Impasse

OK, so the main news is that I’m writing again. It’s tentative, it’s flat, it’s probably not very good, but it’s writing. I’m only about 5000 words in so I haven’t even left the foothills yet and it has been slow progress so far. On a very good day I can write 2000 words but at the moment I’m struggling to reach half that. Part of this is down to my work ethic – I need to be writing 6 days a week minimum and that isn’t happening yet. It’s too easy to come home from work and find excuses not to write – tiredness being my main one. Generally I never sit down at the desk raring to go and with ideas flowing out of me, and I suspect much the same is true for most people. It’s work, like any other, and it has to be treated as such.
My other problem though is that the story has hit a wall. Already I seem to have written myself into a corner. I have a character that is pretty well developed in my head and the writing so far has concentrated on his story.
The difficulty has come with the second character. I envisaged the story moving between two characters who shared a brutal, life-changing experience in their teenage years which caused deep-rooted issues between them. The novel would switch between flashback chapters showing the build up to this incident and chapters showing how the characters are coping in the present day. With all of this leading to some sort of revelation and resolution at the books’ conclusion.
All well and good – but that second character is just not forming a clear picture of himself. I don’t need very much, just a flash of something or a snap of dialogue. I remember when writing my second novel a tiny part of a scene came to me out of nowhere whilst I was at work and I frantically wrote 2 pages longhand in illegible handwriting. There was no context to it, just a conversation between three characters in a house, but it was the basis for the 130,000 words which came after. I shouldn’t be hoping for the same thing to happen again, but it would be nice.
The main reason I struggle with dead ends is because I have an active dislike of plotting. I really believe that when you have living, breathing characters they write the novel themselves. That I am not only the writer, but the novel’s first reader too. Going back to that second novel, I would say that about 10% of it was plotted in advance. I had no idea what was going to happen in 10 pages time, let alone the ending. But all books have to end up somewhere, and you generally know when the characters have told their tales. So in general I don’t have any preconceived ideas of plot written down – I want the characters to tell me where the story is going. This probably flies in the face of a lot of writing advice but it’s what I think. And I know that I’m not the only one – Stephen King says much the same in his terrific book for writers ‘On Writing’. (King has written reams of brilliant advice for writers, far too many to list here. Well worth seeking out. Perhaps this time though I may have to go against the grain and write some stuff down in the hope that it unties the knots in my mind.
There are other ways to flush out the story tangles too though – running has always been a good one for me. It’s a great way to clear the mind of everything and concentrate on enjoying fresh air and getting the blood flowing. And sometimes this process allows the story room to breathe and suddenly the halves become whole and you are away again.
Perhaps it’s time to put the running shoes on…

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Androids and Civilisation

So, a few months ago I joined a book club. I’ve always wanted to, and probably for the same reasons as most people do: firstly, because just discussing books with like-minded people is a joy, and second, to broaden my reading range. I’ve fallen into the security of reading novels and genres that I love, which is fine. But I’ve always been consumed by the sheer amount of stuff out there that I have yet to read; that no matter how much I read, it’s never enough. Joining a book club was a way to try and redress that balance if I could.
This months books were ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ by Philip K. Dick and ‘A Short History of Progress’ by Ronald Wright. Two books that I probably would never have got around to reading.
The former is considered a science fiction classic and was a book I very much enjoyed. (The fact Dick wrote the novel on amphetamines is, as a struggling writer myself, almost astonishing). The alienation of main character Deckard is superbly drawn by Dick, and his struggle to understand and figure out empathy really resonated with me. The fictional empathy test that is used to discover the identity of an android was a very clever device to ask questions about human morality and the defining qualities that make us human.
Wright’s book talks about the history of civilisations and charts a thread throughout history of civilisations that have collapsed due to depletion of resources, using Easter Island and Sumar as examples. The short book asks whether we as a society are facing the same threat to our civilisation and if so, what can be done about it.
So, one dystopian novel and a non-fiction book based on a series of lectures. Two very different works, and both books that I am glad I read. The push to explore new realms of literature has been the great pleasure of joining a book club. I found conversation with complete strangers quite difficult at first but I’ve grown into it. There are always those who talk more than others anyway – we certainly have those in my group (in fact going off on tangents is the only negative thing I can say about the people in mine, they tend to regularly go off-topic) so just sitting and listening is perfectly acceptable.
Whatever floats your boat, really. But if you are thinking of joining one, just go ahead and do it. Immersing oneself in chat about fiction for a couple of hours a month can only be a pleasure.

The Plague of Self-Doubt

Today I received a very much-needed message from a dear friend of mine. We have been friends for 30 years (not bad considering I’m only 34) and he got in touch on Facebook to wish me a happy birthday for tomorrow. Another year slips by etc…

Anyway, we were exchanging messages and the conversation turned when he asked me if I was still writing. I told him the usual excuses I’ve already outlined on this blog, saying I was giving it a go and trying to get back into it, hard to find the time and so on.

What he replied was something of a surprise. To paraphrase, he said that I have got where I have with determination after a few ups and downs, and have always shown talent as a writer. That I had to let go of the self-doubt and just believe in myself.

Which was a lovely thing to hear, and reminded me why this guy has been such a good friend over all these years. But what it also reminded me was how important it is to have someone who believes. Writers are constantly plagued by self-doubt. An extra dimension for me is that I feel I’m letting my partner down in some way by toddling off to write for a couple of hours in the evenings. Most of this guilt is because we work different shifts every day and only on the odd occasion get evenings off together. And then I go off to write rather than spend time with her, and all for something which will probably only ever get read by me.

But she is very understanding and very supportive. If at any point she had said to me, ‘Is it really worth it, this seems like a waste of time’, a lot of my heart for it would have died there and then. I have enough trouble not getting deflated at the best of times. So now, I have to try and repay the faith, which will add extra pressure as I don’t want to let them down. Because then their faith will have been misplaced.

Elmore Leonard Rules

Considering I’m one of his biggest fans and believe he was one of the greatest writers of the last 100 years, I can’t specifically remember when I first picked up an Elmore Leonard novel. I can’t even remember which one it was. It could have been Freaky Deaky – which I vaguely recall reading on a camping trip to Cornwall in my late teens. (In my opinion, the opening sequence of that novel is one of the finest pieces of writing of modern times. It’s that good). Or possibly The Big Bounce, one of his earliest crime novels. Anyway, whenever it was, it had a profound effect on me as a man, and as a writer.

Why? Well mostly because of how alive his books made me feel. It’s a tiresome cliche to say that characters ‘leap off the page’ but in this case it’s true. Most of the reason for that is the dialogue. If you want to learn how best to write the way people talk, look no further than Leonard. And if you can’t take my word for it, Martin Amis agrees, saying Leonard’s prose ‘makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy.’ (That link is a terrific interview by the way – tons of fascinating titbits on the art of writing). His dialogue brings so much depth and humour to the prose, and is far more to-the-point than vast swathes of characterisation. Dialogue should tell the story and the characters’ ambitions and Leonard is a master at it.

Somewhere along the way he also noted the ’10 Rules of Good Writing’. I have the feeling that some of this was tongue-in-cheek but I genuinely find these 10 rules more helpful than anything else I’ve read on the craft.
Of particular use are numbers 3 and 4. I do try when writing to use ‘said’ as much as possible and I never use an adverb to modify the word. Reams and reams of fiction do it and I’ve never understood why. If you are writing good dialogue you should know how a character has spoken the words without having to quantify it with an adverb. Sadly this dislike of adverbs turned me off Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. A wonderful story but I just couldn’t deal with the adverbs. Of course in this matter I’m just an ordinary sinner like everyone else (I’ve used a fair few in this post), but I never use them in dialogue anymore (he said hopefully).

Rules 8 and 9 go against most of what you hear in writing classes and the like. Character description and setting description are the nuts and bolts of any novel really. But I know what Leonard means – the dialogue and actions of the characters should tell you what they are like without the need for tons of description. Similarly with descriptions of place, a flavour is all you probably want. Anything else gets in the way of the story.

Even in these 10 short rules you can see Leonard’s way with words. Rule 10: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’ sums it all up. And his final rule, ‘ If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,’ is just genius and goes to the heart of what writing is all about. So easy to say, so hard to do.

Leonard died last year aged 89. He was still writing books well into his 80s, and still running rings around writers more than half his age. His books brought me immense pleasure and on his death the knowledge that there would be no more from this great man was a source of real sorrow. If you haven’t read any of his stuff, I urge you to do so. There is a vast back catalogue out there and it will change your life, I’m sure of it. RIP Dutch.