The laziness of the long-distance thinker

The mind is lazy. The mind is treacherous. The mind is – sometimes – your worst enemy.

The mind likes the quiet life. It seeks the easy way out. And, if you’re not careful, it can lead you way off track. There is a sign I’ve begun to recognise and look out for. When the eye slides off the screen and when you start scrolling through, skipping paragraphs, that’s a sure sign that there’s something unright about that section. The mind is trying to avoid noticing it. It doesn’t want the conscious mind to see because then it might have to actually stretch itself and think.

This is an endemic quality of the brain. It likes to burble through the days on automatic and to avoid engaging with anything really work-like. It leads to a tendency to accept poor quality writing and pointless scenes. It won’t allow actual mistakes, you understand: they stand out still. But as soon as the eyes begin to slide down the page I’ve learned to stop, to take a break, maybe, and re-engage.

No-one likes to work. Not real brain-work – not on everything, certainly. You’ll take every excuse for the easy way out. It’s a natural human trait and it only gets worse if you’ve shown the piece to others and they’ve not objected, not highlighted the section you’re trying to ignore. Hey – someone else has read it and they’ve not complained, so it must be okay, right? There are always other, more obvious errors to fix. And yet you continue to have a sense of disquiet.

The only answer is to challenge the mind. To show it the offending section in front of it, direct and centre, and to make it do its damn job. You find your eyes sliding away – well, just get them back on centre. The work has to be done. Because even if no-one else comments, you know. You know there’s something not right. And you’ll be faintly embarrassed every time to get near that section. And heaven help you if you find you have to read it out loud. No avoiding it then. Everyone will know that you’ve left a placeholder in your finished piece of work. And the mind likes that even less.

So every time you find your mind shying away from a paragraph or a scene, or every time you find yourself saying ‘yeah, that’s okay, I can skim that,’ hold on. There’s something wrong there. You know it. Something is trying to get your attention, but your lazy arse of a mind is seeking to sleep. Don’t let it! Make it work. It can do it – it’s good at it really. It’s just after a quiet life.

It’s up to you to show it who’s boss. You can do better. It can do better. And between the two of you, you will. Once you’ve recognised the signs you can use your blindness as an alarm: let the moment you start to skim sound as a siren. Eighteen-to-one that’ll be a place that needs improvement.

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Beyond the Editorium

Editorium End

The lambuscript and scene-by-scene guide all scribbled-upon and ready to be encomputerised

Update time: I’ve just finishing my first read-through of my first draft of Oneiromancer. For those new to this blog, don’t worry if that means nothing to you. I’ve not posted that much about the actual story, and I’m not going to start here. There’s plenty of work still to be done, and plenty of chance to snare you into my world of visions and wonder.

The read-through, all cosy in my Editorium, has been fun. The slog of the first draft, the puzzle-box devising, the tormenting of my characters and their individual journeys, is over. There is a sense that the hard work is done, although (if experience is any guide) that’s almost certainly untrue. I’m sure my beta-readers, when this finally goes out to them, will request extra bits in the most inconvenient way possible. They will demand I excise whole sections that contain crucial information that must be retained somewhere, somehow. And I will swear.

Back to this run-through. Let’s start by saying what the second draft not: it’s not going through and correcting spelling and improving prose. That’s what I used to think. When I first started writing seriously I thought that editing was improving the writing and killing typos. Now I know I was wrong. The most important thing here is to fix the plot. Sure, as I read through I’m keeping an eye out for base errors, for poor dialogue or clumsy (or simply second-best) prose; I’m incapable of not looking for things like this. But at this stage plot is paramount.

Sometimes you have to write things to work out in your mind where you need to go. This is where the famous soggy middle comes from, I think. Sometimes you can almost hear the author thinking ‘right, where do I need to go from here? How do we get there?’ These passages need to be written: they’re the author’s way of finding the path. But they have no place in the finished novel. Cut – cut cut cut. But in every excision there’s a small piece of information that needs inserting, or a particularly revealing snatch of conversation, so it’s not just a case of going through the text with a pair of scissors.

Then there are all the changes that the characters have been through. Of course you want them to end as slightly different people (in some cases they’ve changed from ‘alive’ to ‘metabolically challenged’) as they live through the novel. But sometimes their base identity changes: your heroes, you realise, are better slightly older, or younger, than you originally had them. Maybe you realise that the childhood trauma you gave them isn’t the right foundation upon which to hang their neuroses. The second draft is the place to go through and fix all these errors-that-aren’t-really-errors; to adjust initial descriptions, to foreshadow later shocks and to take the deus from the machina.

It is a twofold process. The first half is spent with the manuscript and a pen and copious ad-hoccery. That’s what I’ve now completed. The second half is spent on the computer actually entering in the changes and will take a lot longer. This is because most of my notes are either illegible or run along the lines of ‘insert new scene: ref. Jazz – she’s been to a club/gig (too young?)’ thus leaving almost of the work to Future Rob. I’ve been highlighting work to do rather than actually doing it. Past Rob is right pain in the backside, as anyone who knows him will testify.

So this next pass will take much longer. It will combine small, local improvements (the ‘writing’) and larger situational changes. Locations may change. Characters certainly will. I have at least two new scenes to write and a half-dozen to delete. Then and only then will the novel go out for reading by people other than me. I’m aiming at the end of February for that particular milestone. But don’t worry, lovely bloggites. Whether you care or not, you will be kept informed.

Happy writing.

“Heroes”

When Terry Pratchett died in August I fully intended to sit and write a post about how much I loved his work, how he’d filled my life with joys and riches. I never did it. A combination of just having too many words inside me and the flurry of similar pieces that filled the internet put me off.

Today I have awoken to find that the other great constant in my life, David Bowie, has also shuffled off this mortal coil. Now, despite the title of this piece, I can’t say I consider either of these gentlemen to be heroes. To be honest with you I’m not sure I really understand the concept; I can’t think of a single person I’ve ever held up as the acme of humanity. But I spent so much of my life – especially through my teenage years – either reading PTerry or listening to Bowie (often at the same time) that both these people are part of me. And it strikes me that one has been a much bigger inspiration on my writing than the other.

Terry Pratchett is the author I’ve read most in my life. By a mile. Since being introduced to him by a classmate aged twelve or thereabouts I’ve gone through all his books so many times. Truly, I’ve never found so much love, joy and delight in an author’s work. He took me through my depression. His words lifted my soul, his rolling prose contrasted with and underlined his pointed observations about human nature (for what is fantasy but a new way of looking at reality?). It’s writing to admire, to adore, to fall in love with. I will be forever grateful that I was given a chance to live in his world.

But I don’t think he’s shaped my writing at all. It certainly hadn’t; maybe now I’m just beginning to see some of his long undulating sentences twitch into my work. Still, I can’t think of a single idea that has been brought forth from the Discword. Maybe some of his ways of thinking have seeped into me, and maybe someday I’ll learn to allegorise: the way he showed the dangers of internecine religious differences in Thud; the strident anti-exploitation message in Snuff, and the general ‘stop this now, you’re all being terribly silly’-ness that lurk beneath the surface of just about every novel. But for now? Nothing. A love, an undying, unforgettable love for his work, but no ideas.

Bowie, on the other hand, gave me so much. The snaps of lyrics, the agonised yearning, the neverending hope: yes, these are things I’ve learnt all the way back to when I was dancing with my sister in her bedroom, when I was six or seven, not knowing anything about the man or – really – what the lyrics meant at all. But emotion, emotion – I understood that. I understood heartbreak and pain, and I learnt it all through music. Not just Bowie, of course; I still remember lying in bed, listening to The Beatles’ ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’; and being haunted by the key-change into the chorus. But Bowie was the master.

When I was sixteen ‘Candidate’ startled me to the point where I free-wrote a story based on the song as part of my GCSE English exam. I’d already attempted to write a novel based on the visions built by ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. I’d tried to put a proper story behind Ziggy Stardust. I’d been terrified – in a good way – by that staggering, stuttering intro to ‘Five Years’ and the crazy longing in ‘Lady Stardust’. And lines from ‘Station to Station’ infested my poetry, my lyrics, my life.

I could write thousands of words about this. I’ve written about my distrust of ideas several times on this blog, but today I’m only just realising how different are ideas and inspiration. And my inspiration as a writer comes magnificently and majestically from music. Not just Bowie – of course not just Bowie. REM, Kate Bush, New Model Army, Swervedriver – so many, so many wonderful artists that have touched me so deeply, that have – yes – inspired me. Still I find myself most fruitful when I’m half-asleep in the car, with a CD playing. That’s when the ideas come.

I’m struggling here to conflate two concepts. Half of me wants to eulogise for these wonderful human beings, to extol their virtues, to give more and more examples of how they’ve touched me and shaped who I am. The other half wants to make a serious point about inspiration. Perhaps I’m doing neither justice, and for that I apologise. But what’s really struck me is that I am a writer by accident. It should come as no surprise that many writers started out as musicians; I can site J. Kent Messum, Joolz Denby and all these, and that’s before I even consider descending to Dan Brown/Morrissey levels.

I adore Terry Pratchett. Reading – reading him – is a true delight and I will never fail to find wonder and comfort and wisest, wisest wisdom in his work. But I’m not a writer because of him. I’m not a writer because of any of the amazing books I’ve read, that I wish I’d written. I’m a writer because of music. And whenever I need to top up my well of inspiration it’s not my bookshelf I’ll turn to but my CD rack. David Bowie was my first and my deepest. It’s nothing but fitting that he managed to stage-manage his death so well: and there’s surely a story right there.

The benefits of not doing the job

An authorly colleague of mine has been extolling the virtues of a writing holiday. Not one of those ‘give us a thousand quid and we’ll bunk you up in a villa in the Mediterranean’ things, but a total and complete break from writing. This I don’t really understand; my writing routine very closely follows my paid-employment pattern: five days a week less bank holidays and other odd days here and there. But this Christmas – very nice, thanks for asking, hope you had a good one too – gave me seventeen solid days away from my computer. An almost unheard of length of time. And by the end of it – indeed, even as the missus was driving me home – my mind was bursting with new ideas.

This is something I firmly assign to the subconscious. The time spent turning and twisting and working the mind into new shapes, with new (or even old) sights and sounds and understandings causing bursts and ripples and puffs and echoes into new formations. This is what generates ideas. A mind that’s used to seeking patterns, to seeing stories, can be stimulated by almost anything. This is the benefit of your writing break. Simply allowing the mind to unhook itself from the project you’ve been buried in will cause it to generate new insights, will make your writing better in ways you couldn’t ever have imagined.

Ideas are treacherous beasts. I once made the mistake of telling my beloved an idea I had. Never again. The look of incredulity on her face, the simple demolition of all I thought significant – the pain lingers, my friends, it lingers.

How many ideas does it take to come up with a story anyway? I always get vaguely grumpy when I hear authors being asked where they get their ideas from. A plot isn’t an idea. At best it’s a series of ideas, carefully picked at and worked-through and cost-benefit-analysed. Plot is a consequence of character and setting and tone and concept. A rich backdrop. A protagonist that steals your heart. A villain (who, of course, is the hero of her own narrative) who thrills. A McGuffin that carries the fate of the world. These are your ideas, and the way you put them all together isn’t. It’s work. It’s hard work.

At any given time you carry a number – a large number – of ‘ideas’ around with you. A story only develops when these elements have rubbed together for long enough to beat the rough corners off each other and have moulded into one simple concept. This, then, is the advantage of taking time off from the daily effort of writing: to allow these elements to fuse and simmer and merge.

But it’s useless unless you get back behind the desk as soon as your break is over. Take your holiday by all means – go, live life, be guilt-free and gluttonous with your experiences. But the work still has to be done. Which is why I’m writing this now; warming up for another spell in the editorium and getting some of my holiday ideas out onto the page. Because if I didn’t I wouldn’t be a writer, I’d be a dreamer. The world’s got plenty of those already.