Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Bigger Picture

A paragraph of cold, hard context.

Circa 3 months ago I dropped my laptop, and mangled the hard drive. Photos of loved ones? That’s what Facebook is for. The entire record collection may, painstakingly, be re-ripped. Everything that can be replaced will be, and everything that can’t I can bear to live without. Except, that is, for 25,000 words – in a hilarious twist of fate, the 25,000 I wrote for the Clarion West Write-a-Thon this summer. So what’s the big deal? I marathoned 25K in 6 weeks; I can do it again, surely.


What may be a little harder to put my finger on, in all probability, will be the chapter outline it’s taken me well over a decade to chisel.

Naturally I know what happens in my novel, who do you take me for? Just, I know what happens in my novel in the manner of a tourist who’s been inside a museum once, under cover of night, stealing a surreptitious peek at a picture here and a statue there before being caught, red-handed and Stendhal Syndromed, and thrown down the stone steps back into the starless gutter of a city night.

Which is a flamboyant way of saying that actually, I haven’t the foggiest what happens in my novel.

For, inside what still thinks it is a single standalone book, I have discovered a microcosmos too big for my brain to contain all at the same time. We’re talking more years, unions, borders, allegiances than I can count while sober on reality, and I am thankful for that. When I have grace enough to write something that doesn’t suffer from the artificiality of the mundane, it is because the world I have tapped won’t fit into my head.

Now in a moment of fevered inspiration, I saw an actual map to this place – stark across my retinas, clear as day – and traced the path across, even as I saw it. The detail of it, the precious interlocking of plotlines, the seamlessness with which storylines that had always appeared to me in fragments joined hands and contours, becoming one before me.

I had glimpsed the bigger picture.

And now, well, someone’s gone and torn up the blueprint.

The question is not,

Is the pretty picture worth the pretty fee of an expert in a sterile white coat, in a sterile white lab?
Of course it’s worth it, just as certainly as I can’t afford it. So the question is not really a question at all; it’s much more like a statement, and it runs like this.
Mourn your brainchild, but only for a while longer. Then come the bright new year, man up. Stop thinking of what you lost, and think of that which you can still build. The blueprint was merely a draft, imperfect and incomplete. You didn’t do your story justice; not entirely, not yet. Everything you wrote in that instant of epiphanic revelation, you can write better. You type girl, and type a little faster.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Fiction Genre Divides as Fiction

Terminology fascinates me. Of course it does. Words are what I use daily to build worlds; words are what I use just as frequently to try and unpack in a professional-sounding manner the worlds created by others. So I’m hardly going to stand make that sort of recline awkwardly here, pretending the way we choose to define things is not of paramount importance.

Yet if there’s anything I believe, it is that the operative word in the above sentence is “choose.” Definitions aren’t Platonic ideals signifying x, just x, and nothing but x, because we’ve plucked them out of the sky pretty and pre-packaged. They are stupendously useful, what with all their help decoding the world and its fictional manifestations; yet were they ever-fixed as the mark in the sonnet of yore, they wouldn’t be half as functional.

That’s not to say we can make words mean anything that pleases and serves us...

Or is it?

Language is a powerful medium, so much so I find I want to swear like a sea-bound sailor to punctuate precisely how powerful it is. But its power is not of the dictatorial kind; it is not by turns tender, inflammatory, heartbreaking because it is peremptory and prescriptive. Rather, it is infinite in application because it can be deployed in an infinity of different ways. Granted, there must be islands of stability in this fluid state of affairs, else we would not be able to grasp tales written yesterday, nevermind years, forget about once upon a time. Still of fluidity we speak, for if words truly meant nothing but the appearance of themselves the enterprise of writers would be rather dull and daft.

Now, genres and their subs may well rank amongst the most stable islands in my nautical metaphor. To writers seeking to chart their place along the literary continuum, they can spell the difference between carefully crafted trope and dreadfully dry cliché. They may salvage readers, pressed for time before the imminent gate closure, from being stuck on a long-distance flight with a book that’ll bore them to the edge of doom.

Instrumentality, however, doesn’t warrant a gag and straightjacket. To dive back into my metaphor: one may build bridges across islands. Apparently, fantasy ≠ magical realism ≠ urban fantasy. My inner inquisitive explorer couldn’t disagree more, and not because the novel in progress attempts to bridge those pesky genre divides. More like, the novel attempts to bridge divides that I have always believed to be a posteriori constructs, useful yet not omnipotent, insightful yet not omniscient.

Genres are cosy, in that soothing milk and whiskey when ill kind of way, yet comfort zones are also meant to be stepped out of. I cannot fail to namedrop Jasper Fforde, whose mind-melting combination of literary satire, dystopian science fiction and detective story defies all common sense to run like a clockwork dream. Jasper, I know, collected 76 rejection slips before being snapped up; myself, I write for publishers of the 77th persuasion.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Dream is Over (Again)

I was -15 years old when The Beatles broke up, so I couldn’t very well shed tears of artistic bereavement for their sakes. I have liked bands since; some I have even loved, particularly in recent times – the present one seems to have turned into the year of gigging dangerously, and I like that. But there’s only been one other band whose music has seeped into my soul with the same hectic, boundless energy as that of the most renowned Scousers who ever breathed. A band without which the year of gigging dangerously, to be perfectly frank with you, would probably not be happening. That band was The Ark, and by “was” I mean to say that as of precisely a month ago, they are no longer.

The break-up, against all odds in such cases as these, was a thing of sheer beauty, hardly deserving such a jaggedly hyphenated accolade. No pointed fingers, no bitter accusations or back-stabbing press releases, just enough maturity to realise that the dream had run its course. To the fans, the gift of an epic farewell tour I can only egoistically wish had included my neck of the woods, and the desire that the end of an era may mark the beginning of another, full of wondrous new possibilities for all of us. Triumphant in their unadulterated joie de vivre to the last, they went and upheld everything they meant to me and others.

I would feel shock at their not being bigger than they were, except bigness is not measured in the pervasiveness of brand names, but rather in the staying power within ears and hearts open to being wooed and won. I would say their songs changed me forever, except what they really did was help me to find a self which I thought I had lost – which is everything. Their happy beat in my step and awakening words in my lungs, I have shouted out my identity to the world loud enough to be heard inside my own head, where it was needed most. Hand in hand with their gleeful take on the life worth living, I rose from the ashes whereto I had burned myself, a beaming little phoenix. I would say I worshipped them, except what they really did was pat me on the back as we jointly revelled in one another’s awesomeness.

I’ve got nothing to say to them, then, except this.

Thank you, boys. Thank you for the laughter of recognition and the refusal to give in to sadness; thank you for the pride and the dancing, the tenderness and the bold choices, the ideals but never the anger. Thank you for saying things that needed saying in a tone that begged to be sung along to, never giving in to pity, always fighting shame with love. Thank you for dreaming in such spectacular Technicolor, and most importantly, thank you for letting us dream by your side.

I would say R.I.P., except you’ve gone and made yourselves immortal.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Write-a-Thon Week #5 Catch-up

Day #35 Progress: in, well, progress
Objective: 20,115/30,000

It’s been an interesting week, one of amazing productivity and despair, of hope and numbness. At one end of the spectrum my quest for a perfect writing spot seems to have come to an end, on the other I’ve been assailed by the kind of disillusionment that makes you quake in your artistoid boots, shrug and wonder: what’s the point? It’s not like you need me to offer a multitude of platitudes on recent events, partly because everybody and their cat have preceded me, and partly because when I say that there are no words, I mean exactly what I inscribe on the tin.

The only thing I shall say is, I have remembered what the point is, what since my earliest memory it has always been. Asimov once said, ‘If the doctor told me I had six months to live, I’d type a little faster’; and at times when the ugliness of the world seems to concentrate and offer mankind a similar prognosis, it is only sensible to adopt a parallel approach. I could sit here, hands in my lap, still, silent, defeated. I could choose to shun the sanctuary of creativity that has been served me on a silver plate, mute the sound on the ghosts in the walls, retreat in my own head never to come out.

But I won’t. I won’t turn away from my trade, pocket my pen, kennel my keys. I am reminded of something I wrote all the way back in Chapter 5 – a passage I won’t quote out of context (lest it be misunderstood for the call to arms that it is not) but which, long story short, harped on about the power of words to reflect and inspire change. A tricky topic; there are those who will argue that imaginative fiction, being escapist, renounces its ability to say anything important about reality, issues, people. Yet Le Guin and Tolkien helped shape this idealist. My personal brand of ethics owes as much to the sparse paragraphs of Fredric Brown’s Sentry as it does to all 1,500+ pages of Les Misérables.

I may well not be one of those masters. It really is not my place to judge. But it is my place to write, like a fevered mad person, like every sentence might be the last I ever commit to paper, like I believe that words conjured out of thin air can make a difference. And believe it I do, with a strength of conviction which may be shaken, but never broken. As long as I have eyes and ears to perceive the beauty and kindness I know humanity is capable of, I will be awed by the world, and moved to describe it through the lens of my work, distortive but not so as you’d notice. Burn out mine eyes and lop off my ears, I’ll only type faster, with blood streaming down my neck and the smile of one with a purpose.

You may say I’m a dreamer.

Please do.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Write-a-Thon Days #28 & #29

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Day #28 Progress: 1,043
Day #29 Progress: 1,015
Objective: 14,850/30,000

If I was too spent for interaction last night I had a goshdarned good reason, or so I like to think; likewise fool-proof was the rationale behind this communiqué being billed as a double-bill, despite its length in fact being nothing to really write home about. You see, I actually finished Part 1 last night. Well, ok –ish. Alright, alright: truth be told, there’s the odd scene that needs developing here and the occasional chapter requiring a severe bout of editing there. Still. I got to the end of 9.3., and felt a wave of finality filling my every fibre with exhausting pride. Never mind it’s not actually, really, truly finished as such. The fine-tuning will happen when it’s good and ready, i.e. when I’m finished doing stuff that’s more interesting, such as jumping ahead some more.

The aforementioned middle section of 9.3. was a tricky one, requiring as it did a flashback of so unreliable a narration as could be then turned onto its head , six chapters down the line. Eventually, I opted to forego the rather more traditional fade to prior events in favour of a sustained piece of reporting, unreliability fostered by the rather ridiculous quantities of alcohol which would have featured in the scene regardless. It wasn’t an easy dialogue to write; most of the time I had the distinctly Joycean feeling of toying with the right words while at a loss as to the hierarchy they should follow on the page. Yet as I feverishly laboured to get my facts right (or rather, wrong in exactly the right way), the sheer despair with which Joyce reportedly remarked of the seven words he’d written that day, ‘… but I don’t know what order they go in,’ failed to plague me. What could’ve been a pernickety cut-and-paste process was, in fact, closer to dancing through a kaleidoscopic landscape, trying to pick up the sights and sounds comprising it with the soles of my feet. I hope that made sense; failing that, I hope it at least sounded pretty.

Seeing as Part 1, Chapter 1.1. is one of the most coherent pieces of writing I’ve ever had the misfortune of penning – misfortune, as it must be now carefully disassembled to fit into a narrative that’s grown up without it – I saw today as a sterling opportunity to dive into 1.2. This would be where the crossover of which I spoke of a couple of days ago brings dichotomist realities in such close proximity to each other as, hopefully, will send the reader cross-eyed. It was an emotional sequel to an emotional sequence, prepping up for yet further emotion, and reminded me just how angst-ridden my work can get. I don’t think I learned any specific transferable pearl of subjective wisdom in the process; not besides, that is, the one about the moments when a bigger picture as fragmented as Guernica put through a shredder comes together, and finally works.

They make ever sweat-drop worthwhile.

End of lesson.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Write-a-Thon Day #27

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Day #27 Progress: 1,092
Objective: +12,792/+30,000

Quote of the day:
Drunken lads down the pub: ‘You’re not writing your novel, are you?!’
Yours truly: ‘Actually… yes, I am.’

Remember the towering halfway mark I spoke of in such poetic terms last night? I glimpsed it today. If the moment had been possessed of physical shape, I would have hugged it tight, particularly as it happened to coincide with me flattening the 90,000-word mark at last. Having reached the quite respectable 80,000s, I had stuck and stagnated there for longer than I’d admit to an audience larger than my bedroom mirror. And now look at me, mere weeks after rolling up my inner sleeves and getting on with it! I never thought numbers could make me this happy.

Yesterday’s work stilted by not knowing how to tackle the middle section of 9.3, I slept on it, only to find I was none the wiser. So I did what any other writer with a deadline would have done, dotted a few meaningful asterisks, and skipped to the end. I am stoked over the falling into place of the much needed conceptual bridge between Parts 1 and 2 – although as it turned out, my previously recorded epiphany might have been short-lived. Not sure. On one hand, the character involved is too dead to appear in 9.3; on the other hand, narrative will find a way. We shall see. In the meantime, some might say your cast is definitely too big if you can’t keep straight the list of the ones who are actually alive; in my defence, I shall say it’s as small as I can make it, read: half what it used to be. For someone who can’t count, I do have an unhealthy love for epic numbers, it seems. How delightfully suicidal of me.

The whole "end of the beginning" proceedings were given further spark by conscious interaction with the idea of foreshadowing / irony as discussed by my dear colleague, Eric Satchwill. It dawned on me while reading his words the other day that my foreshadowing doesn’t tend to be very shadowy – I have always approached fictional relations by being dreadfully upfront with the reader and as murky as a cup of English coffee with my characters. This tendency has just got more marked since I have started being steeped in Renaissance drama day in, day out. You know that moment in the theatre when you want to jump up and shout to Othello/Romeo “she is innocent/alive you fool, no one needs to die tonight,” yet you get some sort of twisted pleasure in witnessing a bloodshed you knew to have been entirely preventable? It is that moment I strive for, and today I knew my own emotive agenda better. The only writing tool sharper than self-awareness, I will always say provided I say it after today, is further self-awareness.

So thank you, Eric, for making me reflect on my craft enough to realise how (sometimes) spoilers can be in everybody’s interest – dramatically speaking, that is.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Write-a-Thon Day #26

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Day #26 Progress: ... enough. Figures, tomorrow.
Objective: +11,700/+30,000

From a purist point of view, not exactly a marathoning post. As a post inextricable from my writerly interiority, however, it couldn’t be less off-topic.

As if having heard the invocation of his 'Writer’s Prayer' from these pages, Neil Gaiman announced today he would be doing another talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival. It was not until this moment that, with creeping horror, I realised quite how far Scotland is from the West Midlands. Though with great clamour of offended keys I protested that the injustices of geography would not see me defeated, I could not help but feel that defeat had already come to pass. Even as I made a spectacle of declared disappointment, it was not like I had for one moment seriously considered I might actually be able to make it. Too far, too expensive, too crazy even for me, and (as is probably clear by now) I am a fair share of that last one.

Yet as I write this with lids barely open against the night, I am clutching against my heart metaphorical a very real ticket. As it turned out, a friend possessed of more faith and sense than yours truly weaved her way around the web enough times to figure out how I might get to Edinburgh without pawning my limbs for the privilege... that's the rationalisation. In real time, I turned into a squeeing, jumping, clapping, tearful mess. Yes, tearful. I don’t think I truly grasped how any of this related to me until I was hit square between the eyes with that blessed confirmation screen. To say that the meeting had morphed in my mind from a fanciful crysalys into a butterfly of flesh and wings might sound preposterous, yet pontificated platitudes are what my mind speaks in when it feels at home.

Desperately Romantic, I know. Whatever. In just over a month, I will be propelling terrified but whole limbs forward, toward one of my few living literary heroes. Talking to rockstars is easy – much as I appreciate their art and respect their talent, I don’t want to be like them. Neil Hannon, although a genius, is to me human, one that I could hug and exchange witty erudite banter with, like a good mate down the pub. But this Neil… breathe, and chant point 7) of 'Do’s and Don’t for Signings' like a mantra:
‘Don't worry. You won't say anything stupid. It'll be fine. My heart tends to go out to people who've stood in line for hours trying to think of the single brilliant witty erudite thing that they can say when they get to the front of the line, and when it finally happens they put their books in front of me and go blank, or make a complete mess of whatever they were trying to say.’
Wonder if I’ll keep cool enough to say how I snapped Neverwhere shut, stared down the wall and muttered, “Damn you, Neil. That’s the book I was trying to write.”