Having More Than One Partner in the Dance of Writing

A shrewd and experienced author might have cautioned me against writing a story that falls outside the usual genres, but faced with my determination to proceed, I am sure they would almost certainly have advised me not to deviate from my task. Yet, as if to wilfully overcomplicate the process, I failed to heed that advice too.

The reason for starting other stories before completing my first project is two-fold, one pragmatic and the other poetic. The subject at the heart of “The Sin of Choice” is the ethical issue of assisted dying and its impact on the moral dilemmas faced by a family who are struggling with a terminal diagnosis. For several years leading up to 2015, a campaign was waged by those seeking to have the law in the UK amended. It involved court cases and a determination to bring a bill before Parliament. If such a bill became law, any story that dealt with the subject would be rendered inaccurate and outdated. Faced with this prospect, I planned out two versions of the story, one based on the assumption that the law would remain the same and the other based on my best guess as to what a change in the law would entail. Since no one likes to waste their time on a fruitless task, I was reluctant to proceed with either one until I could be sure which would be worth writing out in full. The answer came in September 2015, when Parliament emphatically rejected the Assisted Dying Bill. As an explanation, this is all very pragmatic, and reason enough to justify the extra burden of starting additional narratives.

The other side of the coin is more poetic, and it sees the stories in an author’s mind as dance partners, all of whom vie for attention and companionship. The mind is never short of ideas, some dull, some derisory, and others just deranged. Yet through this fevered delirium can come a moment of creative clarity that sings with its own voice above the cacophony of mediocrity that surrounds it. This can occur at any time, but in my experience it most often occurs upon waking, when the mind has had time to tidy up the jumble of thoughts that were taken down into the depths of sleep. This settled idea has survived the nightly clean up, so it would be foolish to discard it before breakfast. Once written down in note form, such an idea grows and ferments, affording it more attention than could be considered wise, but its novelty eschews the voice of wisdom because creativity is not governed by such things. The time for judgement and reflection comes later, after the flurry of words has ended and all new ideas are spread out on the page, rough but ready, raw but written.

Although the fermentation of such ideas can lead you away from your first project and delay its completion, it can also give your mind some welcome space, hopefully before the time spent with the same characters and plot turns an interesting task into an unwelcome chore. A change is as good as a rest, so they say, and that can be true of switching projects for a while, so that you can return afresh and re-read your earlier efforts with greater clarity. Also, it is always a good idea to write what is most vivid in your mind. So if you wake with another story uppermost in your thoughts, you should resist beating it down in order to continue with yesterday’s project, all the while telling yourself that discipline is the key to completion. Instead, you should remember that good writing is about interesting stories told with clear prose. This task is made harder when the effort involved becomes a chore, so it is more important to write with enthusiasm about the thoughts that are at the front of your mind, even if they are a separate tale and less developed than your leading project. A few of these other dance partners took me for a whirl around the polished floor of unfocused storytelling, and they left my first book far behind where I had hoped it would be, but the time spent circling that narrative dance floor gave me more than it took away. Those other story ideas distracted me enough to prevent my first book from becoming a stale thought, and they ensured that every hour spent writing prose was done with a satisfied smile rather than a weary yawn. Variety is indeed the spice of life, and the same is true of storytelling. Your subconscious mind will tell you what to write on any given day, so listen to your inner self and throw your project plan in the bin.

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