Friday, November 13, 2015

Gilli Allan - Cutting out the Boring Bits

We’re delighted to welcome Gilli Allan to the blog today explaining how the bits you leave out are as important as the bits you keep in…and make for a better story!

Just a few pages long, my first book, begun and abandoned when I was ten, was set in the olden days. Three women, one a young teenager, went by boat to visit a lighthouse - you know the kind I mean, one set on a rocky crag, surrounded by sea. I no longer recall the relationships between the women, but I suspect mother and daughter, and possibly aunt. No sooner had the party arrived (there was presumably a boatman as well) than the weather deteriorated, trapping them there. The whole enterprise was patently a plot device to isolate the women, but I don’t remember what reason, if any, I came up with to explain their original desire for visiting the lighthouse, other than that it was the kind of jaunt well-brought up ladies of the period engaged in to fill their time.  

The lighthouse was manned by two men and a teenage boy. (At the time my ideal age for a romantic lead was sixteen). Braving the storm, my hero went outside to secure the wave-tossed boat which had brought the women. He fell on the wet rocks, injuring himself. From then on he was forced by his unspecified, and not very serious, injuries, to recline on a sofa, while my young heroine tended to him.

After setting the scene, my imagination stuttered to a halt. I had a sense of the romance of the situation but, at this point in my life, had no idea how to convey the journey from attraction to actual cuddling. But even more than the difficulty for ten year old me to visualise a budding romance, I found myself put off by the sheer amount of domestic detail I felt I needed to get through, before I could even arrive at my romantic interludes. There was just too much connecting stuff, like the preparation and consumption of meals, walking from one room to another, going to bed, getting up, combing hair and brushing teeth. It was all just too boring!
I continued to write ‘novels’ throughout my secondary school days. Many were started, none finished. They all foundered on the same obstacle. By this time I thoroughly enjoyed writing the juicy bits - the smouldering glances, the smoochy dances, the kisses and embraces - but I soon ran out of steam when it came to writing the rest of the story. And yet I felt guilty, as if it was cheating not to detail the passing of time by giving every dot and comma of my heroine’s life - her journeys back and forth on the bus, her visits to her mother, her shopping trips, her excursions to the launderette. I believed a ‘real’ writer was somehow duty-bound not only to describe his character’s adventures, but to describe the minutiae of everyday life as well.

It was only much later that it really came home to me that these descriptions of the mundane are rarely needed, unless you are making a point. If you find it tedious to write a particular passage, it’s a fair guess that it will bore your reader.  Of course you need to set the scene. You need to convey the passing of time. You need to evoke smell, taste, touch, and to create a believable world in which to set your story. But unless a minor domestic detail is crucial to the plot - in which case it is cheating not to let the reader know it - then it’s unnecessary to follow your characters’ every move from waking in the morning to pulling the duvets up to their chins at night. You can trust your reader to fill in the blanks.
Life Class is written in third person throughout, but each of the four main protagonists has his or her own, interleaved viewpoints. As I began each passage, I realised that seeing the developing plot through different eyes gave me gave me far more flexibility. It reduced the temptation to follow a character’s every last movement, and it cut out the need for a lot of “And then....” type exposition. More importantly, it treats the reader as a grown-up. I realised more than ever before that I don’t need to hold her hand. She is able to fill in the spaces between the dots for herself.

About art, life, love and learning lessons, Life Class follows four members of an art class, who meet once a week to draw the human figure. All have failed to achieve what they thought they wanted in life. They each come to realise that it’s not just the naked model they need to study and understand. Their stories are very different, but they all have secrets they hide from the world and from themselves. By uncovering and coming to terms with the past, maybe they can move on to an unimagined future.


Gilli’s childhood hobbies were art and writing. She went to Croydon Art College. Before being employed as an illustrator in advertising, she did a variety of increasingly desperate fill-in jobs. Serious writing was only considered when Gilli was at home with her toddler son. Her first two novels were published, but after her publisher’s demise, she went independent. 

Gilli designs Christmas cards and has begun book illustration. Life Class is the third to be published in a three book deal with Accent Press.


Thank you, Gilli, for illustrating so well how sometimes less is more, and good luck with Life Class.

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Denise Barnes Writer said...

I loved your story you wrote when you were ten! So sweet. I don't think you should let this one go without a fight :-)

Yes, too many beginner writers put in far too much mundane detail, and I've even found it in traditionally-published books - probably done it myself on more than one occasion, so this has reminded me not to write those boring bits.

Thanks for the post - I enjoyed it.

Jane Risdon said...

So many stories are started when young and abandoned. The urge to write is there but something is missing; experience I should imagine. Then the years pass and it all falls into place. Only trouble is, by that time so many other complications rush in and the unconsciousness of youth gives way to the worries about market place, grammar, spelling, sentence construction and plotting tightly sculptured characters. In some respects, how lovely the innocence of youthful writing, unfettered and so magical. I loved your 10 year old self as a writer. How wonderful to be able to recall the story.

Jane Jackson said...

This post rang so many bells for me. I started writing at about the same age, ten. My first story was about an old dog dying in a heat wave. (I have no idea why, we didn't even have a dog. What fascinated me was the senses involved in the scene - heat, thirst, smells, sunlight's glare, dry dusty ground, weariness etc) I showed it to my father who read it and gave it back saying he didn't like it and why hadn't I chosen a happier subject. I never showed him anything else. But though I hid it for years I didn't stop writing.

angela britnell said...

Such an interesting interview and I hope your first hero isn't still stranded on the sofa!

Gilli Allan said...

Thank you everyone. So many responses!

I don't have a particularly good memory, Denise, but I've never forgotten that first beginning to a story. I can even half recall my illustrations. I have no idea what was going to happen next - how long the storm was due to last, how I was going to get them all home to solid ground. I don't think I knew then, except that there was definitely going to be some sort of romance between the two main protagonists, even though I hardly knew what falling in love meant. My only template were the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies I watched avidly whenever they were on the TV!
So sorry you were put off by your father's response to your tale about the dying dog, Jane. Adults don't realise how easy it is to crush budding creative enthusiasm. gx

Joan Fleming said...

An interesting blog post, Gilli. I think your point about including (or not) the details of everyday life is a crucial one. Sometimes I find it tricky to judge where to draw the line. Whilst it's important not to underestimate the ability of the reader to fill in what the writer omits, leaving too much to the imagination of the reader can lead to confusion.

I loved the story your wrote when you were ten!

Rosemary Gemmell said...

That's so interesting, Gilli, as it's often difficult to know what to leave in or take out - a major problem when I first started writing fuller length fiction!

Gilli Allan said...

I don't suppose anyone knows for sure what should be left in and what cut out, Rosemary. I certainly don't. gx

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