The empty well

The Empty Well, Joel Kass

I fear what comes next. I’ve been so far in an editing morass that I’ve not had much chance to work on anything new for a little while, and whilst it’s true that I have a few works in the bank – in various degrees of draftage, three stories are ready to be polished/rewritten – I don’t know where I’m going from here.

At some point I’m going to have to write something original and, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m drawing from an empty well. I see other writers, some close to me, some a little further away, churning out novel after novel, and I look in the mirror and see only emptiness there.

I am a writer. But I can’t see what I’m going to write next. Worse than that, I feel like I’ve forgotten how to do it at all; all the disciple I built up, all the muscles I developed, they seem to have atrophied.

That’s the fear. That I’ve nothing left in me. That I’m a fraud, I guess, in calling myself something I no longer feel myself to be.

This is, I know, mostly bollocks. So I’m feeling a bit fallow – show me an author that doesn’t have the occasional period where the words don’t quite flow. It’s barely been two months since I finished my last first draft – that’s no time at all. Just because I don’t immediately have something to go on to doesn’t invalidate my whole existence.

Still, this is the way I feel right now. Like there is nothing left in me. It’s not a nice place to be.

There is hope. I had a dream the other day that I thought (within the dream, which is a trick) would make a good novel with a little tinkering. And I managed to write a dream synopsis before I forgot it all. Even if this is just a false blind it shows that my subconscious is still churning over the goods.

It’s a stupid thing, to put faith in dreams. This idea may well come to nothing. The positive I’m taking is that it shows there is still creativity in me somewhere.

But in the immediate future it is editing that is occupying my time. I’ve an Old Testament intergenerational epic to renovate. So if you’ll excuse me, it’s back to the Bronze Age with me.

*             *             *

A quick reminder that, for the next few days only, Night Shift can be yours for only 99p/99c. Head over to Amazon (I believe it’s an Amazon-only offer – sorry, folks) and grab your e-copy now! It’s, like, good. At least 99p good. The offer ends on Sunday (2nd August), so hurry hurry hurry!

Dream desperately

I’ve never grown up. Not really. I’m still a big dumb kid, clumsy with puppy-like energy and with that big dumb look on my face when I’m caught doing something naughty. I still need my bed-time stories. But there’s no-one to read them to me anymore. So I read them to myself.

This is, ultimately why I write. I can’t sleep. I have a long history of insomnia and restlessness. So I developed a technique, as one does, of calming my mind and setting myself clear to dream. I tell myself stories.

Just about everything I’ve ever written has been composed in this state: when I’ve lain in bed and tried to distract myself from the morning. In that slow, suggestible state I have created worlds and wonders and witches and wrestlers: stories become multi-volume epics, rewritten and rewritten like a palimpsest until nothing of the original remains. When I’m dozing on bus or train, semi-conscious as a passenger in a car, focussing on song-lyrics and what they’re saying between the words.

This is why I write. Because without my stories I’d be a haunted, pale figure who carries poison in his fingertips.

Night Shift was a meta-story: a tale within a tale, a side-project that I snipped out almost complete from its surrounding skein. Oneiromancer is a small part of a wider cycle, selected because it’s the most real part of a whole horrorshow of freaks and weirdos.

Which is not to say that I could use these tales in the form in which they were originally created. Composing tales in the head and setting them out on paper – for others to eventually read – are entirely separate disciplines. The semi-conscious ramblings of a sleep-starved mind do not a good story make. It’s like translating from a foreign language – or, rather, updating a 19th century tale for a modern audience. The ideas are there, present in their shambling, lumpen form. Now you must build a new shiny body, replacing magic with science and putting the machine into God.

I am a sinner because I don’t keep a notebook and I don’t scribble half-formed ideas when they occur to me. I believe in the filter of my memory to sieve out the bad ideas and to concentrate the good. To me, writing down ideas is to disturb the fragile equilibrium of my thoughts. I don’t want to be inspired: I want to be haunted. I want to be hunted. Rousing from that blissful state is to lose it, like a lama too eager for Nirvana. Desire is the enemy.

Trust your mind. Trust your dreams. As you’re lying down to sleep remember that those thoughts will one day return to support you, maybe five years, maybe a decade from now (both Oneiromancer and Night Shift were originally devised just this side of the millennium).

Terry Pratchett once signed a book for me with the advice ‘dream desperately’. I’ve still to find wiser words for a writer.

Feed the tree

I bloody love the subconscious, I do. It’s all somewhat miraculous, the way that a dead end can suddenly be transformed into the open highway, an unrestricted autobahn. Just by not thinking about it.

As you know (and I’m sorry to bore you – again) I’ve been computerless for the best part of a fortnight now, and it’s disrupted everything. I have no routine. Fortunately my semi-waking brain is active even whilst my fingers are idle. I’ve got two projects on the go (projectus interruptus) and I’ve been turning over ideas and problems all the time.

Ideas are easy. Ideas come and go all the time, fleeting, gossamer-fringed things that can create typhoons with barely a flicker of their infinite wings. Others can wave and beat and flutter manically and yet there’s barely a ripple in the microclimate of the mind. Not to be trusted, ideas; often they’ll vanish as soon as you decide they’re worth acting on, leaving you naked in front of the computer, vulnerable and bitter. Others kiss you delicately, shift your orbit fractionally, fractally. Some you have to draw screaming from the well. Others are like gifts from the silent ghost who steps only in your shadow. Some you can’t look at directly for fear they’ll disintegrate before your very eyes.

But if you’ve got your donkey stuck up the minaret, there’s nothing like not thinking about the problem to coax it down. Or to give it wings, let it glide safely to the green pastures of Resolution. That’s what’s happened to me. The main thing on my mind has been Australis, the second novel in my trilogy. I’ve been ripping up the old story and replacing it with something almost completely new. More than that – I’ve been writing an entirely different kind of book. I’ve ditched my police procedural and replaced it with something more akin to a thriller.

And that’s fine, except that the ending I’d had before won’t work now. The audience will see the culprit far too far before the end and suspense can’t be maintained without doubt. So where do I go from here?

The solution, it seems to me, is to change the nature of the climax. In older drafts, the killer’s identity was the key reveal. Now – thanks to my subconscious – I have an answer. Change the high-point to be the capture instead. I always write with an end-point in mind; a place I want the novel to finish. This draft of Australis lacked that until last night, when my subconscious threw that startlingly simple bone in my direction.

So now I know where I’m going. It’s just that… sometimes I don’t really think I’m a writer myself. Just a conduit for the thoughts and dreams of another, some mythical being on a different plane of existence. Do I mine my dreams, my liminal thoughts more than others, or is this how everyone in the creative industries works?

So I wait impatiently for my computer to be returned to me so I can give these vague ideas real form, a proper shape. And they’ll change, I know; a story has a momentum of its own and there’s a limit to how hard you can pull the reins, how skilfully you can steer the course to where you want to be.

And in the meantime I’m reading. Reading ‘instruction books’ on the art of writing, because some little nugget of truth, some little habit will be written to memory if you read it often enough. But mostly reading stories, living in other worlds, and dreaming other people’s dreams.

Because if you can’t write, read. What better way is there to feed your subconscious?