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.

Writing Fiction: Man Without a Yacht

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a presentation from a young entrepreneur explaining her app for making meetings more efficient.  She was introduced by her sponsor, a middle-aged man, who said that he invested in small, promising ventures, such as hers, as a way to earn enough money to be able to live the dream and buy a yacht.  Admitting that clearly, as he was here, he hadn’t achieved it yet.  He then went and sat at the side, looking very much like a man who doesn’t have a yacht.

I know what he means.  I have a tendency to defer my current happiness on the basis that something big will occur in the future.  Getting published, for instance.  Which raises the question, why do I write if this is not going to happen? (A statistical likelihood.)  What is the present pleasure?

I recently started playing guitar again.  Dusted off and restrung (the guitar, not me) I have really enjoyed it.  I find that I am at a level to play a basic version of Bach’s ‘O Haupt voll Blut and Wunden,’ (the one Paul Simon adapted for ‘American Tune’).  Believe me, I have no ambitions to play this in public.  It is doubtful that crowds would fill St Martin’s in the Fields to hear P. Gapper’s faltering versions of Easy Baroque Pieces for Classical Guitar.  But playing each chord of Bach’s magnificent progression is a great joy.

It is said that this is the way to live life.  As if you are singing a song, enjoying each note rather than rushing to the end.

Try telling that to my laptop.  I am in yet another period of struggle with my writing.  But there are moments of pleasure, and over all, the sense of achievement makes it worth it.

During the recent debate over Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature, an online contributor said something to the effect that the decision made her wonder about the point of writing novels.  Even suggesting she might give up.  I suspect her argument was about feeling devalued, but there was also something about the importance of an end point to give your work worth.

For me, then, I have to decide, does the pleasure come from the simple act of writing, or am I sitting in the corner waiting for a yacht?

Writing Fiction: How Many Drafts?

At the end of my last writers’ group before the summer break, one of my colleagues approached me in the corridor and asked me if this was going to be the last draft of my novel.  I could have read her wrongly, but it seemed to me she was suggesting that it should be the last draft.  I understand.  Thirteen drafts surely suggests that you’re just hacking over old ground.  What about the liberation of new turf?

Except that in the course of the last eight years, by ploughing back and forth, changing characters, plot, dialogue – you name it – I have been learning how to write.

At the moment, I’m sowing in a new plot line.  What has surprised me is the pleasure of doing so.  A confidence in the voice.  The way solutions have presented themselves.  Perhaps it’s because I know the field (sorry about this, I’ve got stuck in a metaphor), and there are joys in staying here a while longer.  I’ll finish when I know that I have truly transformed it to something I can happily leave behind.

I’m not there yet.  There may be many drafts to come.  I hope not too many.  But I’m willing to stay.

Writing Fiction: Flowstate

I’ve been suffering from chronic staring-out-of-the-windowitis recently.  I know what I’ve got to do: get on with the next draft of the novel.  I’ve even come up with a clear plan.  But still, my gaze drifts to the tree outside.

I started to write a blog post on what would happen if you knew that what you wrote would never be seen by anyone.  Would you still do it?  And if so, why?

This wasted a good couple of days.  But it did bring me back to the point: why do it?  The best I could come up with was those moments of absorption in writing, when the exact words of the next couple of sentences are just hanging there, waiting for me to copy them down.  I’d call it pure writing; psychologists call it Flow.

This led onto yet another efficient diversion: looking up literature on Flow.  But instead of ordering Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi’s book (and I was sorely tempted) I happened across an app called Flowstate.

A simple idea: you pick a period of time to write and, as soon as you start, a clock ticks down.  If you stop writing for more than five seconds, it deletes everything you have written up to that point.

Sounds like a white-knuckle ride for writers.  But, what it forces you to do is to stop thinking and keep writing.

Clearly, buying apps is yet another tool of the professional procrastinator.  But this one seemed to eliminate two flying animals with one geological weapon, so I gave it a go.

The first thing to say is that, at the moment, it’s only available for Apple users and it costs eight quid.  But my thinking was, if it’s going to stop me from looking out the window and get me writing, it might be worth it.

The experience is a little like that theme-park ride.  Stop writing for two or three seconds and the words on the page begin to fade.  The first time, I had foolishly thought that I might be able to have the occasional sip of coffee.  No chance.  Even the tactic of pressing one key while you have a sip, runs the risk of losing your flow of thought.

I did a five-minute session and felt pretty proud of myself, then a fifteen-minute session, followed, the next day, by a half-hour.  Yesterday, I even risked a one-hour session. There were definitely moments when I felt myself sinking into the Flow-state, and others when it was pure verbiage.  There is no time to consider options and I often just followed the next thought that was available to me – which I think is the point.

A huge caveat is that at the end of my half-hour session the program crashed.  So, I lost the whole thing.  I contacted one of the creators of the app, who sent a rather charming personalised reply – with apology – and promised that there will be an update very soon.  It hasn’t stopped me using the app – though there is even more of a sense of Russian roulette about it now.

The solution to all writing problems?  No.  A gentler pace is often just as productive and some people will hate the pressure.  The literature suggests that Flow arises when there is high challenge and high skill.  But challenge does not have to be in the form of a ticking clock, it could just be the ambition of your writing.  I doubt that Hilary Mantel writes to a stopwatch but the task she has set herself with the Wolf Hall trilogy must be challenging enough.

In the meantime, I have produced more this week than I otherwise would, and there are some interesting passages to be edited.  At the very least, it will be my go-to tool to stop my eyes drifting to the window.

Writing Fiction: River Jumping

It’s been about six weeks since I received the editorial report on my novel suggesting another rewrite.  Six weeks.  That’s a long time.  Frankly?  I’ve been struggling.  Oddly, it was easier for me to adopt the idea of changing one of the main characters from a middle-aged man to a 29-year-old woman than it has been for me to make subtler changes.  Perhaps because I’ve run up against the limits of my conception for this novel or my ability to see this character in a different way.

One problem, for example, is in making the female character independent, mature and empowered.  I’ve had additional feedback from a couple of women about the character and it is consistent with the report: she is too childlike and too dependent on male characters to rescue her.  Damn.  And there was I thinking I was a feminist.

But, without meaning to dig myself any deeper, I like the character the way she is and can’t picture her in a different way.  I understand what I am being told, but there is nothing creatively that then presents itself as an alternative.

When Edward de Bono created brainstorming, it was to try to break people into new ways of thinking.  The principles are pretty well known: go for quantity not quality, always say yes, allow associations, encourage wild ideas.  In short, just say whatever comes into your mind, don’t censure and keep going.

It has been around long enough for variants to develop.  One is called River Jumping.  I’ve been teaching it on courses recently and it occurred to me that I might use it.  I think there are a number of ways to approach it.  But this is how I used to with my current problem:

First, state your problem.  In my case, it was how to create an empowered character rather than the slightly childlike/dependent-on-men character that I had before.

Second, generalise the problem.  Flatten it.  So, being able to create an empowered character.

Third, brainstorm all the people/organisations/etc. who face a similar problem.  I came up with a list of 49.  Starting with therapists, politicians, dramatists, etc.

Fourth, pick one or two which are quite different to yourself.  I picked: stewardess on a crashing plane, Robinson Crusoe, a porcupine and Yahweh.

Fifth, in your head, ask them how they would solve the problem.  I did it with all, but I’ll use the stewardess as an example.  She came up with lots of ways:

Forget the rest of the world, what will happen and what has happened.

Fix only on your passengers.

Know that their calmness is created by your calmness.

Fuck status

Think, this moment is your best moment.

I liked the middle one particularly.  But looking at them again, the last one quite appeals.

Final stage, apply what they say to your problem.  Actually, what I did was to write a scene in which the lead female character remembers being six years old and meeting a stewardess, who says, ‘I was once on a crashing plane.’  But beyond this, it gives me an empowering philosophy of my female character, one that I can identify with.

Since then, I’ve used it with other writing problems.  The effectiveness may not last.  The brain has a way of habituating to even the most innovative practice.  But it’s been interesting.

Snakes and Ladders: Another Throw

Apparently, the average number of rewrites for a published novel is seventeen.  I handed in my twelfth draft to an editor a month ago and this week I got the report back.  In short: great rewrite, needs another draft.

My initial reaction was: oh, bollocks.  I was at Paddington Station, early for a train, when I got the email.  I went to to a nearby café, ordered omelette and chips, and used their free Wi-Fi to download the full report to my laptop.  I mean, for goodness’ sake, that’s fifteen months’ work (in addition to the seven years it’s already taken with this novel).  Sometimes, you really need a long train journey to Bristol to sit with the frustration.

Anyone who’s been following the saga of the-writing-of-the-second-novel may remember that this is the editor who told me I needed to change one of the main characters.  The fifteen-month rewrite was the result.

But I know how I am.  Two days of despair, and then starting to pick myself up.  By the time I had emailed her back, I was able to conjure, in her own words, a ‘measured and kind response.’  Now, I’m beginning to see the positives.

The truth is, the comments that she made?  She’s right.  In particular, finding a more convincing motivation for one character to become involved with the other, and a greater intertwining of their stories.  Also, getting more edge-of-your-seat, forward movement to the story.  These, like the writing of a more dynamic character before, are invaluable, if painful, lessons.  My underlying aim in all of this, after all, is to learn how to write (see top of this page).

So, time to scrub the writing off the chalkboard, plomp myself down on the chair, chin in hand, and start thinking again.

Can I do it?  I hope so.  I am calling the next draft my fourteenth.  I know it’s my thirteenth.  But, quite frankly, I need all the luck I can get.