Little victories

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I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing. Trying to build a novel, yes, but… how? It’s been such a long time since I sat at a computer and tried to pour words to a blank screen.

In order to write you have to know what you’re writing about. And, though I have a story and an idea of a plot and I know what key the story will be in and the characters all waiting, I really feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.

This is not special. It’s not unusual. This is what makes writing so difficult: the vista of all possible options spread in front of you in the form of that accursed blank page. The impossibility of making choices. The collapsing of waveforms into a single, informed reality.

It doesn’t help to know that nothing is unchangeable: that you will inevitably make missteps and that’s what editing is for. It should help, but it doesn’t. You still have to make those decisions, get the words down on that page.

People who plan out their novels in great detail before setting metaphorical pen to paper probably have the right idea. I’ve never been able to do that, although this current project has involved some fairly heavy-duty forefront thinking.

Even then, when you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve in each scene, it’s never easy. The blank page resists. Writing can be like wading through treacle; the words seem to drag at you, to want to pull you down into inertia, to drown you in liquid amber.

This is why any progress, no matter how small, is a success. 50 words? Good. Even if they only put off a problem, they’re 50 words that didn’t exist yesterday. Decided on the next scene? Even if you change your mind and delete all you’ve done, it’s easier to work from a positive decision than it is to work from uncertainty.

If you’re a writer and if you’ve decided to write you’ll know how tough it can be. The small victories are all we have, sometimes – especially when we’re just starting out and are still fighting through the beaded-curtains of indecision.

So take those little victories and recognise how much of a fighter you are. You’re still scrapping forwards, still fighting the tide that threatens to wash you back into a little ball of unfulfillment.

You’re doing it. You’re moving forwards.

You’re brilliant.

And I don’t know about you but it makes me feel absolutely 0% better.

Smolvics

All the right words

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I write these words from deep within my editing cave. Taking advantage of a temporary lacuna in paid work, I am busy ripping apart and putting back together New Gods, the finale of my Antarctic trilogy – the series that began with Night Shift.

As I said last week, there is (more than) one small problem with the work I’ve encountered so far and it’s this: the body doesn’t come soon enough. This means the novel feels unbalanced, like it doesn’t really start until we’re nearly half-way through.

It is, in other words, a problem.

And the problem with a problem is that rectifying it comes with its own legion of problems. Move the murder? That means you also need to move the essential preliminaries to murder (and isn’t that everything?) and the aftermath, and…

And before long you don’t know where you are; your carefully crafted story is in tatters; you sit surrounded by piles of disarticulated sentences and lost paragraphs and you’re sure you saw chapter seven in there three times. And does chapter fourteen really come straight after four?

Jean Oram quote

This is where planning becomes exceedingly helpful. For me this takes the form of a simple spreadsheet with the old scene-order – a few words about what happens in each one – on one side and the new on the other. Then it becomes mostly a question of copying and pasting…

…Except it doesn’t, because none of your delicious words make sense anymore. None of your references hang together as your gentle allusion is now the first mention there’s been. Before long you’re lost in a maze of misplaced openings and dead ends all around. Evidence is scattered willy-nilly and all sense of cause-and-effect is discarded.

But the ideas are there, as is, to a large extent, the writing. What matters now is that I get the scenes in the right place and make sure the feel and flow of the novel is improved.

Because, to paraphrase that famous Morecambe and Wise sketch, I have written mostly the right words, but not necessarily in the right order.

Morecambe and Previn

The big board of truth

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I wrote nothing in 2017.

That’s not quite true. I did significant amounts of revision and turned out a few short stories. But nothing substantial and this bothers me. It’s time to do something about it. Yes, folks, at long last it’s time to start planning.

I’ve read two books on screenwriting in the last two years: Dave McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!. Both ended with advocating the same writing process: that of using what I like to think of as The Big Board of Truth.

They suggest that, before a word is written in anger, a story is constructed by using postcards on an idiot board: each postcard represents a scene (or group of scenes) and you build the story piece by piece, moving then around until truth and beauty become one.

This advice is meant for screenwriters and I’m not by nature a planner. But the benefits, as I see them, are that it’ll help focus my mind on the gaps in a currently nebulous plot. It’ll help me take the ideas from my head – where they’re currently floating free and randomly bashing everything else out of place – and pin them into physical form.

Will this work? Will it do anything more than take up valuable writing time? We’ll have to see. But I’ve made a start in my own particular, half-assed way. A big idiot-board? Pah, I have a spreadsheet.

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A brainstorm of initial ideas. The colours represent ‘acts’: yellow is backstory; green the opening; blue the story’s ‘meat’ and red the climax

The details are sketchy (and – unfortunately – blurry). It’s written in my own shoddy shorthand. It’s simply a list of ideas, some of which will be abandoned whilst others will be so heavily disguised that they could appear in an Anonymous’ Anonymous meeting without anyone being the wiser.

The next step was to transfer each scene to its predicted place in the finished novel, thus:

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I’d generally recommend a physical model rather than a computer version; solidity changes the way we perceive a concept. But I’m drowning in a sea of clutter as it is. If the worst comes to the worst I have scissors.

So now I have a plan. A plan of a plan, no less. Will this idea serve me at all? It’s kind of up to me. At the moment I’m just trying things out, trying to pin my errant dinosaur mind into the tar-pit of rationality. I’m hole-hunting. I’m seeking flow, direction and drive.

I’m seeking out characters to transform from placeholders into flesh-and-blood. I’m looking for motivations; for causality; for sub-plots; for flow. I’m using the technique to unspool a convoluted plot and find its place in a narrative. Whether this will become a one-off or will become a regular prelim to my writing – well, we’ll see.

I shall, of course, keep you updated on progress. But for now it’s peace out, y’all. Happy writing.

Museless

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How I imagine my Muse

At the moment I am trying to get down to a new novel and it’s not happening. I am stuck before I’ve begun. The words are not coming.

In previous novels I’ve toyed with ideas, worked out the feel of a novel, found a place to aim for – and then waited until the opening scene in mind. Then I wrote it, and the scene after, and the scene after that, until I had a story. Very linear, very much finding my way as I went (although not without forward planning: notes were kept as I went along, thoughts thunked, futures sketched).

Now that strategy’s not working. I’m trying to write two new novels and I’m just not able to get down to either. This is possibly down to the lack of strong liquor or hard drugs necessary to unblock my imagination-gland. More likely it’s that – thought I have the feel and know strong story-elements in both – I don’t have enough of a big picture. My worlds aren’t vivid enough. Something within the story lacks coherence.

My answer? To go back to my spreadsheets. Every novel has its accompanying batch of spreadsheets. From character ideas, random notes and finally a scene-by-scene breakdown, spreadsheets is where it’s at. I’ve already got a very broad ‘Act One, Act Two, Act Three’ sheet. My next task is to do a more detailed chapter-by-chapter run through that will almost certainly be ignored when the writing actually begins in earnest.

I’ve always resisted the division into the world into ‘planners’ and ‘free-wheelers’ (I refuse to use the word ‘pantsers’ as it’s so ugly). It’s never that clear cut. No-one – surely – writes a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown of a whole novel. And no-one can produce a (good) novel without looking forwards and making a note or two for a future scene. Some characters might just come straight from the subconscious fully-formed, but at least a modicum of work is needed before pen strikes paper.

Like most people I lie somewhere within the spectrum: a linear writer who makes notes and addresses issues sporadically as he progresses. So why am I planning more now? Well it’s partly because I don’t know where to begin. I have three – rather samey – starting-points in mind, representing each character/group. This obviously won’t make a good story.

Writing is work. My muse is washed-up, alcoholic on a park bench in a piss-wet hippy-skirt with earrings twisted painfully in her dreads. Maybe the gods of inspiration will drop a fiver in her hat and she’ll return, nourished, clean and ready to swing for the fences. But at the moment I’m on my own.

Different challenges require different responses. I have problems, but if I want to call myself a writer I have to work through them, because work is a strategy. Sometimes the best answer is to sit and think, to scribble, to cross out, to keep on pushing until something happens and the rose finally unfurls.

So it’s back to the spreadsheets with me.

False flag

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It’s surprisingly hard to find an image for ‘false flag’ that isn’t horribly conspiracy-theoryist. Please accept this as a non-endorsatory compromise

The Muse doesn’t deliver whole stories. She delivers fragments: pieces, threads, ingredients. These fragments are usually a result of living an active, out-looking life, open to new worlds and new ways of thinking. Stories come from rotating these ideas, rolling them into stranger forms and melding them in concert with other concepts. And one idea can lead to others, a thought-trail that snowballs into coherent narrative.

I didn’t even realise it myself, but recently I’ve been playing with the concept of a ‘false flag’ operation. I think it was something that rolled into my head via American politics (and isn’t that a novelworthy car-crash in itself right now) and has lingered in the back of my mind for months. I’m currently spinning the geneses of three novels in my brain but no idea which to develop: I’ve gone a far as to make initial notes for all. Into which do I add this false flag? All of them? The idea could work in any context (for the record: Victorian fens, contemporary Brittany and near-future ‘urban’).

This is where the subconscious comes into its own. I have so many idea-fragments turning in my mind that sheer momentum is creating links where I wasn’t aware of any. Not enough ideas for three novels, perhaps, but maybe one. The trick is to keep adding to the bank, keep pouring stock into the mixer until the soup begins to thicken, the lumps simultaneously agglomerate and become smooth, and you can separate out the bits not needed and put them in the fridge for future culinary experimentation.

At the moment I can’t see what kind of meal I’m trying to make. But the bases are there. And I took another leap forwards the other night, in bed, when the false flag gained a political context and a couple of twists arrived semi-fully-formed in my mind. Of course I found I’d forgotten the details when I woke the next morning but the taste remained, and remains.

The downside is that, if I use the false flag in one novel (the Breton one, if you’re curious) I can’t use it in the others.

Or can I?

To the subconsciousmobile!

World-building 101

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There is a misconception that planning equals plot. To be sure it can, but there’s a whole other layer of planning that must come first. The heavy lifting. What is often, and sometimes misleadingly, called world-building.

Some of the best science-fiction is set on a world indistinguishable from our own. Some of the best fantasy too. That doesn’t mean that world-building is any less important – or complicated.

Every novel is different. When I was working on Night Shift I began with an idea – a murder on an isolated base somewhere. My planning really took the form of working out why that base existed; how the resolution (the reveal) could make logical sense. Essentially I was seeking a political structure in which to operate.

My first ideas were to set it in space, in a derelict mining station, and the politics were based on rival corporations. But I’ve always shied against running too far into the future and I reined it in to focus on Earth, either in the deep oceans or on Antarctica. The final decision was only made when the title came to me. The questions then were about who, what and why a base would be established there: what set-up would lead logically to the resolution I sought?

Now I’m working on a new project. I have my high-concept – shared consciousness – and setting. Now I have to stop writing and start thinking. How established is the technology? Does the Man on the Clapham Omnibus know of the possibilities, or is it a government secret? How did we discover this science? Are there named inventors, and what consequence has this had on the world? Does any of this actually matter anyway? I need to know the answers if only to help me find my way to the right questions.

As with Night Shift, I can’t work out my antagonist until I know what frame he/she/it works in.  I can’t find my character’s goal until I know what she’s fighting. This, for me, is the real work of writing. We have to be plausible and consistent and through plausibility and consistency comes motive and plot.

Oneiromancer’s planning was all about the system of ‘magic’ I was going to use. Again I had my protagonists established; this time I’d already decided on my setting (contemporary London). I knew it would all be about manipulating dreams. My planning was really about political structures on alternative worlds: culture, history and politics.

Maybe other genres are different. Historical novelists can drop plots into existing structures; they have real, known figures with which to play. Their challenges are different. Likewise contemporary crime novelists have a world ready-made for them. They still have to work on characters, motives and rationale, but they don’t have to draw maps of imaginary nations or work out by what mechanism dragons fly.

This is hard work, and I suspect it’s why writers like series’ so much: the lifting only has to be done once and then it’s all about revision and reinforcement. Ultimately the time spent here will determine whether I have reams of unsustainable ramblage or an actual story. Somewhere in the undergrowth is the golden egg of Plot, but it must be kept warm and safe and allowed to develop in its own time.

It’s giving me a headache. Someone pass the paracetamol. It’s right there, next to the used clichés. Cheers.

Slave to the grind

Right. A weekend away has occurred. Now it’s time to recalibrate the brain for writing: to shake my senses back into the realms of the unreal and ineffable. In other words it’s time to work out what the hell I’m doing with this novel.

For those what don’t know, I got my feedback on Oneiromancer back from my betas a few weeks ago. It was the usual mix of great criticism: helpful, horrible, headscratching harumphery.  And, as usual, it leaves me temporarily lost for a plan. Or, rather, it leaves me with questions that I can easily answer but, in the answering, raises a whole phalanx of follow-on questions with no easy solution.

My problems are specifically those of the cut-and-paste variety. I’ve determined that I’ve got to move a batch of scenes, which I can do without too much difficulty. But every move not only leads to continuity errors – relatively easily solved – but also leave notes hanging that need resolving; chords missing a key tone and begging for resolution.

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A section of my scene-by-scene guide with notes detailing my rapid descent into madness

What’s exorcising me at the moment is the need to prolong a character’s life. It was widely agreed that I’d killed one particular character too soon; that she still had a purpose that I’d not fulfilled. I’m sure my betas are right. And so I’m acting on that…

Except that, because I always saw her dying here, I’m not sure what to do with her there. I don’t know what information she can provide because in my mind she’d served her function. Actually moving the crucial incident is straightforward; knowing what to do with her in the interim is a pain in the bum.

It’s one of those issues where the writer knows too much. I need to freeze my thoughts at the point at which the original story is set to change. I need to establish what the characters actually know in that moment, what their aims are and where they see themselves going. Essentially I need to forget two-thirds of the story I wrote and replan from there.

But how can that be done? I know too much; I can’t self-lobotomise – except via alcohol, which is a science too imprecise for my needs. I’ve planned the story out, and whilst I know alterations are necessary my mind isn’t the most flexible. The thoughts are burnt into my mind like great welts, throbbing and fresh and raw.

This is where writing is an effort. This is where I need to focus, to reappraise, to assess. To think.

I also have to keep in mind that I’m doing this because I want to write a good story. I want to write the best novel I possibly can. This is why I asked for people outside my mind to read it, to comment and to tell me what doesn’t work. To not act on their advice might be easier but it gets me nowhere. Ultimately the only person I’d disappoint would be myself.

So it’s back to the editorium with me. I have the masterscript all printed and ready. I have a scene-by-scene guide ready to be scribbled upon. The only thing missing is a brain that has answers, and those are in short supply.

Writing is not a glamorous pursuit. It isn’t the lone genius scribbling in his garret, churning out words of wonder with a bottle of absinthe and a few cats for company. It’s staring and scratching and swearing and always, always, working. Without any prospect of success – however defined – at the end.

It’s times like this that define you. To be a writer is to embrace the hard times, to own them and, ultimately, to enjoy them as much as you do the initial fire of creation. Only then will you be able to produce something the world will embrace.