Nurture Your Rabbits

Philip HarrisMeaty Mondays, Writing AdviceLeave a Comment

This is the second in a series of Meaty Monday posts – longer posts where I ramble on about writing related topics. You can find the first Meaty Monday post here.

Today, I’m talking about ideas.

You’re probably familiar with this quote.

“In writing, you must kill your darlings.” – William Faulkner

Or this one.

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” – Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

Or how about this?

 “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” – Samuel Johnson

They’re all variations on a theme – if you think a scene or a sentence or even a whole subplot is the most wonderful piece of writing in the world, you should cut it.

Some people take this literally and remove their favourite bits from their work just because they like them so much – apparently director Danny Boyle always cuts the single best shot from his movies. I take it more as encouragement to examine those “particularly fine” pieces of writing and consider whether they might be too clever or just plain unnecessary.

I try to remember this advice when I’m revising (and when I’m writing a first draft although that’s harder). I don’t just focus on the bits of the story that are obviously bad; I try to look at all of it. Just because I like a scene or a paragraph doesn’t mean it needs to be there – it might slow down the story or distract the reader or just not add anything of value. If that’s the case, no matter how well it’s written, it can go.

Of course, it’s still something I get wrong – I’ll be killing a few darlings in my upcoming rewrite of The Ghost Smuggler – but I do try.

But, there’s another concept I’ve found very useful over the years and that’s making sure I nurture my rabbits.

Hunny Bunny image by Zettmedia

The idea comes from this quote:

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” – John Steinbeck

As soon as I read that a light came on in my head. That’s exactly what it’s like for me. I may start off with just a vague inkling of an idea but if I keep rolling it around in my head then before I know it I’ve got another idea and another and another. Conversely, if I stop thinking about my ideas, they wither and die and I end up in a creative wasteland, miserable and alone.

In the software industry we call this phenomenon feature creep. As you develop a piece of software it becomes easier and easier to think of more and more cool additions. You quickly start to believe that those cool ideas are critical to the project’s success. Before you know it the design doubles in size and you need to start adding programmers to the team to get everything done. Inevitably you don’t and your software ends up shipping late or it’s rushed out full of bugs.

But in writing, nurturing those rabbits is essential. You can’t write fiction without ideas and the more you have the better. Even the uninspiring little runts are worth keeping around; who knows what they’ll grow into.

I find the early hours of the morning particularly fertile ground for ideas. That’s when Ethel the Muse joins forces with Captain Insomnia and the pair of them keep ideas bouncing around my head until the sun comes up. Some of those ideas are titles or phrases. Sometimes it’s an ending or a striking scene or fantastic imagery. Often, they’re opening lines that I love without having any clue where the story is going to go. Whatever form those rabbits take, I know that if I let them play around in my head for a while, if I poke and prod at them, they’ll turn into a fully fleshed out story filled with potential. Then all I need to do is get that potential out of my head and onto the page and that’s the easy bit, right?

Of course, I’m very careful not to dive straight into writing one of these early morning offspring – I let them percolate for a while to make sure there’s enough there to support an entire story. Often, ideas that seem like a stroke of genius at three am are truly awful in the cold harsh light of day.

And ideas frequently pop up while I’m writing – half the time I’m relying on that happening to get to the end of the story (or through the middle). Those ideas aren’t always good and they might not fit into my current story but that doesn’t mean I should forget about them; I just add them to the rest of my ideas and see what happens.

Whenever your rabbits appear, make sure you write them down somewhere. Some writers use a notebook to store them, I have a document on my PC. I try to get  all the rabbits, even the unruly ones, in there. Every now and again, especially if I’m feeling low on inspiration, I take a look through the ideas file and inevitably find something to kick start my imagination. Be careful to make the notes clear enough that you’ll remember what you meant years later – it’s very easy to be unintentionally cryptic at this point.

So, nurture your rabbits, take care of them and play with them and before long you’ll have hundreds of the damn things trying to get out of your head and onto the page.

[Philip Harris]

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