The wrong side of the tracks

By the time you read this I shall be in sunny Norfolk on my hols. Yes, even us artists need time off. I’m writing this the week before in order to plug the gaping absence in your life that this blog doubtless fills.

After last week’s mirth-packed delve into the world of finance, let’s get back to Breathing Fire. Despite my time being mostly taken up with commercial editing, I have been managing to burgle odd half-hours, sometimes more, on this manuscript. It currently sits at 80k words, that tasty milestone hit earlier today, and I reckon there’s around another 10k to go.

I’m having fun, folding my own traumas into the text and building up – trying to build – a close relationship with all of the characters, main or otherwise.

Problem is, the scenario I now find myself heading towards is nothing like the one I imagined when I was first setting out to write this benighted novel.

No plan survives contact with the enemy, and in this case the enemy is the actual writing of the tale. I don’t know about you, but when I’m envisioning a story I have fairly strong mental images of certain scenes, be they big key set-pieces or more transitional sections. I have pictures and moods in my mind.

And then I try and turn them into a story. And it never works.

Stories need logic. They need reality. The characters have to go from place to place and those places need to connect somehow, even if that’s in the most nebulous way imaginable. I need to describe things that existed previously as mere ‘vibes’; and as they’re described they become more solid, more vital. And – sometimes – the environments you describe become almost players in the game in their own right.

And once they ‘exist’ they have to be respected. They’ll have their own parts to play in your story.

Example: a lot of Breathing Fire is set in and around an old converted cotton mill. I established this as canon a long time ago, replacing the original idea of climaxing, if you’ll forgive the expression, in a shopping centre.

Which is good, which is great. But now I find I need to build in a lot of the immediate surroundings – streets, houses, cafes, bus stops. Things in which we can lurk. With me so far?

Well I’ve down all this and I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re entirely on the wrong side of the street. We’re on the wrong side of the railway. We’re on the wrong side of the river. All my angles of approach are askew.

How can this be when it’s all coming straight out of my imagination in the first place?

It’s because of those pesky characters, demanding I set in stone the vague outlines I had originally envisioned. As the action has progressed I’ve had to draw more and more explicit details and push further and further from my original plan.

Seriously, it’s getting ridiculous. I really should have drawn a map. Would probably have saved me a lot of sweating and/or swearing. But there is something to be said of allowing these ‘errors’ in a first draft and only really tightening the strings subsequently.

What all this does, this turning of ephemeral majesty into lumpen stone, it changes the story itself. In my original mental outline I had my characters crossing a railway line from a junkyard into an area of decayed terracing. Now, as I actually write the damn thing, I have my characters still crossing that rail line – it’s one of the keynote actions in my mind, even if it is, in plot terms, entirely superfluous – but this time they’re going from perfectly adequate terrace housing to an area of… something else. Warehousing, perhaps.

I didn’t plan this, or a thousand other changes. It happened – it’s happening – because the act of writing takes ideas and smashes them against the reality that your story is making. Holding too tight to an idea makes for forced, bulging plot-devices and ugly transitions. A little flexibility is needed to collapse phase-space into manageable bites.

Does any of this make sense?

Maybe I should just have drawn a map before I started out. Problem is that I didn’t really know what areas I needed to draw.

Anyway, I’m on holiday at the moment, so you can all complain about me in my absence.

Happy writing!