Blocking out

There is, in theatre, a technique known as blocking. It’s when you go through scenes and work out where on stage you’ll be standing, where you’ll be moving to and how you’ll be entering, exiting and the like. It’s basically a walk-through, frequently interrupting the drama to discuss what’s coming next, where you need to be and so on.

Writing a first draft is very much akin to this process, so much so that I think of them in the same terms. So much of an initial run-through is taken up not with writing – and certainly not with story – but with asking yourself where and how this scene will take place: the physical environment, whether we join our characters mid-scene, or with an entrance or an exit. How important is this location to the story? Do we need detailed depictions of urban decay and political activism or can we take it all as read and crack on with story?

It’s the most frustrating thing about this stage of writing. All you really want to do is to get on with it, get on, move forwards, bring on the big scenes you have in mind.

But this stage is crucially important, and also allows for new ideas and circumstances to build in your mind. For example, I’m currently working on a scene for my new novel: it’s quite a big event and comes in three parts:

  • Late-night walker (protagonist 1) encounters a group of ‘bad kids’: conflict (not necessarily physical) ensues
  • The bad kids are run off by the arrival of a Citizen’s Patrol
  • The Cit’s are in turn run off by the protagonist – with the assistance of protagonists 2 & 3

That’s what happens. Simple, right? But before I can write it off and move on I’ve got to address a certain number of issues:

  • Location. I started with an idea of where this scene would take place, but now I actually get down to it I have to make decisions, to make concrete what may have only been a vague picture in my mind. What’s the lighting like? How much can anyone see? It’s an urban scene so sound will be affected: there’ll be echoes and traffic and ‘hard’ sounds. There’ll be hiding places and shadows etc
  • Characters: Many of the characters in this scene are ciphers and don’t need a great deal of ‘inner-life’. But they still need to be plausible within the world I’m trying to create. I need to decide how many ‘bad kids’ – and, in a world of half-light and shadows, how much description will be needed? I need to know their collective motivation. I also need to know at least a name or two
  • All the above also goes for the members of the Citizen’s Patrol
  • How much action do I want? Obviously I have a reason for putting this scene in the novel, but I also need to think whether this will be a high-octane scene of brutal action, or tense stare-down. That’s affected by the characters involved but also by what’s come before and what’s coming after. Of course, pacing can be tinkered with later but it’s nice to have some idea as you go along

So each scene of a first draft becomes a drag, the writing constantly interrupted by questions and queries. But there is tremendous value in the process. As well as the fact that you are actually moving forwards (never underestimate this: every word written is another you don’t have to write in your next session), this way of practically-thinking through your scenes does something to the writer’s brain. You envisage and describe a location: even if that description is later cut, it sharpens up the image in the writer’s mind. Locations then become solid and permanent and can be reused or linked with others.

Similarly, although some characters may be disposable, others may take their chance to shine. Sometimes it’s only when you’re painting that a particularly vivid image comes to mind. Some of these crowd-fillers may leap out at you and earn themselves greater screen-time. It’s a glorious feeling when that happens. You’ve got a shape in mind for a figure later on in your story, but sometimes they surprise you by taking a form earlier, in ways and places you didn’t expect.

This is the real value of the first draft. You may be desperate to move on, to leap forwards, but by working through one word at a time you’re forced to address some real issues, to solve problems but also to seize opportunities.

So by all means curse your ‘crappy first draft’, but never underestimate what it’s forcing you to do. Every word is making your world come alive, even and especially those words you delete. It’s a slow and painful process, but without it you’d have nothing at all.

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Cheap thrill

For all I’ve learnt about writing, for all that I’ve harped on about planning, character development and more planning, I can’t stop myself. There’s something about the absolute thrill of getting words on the page that I can’t resist. I have to get into it. I need to learn by doing, to traverse the maze intimately.

Having just undergone a painful series of revisions – two drafts together taking over a year – I should know better than to just dive in without a clear idea of who and what I’m dealing with and where I’m going. I have vague ideas, for sure; there is a shape of the story ready to be filled. But I know I should be fleshing all this out first, working out my pacing and devising climaxes, plotting the Hero’s Journey step by step.

And I’m doing something of this; I’ve decided to try and find my midpoint between planning and ‘pantsing’ (a horrible term that I presume means to fly by the seat of the pants). I’m writing fresh, letting the words take me, but at the same time I’m building up a spreadsheet, scene by scene, or what happens and of what consequences this brings. I’m noting the reason for every event and what my characters are doing ‘off-scene’. And I’m making random notes, ideas, thoughts and even planning scenes ahead as phase-space collapses and I get a vision of the future.

That’s the idea, at least. That’s the intention.

Still, there’s nothing like the sheer delight that comes from simply writing; from creating on the fly. You’re on a journey too. Every action and every scene must take place in its own world – and it’s down to you to make that world rich and convincing. Even just building an environment for your cast forces you to reach deeper into your creation, to understand it better and more completely.

The greatest joy, for me, comes from creating new characters from the air. My very first novel, The Ballad of Lady Grace, needed a policeman. I had my main character going into a cop-shop and he needed someone to tell his story to. Out of nothing arrived DS Cook, more of less fully formed. He became one of my favourite characters – a point-of-view character, no less – and he also brought with him his boss, DI Vaas.

In my new work (working title Oneiromancer, fact fans) I’ve just had this experience once again. I had a shape in my mind for a down-and-out caffeine-junkie with some important information to impart. I had an idea of some hyped-up wizard image – Gandalf on amphetamines – begging for coffee.

Before I got to him, however, I was writing a scene in a hostel. One of the POV characters is resident and I’m using him to show a little of the ‘ordinary world’ of the novel. I wanted a conversation to break up the mundanity and it occurred to me that Mr Twitchy could be a resident also. And, whilst trying on different shapes, the character suddenly changed sex and grew younger. Now she’s Ms Twitch and she makes me smile.

This is the joy of writing, for me. This is the thrill. You spend so much time blundering down blind alleys, feeling your way around a labyrinth of textures and emotions and mudslides. When you get a moment when the words grip you and they’re flying almost without effort – that’s when, as Pratchett said, writing is the most fun you can have by yourself.

It might all be rubbish, of course. None of this might make the final cut. But that’s what editing is for. For now it’s just time to enjoy the moment.

Ambiversion

I’m currently reading a fascinating book about introversion; about how we live in a time where personality, not character, matters most. Where volume is rewarded above quiet reflection and decisions are evaluated on presentation, not on substance.

You might think that writers are immune to such cultural trends. After all, although not all writers are introverts, it is a field that requires time spent alone, in a comforting environment (which will vary from person to person), with a lot of time spent in one’s own head. It’s no surprise that some of the best-sellers are considered introverts: the Bronte’s; JK Rowling; Virginia Woolf and JD Salinger are just a few examples.

In the past this wasn’t much of an issue. Writers could send manuscripts to their agents or publishers, receive comments back by post and, bar the occasional meeting and maybe a quick book-launch, barely had to leave their homes to produce quality material that would sell.

Things are very different now. The industry has changed dramatically. Writers are now required to actively promote themselves; they’re expected to appear in public, doing lectures and readings and interviews. Although much promotion can be undertaken online, the fact remains: those who shout loudest get the most sales.

This isn’t right, isn’t fair, and risks the best novels slipping between the cracks to be replaced by mediocrity and blah. It’s a consequence of the way the publishing world has retreated, saving money by pushing promotion onto authors. Some, naturally, cope better than others. I consider myself to be an ambivert and personally have no problem speaking in public. But many do.

It’s no different in the world of self-publishing: it may be possible to quietly slip out your masterpiece and to avoid the limelight but no-one’s going to read it if no-one knows it’s there. The best way of promoting yourself remains the personal appearance – at conferences, in shops, or at the car boot-sales where you hope to offload a few of the thousand copies that are currently preventing use of the spare bedroom.

Don’t think the internet’s a way around this. Most bloggers and tweeters (myself included) are locked in a circle of writers reading writers, reaching very few people in the buying world. Even though the internet has been a liberation for introverts everywhere (they can metaphorically dance and sing behind their keyboards, engaging only when and how they want), the fact remains: introverts don’t like to shout. It’s an incredibly slow, incremental journey for those who prefer to pick and choose their interactions with the outside world.

It seems to me that the publishing world is doing a massive disservice to both readers and writers. Books are signed not only on the basis of their quality but by how well the author can push themselves. Some people are good at this, others aren’t – but literary merit does not reflect this difference. Similarly, many readers are introverted. Don’t they deserve to hear the experiences of people like them, as well as the big noises that live in big worlds of parties and friendships and society? We’re not all Gatsby’s and we don’t all want to read about them.

The driving force of publishing is money, not talent. That’s not to say that publishers don’t like quality writing – they most certainly do – but that even the best-written book in the world will be overlooked if it ain’t gonna be a unit-shifter. Bear in mind that many (most) debut novels are bought not on their own merits but on the potential that the industry sees behind its author. It’s a risk-averse world, one in which quiet courage isn’t rated as highly as the ability to stand up and shout – no matter what bollocks is being shouted.

Anyway, that’s what I think. Thoughts?

Crisis of confidence

There comes a point in the writer’s life when you are no longer capable of seeing anything good in your own work. Overexposure has sapped the joy from your words. All you can see is the dark patches of underdeveloped concepts and ridiculous attempts at purple prose. Be reassured: it’s just a sign that you’re getting better as a writer and that you’re more aware and free in your craft.

But I’ve reached that point where I can’t see anyone wanted to publish Night Shift, nor can I see the agent for whom I’ve spent the last year rewriting being the slightest bit interested. That does not, in itself, break my heart. What bothers me is that I’ve spent all this time on one project and it still doesn’t feel anything like finished. I’ve spoken before about how I want to move on to other things but once again I find myself upon the endless treadmill of editing, sending out, re-editing…

I had been thinking that my best option was, once this final line-edit is done with, that I would give the damn thing one last shy around the agents and publishers I’d not yet hassled – and, if I got nothing from them, to seriously look into self-publishing. Now I find myself wondering if I can bear to put this out at all – not, at least, without yet another series of major revisions.

The fact is that I don’t know if I’ll ever be confident enough to call a book finished – done, once and for all completed to be put out of mind forever except as a memory. I get the ghastly image of myself in the same place in ten years’ time, still writing, still scratching away, with a pile of books under my metaphorical bed, all waiting to be polished ‘one last time’ before I send them out. Let’s face it, I’ve been telling myself I’m ‘on the edge’ of publication for at least five years. Why should today’s delusion be any different from yesterday’s?

My comfort is that other people have read my work and not hated it. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that no writer can accurately judge their own work; I hope that I’m not just surrounded by a shield of ‘don’t hurt his feelings’-ness and that I can draw genuine comfort from positive feedback. I have had my literary viscera drawn out before me on enough occasions already and I know how painful it can be – but for all I am a vulnerable and precious flower, I would rather be pilloried for my incompetences than bloated with a diet of flannel and hot air.

The other positive is that I’m still able to work, even when faced with the barbs of marginal comments and footnotes designed to point out my failures. I can take them, and I can decide myself whether to listen or not. This is the job of writing; choosing to work on what wounds rather than on what sends our hearts a-soaring. It is another thing I take a measure of comfort and (yes) pride in. I can work. I can put in the hours. Even when I’m feeling bleak I can still plough on through.

Self-doubt will never go away. But every revision I make will (hopefully) save me from one more slab of pain in the future. After all, these doubts are caused by people who at least in theory like me. Soon, if I’m a good boy, eat my greens and do all my homework, my work may be placed before the harshest critics: the public. Best to harden oneself before the slings and arrows are trained in earnest.