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.

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Museless

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How I imagine my Muse

At the moment I am trying to get down to a new novel and it’s not happening. I am stuck before I’ve begun. The words are not coming.

In previous novels I’ve toyed with ideas, worked out the feel of a novel, found a place to aim for – and then waited until the opening scene in mind. Then I wrote it, and the scene after, and the scene after that, until I had a story. Very linear, very much finding my way as I went (although not without forward planning: notes were kept as I went along, thoughts thunked, futures sketched).

Now that strategy’s not working. I’m trying to write two new novels and I’m just not able to get down to either. This is possibly down to the lack of strong liquor or hard drugs necessary to unblock my imagination-gland. More likely it’s that – thought I have the feel and know strong story-elements in both – I don’t have enough of a big picture. My worlds aren’t vivid enough. Something within the story lacks coherence.

My answer? To go back to my spreadsheets. Every novel has its accompanying batch of spreadsheets. From character ideas, random notes and finally a scene-by-scene breakdown, spreadsheets is where it’s at. I’ve already got a very broad ‘Act One, Act Two, Act Three’ sheet. My next task is to do a more detailed chapter-by-chapter run through that will almost certainly be ignored when the writing actually begins in earnest.

I’ve always resisted the division into the world into ‘planners’ and ‘free-wheelers’ (I refuse to use the word ‘pantsers’ as it’s so ugly). It’s never that clear cut. No-one – surely – writes a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown of a whole novel. And no-one can produce a (good) novel without looking forwards and making a note or two for a future scene. Some characters might just come straight from the subconscious fully-formed, but at least a modicum of work is needed before pen strikes paper.

Like most people I lie somewhere within the spectrum: a linear writer who makes notes and addresses issues sporadically as he progresses. So why am I planning more now? Well it’s partly because I don’t know where to begin. I have three – rather samey – starting-points in mind, representing each character/group. This obviously won’t make a good story.

Writing is work. My muse is washed-up, alcoholic on a park bench in a piss-wet hippy-skirt with earrings twisted painfully in her dreads. Maybe the gods of inspiration will drop a fiver in her hat and she’ll return, nourished, clean and ready to swing for the fences. But at the moment I’m on my own.

Different challenges require different responses. I have problems, but if I want to call myself a writer I have to work through them, because work is a strategy. Sometimes the best answer is to sit and think, to scribble, to cross out, to keep on pushing until something happens and the rose finally unfurls.

So it’s back to the spreadsheets with me.

False flag

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It’s surprisingly hard to find an image for ‘false flag’ that isn’t horribly conspiracy-theoryist. Please accept this as a non-endorsatory compromise

The Muse doesn’t deliver whole stories. She delivers fragments: pieces, threads, ingredients. These fragments are usually a result of living an active, out-looking life, open to new worlds and new ways of thinking. Stories come from rotating these ideas, rolling them into stranger forms and melding them in concert with other concepts. And one idea can lead to others, a thought-trail that snowballs into coherent narrative.

I didn’t even realise it myself, but recently I’ve been playing with the concept of a ‘false flag’ operation. I think it was something that rolled into my head via American politics (and isn’t that a novelworthy car-crash in itself right now) and has lingered in the back of my mind for months. I’m currently spinning the geneses of three novels in my brain but no idea which to develop: I’ve gone a far as to make initial notes for all. Into which do I add this false flag? All of them? The idea could work in any context (for the record: Victorian fens, contemporary Brittany and near-future ‘urban’).

This is where the subconscious comes into its own. I have so many idea-fragments turning in my mind that sheer momentum is creating links where I wasn’t aware of any. Not enough ideas for three novels, perhaps, but maybe one. The trick is to keep adding to the bank, keep pouring stock into the mixer until the soup begins to thicken, the lumps simultaneously agglomerate and become smooth, and you can separate out the bits not needed and put them in the fridge for future culinary experimentation.

At the moment I can’t see what kind of meal I’m trying to make. But the bases are there. And I took another leap forwards the other night, in bed, when the false flag gained a political context and a couple of twists arrived semi-fully-formed in my mind. Of course I found I’d forgotten the details when I woke the next morning but the taste remained, and remains.

The downside is that, if I use the false flag in one novel (the Breton one, if you’re curious) I can’t use it in the others.

Or can I?

To the subconsciousmobile!

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.

Recursion

A prince falls in love with a commoner
They met because he was forced from his family by a civil war
The civil war started because the council couldn’t agree on the succession
The council couldn’t agree because it was formed of houses who hated each other
They hated each other because their grandparents had a blood-feud
They had a blood-feud because a daughter broke off an engagement with a rival’s son

DTRH

A farmer finds a crown in a bog
The crown was thrown there by a defeated monarch
The monarch was defeated by a usurper and fled to a monastery
The monastery was founded by the widowed sister of a noble house
The sister was accused of dominating her husband
The husband had a secret love with the head of his warband

A fleet sets out from a space-station to launch one last desperate attack
The space-station is the last holding of a once-proud empire
The empire is reduced because its homeland was destroyed when it hit a moonlet
The moonlet was induced into the planet’s orbit by a secret cabal
The cabal was formed in response to the empire’s expansion
The empire was expanding in response to outside aggression

Where do you start these stories? What sort of story will you tell? How much background do you provide? Surely not all of it – not in detail, and not all at once. How much do you, as author, need to know? None of the ‘first tier’ statements are the beginning; you could trace causation right back to the Big Bang if you were so minded.

The universe dissolves into heat-death and a grey soup of atoms is all that remains
The last stars turn supernova
The surviving life-forms flee into another universe
Entropy is inevitable
The stars coalesce and ignite; planets find their orbits; the first stirrings of life arise
A God-Machine creates the Big Bang

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There is no right answer. You start the story at the moment of fascination for you, the author. You write the story you want to write; you give the detail you think is relevant and interesting. You add detail subtly, drip-feed backstory. But you must remember that there’s always history. You never start at the very beginning because that’s impossible; there is no beginning.

Your characters don’t walk in vacuum. The world you create – be it a world purely of your own imagination or one taken from the world outside your window – has come in the way you depict because everyone and everything has a past. Why is the villain so twisted? Who created the magic sword (and why)? Who built that castle on that hill (and are we talking about a monarch or a mason)?

The readers don’t necessarily need the answers. You have to choose what’s important, what’s interesting and what your readers need to know.

And you can rely on your audience to tell you if you’ve got it wrong.

L’espirit d’escalier

L’espirit d’escalier: A conversational remark or rejoinder that only occurs to someone after the opportunity to make it has passed. Also known as l‘espirit de l’escalier. But I think the first scans better. Literally ‘the spirit of the staircase’.

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I was on the bus the other day. I was reading. Neither of these things are especially noteworthy or unusual. And then I had an idea.

Now I’ve written before on ideas. Slippery, untrustworthy things that wriggle and convulse, sneer and mock. Generally they’re more trouble than they’re worth, and this one will probably turn out to be the same. Despite – or possibly because of – it seeming like a good one.

This particular idea relates to an off-the-cuff comment made my one of my beta-readers in our Oneiromancer-shakedown. To paraphrase: ‘Halfway through the novel I thought [character] was going to be a traitor.’ What I didn’t say was that I’d been toying with that very idea; if not actually making them a betrayer then trying to make the reader think they were. It was one of maybe a half-dozen ideas that I tried to seed as subplots; and, like the rest, it was dropped because the novel was already getting way out of hand length-wise.

And so I reined in my ambition. I cut out plans for a general election. I skipped the gangland elements and the peasant uprising. And, because I couldn’t work out how to do it properly, I omitted the ‘betrayal’ aspect. The story was supposed to be 100-120k: the first draft actually ended up around 140k before I trimmed it back to 133k or thereabouts.

And then I had this idea. A vision of a single scene just before the climax. A trick, an illusion, a cantrip to make the audience – and my main character – doubt everything they’d previously experienced.

Trouble is it came to me 18 months too late.

Now I’m wedded, chained, welded to the conclusion I’ve already devised. My characters have walked into their destinies. The sheer fact of existence has altered my mind, frozen my hands in their cruel deformity. The wind has changed. I’m stuck this way.

Now I have two choices. I can try and crowbar this scene in; I can try and shatter the ice and do a major rewrite, shifting my conclusion to God-knows-where. Or I can sheath this idea, add it to my mental toolbox and cannibilise it for future works. Right now I don’t which road is best.

But at least that choice is mine. One of the problems with the instant-fix of self-publishing is that work is pushed out too soon, is half-baked, phony. The staircase is too short and the apples hang too close. Would a little more time allow quality to shine through?

Or is it best to get a piece finished, out there and move on to the next as soon as possible?

One man and his dog

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A dog

What if he brought his dog?

Such a simple question. This is the sort of dangerous thought that occurs when an author’s lying in bed at night, running through her novel and thinking about tomorrow’s writing.

How would the other characters react?

Such a simple idea. A tiny, tiny change that has no real long-term consequences; is merely an in-character possibility. It doesn’t matter if the dog is there or not, certainly not in terms of long-term plottables. And yet… It’d be easy to add in, right? A few lines or two to give depth and to subtly reinforce a trait, to tell you a little more about the man and the situation and the world. So you settle at the computer and scroll back to make this one small addition…

An hour later and you’re still trying to deal with the consequences of the change. You’ve totally rewritten your scene. Other characters have been totally altered, their reactions taking you by surprise and leading you way off track. The function of the scene may remain unchanged, but the action has been ripped apart. Not only that but you’ve considerable downstream consequences to resolve.

What if I showed this scene from a different point of view?

Now you have to lose all the lovely internal contradictions that you’d created in the original draft. You’ve got to observe reactions rather than experience them. But it’s worth it, right? You got this great idea for a new perspective and it’ll all be worth it in the end.

Writing – and editing – is full of this sort of thing. Your worries and your search for perfection make you constantly question what you’ve already written. Your words aren’t set in stone: your scenes, even the big set-pieces, are mutable, improvable. But are you making things any better?

This is why I don’t trust ideas. Most of the time they’re simple pains in the backside. Any serious writer has more ‘ideas’ than he knows what to do with. The pressure on you is to choose the right ones. Because any origin has a multiple different outcomes, a multiverse of possibilities just waiting to be explored. So how do you chose? Is it worth going right through the story, ripping up your road as you go and relaying it on a totally different alignment? Buggered if I know.

Writing isn’t about ideas. Writing is about choices. Which idea? Which road? In Oneiromancer I’ve already dropped plans a sub-plot involving a general election. I’ve chosen my focus and don’t need any other complications, thank you very much. Some ideas can be saved for sequels; others will be jettisoned forever. Choices. Not easy.

For the record, I’m leaning against the dog. She’ll make an appearance later. But her presence earlier is in character and would add something plausible and potential-filled. I have made the POV change, though, adding yet another head-character to my already twisted tapestry.

As with everything else it’s a question of balance. Sometimes you need to just plough on and get the damn thing done. But inflexibility is not your friend. If, when sharing your hard-crafted words with others, they ask awkward questions and make perfect suggestions you have to at least be prepared to make these changes. Even if it means rewriting every scene in your novel. Even if it means another three months of blood, sweat and swearing.

No-one ever said writing was easy.