Dreaming of Nazi-dragon-demons circa 1934

If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways. Instead of going to a theatre, hear a symphony orchestra, or go by yourself to a museum; go alone for long walks, or ride by yourself on a bus-top. If you will conscientiously refuse to talk or read you will find yourself compensating for it to your great advantage.

One very well-known writer of my acquaintance sits for two hours a day on a park bench. He says that for years he used to lie on the grass of his back garden and stare at the sky, but some member of the family, seeing him so conveniently alone and aimless, always seized the occasion to come out and sit beside him for a nice talk. Sooner or later, he himself would begin to talk about the work he had in mind, and, to his astonishment, he discovered that the urgent desire to write the story disappeared as soon as he had got it thoroughly talked out. Now, with a purposeful air and in mysterious silence, he disappears daily, and can be found every afternoon (but fortunately seldom is) with his hands in his pocket staring at pigeons in the park.

Another writer, almost tone-deaf, says that she can finish any story she starts if she can find a hall where a long symphony is being played. The lights, the music, her immobility, bring on a sort of artistic coma, and she emerges in a sleepwalking state which lasts till she reaches the typewriter.

Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer

The time to write is in the dreamtime, when the subconscious can take control. That’s what Ms Brande is saying. The time you create is when the mind roams free, forgetting the ties of logical and rationality. We all find our own places and time for this, be it in the bath, on the bus, or whilst doing the washing up.

There is more than one type of ‘writing’. What we’re talking about here is not the sitting-at-the-typewriter (sorry, computer; Ms Brande was writing in 1934 and sometimes I forget that I am not) and working out the words, but the creation: the stirring of the subconscious which is where ideas are born and raised. Those ideas are worth nothing without the work that follows: getting the damn things down on paper/hard-drive.

(Incidentally, take another look at Ms Brande’s sentences. Aren’t they beautiful? They’re so long. I’d never write like that – it’s not in me. I’m a staccato man – short, choppy, ungrammatical in places. But Ms Brande’s writing is so clear and precise. I read those words and I smile.)

A long time ago I wrote a piece for this blog about the spread of gadgets into all our lives. Even at the time I wasn’t too happy with it. I don’t know, but sometimes what comes out of our mouths isn’t quite what’s in our heads – and with ever-present deadlines there isn’t the time to polish it properly. But it was basically my attempt to say the same thing. We human beings are in danger of drowning out the subconscious. We’re all so stimulated: every moment is about doing, doing, doing – never letting a moment be wasted, being fitter, happier and more productive.

But our brains don’t work like that. A writer – a true writer – has to balance the subconscious with the conscious mind. We have to spend hours staring at nothing, or just looking at the backs of our eyelids. We find our own places to dream, as individual as the pieces we write. And then we have to hand over to the conscious mind to inflict logic upon our dreams, to give a framework, a structure – and to get those damn words on the page.

To be a writer takes discipline. It takes passion and intensity and the determination to get in front of that damned machine and type even when the will is far away, on the over side of the hill with the fairies or down at the bottom of the garden with the Poddington Peas.

But unless we take the time to let our spirits wander we will never achieve anything. Let’s agree to put our I-pads away once in a while. Let’s take bus-rides into the unknown. A writer can never waste his time. Sure, it may look like we’re asleep on a deckchair with a pitcher of Pimm’s by our side, but really we’re watching dragons in flight or fighting Nazis or confronting our inner demons, or all these things at the same time.

And that’s just as it should be.

Let’s talk about sex (again), baby

Picture the scene: you are surrounded by familiar faces, people who know you well. It’s your turn to speak and so you clear your throat and stand. Feel the eyes, the pressure. A sip of water, maybe. You open your mouth. But instead of your high-flown fantasies, your lovingly crafted words of beauty and bliss, out pours a tide of filth and depravity; words you barely touched before now rolling out to suffocate the audience…

I wrote my first sex scene. It is dirty, unpleasant and, I think, necessary. See, I understand the mechanics of sex. I’ve read a fair bit of erotica (not 50 Shades, thank you; my experience of that is finding a copy abandoned on a bench by the Thames. I picked it up, flicked through it, then abandoned it on the next bench upriver. I imagine it moving from sea to source in such fashion). But writing it oneself is somewhat disturbing.

Creation is a private, personal experience. You build worlds and stories internally, deep within your mind. No-one is ever going to know what you’re thinking unless you tell them. Writing isn’t like that. You do it with a potential audience in mind. And so when you create something intimate and personal – and, in this case, horrible – you can’t help but be a little anxious. I guess the way to get round this is to realign your mental compass to not see it as personal at all, but that’s not likely to happen unless you’re specialising in erotica. Or horror. Or financial reports.

As for this particular scene – well, I knew it was nasty. It was meant to be unpleasant. It’s a rape-and-murder scene so it can hardly be nice. But I am inexperienced; although I fully intend to go through the whole damn thing and make it better, I don’t know what ‘better’ means in this context. Too much, too little or just right? So I took the scene to the lovely folks at Abingdon Writers for their judgement.

I can’t help but feel their opinions of me may have changed. Just a little.

Get any group of writers together – collective noun: a scribble? A grammar? An argument? – and you’ll find as many opinions as there are people. I’m still unsure whether I’ve gone too far or not far enough. But the strongest point made was that my use of language was wrong. I was using terms that a man would use, but not a woman. This scene was from the woman’s POV and so my use of some particular dirty words wasn’t seen as appropriate.

I’m not sure about this. Not being a woman myself (chance would be a fine thing) obviously I can’t really be sure. But my approach to writing as women is to treat them, first-and-foremost, as human beings. Is there really a difference in the way men and women think? I don’t know. What I’m really looking for is a book, by a woman, on writing erotica. My local library is strangely lacking such a work.

And these things matter. I care about being honest. I want to write things that are true. Just as important (to me) is to not be lumped in with the John C. Wright’s and Theodore Beale’s of the world. I don’t want to be thought of as a misogynistic hate-monger. If I can’t get this scene to work then I’ll cut it out.

But I want to keep the damn thing. The novel needs it or something like it. More importantly, to me, right now, in the position I’m in, I want to prove to myself that I can do it. It’s another skill to work on, develop and (hopefully) master.

So if anyone knows of any helpful books or articles I’d be very grateful if you’d let me know.

One size fits none

I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite – GK Chesterton

These days, if you’re a writer and you’re on the internet, it’s impossible to avoid Advice. I occasionally perpetrate it myself – or at least I claim to do; whether anyone’s ever found anything I’ve ever written helpful is a moot point. I can only apologise.

I’ve read about making charts, timelines, index cards: I’ve read about new software and apps and other new-fangled tools to boost productivity. I’ve read about time management. Recently I read (and forwarded) not only this article from Chuck Wendig but its indignant rebuttal from Foz Meadows.

Advice works. Presumably the advice-giver has road-tested that which they’re advocating. But when you’re trying to balance contradictory diktats and keep some semblance of sanity, what do you do then?

Here is a list of all the good advice that I’ve not taken over the years:

•  Keep index cards of all your characters/create a database of your characters
•  Do a full mock interview with your characters to get to know them better
•  Fill out full questionnaires for every character in your novel
•  Write full descriptions of everyone, even if you don’t end up using it
•  Keep a notebook by your bed in case of sudden nocturnal inspiration
•  Set up a whiteboard by your desk to scribble ideas upon
•  Create a graph of your novel to keep track of the overall flow of pace and intensity of            your story, and whether it might be dragging
•  Plan the story fully before committing pen to paper
•  Don’t plan at all before starting
•  Turn off the internet whilst writing and unplug the phone
•  Get a room of your own
•  Get a laptop
•  Get an I-Pad-thing
•  Get Scrivener
•  Get anything other than Word 2003
•  Don’t discuss the end of the novel before writing it
•  Write in silence
•  Don’t read fiction whilst writing (yes, really)
•  Only read ‘literature’
•  Read Strunk and White and imbibe their rules of grammar
•  Sentence fragments. Don’t use them
•  And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction
•  Avoid adverbs
•  Only use the word ‘said’ to attribute dialogue. Do not mutter, scream, mumble,                    expectorate or any such alternative

…and so much more.

I love advice. I love to learn, and to read what others – experts – have to say. I mean, they’ve been published, right? They must know what they’re doing. But all they’re really giving you is what’s worked for them. Just like I can only give you what’s worked for me.

So if you’re a writer who’s looking to get better, who’s seeking ways to grow and to stretch their wings, by all means do courses and read widely and – yes – explore the depths of Twitter. But remember that you have to find the way that works for you. You are not these people. If you find the best time to write is right after prayers and that you have to switch off all distractions to get to it then that’s what you should do. If you find that you write best after a sweaty male-bonding session on the tennis courts, do that. Writing is intensely personal. There is no one-size fits all. There are no rules. There is only advice. And you are more than welcome to tell me where to shove it.

Loud QUIET loud

I’ve hit a high-point in my work-in-progress. A fight-scene, a climax (although not the climax). But I’m not going to talk about that today. Climaxes run on breathless instinct. It’s the bits in between that take the thought, the effort – and that ultimately decide whether a novel works.

People need to be able to breathe. No successful novel runs from action to action without the occasional pause for reflection; even non-stop thrillers take time for the odd cup of tea, often sprinkled with cake and light exposition. These are the bits where the story happens; as well as moving the plot they also deepen the reader’s knowledge of the characters and builds a bond between them. Sure, the reader may enjoy the exploits of your gun-totin’, wise-crackin’ bad-ass superspy. But she’ll be just another disposable hero unless you show her in the aftermath of an exploit – we need to share her fears, joys and depths if we’re gonna care if she lives or dies.

But quiet scenes are hard. It’s hard to know how much to give away, how long to wallow in remorse or mindless chatter or in her strange fascination with morris-dancing. Even scenes where people are just talking need to have a point. They need to deliver, they need to move the plot along: action scenes are a release of tension; the quiet ones are about slowly cranking the handle, about tightening the noose.

They’re hard, yes, but I also really enjoy writing them. They’re a challenge. They give a novel its shape and rhythm, keep coherence amidst all the noise and chaos. They’re what a novel is. For every high must come a low. Every held breath must be exhaled. Roller-coasters go up as well as down.

But writing manuals always seems to focus on the big moments: climax, mid-novel crisis, inciting incident, defeating the gatekeeper – whatever the author chooses to call them. All the literature is about where they go and their significance to the Story. They all seem to overlook the bits that glue everything together and give the big moments their weight.

I love writing action, probably because I spent my teenage years soaking up the thrills of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. It’s the bits In Between that I find difficult.

But maybe they’re not so different after all, the quiet scenes and the loud. After all, both are all about knowing your characters, knowing precisely why you’re writing a particular scene – what is the point of showing it in your novel? Both are about moving story forwards: it’s only in the way those things are depicted that differs.

Tension. It’s all about tension. Whatever genre you’re writing, the quiet scenes are where you crank the handle, where you stretch the reader on the rack and make it impossible for them to escape. The loud ones are when all that stress explodes.