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Going Sideways To Go Forward When Writing A Novel, by Phillipa Fioretti

Why does it take me twelve hours of writing and about 5000 words to finally arrive at a couple of paragraphs that I know will be crucial to the story?

I shall try and answer that. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough, maybe it’s the nature of the occupation or maybe it’s the way I do things. I generate far too many words and I do it because it helps me think. I didn’t start out writing this way – write 300,000 then pick out 90,000 – it just seems to have evolved. I’d like to be lean and efficient, precise and minimalist, but it’s not going to happen.

There is some symbiotic process between putting the words down and generating ideas.  I think about my WIP probably about 85% per cent of my waking hours, but nothing usable comes, no breakthroughs occur unless I’m walking or writing or talking about the work to some hapless soul who stumbles into my study by mistake. This rarely happens, so it really falls to the first two.

Walking is a brilliant pastime for freeing and focussing the mind at the same time. I take a small digital recording thingy or a notebook with me and have solved many problems that way. But the best way for me is to just keep churning out the scenes and the words and see what happens. But sometimes even then it’s a dead end and I have to plod back to the start of the maze. That’s the time I need a jolt.

I’ve been circling this character for some time now, but she wasn’t speaking to me. Nothing was working. It was dull. I was dull. It was over. A short writing career. Yep, time to find another challenge, my work here is done. Then I decided to rewrite the 30,000 words I had already written in third person, but change it into first person. This brought me right into the mind of the character and I saw her all of a sudden, and she was distinct. I made a copy and rewrote it back into third person – a point of view I’m more at ease with because I can get a little more descriptive. So I’ve generated much wordage, but it’s the only way for me. If I can’t get a grip on what is happening I try and write the same scene from another character’s point of view and that usually unclogs things too. I had terrible RSI last year from all these hours of writing so I have to rein in the excess, but as a method, it works for me.

The writer and printmaker Barbara Hanrahan used to draw her images upside down so she never tightened her line but kept the imagery loose and full of energy. Changing POV is a similar ‘loosening’ technique. You don’t have to use the results in the finished manuscript, although you might, but see the exercise more as a tool for shaking things up and then watching where the pieces fall.


Phillipa Fioretti’s author website:

Phillipa Fioretti’s bio page


The Book of LoveThe Fragment of Dreams     Fields of GoldThe InnocentThe Girl in the Hard HatLast SummerHeart of Gold

Writing Novels in Australia

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a brilliant idea! Time-consuming, yes, but i can see how that might really work. I was reading Rebecca James’s blog (lollygag I recall. Good blog) and she was saying the same thing about writing thousands of words in excess and then trimming back. First time I’d heard of it. Great post, Phillipa.

    January 22, 2013
  2. I can identify. Sometimes I write myself into a corner and end up asking my characters: Why did you do that? What were you thinking?

    January 22, 2013
  3. Lovely post, Phillipa. I’d add standing in the shower to your list of activities that focus and free the mind. In mid-2012, when I was up to about 48,000 words in my WIP, I had to go back to the 20,000 point and completely rewrite. It made such a difference.

    January 22, 2013
  4. Elizabeth #

    Love this post, what I tell the kids to do when they’re writing, will share your machinations with them.

    January 23, 2013
  5. Thanks for your comments, Jen, Jacqui and Tor. I tell myself they’re only words, they can be tossed aside when they don’t work out. I take this attitude coming from the art world where art supplies cost enormous amounts of money, paint, ink, canvas, paper, on and on and on …. it is much harder to start again when you’ve spent a thousand dollars on a painting that you couldn’t resolve. So writing feels pretty frugal in comparison!

    January 23, 2013
  6. It is time consuming Jenn, but that’s all it consumes. Coming from a visual art background, where you could spend hundreds making one painting only to find it didn’t work, writing is a frugal pastime!

    Jacqui, I write myself into a corner, have a bit of a crisis, then write my way out again. Usually.

    Tor, washing up is also quite good sometimes. I’ve learned this mega word process over the years and learned not to be afraid of it, not to be afraid that I can’t do it again, that my words are too precious and simply must be used. If they don’t work they die. Simple. It’s a ruthless road but there just isn’t any place for self indulgence in commercial publishing. They see it a mile off and editors are even more ruthless!

    Thanks for your comments

    January 23, 2013
  7. I love the idea of swapping POVs when a scene isn’t working. Going from third to first certainly puts the writer front and centre in the character’s mind and then they open up. I use that technique quite often, Philipa 🙂

    And walking is always a wonderful way to nut something out.

    January 26, 2013

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