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.

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.

Can you do it better?

“Can you do it better?”

These words, spoken by my old technology teacher to a schoolchum, have always stuck with me.

The context was of someone accused of copying, of taking someone else’s idea for his own. The response was simple: ideas are uncopyable. The details – the design, the manufacture – they’re your own. But the idea is free and universal.

There’s a terrific tendency to avoid doing anything that has ‘been done before’, but the more I read and the more I write the more I realise that there is nothing new under the sun. It’s all about the way the work is done, what you – and only you – can bring to the party. And this doesn’t matter. Just because you’ve heard of Ian Fleming and John le Carre doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write a spy novel.

My current work-in-progress, Oneiromancer, is heavily influenced by a role-playing game I played over a decade ago. One of the key tasks I had to do when I began to write was to sort out my own mythos from that of the game. I’ve also tried to immerse myself in urban fantasy, the closest genre to my novel. And the more I read, the more I realise that my ‘unique’ ideas have already been done and I have nothing new to say.

But no-one’s written it like I’m doing. I have my own voice and my own preoccupations – what is, in writing terms, known as ‘theme’. You can try it if you like: rewrite your favourite novel. Just take the story and try and replicate it. I can promise you that you won’t keep on track for long. Soon the work you’re doing will become yours as you become distracted by the roads not taken, by inserting your own voice between the folds.

There is no law against stealing an idea. Words, yes – too many people have been caught out with plagiarism. But ideas are free. The only question that matters is whether you can do it better.

That’s not to say that the actual book I’m producing will be up there with Neil Gaiman or Ben Aaronovitch or Jim Butcher. But it won’t be a copy of those authors either. You cherry-pick, consciously or subconsciously. You take the bits you like and ignore the others. So you can have vampires that sparkle in sunlight if it suits your purposes.

I hate magic. Fantasy magic makes no sense to me: it too often seems to have no rules. It becomes a get-out clause for authors, rather like Q’s gadgets in the Bond series (and, incidentally, am I the only person who thinks Game of Thrones would be better without dragons?). But that there is a force that can be manipulated by those who know: that I can accept. A force that obeys the rules of physics – or maybe bends them just a touch. I didn’t invent magic but I am taking the concept and putting new structures upon it, just like every author who’s ever written about the fantastical. No-one has copyright on the Minotaur.

So the next time someone reads your book and says “Well that’s been done before,” that’s fine. Maybe you need to bury the source a little deeper – after all, a series of novels about a teenage wizard in a quintessentially British boarding-school may come across more like satire than inspiration. But the important thing is to be able to say that maybe there’s a passing resemblance, but no-one can write a story in that way, with those words.

Give yourself permission to say “Maybe it’s similar. But mine’s better.”