Caveat scriptor

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The Distrest Poet, Hogarth c1736

“A writer is a writer not because she writes well or easily, because she has amazing talent, or because everything she does is golden. A writer is a writer because, even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Junot Diaz, Becoming a Writer/The List, O Magazine, November 2009

This quote is only one of many from many people: you know you’re a writer when not writing is impossible. It’s an image that conjures up the image of the starving artist in their garret, frantically creating because it’s the only thing they know. It’s romantic. It’s persistent. It’s dangerous.

I’ve not been well recently. I’ve hinted at it in previous blog-posts, but perhaps it’s time to be more open about it. A major life-change occurred and suddenly I was unable to write. My inability to write made me ill, or at least more so.

I hadn’t realised that writing was part of my self-protection, my survival strategy. I didn’t realise just how much my routine had been insulation from depression and self-hatred. Of course I knew of my propensity for mental illness – I’ve had it since I was eight, so I’ve had a lot of time to come to terms with myself. But I didn’t realise that writing – and more specifically my writing routine – worked as a defence. Writing, for me, is as much self-preservation as it is an act of love.

So, for the first time, I really feel I understand these quotes. But I don’t see them as romantic, aspirational ideals: instead they have taken on a darker hue. Beware, writer, for you are so embedded in your work that you are simply a madman with a coping strategy. You are Dr Jekyll. Beware the unleashing of your Hyde.

And beware also these pat statements that seem to glamourise suffering. Be reassured: your writing isn’t going to get any worse if you’re well-fed, well-supported, well-balanced. We should be telling ourselves that the healthiest way to write is to do so as a hobby or as a business, not as a part of our very being. Necessity has a way of sabotaging you when you least expect it.

I’m taking steps to restore balance and to claw back some of the defences I once had. But caveat scriptor: there is nothing romantic about madness. If your happiness is so entwined with writing then at least acknowledge this and ensure you have some sort of safety net should the unexpected sweep your feet from beneath you.

Or is it just me?

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The beginning of the end

Calvin
I’m writing a short story. I am, in fact, writing the same short story for the fourth time. I’m not editing – changing one word here, switching a character there – but actually writing the story over, from scratch, for the fourth time.

There are reasons for this lunacy. The first is simply that I can. I have no pressing work, no great inspirations, no editor beating down my door for work as yet undelivered. I have lacuna-ed and I’m just taking a quiet moment to do as I damn well please, thank you very much. Sometimes it’s fun just to write.

The second reason for all the rewrites is that this story is teaching me even as I try to get it down. The original idea was of a terrorist attack and its immediate aftermath from the point of view of one of the attackers, but as I wrote it I realised that the event itself wasn’t very interesting. The escape is where it’s at.

So I rewrote it, losing the first half entirely. I got it down, knowing it wasn’t very good (get the ideas on the page then endlessly refine, that’s the writing way), and printed it off. But as I mulled it over I realised the location was wrong. I’d set it in a church, but it needed to be in a museum. And that I needed another character as an interlocutor.

So I started a third draft. And it was going fine until I started to think about how the story would end. And it occurred to me that this was the interesting bit. The aftermath of the aftermath. The characters. This was the story I wanted to write, not some faux-action cliché with dull people and dull arguments. I wanted an exhausted survivor with her hostage on public transport at night.

So this is what I’m writing. Not an all-action balls-out sausage-fest but a quiet, reflective piece on the nature of belief and causes, and let’s just throw in a little fake news there as well.

What I’m not writing is a novella. You might be reading this and thinking that I’ve been building and building and building a story and that I should just tell it all. But what I’ve done is tell myself the background (though that background has shifted somewhat from my first attempt), and this is incredibly useful: I know, in detail, how my characters got where they are now.

But my readers don’t need to see that background. Not because it isn’t very good – I have confidence in my abilities to make it good, with the help of my friendly neighbourhood writing group – but because it’s not the story I want to tell.

Maybe this tale will turn into a novella, but it won’t go back to the beginning; if anything it’ll extend from where I thought the end was. Or maybe I’ll just realise that I still haven’t found the right beginning and I’ve another start to find.

So I’m writing a short story. Maybe one day I’ll find where it ends.

Seeking inspiration

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If you’re in a hole, stop digging. Unless you’re trying to find water, in which case pause to check you’re in the right place, wipe your brow, and dig on.

Should your well run dry, there are two possible solutions: you could read, or you could talk to writers. You should also try not to be too hard on yourself, but I’ve never been good at that one.

The great August of Doom is over. Life rolls on. I achieve little. But talking literature (in its broadest sense) is always an inspiration, so last night I made one of my periodic excursions to my writing group – less regular that I used to, thanks to sproggage and associated exhaustion – and I now find myself somewhat recharged: still frustrated by my lack of personal progress, but a little less empty, a little less flat.

The experience of experience and evaluating the work of others is always rewarding. Ideas spark ideas: a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. This is horrendously trite but no less true for that. So I return to an old piece of advice: if you want to write you should join a writing group. Even if you feel you have nothing to contribute, do not miss the chance to be inspired. Do not miss the chance to learn. To not miss the chance to improve, even if you never share your own work and just listen, absorb, and swell with literary power.

I suppose this is just another way of saying that I’ve achieved nothing this week. But that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe – just maybe – it’s not an onrushing train.

Strata and substrata

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Tapestry from the Ramses Wissa Wassef Arts Centre, Cairo

My favourite technique for building a novel is to bang all ideas together and see which stick: which complement and cohere and which fracture and fall apart. Characters, plot-threads, locations: they’re all ideas. Some will naturally work together, some will fragment and mutate, and some will just fall to the floor to be swept to the Municipal Recycling Centre of the mind.

The problem is that some ideas seem to go together quite well, but to make them work within a story requires a whole new level of intrigue and opacity. Generally speaking, complex is good: a twist – that famous, legendary twist – requires a substrata to run through the novel that the reader doesn’t even know they’re mining as they progress: in other words, a hidden layer of complexity within the story. Without multiple threads the story is bland, unchallenging, the simplest of the simples.

I like simple. I write adventures dressed up in speculative clothing. Adventures are perhaps the simplest stories as they’re fundamentally linear: good guy gets into a series of scrapes, each one sending her further towards the final resolution. But even here we need the complexity of betrayal, of emotional turmoil, of the realisation that they couldn’t trust their masters. Without this you have dissatisfaction, a children’s story populated with cardboard cut-outs.

This is not meant as an insult children’s literature, by the way. Some is outstanding: I’d point at Terry Pratchett’s Carnegie Medal-winning The Amazing Morris and his Educated Rodents. It’s a ‘simple’ story, but it’s brilliantly told and – well – brilliant.

Anyway, I find I’m becoming more complex as I learn the craft of writing. I want layers. I want secrets. I want to weave a diverse cast together and keep myriad plates spinning.

But when do you know when you’ve got enough threads? How do you know when you’ve gone too far? If you just keep weaving string upon string together not only will you never have a whole completed tapestry but you’ll just confuse and bore the reader.

I have a new idea. I went to a free festival at the weekend and saw a sideshow that inspired me. I’ve rammed it against my primary work-in-progress (which at the moment exists only in my mind) and it created interesting shapes. But to make it work in story form, how much work do I need to do? Are the changes coherent? Does it make the novel into something else entirely?

At the moment I have no idea. One day I’ll learn how to do this writing thing properly.

Well run dry

mayanPacuxGuatemala

August is traditionally the down month in publishing. It’s when all the merry little agents and editors take a well-deserved break: no conferences are arranged, no junkets junked. Business essentially stops for a month.

This, at least, is what I’ve been told. I’m sure times have moved on, now, and there are now no rests for anyone, wicked or not. But you do still hear the old advice not to submit any work in August because no-one’s gonna read it.

So if you’re going to pick a month where you achieve nothing, you might as well make it August. Likely enough no-one else is doing anything either. Nothing worthwhile, at least: what good are holidays or spending time with the family anyway? Stupid unproductive wastes of time.

This is, of course, a joke. Just spelling it out in case my wife reads this.

All this is an unnecessarily convoluted way of saying that it’s not been a great month for me. I’ve had some personal issues that have made it hard to be my usual ebullient self on Twitter – and this matters, to me at least – and I feel like my well has drawn dry.

I know this is a phase: that everyone goes through it; that inspiration does not work according to schedule. Indeed, this is my only justification for saying this here – that sometimes you feel like you’re the only person in the world that experiences these things. Sorry if that makes you feel less special, you beautiful and unique snowflake, you. But if it helps reassure anyone, good.

Writing is a difficult, painful thing. It doesn’t take much to knock a writer off his stride: all manner of things the reader will never see. Rejection is the obvious, but writers are (mostly) human beings – all the things that can disrupt you can get to them as well.

Anyway, there’s no point moping. Sometimes the only thing to do is to suck it up and get back to it. So back I go into the land of tinkerisation, of editing a book that might need sweeping changes and not the little rephrasings I’m able to provide.

My mojo will return. I’ll wake up one morning brimming with inspiration and I’ll pour words onto the page like the metaphor that metaphors metaphoringly.

Today is not that day.