Tag Archives: Writing

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.

Plot: No Plot

I was speaking to a writer the other day who had difficulty with the idea of creating a plot, preferring to leave himself open to ambiguity, mystery, and surprise.  For him, it was this that made writing enjoyable.  If there was a plot it came from characters.  Having a separate plan to which he might refer seemed restrictive: a character would have to act a certain way to conform to it, the dialogue would suffer, as would their ability to react spontaneously.  The ideal, for him, was to be as natural as he could while maintaining cohesion.

But half way through the writing of his novel he had got stuck.  He didn’t know where to go next.  His solution was to create a ‘markers’: passages of writing set later in the novel which gave him a direction.  Also, to get clearer on the roles of some of the characters he had created.  Freed up, he started writing again.

I am always fascinated by this kind of approach.  I wrote my first novel by drawing up synopses, and planning the content of chapters.  It enabled me to get from one end of the novel to the other, much as one might climb a mountain, moving from one camp to another.  The fear was that without some kind of structure, the story would just drift off into nothing.

More recently, I have been experimenting with more free-flowing, and experimental methods, trusting that there is an innate creativity that, given the chance, will express itself.  When I have tried to return to plot, it has sometimes felt enervating.

And yet, and yet.  While I was writing this post a new plot element occurred to me.  And I like it.  I know where it will fit, and the problems that it solves.  Also, creating a plot is, in itself, a creative act.

What I’m really talking about here is pleasure and enjoyment.  What gives you a kick when you write.  Also, what works: what will help me to get through the writing of a first draft.  I suspect that I will always move back and forth between plot and spontaneity, and never quite be sure which is appropriate when.   My only guide is that which gives me greatest energy and satisfaction.

Character: Using Questionnaires

Q. What colour are a character’s eyes? A. I don’t care.
Q. How tall is character X? A. Unless they are nine-feet tall or can limbo under a door without effort, it doesn’t matter much to me.
Q. What do they do? A. Better, but in a lot of cases I could get by without knowing.
Seriously, I have friends I have known for 30 years and I could not tell you what colour their eyes are, or how tall they are (in feet and inches), and I am often stumped when people ask what they do for a living. This could be a boy-thing, of course.
What I do care about is whether they make me laugh, or if they’re always early or late, or they odd things they do in restaurants.
Questionnaires are sometimes taught as a good way to create a character, but I struggle. It’s not just that I can’t answer the questions, it’s the sense that I’m probably not a good writer if I can’t.
I have since found that it is enough to start with a general sense of a character and see what develops. It could be suggested that I create a questionnaire to include the laughter, lateness, and restaurant behaviour; but the interesting characteristics are different for each character, and tend to emerge in the writing.
The most useful bit of advice I heard was to use the questionnaire only after the first draft. This makes sense. But I have since discovered that it is more useful to me to interview the characters. However, this post is long enough already, so I’ll leave that to another one.

Persistence: Just Keep Walking

In the 1970s there was an American mystic writer called Lobsang T Rampa.  His books would always say at the end that if you wanted to write to him you should enclose a dollar, and he was often writing in angry terms about those who had written to him.
But one story he wrote stuck away with me.  It was about a seeker who goes to a Buddhist monastery and asks to become enlightened.  The monk tells him that he has two choices: to stay and study for 30 years; or to go through the door at the end of the room, cross the floor and leave by the door at the other end.  The problem is that while in the room he will be faced with his worst fears and that many people freeze, and never make it the short distance.  He says that if the seeker chooses this option, the only advice the monk can give is, ‘Keep Walking.’
The sort of writers’ fears I have heard include, ‘I’ll never get published,’ ‘I will never be able to write,’ or ‘I’ll never be able to find the time.’  There really is no answer to these, as whoever expresses them often has strong arguments to support their point.
Meditators talk about returning to the cushion, or ‘Keep turning up.’  I’ve heard writers say, ‘Keep writing,’ or ‘Keep plugging away.’  I think about that grumpy US mystic and do my best to keep putting one foot in front of the other.