Perfecting your craft takes time and effort - Ian McMillan

Musicians practise their scales, going over and over the same few notes until they get them perfect.

Runners run and run and swimmers swim and swim until the muscle memory takes over and the running or swimming seem as natural as breathing. And writers, if they want to get better at writing, write and write and also do the equivalent of doing their scales.

In my case my version of the scales is that I give myself tasks that are built from a combination of the mundane and experimental so that I can always try to approach the writing of lines and sentences and paragraphs in a new way each time because, after all, each sentence (or line, or paragraph) should feel newly-minted, fresh out of the oven.

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So my exercise today as I write this column is to try and do my ABC’s or, if they run out, my DEF’s. And maybe my GHI’s. We’ll see how I get on.

Peot Ian McMillanPeot Ian McMillan
Peot Ian McMillan

I’m going to tone my writing muscles, which, let’s face it, are the only muscles of mine that are likely to be toned, by writing the next few words following the ABC pattern and I’ll comment on the writing as I go along. Let’s see how far I get. Here goes:

‘‘A broken chimney’ Albert Baker chuntered, ‘a blooming catastrophe!’ All but collapsed, Albert’s brickwork carapace appeared brittle, compromised. A builder’s conundrum: alter bricks, cement? Alternatively bash, crash; annihilate blooming caboodle!’

Phew: that was hard. Just using words beginning with A, B and C in order made the construction of a narrative quite tricky, but it did force me to think hard about words and what they mean and how they might work together.

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And if only I’d had an ‘A’ I could have had an ‘and’ or two, thus making the sentences less staccato. Albert Baker was a find, though; but if I do DEF next I can’t bring him back into the tale. Let’s see if I find a way to carry on without making reference to what came before. I wonder what’s going to happen to Albert’s broken chimney?

‘Damaged elegant facade; drainpipes extending, falling. Drighlington earth-tremor. Do every fettling: Don’t ever forget.’

It’s getting more difficult, this, but it’s really putting me through my paces and making me weigh every word very carefully and make sure it’s doing the job I want it to do.

Each time I write one of these very restricted sentences I’m like someone using a language for the very first time, learning to work with it and play with it.

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The story of the collapsing chimney is taking shape, though. As you’ll have seen, it seems to have been caused by an earth-tremor, which I probably wouldn’t have thought of without my self-imposed restriction and which I cleverly hyphenated so that I could make it into just one word.

I’d recommend this to any writer; it’s hard but worth it. Let’s slip into GHI now and see where the story goes:

‘Gail had ideas, generating heartfelt initiatives. ‘Get help, Idiots! Grab hawsers, install. Gently haul inch-by-inch. Gradually healing infrastructure.’

Gosh, I’ll have to go and lie down for a minute. I’m sweating and I feel a bit dizzy. I don’t know who Gail is but she seems to have stopped the chimney from falling down. And yes, I did cheat a bit with the hyphens again, but I’m sure inch-by-inch works perfectly correctly. And the story still, more or less, makes sense.

Let’s try JKL, shall we ? That’ll make me match fit for next week!

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