way to put it, though, particularly if you've ever actually broken your back.

Is it literary? Breaking the back (spine) of a book? Breaking a project like a horse is broken? But you don't actually break the horse's back...)

Anyway, I'm digressing badly. This afternoon I need to face up to the first draft that I secretly write (remember, that's the one that nobody reads, so you can do whatever you want in it, try whatever avenues, make whatever mistakes, and no one will ever know) and break its back.

For example, I realised halfway through that I'd prefer the structure did something else than what it was originally doing, so the first item of business is re-sequencing. The immediate next item of business is seeing if I actually have the proper material to make that re-sequencing work. I suspect I don't in one key part, so I'll need to write something there to fit the link which – thankfully for everyone, especially the eventual readers – means hacking out a big hunk of repetitive nonsense that never worked.

I do this for all my writing, by the way, macro and micro. I did it yesterday afternoon, breaking the back of a long review I filed for the Guardian. I did it for the second draft of my next book, cutting away the fat of the first draft so a plausible novel could start to emerge.

And I'm beginning to think that this is possibly the most satisfying bit of this whole writing lark. All that difficult slog getting the first words down, living through the long nights of the soul, having faith that something somewhere in there is going to work. And then getting in there and bloody well making it work.

It's the hardest part of writing, I think, because the most terrifying (what if I can't break its back?) and the most laborious (because it's like fighting with an untamed horse, while still trying to keep it wild enough to be interesting).

So is it any wonder I'm writing this blog entry first? And hey, look at that, it's lunchtime...

After that, though, back-breaking time, I swear. Wish me luck. Especially as you're the ones who're going to read it.

Read more blogs from Patrick Ness

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