Squeeze

Finding time to get stuff down is the age-old problem for any writer, as real life tends to get in the way, most notably employment. For the last six months I haven’t had that problem and have enjoyed the luxury of writing whenever I want, but I’ve just got back into full-time work and so my opportunities are more limited. As I discussed in my last post, I’m still wading through the first draft of my third novel, and I’m desperate to get it finished so I can take a short breather and work on something else. But now I’m working again my writing time is shoehorned into a few frantic minutes in the evening.  This is having a notable effect on two things, one of which is certain and the other is more tenuous, but both worthy of explanation.

To say that work makes it more difficult to write is a bit of a misnomer, if I’m honest. Only the very best make a living out of fiction, the rest of us muddle through as best we can. But if you want to write every day, you can.  Elmore Leonard used to write two pages before work every morning, getting up at 5am to do so. I suspect some snatch small periods of time whenever they can, regardless of location or time of day. I wrote my second novel Playing with Fire whilst working nights, and this suited me perfectly. Home at 5am, sleep until lunchtime, write for a couple of hours every afternoon, then do it all again. This suited me well and I think helped shape the narrative. Once it got to around 1pm I started to focus on the upcoming writing period, the problems of everyday sliding into the background somewhere, trying to encourage the muse to show up. Having this regimented structure I think was the difference that got the first draft completed. It’s hard when you’re unpublished and halfway through something that has grown bigger and scarier than everything that went before.  It’s a weight, and one than can be so daunting the fear can inhibit. But for me, having that couple of hours, that thousand to two thousand words a day to work on in a specific time window, got it done.  It made it more manageable, breaking it down into one session at a time, and I managed to overcome my doubts.

Now though, I’m on a more regular nine-to-five schedule. Due to the travails of commuting, I’m up at 6am and home over twelve hours later, Monday to Friday. Unlike Mr Leonard I’m not much of a morning person, so getting up at the crack of dawn to write would see me flagging with exhaustion after a few sessions. So my only chance comes post-dinner in the evening, once the thoughts of the working day have cleared and there’s space up top for creativity to flow. But even that this period seems to have squeezed into an hour at most at the laptop. I can barely write for more than that before fatigue sets in. In days gone by, two to three thousand words per session was achievable. Now I’m lucky to get a quarter of that.

I also worry if my physical state is affecting the quality of the manuscript. I like to hope that the characters voices will push themselves through regardless, but as tiredness takes me over the concern is that whilst I’m getting the bare minimum down, it could easily be of such a poor state that it will need to be discarded or heavily edited in the rewrite. I used to have brilliant days where I’d look at the clock and two hours had gone by and somehow three or four pages had been written like it was an elaborate magic trick. Now I clock watch and get frustrated when in my short time frame I’ve written barely a paragraph.

Still, the draft will be finished by hook or by crook if I’m drawing a bus pass by the time it’s finished – I am nothing if not stubborn. I guess it’s impossible to quantify whether my new lifestyle has helped or hindered the work, or if it would have come out the same regardless; it doesn’t stop me wondering, though.

Novella -The Ongoing Rewrite

OK, so it’s been a few weeks since I got the first draft of my novella completed.  I have always found it best, despite the constant temptation, to leave it completely for a couple of weeks so you come back to it afresh. I love the feeling when you read the first few sentences after a break, especially if it reads better than you were expecting! What you want, of course, is for the words to not feel like yours any more, so you can look at it more objectively and be as ruthless as you can with ridding the prose of the extraneous bits.

And this has always been part of the struggle for me. It can be quite disheartening to read a paragraph which is well-written, but deep down I know has to go for the good of the story. Having said that though, its very good for my development as a writer to be able to have the confidence and discipline to do it. It was Faulkner who used the phrase ‘Kill your darlings’ and he was right, no matter how much you love the prose in question. There is no time for self-indulgence, especially in the shorter form of the craft.

Anyway, so after all this tinkering, I haven’t even been able to collapse the novella by 10%. I’ve gone from just over 31K to about 28.5, which is far less than I wanted. I know I have the opportunity to go back and work on it more, but I worry that constant fiddling with it will lessen the overall tone and atmosphere that I want to convey. I feel like the story has a bit more bite to it than before though. It is amazing how much a polish of the dialogue can sharpen things up, and there are always adverbs to get rid of. I’m still a little unsure about one particular piece of plot development, the timing of it seems off to me, and I’m sure I will have to address it again. But, by all intents and purposes, I’m pretty much there.

Of course, the question now is, what’s next? This piece could easily go into the metaphorical filing cabinet in the office, never to see the light of day. There’s hundreds of thousands of words of stuff already in there, gathering dust. Obviously that’s not what I want, but I don’t have much of a clue where to go from here. I’m an unpublished writer sitting on a novella of a difficult length to market, with some graphic content and some fairly controversial subject matter. Not exactly the greatest bet in the world.

But, in the end I’m glad it’s basically complete, and overall I’m pleased. Which is the main thing, I guess. But if anyone has any suggestions on where I could go next with it, do let me know.

Novella and Trying to Stay Positive

I recall writing a few months ago that I was working on a short story. Well, in the last couple of days I’ve finally finished it. Problem is, it didn’t end up as a short story, it’s now a lengthy novella of over 30,000 words. I hate the word novella, it seems like a clunky publishers term to describe something of a vague number of words. I’ve no idea how many. Novelette is even worse. Is 15,000 words a short story or a novelette? Is 25,000 in novella country or not? Who cares? For this post I have used novella just for clarity, but I despise the term. Anyway, I digress…

First up, the good bits: the story didn’t turn out as I was expecting, which is always nice. The idea behind it was sparked from a song by one of my favourite bands The Hold Steady, and a couple of scenes came into my mind more or less whole. The rest came with the characters. It has a noirish, offbeat style that I like. I have been reading a lot of hard-boiled stuff recently and I think some of that has flowed into my work. Which is never a bad thing. The relationship between the two central characters is, I think, interesting and goes off in an unexpected tangent.

So far, so good then, right? So why do I feel so bad about it? For a multitude of reasons which I’m sure most writers are familiar with. First, I’m sure there are plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. I don’t tend to do any plotting before starting a piece of writing, I just let the characters take the story where they want. I guess following this method makes it impossible to avoid plot tangles but I feel disappointed whenever i do it. I know the obvious answer is to plot more, but I want to resist the temptation of I can. In my opinion plot is anti-creative and a barrier to story, not a help to it.

Next up is the age-old problem for me, length. I always aim to get rid of 10% or so in the rewrite, but even then I’ll be left with approximately 25,000 words. I guess every story ends up at the length it needs to be but this feels like too much for mine. I have a very bad habit of over-describing, particularly in dialogue. I tend to drift too much too, especially early on when I am still struggling to find the narrative voice. I know a lot of this will be pared down in the rewrite though, and I’m going to have to be extra ruthless when I go back to it. I have been guilty in the past of keeping stuff in because I think its well-written, despite it probably being extraneous to the story. I cannot be self-indulgent this time around.

Third is continuity errors. I know everyone has them but I get really downhearted when I find one, more so when it’s something completely stupid. Again, these are normally ironed out but I always worry that a whopper will slip through the net.

So all in all I’m a bit dispirited on completion, which is new for me. Usually I feel at the very least relief. I should be more pleased as this is the most fiction I have written in years. I am my own harshest critic.

Once the rewrites down I’m tempted to put it up on this blog and get some feedback. If anyone out there would be up for that, feel free to comment and I will give it some thought. Fuck it, I may do it anyway…

Brevity

One of the mediums of writing that seems to be going through a decline at the moment is the short story. I rarely read them these days, mostly due to their scarce nature. I’m sure in days gone by the library would be full of short story collections by emerging authors, and reading them was an excellent way to discover new talent.
Of course some of the old masters know a thing or two about writing a good short story – Stephen King is a passionate advocate of the shorter form and publishes a collection every few years, and going further back in time, I got into both Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler through their short stories. It’s rare to find a stand-alone collection from one author around anymore. Most short stories end up in anthologies, particularly in the crime and horror genre. I have read some superb anthologies over the years which are great places to delve into material from authors old and new, but my feeling is that writers of the modern era don’t have the volume of short stories available to release collections of their own.
The reasons behind this are probably numerous. I tend to believe that after writing a full-length novel an author tends to produce something shorter in the interim. Perhaps these musings are little more than practise, to keep the writing eye and brain ticking over before returning to something more substantial. There could well be some snobbery towards the shorter form from some. But I think the main reason could well be that simply, short stories require an awful amount of craft and discipline to create.
I’ve had a few ideas scribbled in a notebook for a while that are waiting to be developed. There is no plan for these, no idea of length and so on, I just make a note to jot down any semblance of an idea that comes into my head. At the library the other day I stumbled across a short story collection that looked interesting. It was called Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers. Much like I used to with cigarettes when I smoked, I devoured the book in an evening and it lit a fire within me. The stories in it are so polished and amazingly confident for a debut collection. The overarching themes of loneliness and solitude linked together by a humble cigarette is a clever idea and Evers pulls it off in some style. It reminded me of how the short story can breath life into an otherwise mediocre day, how so many intoxicating ideas can be swept up into a few pages and give the reader a shot of pleasure in the time it takes to smoke the aforementioned cigarette.
So I had a look back in my notebook and one of the ideas started to take on more shape, and I’m now in the process of writing my first short story in many a year. And in my writings I’ve gained utmost respect for the medium – it is so difficult to write in concise, clear language where every word counts. I’ve always had a tendency to over explain things when I write, and I think many writers do. It’s probably fear that drives this, fear that an extra sentence is needed to explain what you mean otherwise the point is lost. In a short story there is no room for waffle. Everything has to be cut back to the bone. It requires an almost pathological discipline, particularly to discard ultimately unnecessary writing no matter its quality. The best short stories are surely those that get up to speed quickly and never let up their pace.
So, maybe this difficulty puts a lot of writers off. I’m glad to be tackling the format again, it’s a challenge I’m enjoying. To write with a view to brevity and clarity can only help me improve.

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…

Iron in the Freezer

Right, I’m back after a lengthy hiatus. I’d like to say that the interim period has been a hive of writing activity and one of my morsels of an idea has grown into the full meal of a novel.

But that would be too easy, right? Truth is, I’m no nearer to starting than I was 6 months ago. Actually, maybe a little closer. For some reason I’ve had an image in my mind for years of an elderly character, suffering from the early stages of Alzheimers/dementia, putting their iron in the freezer.

A bizarre snapshot, definitely. And I can’t explain where it came from. There’s a strong chance it came to me in a dream, as some of my better ideas have. 99% of those dreams I forget on waking, but this one stuck. Which means, purely by its rarity, that it is an idea worth pursuing. I think nestling behind the dream is a slight fear about the health of my father. Being 12,000 miles away adds an extra layer of worry for me, as I don’t see and speak to him every day any more. Just little things ring alarm bells when we talk. Occasionally he will lose the thread of the conversation entirely. He will repeat himself, tell me something we have discussed 5 minutes before. As I said, just minor events that every 70-something probably goes through. But it has seeped into my consciousness somewhere along the line – and now, the iron sits in the freezer, waiting to be explored.

But first, that key element of all good writing preparation – research. And I’ve forgotten how lovely it is to do. I armed myself with a notebook and pen, took myself to the library, found a couple of books on ALzheimers, and dove in. I’ve always felt a certain frisson of joy and accomplishment in reading about an unfamiliar subject and learning something new. It’s one of the simple pleasures in life. And some of the information I found will lend a few really nice touches to the character. Reading a list of symptoms, a fully formed scene started to flicker in my head, gradually coming into focus. Only one scene, but life will grow from the smallest acorns. That iron may just have sprung to life.

It could be nearly there. I could be almost ready to begin the journey again.

The Complexities of Story

There are occasions in my life where I become completely immersed in a book or a TV show to the extent where I’m almost drowning in it – I think about the storylines between episodes or chapters, dream about the characters, and so on. I remember Stephen King saying about a favourite novel of his that the feeling was akin to being married to the book, which I can relate to.

Currently, I’m feeling this with Breaking Bad. I’m currently midway through Season 4 and I’m stunned by the quality of the writing and the constant edge-of-the-seat cliffhangers that happen in every episode.  My girlfriend and I spend more time discussing theories on future developments in the show than we do about important stuff like bills and in my case, finding employment!

And we rarely find common ground in our conversations, either. Which I think highlights the sheer complexity of the plotlines in the show. I marvel at how the writer on Breaking Bad manage to keep a handle on what’s going on, where the stories have developed from and how they are going to be resolved.  I felt the same when watching The Wire, too.  The creative stimulation that these shows give me is like a shot of adrenalin. And it does help to inspire.  But the overriding feeling I get is that this type of complex storylines are beyond me as a writer. Such feelings should act as a spur to try, but for me it isn’t currently working that way. I don’t think my imagination could cope with multiple storylines that criss-cross each other constantly. Just having to remember who said what 50,000 words earlier. Or having to sort out what a character knows at a certain point in time, and what they think they know. Juggling so many balls in the air is something I’ve never felt I’ve been able to do in my own writing, which is another segment of the fear that stops me putting pen to paper again.

I know I shouldn’t let it dishearten me. It has been said that Raymond Chandler, a master of fiendish and labyrinthine plots, once forgot about an entire character when writing The Big Sleep. He admitted that he forgot about the butler (although Chandler was a fan of the sauce which may explain things). Another story I read somewhere concerning Alfred Hitchcock: After the first private screening of Psycho, Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville said to him, ‘You can’t send it out like that’.  There was stunned silence. When Hitch asked why not, she responded, ‘Janet Leigh swallows when she is supposed to be dead.’ And it was true.

So it can happen to the best of them. And if I’m being honest, there is more than one writing voice on a show like Breaking Bad. Having a team of writers all contributing ideas to the show must make it easy to spark the creative juices and come up with imaginative storyboards for future episodes.  Besides, big holes in the plot of a manuscript is what the rewrite is for. Once I had a character send a text message in 1985! And I never saw it until the rewrite.

So I know that anyone, even the greatest writers, can have problems with the complexities of story.  But it’s another layer that is holding me back.

Oh well, might be time to watch another episode…