Let it Grow, Let it Grow

In trying to write novels, I have found myself trying to reconcile two different views.  One says that it is necessary to know the start and end point of your story and preferable to know all stages in between.  The other, that writing should be like jazz, an improvisation with no certain end point: explore possibilities, allow yourself to be diverted.

I have read advocates of the first view say this is something you have to do; of the second, that this is real authorship.  The world of writing is thick with other people’s rules.

I’m enjoying writing my current novel.  It started with an image of a woman looking out over a waterway.  I wrote – discovering characters, writing scenes – and ended up with about 30,000 words.  At a certain point I felt the need to summarise what I had discovered and created a synopsis, then offered it out to my writers’ groups for feedback.

Five characters have emerged.  Their history, their relationships, their wants and needs.  During my early exploration, one of the characters did something very odd to another, and that has become the inciting incident.

Having riffed some more, I have, once again, put that early part of the story into order.  I discovered Amazon’s Storybuilder (see picture above right), which is an easy way to arrange the elements.

Which is a very long way of saying, I find myself moving back and forth between views one and two.

If I could describe a common theme in the way I’ve been working, it would be closer to ‘that’s interesting,’ or, ‘wouldn’t it be enjoyable if…’  There’s growth and paring back.  It’s so far led to some strange characters, an unexpected love story and an inter-familial conflict.

Mostly, it’s just fun to write.  A sort of extended what if? With a licence to go anywhere I want to or use any method that seems to fit.

Perhaps, there are no view-one/view-two purists, they’re just censors I’ve made up in my mind.  But if they exist, I suspect I’d be a disappointment to them.

 

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Write Your Own Self-Help Writer’s Book

One of the problems I have is writing main characters who are slightly depressed and face problems which anyone else could easily solve.  Imagine James Bond going in to speak to Q, who sets aside his design for laser-firing bullets with flying knives and says, ‘Have you tried Meet-Up?’

Typically, at times like these, I wonder if there is a writing book that might help.  This gives me the sense that I’m doing something, while actually just enabling me to procrastinate.

But the original problem is real.

Most of the time we already know the answers to our problems.  We just need a wy to look at them differently.

I began to imagine a self-help book that would specifically address the issue I face and then wrote out what it would say.  I came up with:

  1. Turn it inside out: make the character outward-facing.  Attempting to achieve something concrete in the world but being frustrated in their efforts.
  2. Make the goal simple and clear, with a reward that anyone can identify with: love, money, defeating an enemy
  3. Make their opponents determined to thwart them and in ways that eventually test all of their abilities.
  4. Write scenes that are entertaining but have a sense of risk: trying to attain or achieve something that is important
  5. For each scene or plot, is there a sense of excitement? 

I went back to my plot and began to see how I might refocus it away from the heroine’s internal doubts, towards a challenging situation that she needed to deal with.

Restart

Last night, I dreamt I was going to write an autobiography of Daniel Defoe.  Stupid unconscious.  I’m not going to write it – even if it were possible.

What I am doing is entering the second stage of my latest writing project.

I started one earlier this year.  Using the book Ready, Set, Novel, I got some way into writing a whole new story.  Then, in September, I went to the York Writer’s Festival and changed my mind.

The festival gave me a renewed sense of enthusiasm.  I got encouragement from an agent and publisher and attended some interesting workshops.  One piece of advice stuck away.  ‘Write as if no one’s going to read it.’

Having spent the last few months planning and writing a novel under the pressure of how it would be received, this was good advice.

I dumped the old idea and started again.  Using an image that came to me during meditation, I wrote characters as they appeared and followed them where they wanted to go.  Or, wherever seemed most interesting.

25,000 words later, I began to feel a need for direction.  I went back to the Ready, Set, Novel and did the ‘What is the Novel’s Core?’ exercise: trying to find a short sentence to summarise what the novel might be about.

With five characters, all of whom could be the lead, I decided to write brief synopses with each, in turn, as the main character.  It soon became clear who the lead was.  All the other characters became part of her story.  And, what followed was an interesting synopsis.

A final element from York was the suggestion to read Albert Zuckerman’s How to Write a Blockbuster.  This is the kind of idea I like.  A ‘What If?’ that suggests a new structure.  Already, the idea of setting it within an existing or past political event is appealing.

Don’t be surprised if I you see another blog post in a couple of months describing yet another new start.  But, I don’t know…

One Tomato…

I’ve been facing the perennial problem of keeping my word count up.  When in doubt, buy an app.  Last year I tried out Flowstate which deletes all your writing if you pause for more than five seconds.  I wrote a lot of words, but it didn’t produce much that I could use, and the general experience was one of unnecessary anxiety.  Good for a kick-start but not for making progress on a story.

I have run a couple of time management courses recently where people have mentioned the Pomodoro technique: work for twenty-five minutes, rest for five, at the end of four sessions rest for quarter of an hour.  The technique is based on the kitchen timer shaped like a Pomodoro tomato.  Each session is called a Pomodoro, but I am English and refuse to use silly names.

A couple of articles mentioned Focus Time, and as the ticking of an actual kitchen timer would drive me up the wall, I downloaded it.  I must say that I’m pleasantly surprised.  There’s just an alarm at the start and end of each session (and break).  I find that I can comfortably finish 250 words during a session.  It gives me the freedom to check references on the internet or notes from other pages.  The website recommends recapping and reviewing as part of the session, and I have found it useful to pause occasionally to think about what I want to write next.  The thought of the timer does get me started and bring me back quicker from drifting thoughts.

I have found myself getting into a state of flow quickly, even if I’m feeling a bit pessimistic at the start.  There’s a reward star for each session completed and the overall stars are recorded on a simple table and graph.  A sucker for a star chart, I was motivated to do an additional session this morning.

Another advantage is that if I’m on a work day, then I can usually complete a session or two before going which gives me a sense of achievement.

Link to the official website: https://cirillocompany.de/pages/pomodoro-technique

 

 

In Which the Author Loses Control of his Metaphors and Similes

All sorts of sea imagery occurs: fog, heavy waves, riding the wake of larger boat, but sometimes in the however-long-it-is I’ve been writing (thirteen years and four months) I have found myself becalmed – ooh look, there’s another one.

Stuck, in other words; dispirited, in another.  There seems to be no particular way of dealing with it, other than to hope it passes: a favourable wind blows, clouds part, etc. etc.  Sometimes it looks like it’s going to be fine for a while but, like a weather app, it changes its mind two hours later (don’t get me started on weather apps).

Occasionally, all hope goes.  I stare, like the mariner, over the side of the ship, and know that in thirty years or so I’ll be waylaying a stranger on his way to a wedding, saying, ‘I tried to write a novel once…’

Anyway, the clouds seem to be lifting, which is why I felt able to write this.

 

(For wiser people saying much the same thing, try: http://lithub.com/8-famous-writers-writing-about-not-writing/)

Bardo, Bardo

Tibetan Buddhists believe in a drifting state between lives, where the soul waits to find its new home.  Me?  I don’t believe in rebirth or reincarnation, but a purposeless state between lives I absolutely get.

A month ago, I submitted my latest, and possibly last, draft of my novel to an editor.  It’s been nine years since I started it, so coming to an end leaves me kicking my heels.  The obvious answer is to get back into writing another.  I already have an incomplete novel, started during a time when I thought the last one was done with, but I’m no longer excited by the premise and the writing now seems clunky.

The ideal was to start something new.  I already had an idea.  A friend of mine is a real character, so it seemed like a good idea to start with him.  Then another character popped up, someone else I know.  Then another, less clear.  I had fun writing a past and present for them, and then began to get stuck.

I have a guilt-provoking belief that proper novels start from character, and even though this is not how I have always worked, I keep trying to do it.  I found myself in a mid-state, flicking between character studies, and searches for purpose.  The main character seemed to be stuck in his house and bedroom, the writing became thinner.  I stopped.

On Saturday, I had a day free and decided to go for a walk in London.  As usual, I headed for the bookshops.  Foyles in Charing Cross Road seems to have regained its status as the place to go, so I went for coffee and cake, then walked down through the floors.  In Reference, I looked through Grammar and saw a display of How to Write books.

One stood out.  Ready, Set, Novel!  Another guilt-provoking belief I have is that you shouldn’t use ‘How to’ books to write a proper novel.  But flicking through, I liked it.  Lots of space and simple exercises.  And something struck me.  I have been writing properly for 13 years.  Two novels completed.  Haven’t I earned the right to go back and have fun?

And it has been.  Scribbling pictures in a blank square; brainstorming places and things that inspire and excite me; randomly assigning the top nine to three ‘novels’; and using the ‘What if?’ etc. etc.

Lord knows what will come of it, but I’m motivated to continue.  And in the meantime, I seem to have recovered my sense of purpose and, maybe, a new life.

Zen Exercise or Sea Wreck?

At some point this year, I will reach the ninth anniversary of having started my novel.  Nine years, thirteen drafts – still plugging away.  ‘It’s like a zen exercise,’ said my sister, when I last met her.  Pretty much.  Each time I feel I’ve got to the end, there’s another reason to start again.  Usually feedback from an agent or an editor.

In this latest draft, it has lost fifteen thousand words.  Maybe more.  The last one was over seventy thousand words, it’s now at fifty-three.  I might eventually get it published as a short story.

But I’m still learning.  Most of the loss has been the flashback chapters that the current editor felt held up the pace of it.  What is interesting, is that having removed them, they aren’t too much of a loss.  I’ve cut a character and bolstered up another.  I feel like some bloke in his shed, tinkering at something mechanical that will never quite be finished.

Though, this draft feels close.  I think one more read through and I might be ready.  And if I get asked to do another draft?  Maybe.  My friends and writing colleagues seem to be past the point when they asked me if this was really the last version.  They may even have forgotten that I’m writing.

I have in mind a sea wreck, jutting up from the tide, some mad bloke running up and down the shore shouting, ‘It’s nearly done!  Nearly done!’  It’s not me, of course.  I’m just nine years into writing a short novel: on my thirteenth draft, which I’m calling a fourteenth because I think it might be bad luck.