writing

How to turn your cardboard characters into flesh and blood

When I received feedback from my beta readers on By the Feet of Men, the consensus was that - outside of the protagonists - it was difficult to make a distinction between the different drivers. They went so far as to say the vehicles actually had more of a personality than the humans did. That was a problem: the novel couldn’t work if the drivers were as interchangeable as, say, the drummer in Iron Butterfly. With the world bleak and grey, the characters absolutely had to provide the colour. And so, to get into the heads of each driver and reshape them into personalities worth caring about, I used five techniques, all of which are discussed below  You know what the result was? When Starburst Magazine reviewed the novel, they said “[it] has no shortage of rich, colourful supporting characters.”

 It’s almost as though they knew I would one day write an obscure blog post and need a punchy sentence to prove I at least halfway know what I’m talking about.

 1.     Cast an actor to play the character

This is the easiest one for me, because I have scenes storyboarded in my head before I start writing. Imagine that your novel is going to be adapted for the big or small screen. Who would play your protagonist? What about the antagonist? The love interest? The irritating sidekick? The old gas station attendant with a moustache? Each time I wrote about Cassady in By the Feet of Men, I saw Ed Harris in The Abyss. Late 30s, early 40s, bald, slightly grizzled, fallible, prone to outbursts, a glint of humour around the eyes. When you cast the right actor to play your characters, you’ll see them more clearly in your mind. The character may take on some of that actor’s tics or tendencies and make them more human. They may end up being the complete opposite. Whatever the case, having a fixed image of what they look like is a strong basis on which to mould them into a personality that leaps off the page.

 2.     Make the character a mixtape

As Brent Katz wrote recently for The Rumpus when discussing Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, the novel’s mixtape scene cleared away the fog from the page: “I began to see its natural laws, its structure, and its illusive main character more clearly”. What better way to get inside the head of a character than choosing a few songs you think they would listen to? Play it before you start or at low volume in the background while writing.

Here’s a mixtape I made for Clark in Static Age. It’s frenetic, angry and slapdash, just like my misunderstood boy.

1.     Queens of the Stone Age – Regular John

2.     Captain Beyond – Dancing Madly Backwards

3.     Merchandise – Become What You Are

4.     Television Personalities – Part Time Punks

5.     The Music Machine – Talk Talk

6.     Temple of the Dog – Your Savior

7.     The New Christs – No Way on Earth

8.     Minutemen – Sickles and Hammers

9.     Baikonour – Proto Coeur

10.  Leaf Hound – Freelance Fiend

 3.     Choose an accent or dialect and have the dialogue reflect this

For this point, I’m thinking any character from Peaky Blinders as an example. If you were asked to pick someone from the main cast and describe them, chances are the accent – whether Brummie, Northern Irish or cockney – will be one of the first things mentioned. What’s more, each regional group in the show uses vocabulary and grammar structures that the others do not. This colours the dialogue, makes it more unique and enables the viewer to differentiate between characters instantly. And, seeing as everybody has prejudices towards certain accents and regions that are easily made and difficult to break, the use of accent/dialogue is a simple way to get the audience to root for, pity, suspect or despise a character even before paying attention to what they have to say. In a novel, simply changing one character’s speech to use informal contractions like gonna, woulda and ain’t will mark them out as different from the rest. It’s up to you to decide if you want to lean on this to make the character appear unrefined, juvenile or feverish, or to subvert expectations by having them speak like that in order to disguise their true persona.

Note: it’s probably best to avoid doing a full D. H. Lawrence and adopting unusual grammatical patterns and vocabulary choices so wholeheartedly that you end up with sentences like “Asn’t ’e! Oh, Jack’s been ’ome an ’ad ’is dinner an’ gone out. E’s just gone for ’alf an’ ’our afore bedtime. Jack never said nothink about your Mester.” Nobody wants to read that, even if it is lifted from the pages of a masterpiece.

 4.     Give the character a backstory (even if it doesn’t appear in the novel)

I watched an interview with Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino the other day, in which they speak about how DiCaprio developed his character of Rick Dalton for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. According to DiCaprio, he identified with the real-life story of an actor from the 1960s who had played a gunslinger on TV before committing suicide due to depression, and based his interpretation of his character around that. Tarantino then goes on to explain that while the backstory was strong, very little of it makes it into the actual film. There was no need to rewrite the script; rather, Dalton simply had to be brought to life in the right way, and DiCaprio found a way to do it without impinging on the narrative. When you create a backstory for the characters in your novel, you know who they are, where they come from, where they grew up, what they had for breakfast and why they’re carrying that gnawing anger around in the pit of their stomach. The reader doesn’t have to know every tiny detail, but the more fleshed out your hero is before you sketch them out in digital ink, the easier it will be to turn them into a living, breathing entity.

 5.     Write a short story featuring the character

Some characters pop up in multiple novels. Vonnegut was famous for this, leaning on recurring names such as Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater and Rabo Karebekian to make point after point about how absurd life is. Brett Easton Ellis did it too, with Patrick Bateman turning up in Glamorama and The Rules of Attraction outside of his endearing turn in American Psycho. This can be cool if you’ve written multiple novels – take a character that already exists, update them and throw them into your new work. You already have a feel for the character’s voice and, through your use of intertextuality, you build a connected world.

 If, on the other hand, you don’t have multiple novels or simply want to write something entirely new, a short story can be the perfect way to ease into a character. William Gibson did exactly that with his razorgirl Molly Millions, who first appeared in a short story, “Johnny Mnemonic”, back in 1981, before making the step up to primetime in Neuromancer in 1984. She even refers back to Mnemonic in the novel. Thanks to the short story, Gibson already had a template for his character, with a clear tone, history and visual identity, which (I’m guessing) made it easier to add her into his digital dystopia when the time came.

oh what characters these chaps are.

oh what characters these chaps are.

Why I don’t use italics to denote foreign words

Brexit, white supremacists in the White House, far right rumblings across Europe, ethno-nationalism. It feels as though humanity is on a knife edge at the moment. We’re standing there in the snow, clinging to the mountain ridge, hoping our footing is strong enough to keep us where we are. But a katabatic wind is buffeting us, our fingers and toes are numb and we don’t know which direction to go in. Wouldn’t it just be simpler to slip over the edge and slide down the mountain into oblivion? To accept that we’re not going to get out of this situation, to give up, to bow our heads to the forces trying to knock us off our perch and let them do it?

Well, no. Of course not.

Any movement or group that spreads hate and discord relies on its ability to create a fear of the Other. Othering individuals, communities and cultures is fundamentally based on the assumption that that which is being othered represents a risk to our way of life, to what we know and understand about our individual or collective sense of Self. Still, these groups aren’t the only ones doing it. In fact, alienation comes quite effortlessly to most of us, even if it isn’t our intention. It happens in our conversations, in the risqué jokes we make among friends and family, in our snap judgements of people on the street, in the influential media we consume, at home and work, in the condescending interactions we have on holiday. It can be conscious or unconscious. The latter is perhaps more damaging than the former—if you don’t know you are othering someone, how can you stop it?

When a foreign word is highlighted in italics—i.e. one that is not part of the language in which the text is being written—it becomes Other. Syntactically, it still belongs to the sentence; semantically, it has been set apart, singled out, left to fend for itself. It has the same effect as placing a big red arrow underneath it. When it has been italicised, your eyes can’t help but stumble over the word. They see it, they stop, they look at it again. They are taken out of the reading experience to consider that single word, to see it as something alien. And then they dive back into the safe waters of the familiar, eyes gliding over the page, devouring the words that haven’t been italicised. When the next italicised word appears, the sense of Other is compounded. They can see it, further down the page, in the next sentence, on the same line. They know it is alien. Perhaps this time they don’t stop to mull it over. They jump over it as though it is an obstacle in the road.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the notion of Us vs. Them crystallises, becomes the standard. Even if the aim is to highlight the uniqueness of the word, to celebrate it, to signpost it so that the reader won’t trip over it, the result is still one of Entfremdung. If the word is not the same, then it does not belong. If it does not belong, it is not to be wholeheartedly trusted. And if the word cannot be trusted, then the people to whom the word belongs and the culture surrounding it cannot be trusted either.

In The Penguin Modern Classics edition of Burmese Days by George Orwell, there is a brief, but interesting explanation on the use of italics in the novel:

“Almost fifty words have been italicised at every appearance. One effect is that Orwell’s story is presented as he would wish: it is the British who are aliens in this society and the language in which the story must be told—English—is itself alien to the host people.”

Here’s an example:

“The old butler was hurrying from the servants’ quarters, thrusting his pagri on his head as he came, and a troop of twittering chokras after him.

     ‘Earthquake, sir, earthquake!’ he bubbled eagerly.

     ‘I should damn well think it was an earthquake,’ said Mr Lackersteen as he lowered himself cautiously into a chair. ‘Here, get some drinks, butler. By God, I could do with a nip of something after that.’”

The butler is immediately othered through the italicised use of the term ‘pagri’. Instead of adding the suffix ‘headdress’ or receiving an explanation (‘pagri, a turban typically worn by Indian males’, for example), we understand only that the butler has thrust something strange on his head, making him strange by association. This, coupled by the fact that he has no given name other than butler (despite being an ‘old’ butler who has probably been at the clubhouse for a long time) and ‘bubbles’ rather than speaks like Mr Lackersteen, establishes him as an entity that has no real place within the rarified clubhouse atmosphere. In addition, the butler is followed by ‘a troop of twittering chokras’. On first read, it seems as though the chokras are an animal of some kind, perhaps birds (twittering) or monkeys (troop). In actual fact, they are boys employed as servants for the white men at the clubhouse. All we understand, however, is that they are Other.

This is exactly the problem and the power that lies with using italics. It causes immediate alienation, creates a dividing line between host and hosted (or perhaps invaders and invaded). And while Orwell applied this technique to lay bare the hatred, hypocrisy and intolerance surrounding British colonial rule, many other works have no such ambition to fall back on.

Giovanni’s Room is a wonderful, complex novel, a natural successor to the Isherwood novels of the 1930s and a gateway to the gay literature of the 1960s and 1970s. One thing Baldwin does consistently throughout the novel, however, is to mark French words in italics almost to the point of parody. For example:

“He was sitting bundled up in his greatcoat, drinking a vin chaud.”

 And:

“‘I’ll see you later. A tout à l’heure.’”

And: 

“It was observable, through open windows on the quais and sidestreets, that hoteliers had called in painters to paint the rooms.”

 In the three examples above, the italics serve only to keep reminding the reader that the novel is set in France, France, France. There is no social commentary being made here, no attempt to force the reader to contemplate the horrors of colonialism or forced occupation. Baldwin’s intention may have been to put the reader in the shoes of David, the US protagonist, as he seeks to unpick the existential knots binding him to the streets of Paris, but the attempt falls short when one considers that David has been in Paris for over a year and has clearly mastered the language. He is at home in this environment, more so than in the USA, a country to which he has no desire to return. Moreover, the words highlighted are so banal. Vin chaud is simply mulled wine. A tout à l’heure is a repetition of ‘see you later’. A quai is a quay. And an hotelier is...an hotelier (a word used in English since around 1900, according to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary). Why use italics at all?

Compare this to the following passage from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

“The bald pilgrims in Beena Mol began another bhajan.

     ‘I tell you, these Hindus,’ Baby Kochamma said piously. ‘They have no sense of privacy.’”

In this example, Roy turns the use of italics on its head brilliantly, choosing to highlight a word in English as a way of underlining the superiority complex of Baby Kochamma, a Christian, when confronted by a group of Hindus. It is not the bald pilgrims who are othered after starting to sing a bhajan (a spiritual song); they are accepted, natural, integrated. Instead, it is the educated, English-speaking Baby Kochamma who is framed as prissy, conceited and out of step with the rest of her environment.

If the intention is not, like in Burmese Days, to reinforce the sense of alienation between the foreign word and the English-language text, I would argue that it is better not to italicise the word at all. If the reader wants to look up the word later (or immediately), then they will, but don’t rely on the typographical equivalent of stringing fairy lights around the front of a house. Embed it within the rest. Make it part of the whole. It’s more constructive to build bridges than to dig trenches. After all, we’re all standing up there, on that knife edge, wondering which way things are going to go. Navigating a safe route down starts with the language choices we make and how we use it with one another.

Home doesn’t have to be something we cling on to like crazy people.

Home doesn’t have to be something we cling on to like crazy people.

How to write a good action scene in a novel

Putting together a good action scene in a novel is hard. Some authors can do it exceptionally well: Willi Heinrich, Eric Nylund, James Webb, Väinö Linna, Joe Haldeman, Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden. Others turn it into the literary equivalent of a machine gun mowing down wave after wave of faceless grunts. When my beta readers tore into By the Feet of Men so long ago, the main complaint they had was that the action scenes were difficult to follow. It wasn’t possible to tell who was doing what to whom, and any individual croutons of bravery, sacrifice or evil were muted by the homogeneous hack-and-slash soup in which they floated. It was kind of a bummer, but not unexpected – I’d taken a workmanlike approach to them from the start. For me, the action was there purely to service the plot, not to serve as a kick-ass set piece in its own right; there was no love involved. Maybe I was even slightly embarrassed at what I was writing, which is why I held back.

So I did what any writer does after receiving feedback from their beta readers: I drank some alcohol and told myself I was a hack over and over again. And after I’d done that I rewrote the scenes. And rewrote them again. And rewrote them three times more for good measure. By the end I had learned to appreciate the action scenes for what they were - a chance to let off steam, to develop the characters, to shake things up, and to enjoy myself with the text. And along the way I learned a few tricks about how to write an action scene in a novel.

1.    Make each combatant distinctive

Halfway up the hill, Brandt stood over a spider-like body crumpled on the ground, his pistol gripped in two hands as he pointed it at three strangers. They looked like what they were: ravenous animals hunting their prey, with faces hollow and bodies brittle from a lack of food. One, a tall, grey-haired man with a distended stomach, hefted a rusty pipe between thick hands. Another, a woman, wielded a pickaxe and hissed. The third, evidently the leader, was a younger man whose head was a mess of scars. A machete in his hand dripped with fresh blood.

Above is an excerpt from By the Feet of Men. I’ve tried to make sure that it contains no spoilers (other than the fact that now you know there’s a character called Brandt and at some point he has a bit of a fracas with some desperate dudes). This is the scene as it appears in the final novel. Reading it now, it might seem like a standard description, but it took me 6 drafts to get there. Here’s how it looked in the first draft (bearing in mind a first draft is simply there to get the story down, not to be a joyful reading experience):

Up the hill, a tree trunk’s length away, Brandt stood, pistol in hand, over a long-limbed body crumpled on the ground. Three strangers circled him. They were dressed in rags, bits of which sloughed off them like skin. Two were large men, though their faces were jagged with a lack of food and sleep. One threw a pickaxe from one hand to the other while the other carried a metal bat of some kind. The third, head a mess of tattoos and scars, wielded a machete with arms that showed signs of severe malnutrition. Ghazi could see they were desperate men. They had the eyes of a ravenous animal cornering its prey.

In a showdown, you want to be able to tell exactly who is locking horns with whom. It makes it much simpler for the reader to follow the action. In the first draft version, I didn’t give myself enough distinguishing features to work with. I painted myself into a corner by lumping two of the antagonists together as ‘two large men’, and put too much effort into describing the third character. The only way to tell between them would be to describe the weapons they are carrying. Notice, too, that the antagonists are all male, which makes it more difficult to describe them when you don’t know their names. It quickly becomes dull to keep reading ‘the man with the machete’ / ‘the man with the pickaxe’ and so on. That’s why in the final version, I have three distinct opponents: a tall, grey-haired man, a woman with a pickaxe and scarface. This gave me much more scope when referring to them, enabling me to describe them based on their relative age, their gender, their facial features or their weapons.

2.    Keep the action simple.

A few lines from Fields of Fire by James Webb:

Hodges peered into the village again. Two hootches burned. Figures scampered near the flames. Two more LAAWs boomed in the cemetery. His machine gun poured tracers into the village in a low, steadily sweeping line. Be cool, he told himself.

Each sentence in this passage is crisp and concise while setting the scene. The short sentences lend the scene a sense of immediacy, energy, mortal danger. We can see the village burning. We can hear the report of the machine gun and the explosions of the rocket launchers. We can smell the cordite and the smoke. At no point does Webb overwhelm the reader with long, purplish descriptions of the battle or throw in so many angles that it becomes impossible to tell where the action is unfolding. It’s tight, centred on what Hodges, the protagonist, can see from his vantage point. We don’t get any lengthy inner monologues about his perception of the battle, either. ‘Be cool’ tells us all we need to know – he’s scared but he’s still in control. It’s kind of Hemingwayesque, and it works perfectly.

3.    Respect violence; don’t fetishise it

This is a passage from Halo: The Flood by William C. Dietz.

The rocket was a hair high, hit Hurru in the head, and blew it off. Orange blood fountained straight up, splashed the alien metal around the Hunter and splattered his body as it collapsed. The Spartan paused, switched to his assault weapon, and waited for the feeling of satisfaction.

My housemate at university had a few Halo novels and I read them when I should have been studying German linguistics. I still remember Dietz’s book because of how poorly written it was. The novel is filled with passages like this, which seem to revel in how badass it is to mow down hordes of oncoming enemies and then watch them die in a way that makes the protagonist look as cool as Mickey Rourke in Rumble Fish. The problem is that this reads as though it was written by a 15-year-old boy trying his hand at fan fiction (for the record, the Halo novels written by Eric Nylund are excellent).

Contrast the description above with this one by Joe Haldeman in The Forever War:

It was slaughter, even though our flank was outnumbered five to one. They kept coming without faltering, even when they had to climb over the drift of bodies and parts of bodies that piled up high, parallel to our flank. The ground between us was slick red with Tauron blood – all God’s children got hemoglobin – and like the teddy bears, their guts looked pretty much like guts to my untrained eye.

Unlike Dietz, Haldeman doesn’t treat violence as something to be celebrated. He doesn’t linger on images of heads popping off necks or blood gushing as a geyser; the situation is sickening, unwelcome, without merit. The protagonist is not celebrated for his ability to kill. He observes his actions for what they are (“it was slaughter”) and even manages to ruminate on what it means to end the life of a sentient being (the bleak “all God’s children got hemoglobin”). There is nothing here to suggest to the reader that the protagonist or Haldeman are getting a kick out of the action. Rather, it is a grim business, a necessary scene to facilitate the development of the characters taking part, to bind the reader to them through the horror of it all. And it’s one of the reasons why The Forever War is considered a masterwork of the sci-fi genre.

4.    Be sporadic, not wall to wall

By my count, By the Feet of Men has four proper action scenes (not counting the chapters where the Runners are battling nature). That’s not many for a novel which is 344 pages long and has been categorised under ‘Action and adventure’. What it means, though, is that each time hell does break loose, it is significant. The action has a weight to it that would be lacking were the characters found engaging in hand-to-hand combat and firing off ammunition from one page to the next. It’s the reason why the one-long-action-scene movie Free Fire doesn’t really work; duels and showdowns and all-out war have to be interspersed with quieter periods, opportunities to build up the tension and develop the characters. The aim is to craft a symphony, not to churn out a three-hour crescendo. All the latter does is desensitise your audience. Then, when an action scene rolls around that does come with high stakes attached, they’ll be too jaded to care or even notice. That’s why it is essential to give the action room to breathe, for the build-up to be long and filled with tension, and for the after-effects to be savoured well after the scene has concluded.

 

Finally, for the perfect action scene, take a look at how Hemingway describes El Sordo’s doomed attack on a hilltop in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The chapter could be lifted out of the novel wholesale and stand on its own as a short story. Hemingway manages to make the reader care about a group of fringe characters in a fight to the death that is never pretty or celebrated, but always moving.

this guy sharpening a knife against a whetstone is the closest thing I had to a photo of an action scene.

this guy sharpening a knife against a whetstone is the closest thing I had to a photo of an action scene.

Revising a Novel and Building your Zen Rock Garden

Like Jeremy Usborne’s soundtrack to a Honda advert, revising a novel fills me with a powerful sense of dread. Some writers edit as they go along, which I don’t understand at all. Editing while writing a new story slows the process down, stifles ideas that are screaming to be put down on the page, makes me forget what the point of writing is at all if I can’t even craft one goddamn paragraph properly without returning to it for the next three days in a row. Instead I do as many writers do and work on a draft-by-draft basis. Generally speaking, Draft One is the only time I’m having fun, because I’m free to do what I like. I can experiment, go off on tangents, crowbar in unsuitably outlandish vocabulary, introduce characters on a whim, dunk my brush into the pot and paint passages of purple prose, sprinkle in arcane references to history and literature and geography and music like they’re cardamom pods in a curry. Nobody cares what I’m doing. I’m not beholden to anyone. I have no reader in mind. It’s brilliant. When I’m done, I tuck the manuscript away in a subfolder and forget about it (and by ‘forget’ I mean go up to literally anyone and say, “yah, so, I’ve finished my novel, yah”).

The problem starts with Draft Two. As the date to commence editing approaches, I imagine the manuscript as a wasteland in a post-apocalyptic movie, all skeletal ideas, narrative threads that have frayed and broken, words that are twisted and ugly and need to be cremated before the stench becomes too much. And I can already see the outlines of Drafts Three, Four, Five and Six on the horizon, an army ready to chop through my defences, invade my plain of confidence, break me down and prevent me from ever creating anything worthwhile ever again. The psychological impact of the drafts overpowered me for my first novel, and that’s why it’s a miserable ugly duckling with more than a few typos still in there despite my having read it through 14 times. For By the Feet of Men, I knew I had to do something different if I was going to offset that powerful sense of dread. And that’s when I decided to visualise the draft process as a 15th century Japanese Zen rock garden.

Ryōan-ji is a Zen temple in Kyoto which is home to one of the best examples of a Japanese rock garden in the world. The garden is so celebrated that it has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. It’s also the product of hundreds of hours of care and diligence. Each day, monks rake the white gravel to form ridges and valleys that surround the boulders sitting at intentionally asymmetrical angles to create something that is simple, refined and aesthetically breathtaking. Writing a novel isn’t so different: you put in the effort day after day, you grapple with the material you have, and you keep coming back until it’s as close to perfect as you can get it at that point in time. Like I said, though, it can become a slog. The constant tailoring can grind you down. It’s easy to forget how far you’ve come already and to cut corners or give up entirely. So here’s how to visualise your novel as a Japanese rock garden:

Draft 1 – Set out your rock formations

Fifteen boulders rise from the sea of white gravel at Ryōan-ji. They anchor the garden, make it unique, give the viewer something distinctive to contemplate while they’re observing its majesty from a bench. Your first job is to set out your own rock formations. In novel terms, these are your characters and major plot points. All you have to do is get the words down on the page. Give it a beginning, middle and end and early incarnations of the people and events that will anchor the story. Nothing else matters at this stage except for those big old rocks.

Draft 2 – Buy a ton of white gravel, shovel it onto the barren earth

This is where the heavy lifting starts. Where you break a sweat. Where you come away from your work with blisters on your hands and tears in your eyes because it hurts so much. The white gravel is structure. It is connection. It surrounds the boulders, clothes them, makes them look larger, grander, more imperious. You need that gravel. If you didn’t spend time shovelling it onto the barren earth, you’d just have a bunch of rocks. And nobody travels far and wide to see a bunch of indefensible rocks. This is the most difficult stage. It’s when you look around at the uneven gravel and wonder just what the hell it is you’re doing. Surely nobody can make something beautiful out of this? But keep slinging. Because the next stage is where things start to take shape.

Draft 3 – Rake the gravel into patterns

So here we are. You’ve got the rock formations (characters, major plot points) and the gravel (everything else). Now it’s time to make the transition from landscaper to monk, from the slog to the spiritual. You have to tease the gravel into patterns that are desirable to look at. Pick up your rake, hold it in both hands and drag those teeth across the ground, meticulous, slow, precise, until stiff white ridges appear. It’s not simple by any means; Zen masters spend countless hours raking the gravel until the lines are perfect. But it’s worth it. When you step back and wipe your brow, you’ll see the difference. It’s far from finished, but no longer is it just a pile of stones of various colours and sizes. Be a little proud. You’re halfway toward creating your own Zen rock garden.

Draft 4 – Vary the patterns

Those (almost) perfectly straight lines look great, don’t they? Rank after rank, file after file, an army fit to rival the Terracotta gang over in Xi’an. But wait. What if you take that trusty rake of yours and change a few of those straight lines into curved ones? Look at that: instant variation. How about doing the same thing around a couple of the boulders to help them stand out even more? You could even carve out a full circle. Literally revolutionary. You don’t want to go too far, of course. If the curves outweigh the straight lines, they lose their ability to attract attention and gimmickry reigns. So rake with care, but with confidence. This is your garden now. You control it (even if it still feels like you don’t). And when you’re done adding your flourishes, make sure to give yourself a chance to admire your handiwork. After all, if you’re not building your garden for yourself, who are you building it for?

Draft 5 – Pick out the errant stones

Ah, the nitty-gritty. Just look at that garden. Sweeping lines, majestic boulders, patterns that demand attention. You created that. Good job, you. Now that the overall picture is looking so promising, it’s relatively simple to pick out the bits that don’t belong. Pebbles that refuse to conform no matter how many times you rake them, for example. If you notice them, everybody else will too, so pick them out and pop them into your pocket. That swirling pattern over there: it seemed like a great idea last time around, but now you’re thinking it might be a touch too rakish. It’s drawing too much attention. No, you don’t want to go to the shed again for the rake, but it’ll be worth it. Tame that last bit of gravel.

Draft 6 – View your finished garden

Now, this isn’t a science. Not every novel is going to be finished with the sixth draft. Some may take fifty. Others may only take one. Everybody’s Zen garden is different. Those gravel lines can be tricky, and while they may seem wonderfully uniform one week, they might be chaos incarnate the next. Six drafts is just a rule of thumb. However many it takes, at the end you’ll have your garden. Pristine, ordered, essential. Now it’s time to take a seat on the stone bench and contemplate what you’ve created. Take it all in, macro and micro. The boulders, the gravel, the ridges, the patterns. Is everything working in perfect harmony and does it all belong? If the answer is yes: you’re done. At least, you’ve gone as far as you can go right now. In time, you’ll create other gardens and view gardens created by others, and when you return to this one the imperfections will jump out like a sign for a Vegas casino. But don’t think about that. And if the answer is no? Then keep tending to your garden. It’ll probably never be perfect. But just remember this: Ryōan-ji has been around for nearly 600 years and the monks still go out with their rakes every day. You don’t have to ask them if they think it’s worth it.

actually a Burmese monk, but I like the photo

actually a Burmese monk, but I like the photo