On Inspiration

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Ideas can strike you in the funniest ways, in the oddest places. A week ago I was lamenting my lack of brain-power: today I feel reinvigorated. And it’s all because, with nothing else on, I found myself watching a documentary on the Mountain Railways of India.

The railways are fascinating in themselves, but they’re nothing to do with this story. What struck me was the pride with which the staff looked after their engines; the delight they took from turning out a clean machine and making them run to time.

For years now I’ve been turning an idea around in my mind: a story set in Fenland, an adventure about a chase through eel-ridden waterways and thick vegetation. It’s been parked in a crevice of my mind: now I feel I have a new element to go with it. The pride and kinship of a boat-crew; the ties and rivalries that must exist between captains like that of the train crews in Tamil Nadu.

This is what writing is, for me. It’s about taking ideas from the strangest places, reworking them, tempering them and melding them together. I still don’t know what this story is really about. I still don’t have characters other than a vague sense, a shape, of what is needed. But I feel like I’ve found an edge-piece and it’s slipped neatly into place next to a corner, and a little more of the way forward has been illuminated.

It’s like baking bread; you find the recipe and then you work the dough. When it’s proved you can’t separate out the ingredients but they’re all in there; and where you found them no longer matters.

All that matters now is the taste of the whole, and the satisfaction of a full belly.

Fishing for mojo

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For the first time in over a decade I am struggling to write. Even this blog feels like it’s being ripped out of the deepest agonies of the soul and the words don’t want to come.

It’s not just the Major Life Event. It’s also because I’m between projects; I finished my latest draft of my latest novel just before Christmas, and don’t know what I’m working on next. My attempts at a new novel have stalled, and whilst I have plenty of ideas circling manically around my mind, I can’t seem to latch onto anything. If I were in the middle of something I could snatch half-hours to add odd words and I wouldn’t feel quite so much like I was failing.

This is a torment. I love writing, love creation, and right now I don’t seem able to grasp hold of anything. I know it’s just a phase, a passing moment of enforced downtime. But that fear is constantly buzzing in my ears: what if I’m burnt out? What if I’ve lost the spark? Major Life Event notwithstanding, this is the ideal time to write: I’ve time at home; the MLE’s at her sleepiest; the wife is taking frequent naps. It’s not going to get any easier than this. This is prime writing time. Why aren’t you using it?

I am my own worst enemy.

Intellectually I know that this will pass. Things will get clearer. I will carve out a new routine. But emotionally all is doom and despair. I have no writing career from which I can take a year out. I don’t want to let down my social media followers (which is massively ridiculous; I’m hardly that egocentric. But I don’t want to lose any momentum I may have gained. Which may also be ridiculous, but still).

I need to take a proper break and let my spiralling mind settle. Things will get better. I just need to go fishing for mojo and then I’ll be feasting on productivity again.

With apologies for the random, half-formed images and metaphors.

Rewiring

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Baby Lyra is home. The sleepless nights have begun. And I find myself facing a new challenge: how to abandon all old patterns of production and learn to write afresh.

I’ve written before about the value of routine, and habit, to creativity. I’ve waxed at length about how I’ve trained myself to sit at my desk at this particular time and crack on, to get down to it; to shape my brain to operate with the parameters of work and wakefulness. The more you do it, the more you expect to focus at a certain time, the easier it is to pick up and run.

Now I have to retrain myself to take opportunities as they present themselves; in those blissful snatched moments when Lyra is asleep but I’m not. I have to forget the years of mental discipline and work out how to be ad hoc, to be ad lib, to take my splintered moments and make the most of them. Because every second spent thinking of a project is a second you move further forwards. I’ve been advocating a way of working for years. Now I have to forget all that and start again.

I hate not working. To put it another way, I enjoy idleness so much that I fear not working. I now have the perfect excuse to sleep in, to prevaricate, to put everything else first. I have to say to myself that will not do that – whilst at the same time not being so hard on myself as to not give myself the much-needed leisure and relaxation time that everyone needs.

I’m sorry if this post is seeming rambly and unfocused: if it does then at least it’s an accurate representation of my mental state. The important thing for me is to write something.

Maybe next time I’ll be able to write something good.

Lyra

By the time you read this my carefree childhood days will be a thing of the past. Adulthood will have taken a good, hard look at me, scowled and kicked sand in my face before leading me off into the great sunset that is Responsibility. Because of this:

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Lyra Sibella Keynton Triggs. Despite appearances, she is not The Pope. Yet.

You can’t say the hints weren’t there: all the talk of ‘taking six months off work’; of ‘becoming an adult’; of my life changing. Something’s been a-brewing but I’ve not wanted to talk about it directly – partly for fear of jinxation, partly because I’ve maybe possibly been in denial, but mostly because that’s not what this blog’s about.

They say that everyone’s allowed one parenthood post. They can have one opportunity to gush; one chance to say how their kid is the best – better, even, than all the other ‘best’ kids out there. Well this isn’t it. This blog’s to talk about writing. Thing is…

Thing is, how can you talk about writing when you don’t know what shape your life will take for the next year?

Lifestyle affects writing. It’s obvious and it’s true. You can’t sleepwalk your way through a novel: you can’t (yet) download your thoughts directly onto paper or video your dreams. You need time, you need a certain degree of consciousness, you need routine, focus and direction. A wee bub challenges all these things.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible to write a novel with a small child in proximity. I’ve read a good handful of interviews where the starting point for the novelist was the sleeptime of the child. I had a Twitter exchange with Aliette de Bodard where we jokingly mooted writing an article on the problem/opportunity of writing with a smallrus in tow.

I know nothing of this yet. That it will affect me and my writing is not in doubt: the question is whether it will prove boon or bust.

In the short-term all I ask is that you be gentle with me. I don’t know what’s going to change. Maybe this blog will become more erratic. Please understand that I’m not abandoning you, that I’m still out here, across the cyberverse, doing my damnedest to produce wonderful words and wilful witticisms.

But Lyra comes first. And the wife. And sleep. After that – well, after that we’ll have to see.

The ruts

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If you’ve been following this page for a while you might be wondering where all my posts on ‘real’ writing have gone. I’ve been blithely blithering on about proofreading, world-building, and all sorts of tangentialities and not once getting to grips with my own work. There is a reason for this. It’s because I’m stuck.

Just before Christmas I finished the fourth draft of Oneiromancer. It is as good as I can make it – or, at least, as good as I can make it right now. I’m under no illusions that it’s perfect (whatever that means) but I can’t work on it further without feedback and without a decent break.

Next on my mental ‘to-do’ list was to go back to the ‘problem child’ novel: Australis, the second in my Antarctic trilogy. But I just can’t face that right now. I need to move forwards, so January found me playing around with a new project: a cyber-thriller that, as yet, has no title. Also no plot, characters or direction.

It should come as no surprise to hear that I’ve got nowhere. I need to have at least an end-point in mind – something to write towards. Without that I have nothing.

There’s been litres of ink spilled on the subject of writers’ block. I’m not going to add to that here because I don’t think I have it – hell, seeing as no-one can actually agree what it actually is and whether it even exists, adding my own tuppeneth seems somewhat superfluous. But I am stuck, or at least stalled.

My problem, as I see it, can be interpreted in two ways. Either I’ve been lazy, not really applying my mental faculties to working through my storyline, or I’ve had so much on my mind that there’s not much room left for creativity.

The good thing is that there are far worse things in life than taking a month out. I don’t have deadlines. I don’t have the pressure to produce: I do what I do because I want to; because the joy of writing is transcendent, the kind of high that I imagine elite athletes get when they’re in the ‘flow’, when instinct lets you do things that you’d never be able to if you sat and thought it all through beforehand.

The other thing is that I’m working through obstacles in my personal life: things that have been filling my brain, that are important but not conducive to creativity. I’m slowly clawing my way into becoming an adult. I have my driving test on Wednesday: at the moment my dream-time – when I lie in bed awaiting sleep – is full of mirror, signal, manoeuvre and fantastic worlds have been squeezed out.

I am hard on myself. I consider time spent not writing as time wasted. This is not the case. Things have been tricky recently but they will resolve soon. If you’re in a similar position maybe you need to reprioritise, reassess, reboot. The ties will release. Things will get better. You will write again. Believe that.

I’ll have had my driving test by the time this is posted* and we’ll see where we stand then. Then there’s just the small matter of –

No, I’m not going to talk about that. That’s for next week’s blog.

 

*Failed. Cloud not lifted. Bugger.

Proof

I’ve done something that at least sounds moderately impressive this month. With malice aforethought, with eyes wide open and with a degree of trepidation, I’ve joined my first ever professional body and can now officially – and with a certain degree of self-mockery – display this badge:

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I’ve also paid to take a proofreading course, which means that my war against typos has been stepped up to new levels.

I’m doing this for a couple of reasons. One to teach myself the jargon: just as you can know the rules of grammar without knowing the terminology, proofreading can be done without training. But it has its own tics and mannerisms that it can only be of benefit to learn. This will, I hope, ultimately save me time both in my own editing and in communication with other professionals.

Technical languages like the rules of grammar (of which I am more or less entirely ignorant) are a shorthand and a pretension. You don’t need to understand dilithium crystals to make a spaceship fly, but understanding them may help you communicate with engineers.

I’m hoping that learning to proofread may help me be a better writer. If I know what the industry considers to be mistakes, if I can see what they’re looking for, the hope is that I can incorporate these ‘rules’ into my writing at an earlier stage. Or, if I’m going to break them, I can break them good and hard and with malice aforethought. And write ‘STET’* in the margin in huge letters and underline it several times.

The biggest reason for doing a proofreading course, however, is simple and obvious: I’d like to earn a little cash. Like the vast majority of writers I don’t earn money – not a penny – from my calling. I have a paid job that keeps me alive and sane, but 2017 will see me taking six months out. I need something to do. I have skills and I need to monetise them.

This sounds mercenary but it’s life, and life is sometimes cold and dark. I’ve not the temperament for teaching and writing copy for bingo sites will kill my creativity. What other options do I have? I’ve spent ten hard years on fiction writing. It’s what I know. I also need to live, and to help my family live. I also have some experience, what with all my work helping other writers with their works-in-progress.

It also keeps me locked into the world of words. Really it’s just a way of expanding what I already do: read manuscripts and give feedback. If I can pick up a few contacts through freelancing and getting my name in the world of publishing then all to the good.

My biggest worry is that I’m branching away from my true love – creative writing – and losing time from what I could be doing: writing, self-promoting and building my own career. This next year will be a crucial one for me. I am good at what I do – I have to believe that – but whether I can make a future for myself as an author remains to be seen.

Oh, and if you need any proofreading done please drop me a line. ‘Honest Rob’ is at your command; reasonable rates, satisfaction guaranteed etc etc.

 

*Apparently they don’t do this any more. I am sorely disappointed.

World-building 101

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There is a misconception that planning equals plot. To be sure it can, but there’s a whole other layer of planning that must come first. The heavy lifting. What is often, and sometimes misleadingly, called world-building.

Some of the best science-fiction is set on a world indistinguishable from our own. Some of the best fantasy too. That doesn’t mean that world-building is any less important – or complicated.

Every novel is different. When I was working on Night Shift I began with an idea – a murder on an isolated base somewhere. My planning really took the form of working out why that base existed; how the resolution (the reveal) could make logical sense. Essentially I was seeking a political structure in which to operate.

My first ideas were to set it in space, in a derelict mining station, and the politics were based on rival corporations. But I’ve always shied against running too far into the future and I reined it in to focus on Earth, either in the deep oceans or on Antarctica. The final decision was only made when the title came to me. The questions then were about who, what and why a base would be established there: what set-up would lead logically to the resolution I sought?

Now I’m working on a new project. I have my high-concept – shared consciousness – and setting. Now I have to stop writing and start thinking. How established is the technology? Does the Man on the Clapham Omnibus know of the possibilities, or is it a government secret? How did we discover this science? Are there named inventors, and what consequence has this had on the world? Does any of this actually matter anyway? I need to know the answers if only to help me find my way to the right questions.

As with Night Shift, I can’t work out my antagonist until I know what frame he/she/it works in.  I can’t find my character’s goal until I know what she’s fighting. This, for me, is the real work of writing. We have to be plausible and consistent and through plausibility and consistency comes motive and plot.

Oneiromancer’s planning was all about the system of ‘magic’ I was going to use. Again I had my protagonists established; this time I’d already decided on my setting (contemporary London). I knew it would all be about manipulating dreams. My planning was really about political structures on alternative worlds: culture, history and politics.

Maybe other genres are different. Historical novelists can drop plots into existing structures; they have real, known figures with which to play. Their challenges are different. Likewise contemporary crime novelists have a world ready-made for them. They still have to work on characters, motives and rationale, but they don’t have to draw maps of imaginary nations or work out by what mechanism dragons fly.

This is hard work, and I suspect it’s why writers like series’ so much: the lifting only has to be done once and then it’s all about revision and reinforcement. Ultimately the time spent here will determine whether I have reams of unsustainable ramblage or an actual story. Somewhere in the undergrowth is the golden egg of Plot, but it must be kept warm and safe and allowed to develop in its own time.

It’s giving me a headache. Someone pass the paracetamol. It’s right there, next to the used clichés. Cheers.