Rewiring

brain

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.

Reading for pleasure and profit

book art 3

I’ve read a fair few manuscripts in my time. Not books; they’re two-a-penny. But manuscripts: works-in-progress; proofs. And I’m coming to the conclusion that the mind works differently when faced with a sheet of paper – even on one of those new-fangled e-reader-y type things – rather than a packaged work.

As you struggle as a writer you’re going to come across much advice and instruction, and one of the oft-repeated suggestions is that you read your favourite novels critically. You try to dissect your friends, in essence, to see what makes them tick. I’ve never, ever, managed to follow this advice. When I read a book I want to be absorbed. I want the flow of words to wash me away.

It’s true that sometimes I see things that the author wouldn’t want me to. Especially in the first few chapters – before I’m totally immersed – I can see dialogue I think of as hammy, and there’s nothing worse then that ‘why don’t they just talk’ moment of stupidity for breaking me from the flow. But mostly a published book just transports me. And I want it to. If it doesn’t then it’s not worked.

That’s not to say that I don’t learn from books. I most certainly do. But the learning is mostly subconscious; absorbing lessons deep within the skin, many-time repeated patterns of plot (and grammar, and punctuation, and form) that slowly soak into me.

But manuscripts work differently. If someone hands you a manuscript it’s either because they want validation – nothing more to say about that – or because they want to get better. So you read more critically. You’re looking for errors. You’re looking for ways their work can be improved. You’re seeing roads the author themselves never saw. You’re asking questions in a way you simply don’t when reading a published work.

Maybe it’s the sense of completion you have when you take up a novel: this is what the author and publisher wanted. Of course this isn’t necessarily true, but that’s the illusion. With a manuscript you’re looking at a stage in development. This, I think, makes you read in a different way. It’s easier to spot errors – not just typos and grammar-sins, but plot-holes and mis-characterisations.

I guess it’s similar to the role of the professional critic, or maybe even the book-club reader. You forego the experience in order to have something (vaguely) intelligent to say.

Which is why I advise all writers to engage in manuscript exchanges with others. You don’t have to sacrifice the joy of reading to improve as an author. I’ve learnt how others see plot, and dialogue, and setting – all the individual components of a written work. Even comparing feedback helps: it’s remarkable how one reader will notice poor grammar or dialogue, for example, whilst you’ve been looking at motivation and character. You’re also likely to encounter other genres and to grow both as a reader and a writer.

So don’t lead your favourite friend to the abattoir. Instead seek out opportunities to help other writers with their work. Don’t see it as a waste of valuable writing time because you’ll be helping yourself as well as them.

Today’s delusion

I’ve just written the best book ever. No, really, I have. It combines depth with a rip-roaring story. It’s an adventure and a psychological study and it’s desperate and it’s terrifying. It’ll grip you for days. Unputdownable. Devastating.

This is a lie. I’m not sure in what way it’s a lie, but I know it’s not true. I’ve finished a draft and I know it’ll be filled with errors. Huge, great, monstrous mistakes that’ll have any civilised reader reaching for the red pen with sonic-boom generating alacrity.

I’m not an idiot. A dreamer, yes, but not an idiot. I want to write well. And I know that in five year’s time I’ll be hideously embarrassed by what I’ve done. It’s painful to think that I sent my first novel out to publishers and agents; it was so bad, or at least so not good enough, that it’s a wonder nobody advised me to get a second day job so I’d have no more time to write. But right now I’m in love. I’m infatuated. Every blemish is beauty; every imperfection a charm. As if I’ve learnt nothing at all.

It’s impossible to be objective about the work you’ve just written. I’ve scrawled my way through seven novels and after each of them I thought I had a contender. This’ll be the one to break me, I thought; this is my masterpiece. I’ll make my name. I’ve felt this after every single draft, no matter how I’ve known that there’s still much work to do. Every time I’ve been wrong.

So what’s today’s delusion? Are my characters cruel clichés? Is my dialogue parade-ground parody? Is my plot as obvious as an elephant in a fishtank? Or will it be a combination of evils that just add up to a sense of ‘bleuch’-ness. I don’t know. I can’t see my errors. It’s too fresh, too real.

I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’m learning. I can see all the mistakes I made in previous novels – wince-making, agonising torments – and I’ve tried to avoid them. But there’s always a new way to grow. Always a skill to improve, a new craft to master. I just can’t see what it is right now. I want to believe. It’s so clear, so beautiful.

It’s a good job I know people willing to break my heart.

A brief diversion

This week I have been mostly learning why, when and how to evict people from nightclubs. Yes, I know – nothing to do with writing. And, if you’ve ever seen/spoken/interacted with me, nothing close to my natural metier. But work told me to go and so I went.

Now there are several lines I could go down here. I could lament the loss of writing time (I’ve written not a word creatively) and point out the lack of money in fiction. I’m sure you’ve seen the reports saying that the vast majority of novelists don’t even earn a living wage. I could ask if anyone knows ways of supplementing your income through writing-related skills: editing, proof-reading and the like. Apparently 41% of 200 writers attending the LA Times Festival of Books teach creative writing, and it’s occurred to me that I could do such things if I’m prepared and can afford to get the relevant qualifications.

Or I could say how much I – to my own surprise – enjoyed the course and met some interesting people and got new ideas for stories.

Life is good. People are good, and interesting, and fuel your imagination. Whilst it’s hardly possible to learn everything under the sun – or even beyond, out in deep space – everything you do helps you grow as a person and as a writer. Now I have a greater understanding of how clubs and festivals and assorted shindigs operate I’m much more confident should I ever want to set a scene in these environments. I now know something about the sort of people who might take work as bodyguards.

I can bank this info and draw on it – at any point in the future – to create something richer, more realistic, than I could before. Plus I’ve added new character-types to my well: prison officers, ex-military, Russian migrants, former methamphetamine producers – examples of all were on my course. So was the clown who hides his smarts behind a veneer of simplicity, and if that’s not an archetype you can paint me pink and call me Joanna.

There’s no moral to this. No great message, barely even a point. I’ve not had time to read through this piece to see if it’s worth posting: it’s going up even if I look back in a month’s time and think it’s all bollocks. Please accept my apologies for wasting your time. Just be warned. I now know how to put you in the ‘safety pin’ and escort you from the premises. So don’t go causing trouble in here. Mmmkay?

Learning to write

Learning to write. That’s what I’m doing. End of game, reboot, start over. I’ve gone as far as I can by just toying with words. Now I’ve got to learn how the game’s played for real.

I can write. I can string words together in a way that feels good, that contains both truth and – yes, and beauty. But I’ve not written the perfect novel yet. It’s all part of the process, I guess; you learn enough in one area to show you how little you know in another. Me? I’m learning that I don’t know enough about pace and structure, about character and about consistency, to achieve what I want to achieve: to get that book out there on the shelves.

So instead of sitting before my keyboard, conjuring with conjugates and stirring the synonyms, I’m pulling my work apart. Going through each scene in turn – ignoring the things I could easily improve – and summing up what happens, to whom, with what; what implications the scene may carry and why it’s there. This is the first step – my first step – to breaking the pieces apart like chunks of honeycomb, trimming and nibbling at the edges until it can fit into a new symmetry, a new network of juicy fibres, sticky and rich and oozing…

I am, in other words, planning. Searching for flaws, for incongruities, for gaps in the plot. Preparation for rebuilding better, faster, stronger. To tighten the wires, to stitch a beautiful new Frankenstein’s monster.

Some of you out there may be mocking me for not doing this sooner. Some of you will be saying that I should have started out with a proper plan – then I wouldn’t have to be going through this slow, painful task. Fair enough. You’d have a point. But I don’t regret the way I’ve worked. I’m not the same person I was when I starting writing Night Shift – two years ago it was, give or take. I’ve developed and learnt and I’ve learnt through doing. Now? Yes, now I’d do things differently. I’m still not sure if I’d start a new project with a full plan, but I think I’d at least keep a chart of scenes as I went along. If nothing else it’s always worth asking yourself ‘why am I writing this scene?’ as you go into a section. Always worth keeping the end-point in mind.

So I’m going back to the start because I’m still learning how to write. At the end of the day, words are easy. Words can always be changed, be bent to the will. I’ve got that now, I know how to beat them into shape. Structure? Deeper issues? That’s heavy industry right there, and a tour around the foundry ain’t enough to make you a master craftsman.

So how do you learn how to plot? Is this what’s taught on MA courses in creative writing across the land? Once you’ve started using rhetorical questions how the hell do you stop? If anyone has any answers I’d be interested to hear them. But in the meanwhile I’m again learning by doing; seizing the mammoth by the horns and attempting to wrestle it into submission.

I said I was learning. I didn’t say I was learning quickly.

A good year

Tomorrow will be This Blog’s first birthday. The internet is a funny thing: words of a single moment become etched into the bloggosphere, forever archived and accessible to all whether you want them there or not. I was thinking of celebrating with a week off; sitting back and putting my feet up, maybe sampling a nice beer and doing – well, not much. But how could I leave my loyal followers blogless? So here I am again, illuminating and warming your lives with the heat of my personality…

It’s been a good year. Yeah, let’s be positive. It’s been a great year. Nothing to show for it, maybe, but still; it’s hardly been unproductive. This, for me, has been The Year of Becoming Professional. I’ve changed from being a writing dilettante to someone who works day in, day out on their craft. I’ve learnt so much and every time I sit at my computer to write – or kick back with a good book – I’m learning more.

So what have I found over the last year? Time, I think, for a quick list:

  • Rightly or wrongly, people take you more seriously if you can act (and write) with confidence. Sometimes personality is more important that ability
  • That said, Twitting and blogging are great places for the shy to learn (and to teach) with minimal human interaction
  • There are some truly wonderful writers and bloggers out there on the internet. It’s worth spending time on Twitter just to find links to these people
  • Writing: you never stop improving. The setbacks – of which there have been many – are helpful in themselves. Rejections may hurt, but any snippets of advice you may receive are there to be acted upon
  • Agents want to find great books. If they take even the vaguest interest in your work that means it’s got something. A rejection doesn’t mean they don’t think it’s good enough to be published
  • A good submission letter is worth its weight in gold. Constant evolution is the way forwards; rewrite, rewrite, rewrite – and personalise each letter for its recipient
  • Most people in the world are really quite nice
  • It’s an insanely up-and-down world out there. The highs are utterly euphoric, the lows crushing. Treating those two impostors, success and failure, the same is good advice. But don’t ignore praise (you’ve earned it) and take criticism seriously. The critic is usually right, and you can do it better

More specifically, I’ve learnt that my work is lacking in depth of character. I also miss plotholes and don’t provide sufficient red herrings. So I’m working on these things. Thanks to a fantastic writing group and the interest of an agent I’m growing as an author. It’s wonderful. I urge all aspiring authors to embrace criticism, to actively hunt it down because you won’t get better unless you know what you’re doing wrong.  When I first joined Abingdon Writers I was so self-confident, so sure that my work was worthwhile, that I initially met criticism with a barricade of defensiveness. It’s only when I began to dismantle this wall that I really started to improve.

Every question answered, every skill mastered opens a door to reveal wild expanses of ignorance beyond. The questions never stop coming. There’s also something new to learn, new skills to develop. You never, ever, stop learning. Even the great masters – the Hemingways, the Chandlers, the Steinbecks – they weren’t the complete article. And that’s great. It’s the best thing about humanity, I think – life is never dull because there’s always something new to learn.