Je regrette

Droids
One of my biggest regrets as a writer is that I didn’t trust my own ambition.

I had an idea for a story. I knew what I wanted to happen; what I was struggling with was a mechanism for it to happen. I tried a few things on for size but nothing seemed to be quite a la mode.

What, after all, is a story? Is it setting? Or plot? Or is it the high concept behind it all? I had the latter but not the former. I needed to anchor my idea and shape the reality that held everything together.

My initial idea, the one that I turned many ways and almost put together, was to set the idea in space, on an isolated end-of-the-road station, where bionics played a crucial role.

The idea worked, or could have been made to work. But I retreated. I didn’t trust myself to write that story. I pulled back, pulled back, instead relied on simpler causes.

I did this because I was afraid. Because it took less mental effort to keep closer to the ‘real world’. And this I regret. This choice forced me to make ever more convoluted (and less plausible) explanations to keep some semblance of the original concept. I feel like I’ve wasted that idea.

That’s not to say I haven’t done good things with it; what I eventually produced is coherent and, I think, well written. But it’s not what I set out to do.

That’s not to say that you should never back away from an idea.

Starting a project that would take years to bring to life – even as just a first draft – might not be what’s best for you right now. Certainly, when learning your craft (as I was then), the creation of a whole new world – whether that world is a fantastic planet or an extra-solar empire or a mafia family – might be enough to stall your writing altogether.

Creation requires effort. A space station, isolated though it may be, requires a polity to create it. It requires scientific knowledge (which might be made up, but still). It requires structure, a place, a transit system which might take years to reach it. Communication lag needs researching. Oxygen must be generated.

So I don’t blame myself for not wanting to send months researching, reading and creating. I was impatient to get to the story. And to do that I scaled back my ambition.

What I regret is losing the chance to exploit the potential of an idea that’s fascinated me for years.

Fortunately the world is full of ideas. And they’re all out there just waiting until you’re ready.

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Music and lyrics

Music books 2

Last time out I wrote a little about a new project I have fermenting in the deepest recesses of the mind. This novel may or may not get written but I thought it might be interesting to share from whence the idea came.

Picture the scene: I am driving back to my old house to crack on with the let-me-save-some-deposit cleaning. I am nearing the end of a two-hour spell behind the wheel. I have our old favourite radio station on: a steady diet of solid rock, anthems all the way. I may be wearing sunglasses. Don’t hold that against me.

A song comes on. It’s not one I particularly like and I’m not particularly interested; traffic is heavy and there are temporary speed restrictions. A line of lyrics cross my ear and creep up on my higher consciousness. I can’t remember what it is now (I could check but I don’t want to find it was entirely different to what I imagined it to be; I’m happy being ignorant) but it gave me two characters: a woman who does business in bars and the man who pretends to be her boyfriend so she won’t get hassled.*

I don’t know what type of business this woman would be transacting but I suspect something illicit. The song ends. I arrive at my destination. I get to work and turn over possibilities. I’m in no rush: I’ve plenty of other writing to get on with.

And then I bring in another song. Die Trying is about migration: the mix of hope that one day you’ll find a safe harbour and the despair that leads you to make increasingly risky decisions; so you ‘fall right through the world and disappear.’

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From the graphic novel ‘Winter’ by Matt Huynh: it seems I’m not the only person inspired by Die Trying

This is a story I want to write.

So let’s push those ideas together: an immigrant couple (not necessarily romantic) who are grifting a way out of the camps and the corruption they meet on both sides of the fence.

This is how I come up with stories. I mishear. I see an ill-considered line – of lyrics, of verse, of fiction – and wonder about what it really means. I see a glimmer in the dirt and stoop for a closer look. Or perhaps I see a dullness in the diamond-pile and feel compelled to take my magnifying glass to it.

The world is full of writing prompts. Sometimes they need to be hunted, trapped and tamed. Sometimes all you have to do is sit back and let them come to you.

My previous (still unwritten) idea came from playing Civilisation: Beyond Earth, reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, and musing about gestalt consciousnesses and the next stages of human development.

Most ideas come to nothing. Most days I’m not receptive enough – too tired, too wired, too monomaniac for this chickenscratch assemblage.

But every discarded fancy takes me closer to finding a pattern that fits, that intrigues enough to make it worth the effort into transforming inspiration into a plot. What I come up with will bear almost no relation to the finished product. That’s just the nature of art.

And it means there’ll be a lot more discarded ideas to rearrange, to break down and build up again, the next time I catch my hunchback reflection in the carnival mirrors of my dreams.

And my dreams are always shaped by music.

 

*Oh go on then. It’s Chelsea Dagger by The Fratellis. I’m not entirely sure what I heard to twist my mind in that particular way; the whole point of music (and, indeed, all art) is that we all take something different from it.

The rotting carcase of the word-whale

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Ideas. I don’t trust ‘em. Sneaky little beasties, creeping in where they’re least welcome, turning your world upside down and then glancing apologetically at their watches and sidling out when you need them most.

I’ve been working on my Problem Child of a manuscript for five years now. I’ve written two others in that time so it’s not been wholly consuming, but always at the back of my mind was the knowledge that I had unfinished business with this one. Now I’ve had an idea that might – might – just help me fix this horrible quagmire of a nearly novel.

Five years is a long time. Long enough for the Earth to die in. I could have saved myself the pain – and all the time spent scowling at an uncooperative manuscript – if I’d just abandoned the thing long ago.

Or if I’d self-published it.

And this is the question: even without the re-write I’m contemplating now this novel is better than the one I originally drafted. But would I have been better off just moving on and working on other things?

I’m a perfectionist, but then isn’t everyone? No-one sets out to put out bad work. I know writers who self-publish and I admit I envy their way of moving forwards; they somehow seem to know when a book is ready for the wider world. Do they have the agonies of chances missed? Do they ever feel uncomfortable about the material they’ve shared with the world?

I guess the envy really is in their resolution to say ‘That’s done. It is what it is. Onwards.’

Because the alternative is to endlessly circle the basin and never quite fall down the plughole. I know there really is no such thing as perfection; the basic conceit will always have a flaw somewhere. There’ll always be descriptions you can’t bring forth because you have to keep the story moving. There’ll be times when you have to bend the characters to your will. There has to be a beginning and an end and these are never the true start or finish, just the place the telling demands. There’ll also be the things you never saw but the readers will leap right on.

And that’s before we get into plot-holes, clichés, stereotypes and all the other things we’re going to hit in our first, roughest drafts.

How long can you keep at a piece before the structure beneath you starts to sag with the weight of rewrites, bolt-ons, new characters, new locations? How long before you’re left with nothing but the rotting carcase of a word-whale?

Maybe you should have self-published years ago. Maybe that really is the better option.

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.

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.