On Writing: The Light That May Identify A Tunnel


Where do you draw the line between Cautious Optimism and Premature Tempting Fate?

Longer term readers of this blog will recall that, in addition to the sterling work I do on-line here, I have been known in the past to write fiction, and make halting attempts to get you to buy it. So far, with previous little success.

Back in 2013, I entered National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for the second time. I ‘won’, in the sense that I exceeded 50,000 words by November 30, though the novel itself couldn’t in any way be called ‘complete’. I never expected it to be: NaNoWriMo was a tool to kickstart me into getting into the book.

I continued writing thereafter, into 2014, until I reached a point where invention as to where to go, and what ending I was working towards, combined with an ever-increasing feeling that I’d made an egregious mistake in switching to a past-present alternating chapter system for Part 2. Work ground to a halt. For the first time in over fifteen years, I had no active idea going.

A lot of my time and writing energy was taken over by this blog, but I was conscious of the fact that I had lost confidence in my ability to write fiction. That the novel itself, in both content and tone, was a big departure from the work I’d previously done, contributed to a pretty fundamental loss of belief in myself.

Over the past year or so, I’ve tried to return to that kind of writing. I have a couple of books in mind, featuring familiar characters, and I have made various stabs at writing opening chapters, building storylines, setting up a structure for a quite involved plot. but each one has been severely hampered by my inability, at this stage, to clearly see the central point. It shouldn’t be important: my style has always been to start with a couple of characters and an initial situation, and then let the story resolve itself. That From Which It Comes (to borrow a Dave sim phrase) has always provided a solution.

Unfortunately, I’ve lost faith in myself to achieve that.

Back in 2010, I completed and published the third and last of my Richard and Susan books. In it there was an increased role for Richard’s fifteen year old neice, Celeste. I had a whale of a time writing her and wanted to feature her again. I knew there would be no more Richard stories, and Celeste was perfect for a leading character. But Pay for All was set in 2010, and that meant that an adult Celeste book would have to be set no earlier than 2016 and, as I couldn’t possibly imagine conditions in 2016 that far back (I should have known better, bit political there), it had to wait.

So I dutifully dragged myself into starting such a book. I had a pre-written opening sequence which remained unchanged, and I made multiple efforts to build an opening chapter onto it but nothing was working, nothing was natural, it felt and read like an author with a severe case of writers block. It was nowhere alive.

A couple of weeks back, I was selected for an Aspire training course where I work. It was a very thoughtful and useful course, with many elements, one of which being the theory that you can make or break a habit by doing/not doing something every day for thirty days. We were challenged by the trainer to do this ourselves, so as to learn proactively that we can eradicate bad habits or inculcate positive ones simply by practice.

I knew this and had applied it on a number of occasions in the past, by taking a habit I wanted to drop and simply focussing on recognising every time I did it, until I trained myself out of saying/doing that. This time, there was a clear positive ambition I could set myself, that I would write a minimum of 250 words of the book every day.

250 words doesn’t sound much, but in the frame of mind I had allowed myself to fall into, it was a feasible ambition. After all, it was less the quantity of words than the regularity of writing that mattered.

And it’s worked so far. With one exception, I have not only reached 250 words but exceeded them, day after day, more often than not reaching 400 words plus. I’ve progressed through two whole chapters, I’ve introduced the other two principal characters and set up a certain amount of creative tension into the relationship. It’s better than I’ve done in a long time.

But it isn’t going anywhere. I have a critical scene, long-imagined, which will take place in the last quarter of the book. As yet, I have no idea of its context. And in the last two weeks of writing, nothing, absolutely nothing has been coming to me to give the book a plot to progress.

Last night, for various reasons, I tackled my daily stint fairly late, got 468 words out of it. I went to bed still worried that I couldn’t see a way forward, beyond the merest rudiments of what would occupy my stint tonight. I’ve a fortnight of consistent writing behind me, yet nothing resembling inspiration as to an actual story has come forward.

And then, lying in the dark, the wires of two separate thoughts crossed. A door opened. I suddenly had an incident, a set-up, that brings in another character. And through that door, though no details are yet apparent, I can see a way forward, a spring to power the story forward.

And the beauty of it is that the previous chapter functions as a perfect, wholly unsuspected context for Celeste’s reactions that are going to drive this single moment a very long way.

Like I say, where do you place a distinction between cautious optimism and premature fate tempting? But this kind of connection hasn’t happened for years. It’s given the book space in my head, created an idea space around something that can be used to build a narrative pulse. I can write this now, whereas before I was building up fear of failure.

Those 250 word instalments might just start to stretch out a bit now, if I’m lucky.

 

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On Writing: Even in Peoria – Part 3


Even to this day, I don’t understand what happened. And I have never again had an experience where the words threatened to explode out of my head if I didn’t write them down.
It should be clear by now that I had little or no conscious input into this story, which leaves the vital question: where did it come from?
On many occasions during the 26 years he spent writing and drawing Cerebus, Dave Sim would talk about That From Which It Comes. Sim had long since ceased to believe that he was creating Cerebus, but rather that he was a vehicle for something, some indefinable thing outside of himself, that required the story to be told and which was using Sim as the vehicle, or conduit.
Sim spoke of discussing this with other writers and artists and, in coded terms, receiving confirmation from them that their work was being similarly compelled.
I have very great difficulty in believing that anything like that happened to me. I’ve never thought of Even in Peoria as anything more than a light, entertaining, comic-dramatic story, with no deeper significance, which makes it impossible to imagine some out-of-body entity wanting it to appear. But that still leaves me without an explanation for what was the most pleasurable – indeed effortless – writing I’ve ever done.
I’ve known for many years that I have a good subconscious sense of structure. Several times, I’ve composed things on a random basis only to find that, when it came time to make whatever changes were needed to make them into a coherent whole, they already were.
And since Even in Peoria, I have ceased to rely on advance plotting or pre-defined endings, and learned to trust in my ability to bring a story to a fitting conclusion simply by writing it. This isn’t boasting: I am convinced that much of the heavy work involved in writing is being conducted at the subconscious level, with Peoria as an extreme example, and it extraordinarily difficult to take credit for something you have no control over.
For many years now, as new ideas cross my mind, I’ve tended to start with some intense thinking about whatever idea has sparked my interest, before committing it to my subconscious to develop. Sometimes that takes a long time. I’ll give you an example in a later one of these essays.
Whatever else it taught me, Even in Peoria completely overthrew my established working practices. I’ve already said that I no longer plot in advance or need to know the ending: it’s enough to have the initial concept and a principal character, with a couple of ideas of things that will (probably) happen. From that, I can let the characters start to define themselves, and to move the story forward, towards ends generate by their wants and needs.
They live their story as I live my life, not knowing what’s coming.
And I don’t write out longhand drafts of the story any more: in fact, I try my damnedest not to write anything down on paper because it’s so wearisome copying it up into the laptop (even if I do end up revising the same drastically on the few occasions that still applies). I do still let the story proceed from beginning to end, before starting to study it in more detail. The last two times I did this, the story grew in scope and diameter in the Second Draft.
Next time, I’ll tell you something about the process of discovering what you want to write about, and some methods of developing that initial spark into something with a shape.

On Writing: Even in Peoria – Part 2


My Easter Monday surprise had netted me 2,200 unexpected and unplanned words, and that put me in a quandary.
This was a brand new tale, fresh, bright, vivid, and I had to write it. But I was already writing a novel. I had written between 10,000 – 12,000 words of the First Draft, it was going well, it was an idea I had been working up to writing for the best part of fifteen years (it was, in fact, what would become Tempus Infinitive), and I didn’t want to abandon it.
And I had a tried and tested working method.
For each book, I would plot, carefully and comprehensively, through to the end. I would write the book in longhand, first draft, working all the way through. The second draft was putting the book onto my computer, whilst sorting out the most obvious crap.
The third draft consisted of a print-out, worked over as extensively as necessary with a red pen, after which I’d make all the relevant changes on the computer. The fourth draft consisted of reading the book, identifying areas and sections that felt weak, or wrong, and reworking these as often as necessary until the story was complete.
Based on past experience, that took me about six months. And as this was only the second book of a trilogy, if I continued with this book, it was looking like a year before I could get back to my new story, and I didn’t think it would wait around that long. If I didn’t touch it for that length of time, I doubted I’d be able to get that ‘voice’ back.
Come to that, it had been such an outré experience, could I capture that voice again today?
In the end, it was that which settled it for me. I sat down with pen and paper and prepared to try Chapter 2. Once I’d succeeded in that, the choice was made.
It was completely against all my experience and all my habits. There was no worked out plot: indeed, over the next seven weeks, I would never be able to foresee where the story was going by more than two chapters. I was writing in the third person, which I’d never succeeded in doing before. I was writing a longhand draft and immediately typing it up into the computer, and after a week or so I was starting to make changes to it even as I was transcribing – and I was continuing from where I’d left off: some of this story wasn’t even appearing on paper at all!
Ten days in, I had the chance of a day’s walking in the Lakes: I got close to the hills and found myself pulling in to write an epilogue: a gleefully, anti-cliché epilogue to a story in which the only thing I knew about the ending was that the good guys would win.
Strange things happened. I’d named my female lead Susan in the sleeping bag scene, but when the time came to introduce her name, I called her Daphne Dean (a nod to The Flash, which I was collecting monthly). When the time came to task her with her name, she grumbled that she didn’t like it, and her friends called her Susan, leading everyone to assume it was a middle name.
The story moved on. Geography shaped it, as my leading pair separately and jointly crossed the fells. The sleeping bag scene appeared on the horizon.
When the day came to incorporate it, I re-read it carefully. I now knew who this pair were, where they were, why they were there, what had driven them together unexpectedly, and what was behind their respective actions. Now I would see what changes I had to make to ensure that Easter Monday session fitted in.
There were none. Oh, I hadn’t foreseen that it had been raining, and that my male lead had wet trousers, which necessitated adding half a dozen words to reference this. But everything else fit perfectly. I cut and pasted in amazement. How the hell had I done that?
The story moved on. The pair separated, came back together again, shared the sleeping bag for a second night, squabbled. The chapter ended with Richard falling into the hands of the ‘villain’, coming onstage for the first time. But instead of running, Susan was walking down the hill, surrendering herself to be caught.
It was a another day. I had a business appointment that necessitated me catching the train into Town. As I walked to the station, I was musing on that day’s stage. The villain knew Susan, worked for her father, saw her almost every day. Why then did I know that the first thing he was going to say when she walked up to him, a captive, was “Who are you?”
So. It appeared that my female lead was not who she had been supposed to be all the time. Well, how am I supposed to know, I’m only the writer?
So if Susan wasn’t Daphne, who was she? The answer came relatively quickly, and I was free to move on. As an aside, when I was finished and could read back, there were so many little things in there to support the pretence, even down to Susan’s gradually shifting change in speech patterns, from pretence to her real voice, that exactly supported the revelation, but which were completely unplanned by me.
The story moved on. The end came in sight. I was half-hoping I could finish in seven straight weeks, but a little more was needed.
I finished a chapter one night. From there, I knew where the next, penultimate, chapter had to end, but what concerned me was that there wasn’t much room between start and finish. Basically, I would need about 1,000 words of filler.
That word was a mistake. It raised concerns in my head about what I would have to write: this close to the end, what would ensure this chapter had the right length without waffle or distraction?
I didn’t start writing until 11.00pm, but things went smoothly and I was able to write out the length without sagging or irrelevancy. I reached the end of the chapter at midnight, and immediately turned over the page and began the next chapter. It took me over, I wrote it straight through, hitting the climax about 1.00am.
I still needed one more chapter before I could jump to the Epilogue. But I had a business meeting the following day, so I had to go to bed.
The next morning I set off for my meeting by car. Halfway there, the start of the chapter arrived in my head. I tried scribbling bits down at traffic lights, but they were never on red for long enough. And I couldn’t dismiss it. It demanded to be written down, and it was like a physical pressure in my head that would explode if I didn’t write it.
I ended up having to pull off, scribble some things at furious speed and arrive a bit late. But it would not let me ignore it or leave it.
And then it was written. 75,000 words in 52 days. From nothing. And without a title.

On Writing: Even in Peoria – Part 1


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The first novel I published through Lulu.com was Even in Peoria. It wasn’t the first I had finished: two other novels preceded it, that is, if you count the Semi-Legendary Autobiographical First Novel, which never went into a second draft because the first was enough to exorcise the ghosts that had driven it. But it was an unrepeatable experience, and one that changed, almost overnight, my approach to writing fiction.
The facts are simple: one day, out of the blue, I started writing a completely unplanned book, in a totally different style, and I wrote it in 52 days, 75,000 words. I have never written another book remotely that quickly.
You could also say that the book took 11 – 12 years to write, instead of 52 days. This is because, whilst on holiday in the Lakes one year in the mid-Eighties, for no apparent reason I cannibalised a couple of experiences into an opening for a novel. Whether it was any good or not, I can’t say, as the original manuscript was lost ages ago, but it was only ever an opening and it suffered immensely from not having a story to go on the end of it. I did have one half-baked idea, but if it didn’t convince me, I couldn’t see it getting by readers, so that was that.
Except that, for some inexplicable reason, the piece seemed to go into some mental filing cabinet, and every so often, I found myself pulling it out and ‘reading’ it through, as some bizarre head-exercise. And it was always there and it was always the same.
Until Easter Monday, 1997. It was a significant day for me: I had finally reached the end of a five year contract at a firm where I hated every minute and loathed the people I had to work for. Discovering my last day was Easter Monday was like getting a four day parole.
And it was Easter and it was sunny, and I was off to the Lakes, free at last, for the first walk of the year, and I even had a football match to go to, as Droylsden were playing away at Netherfield – now Kendal Town – that evening. It was a day for exuberance.
The walk I’d chosen was an expansion of the very one I’d used as the basis for that old, not-forgotten piece. I got to the relevant summit by lunch, more relaxed than I’d been for many years, and now I was in a position to ‘research’, out came that old scene.
And it immediately began to change.
It had been so long, I couldn’t take the piece seriously. It started coming out with long sentences, convoluted tones, a detached and ironic mood, and after three paragraphs, it was as if a voice in my head said “Tangent” and I went off on a long, completely improvised paragraph, departing from the linear story, and spiralling round into a completely unforeseen punchline that had me laughing out loud and thinking, “Wow! I’ve got to keep that!”
So I re-ran everything in my head, three or four times, until I was confident that I could keep it stored until I got back to the car, and pen and paper, which was going to be at least two hours.
Only it didn’t end there. By the time I reached the end of the ridge and the last summit of the day, I had about 1,500 words in my head, a whole chapter repeating and repeating so that I could write it down.
Nothing like that had never happened before but, as I started downhill, I knew I still only had an opening, without a story to go on the end of it. On the other hand, if I was to do it in this tone, this ironic, comic, unserious tone, that stupid old idea I’d had before might well work, as a comedy thriller. There would no doubt be guns (there weren’t), and there’d have to be a scene where the two leading characters, one male, one female, would be benighted in the fells with one tent and one sleeping bag between them.
Back at the car, the first thing I did was take my boots off (that is always the first thing you do when you come down off the fells), and then I wrote out what I had, with relief. It was astonishing to have retained that amount of writing in my head for so long (not completely: I have vague memories of a paragraph about a camera that disappeared, but even so). It was even more astonishing that, having previously only ever worked in the first person, I had dropped into the third person, and into a totally new voice, without any prior warning or practice.
Being hot and thirsty, I headed for Keswick, parked up and walked down towards the Market Square, this new story still dominating my mind. Idly, I started to vamp the sleeping bag scene only to realise, as I reached the crowded centre that this wasn’t vamping: I was writing the actual scene.
Back to the car, write this new part down. I decided to start making a slow way towards Kendal, via Ullswater and Patterdale for the views, but it hasn’t finished, they’re in the sleeping bag, things are happening, and I’m desperately looking for somewhere in Patterdale where I can pull in and write it down without causing a queue all the way back to Penrith.
This accomplished, I drove on, but it still wasn’t over. She’d gotten her end away, but now she wanted to talk. With the result that I ended up in a layby on the slip road into Kendal, with the Droylsden coach rushing past me, writing down a third part to this completely unanchored scene of two strangers, in an unknown place, in unknown circumstances, having spur of the moment sex for unfathomable reasons.
But at least it was done now, and I could concentrate on getting a meal (plain but filling) and the match (lost 1-0).