Jonny Nexus

Writing, life, politics

Marie Phillips at London Writers’ Club

Last night I went to the London Writers Club to hear a talk by Marie Phillips, author of Gods Behaving Badly. (You may remember that I mentioned this event last week).

It was really good. She gave a lot of good advice, too much to mention, so I’ll just mention two things that really struck me.

The first is that sometimes you have to give up, which is not what people normally say.

It’s very hard to write a novel, and you often get really depressed and discouraged. Because of this, the advice everyone almost invariably gives is to not give up, to keep going, even when you’re convinced it’s an utter pile of horseshit. And that’s usually good advice. But as Marie pointed out, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you find yourself working on something that simply isn’t working, that you simply can’t fix, and then you need to let it go.

The analogy she gave was brilliant:

If you’re in a relationship with someone, you don’t leave them just because you’ve had a row. You do everything you can to try and make it work.

But you don’t marry everyone you date.

As someone who’s started a lot more novels than I’ve ever completed, that was very reassuring. (Although now I think about it, I think I’ve started more novels than I’ve dated women… which is less reassuring).

Anyway… The second piece of advice was a largely throw-away remark about chapters in first drafts, which is not to worry about them. Marie was talking about how much her first draft gets rewritten in later drafts, and says that because of this she just bashes the first draft out as one long document, broken into scenes/sections, but not into chapters.

Which made so much sense. I agonise over where to put chapter breaks, and often find myself going round in circles. I’ll have one scene whose end might be perfect for the end of a chapter… but it’s perhaps only 1500 words from the last chapter break, and maybe I’m trying to average 3000-4000 words for a chapters. So maybe, I think, I should remove that previous chapter break, merging this too-short chapter with the previous one… but then that chapter’s now 5,100 words which is way too long.

You see what I mean.

So when she said that I realised she was right. If you’re probably going to end up making substantial changes to your first draft anyway, why bother with chapter breaks? Just write the damn thing, redraft it, and then sit down and work out the best way to chop it up. After all, the last thing you want to find yourself doing when redrafting is thinking: “I need to take this scene out because it’s redundant… but then the chapter will be too short. Damn.”

Oh, and having bought a copy of Gods Behaving Badly from Marie last night (signed, and everything!) I’m about a third of the way in and really enjoying it. Well worth a read.

2 Comments

  1. That really is good advice, I still put in three dashes for a scene change, which I suppose might be the end of a chapter, but having read your post I think maybe even that should be left until I’ve got my editors hat on.

    The same might be argued for turning auto-spell/grammar checkers off when your drafting. I find those jaggy little red and green lines irresistable – often also infuriating when it turns out that Word simply doesn’t know a word or is upset by snap sentences. In the effort to just plow on maybe we should just turn it all off until later?

    I’ll take a peek at Gods Behaving Badly…

    • Hi Alex,

      Sorry, I’ve only just spotted your comment. For some reason the auto-comment-email-notify thing isn’t working and I haven’t yet managed to figure out why.

      Anyhow, glad you liked the post and I hope you’ll find Gods Behaving Badly worth checking out – I did.

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