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Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Von Clausewitz, Friction and Abandoning a Manuscript

How can someone that smart wear epaulettes that stupid?

Von Clausewitz, in his seminal work On War, outlines a concept called 'friction'. Friction can be viewed simply as an aggregation of every crappy little thing we chalk up to Murphy's Law. The new contractor shipping rounds that don't fit the guns. The dysentery that cripples every battalion passing through a certain market town. The subaltern who doesn't know that data gathered about a Russian road in summer is worse than useless in winter. All the small and large things that go wrong - all the 'fires' that managers spend most of their time putting out.

Anyone who's managed a project (and who hasn't, these days) knows what friction feels like. It could be said that project management is just warfare by other means. Actually, it really can't, but I couldn't resist making a Clausewitz joke. Anyway, friction is that feeling that forces outside your control are throwing themselves in the way of your progress. That grinding, maddeningly frustrating sensation of progressing only one step for every three frantic attempts to surge forward. And there are times when the friction is so great, so unbeatable, that projects are abandoned altogether. The cost of combating friction becomes higher than the potential gains of project completion, and it's time to hit the classifieds and start looking for another job.

I think we can apply this principle to the writing of a novel - more specifically, to the question of when it's time to tear the whole thing up and start again. Let's take the novel I'm currently writing as an example. I had an idea, and a bunch of subsidiary, or connected ideas, a major theme, plot, subplot, peripeteia, anagnorisis- pretty much all the good gear needed to cobble together a story that takes tens of thousands of words to develop. Sure, I was missing some key stuff as well. Like the middle third of the plot and any firm idea of how to get to the climax, but I had enough to get started. In treading that fine line between proper planning and neurotically paralytic perfectionism, I felt justified and not a little bit virtuous about my decision to just start writing.

The first few thousand words progressed well. In the way that only fully realised literary prose or unadulterated stinking garbage can, the sentences tripped over each other in their race to appear on the page. And it was then that the friction started. What I had hoped for was a gradual clarification of the way ahead as each of the stepping stones of the rising action fell into place. The idea was that momentum would carry me through to the completion of the plan as I progressed along it. What happened instead was more like trying to drive water uphill with a broom.

Connective or process passages ballooned monstrously as my characters and chain of events frantically resisted any efforts to send them along the track of my thoughts. Every scene designed to move the plot had to be first violently wrestled into contact with it and, even then, came out as stubbornly static and lifeless set pieces. Every word, line and paragraph which came out served only to obscure rather than serve my narrative, but I pushed on, clutching at the straws of minor achievements in order to justify carrying on. It'll all come out in the wash. It'll be all right on the night. It takes a while for my genius to reveal itself. These and other scraps of delusional idiocy sustained me on a path that was necessarily doomed to failure.

One of the things which was confusing me was that I had all the component parts needed to construct the first act of my novel. Looked at from a certain point of view, there was no discernible reason for the dysfunction of all these component parts. Looked at from the point of view of the very intelligent and invaluably honest person who I often inflict my early-stage works on, it was pretty obvious. It was shite. What I had done was to take all the parts needed to begin a story and, thanks to my own head-up-the-arse syndrome, put them together upside down and backwards. To give you an idea of just how badly I'd muffed it, I point to the fact that my 'first problem' or catalytic action was scheduled to occur about twelve thousand words in.

Now, in this instance, what I did to discover this was to waste the time of another person in order to discover the blindingly obvious. What I should have done was remember Von Clausewitz, his stupid neck stock, his even stupider epaulettes, and his brilliant idea of friction. The sheer magnitude of friction being encountered in the creation of a work that was practically already written should have alerted me to its deep structural flaws long before I hit the ten thousand word mark.

They say the wise learn from the mistakes of others. In that spirit, I tender this idea for the benefit of any wise people who may be out there. Pay attention to friction. If writing a story feels like pulling out our own teeth with other people's fingers, it might be time to stop, take a step back, and ask ourselves why. Because while writing isn't meant to be easy, the kind of difficult represented by friction should be seen as an enormous, alarmingly red flag warning us to think again.


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