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.”

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Write-a-Thon Day #25

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Day #25 Progress: 955
Objective: +12,415/+30,000

The upshot of the kind of evil 7.10am errand which shouldn’t happen to one’s worst enemy is that by 8.30 you can be sipping cappuccino, munching on millionaire shortbread and desperately trying to rekindle the bright shiny world inside your head. If you’re me, this is a painstaking process. And all because of this gosh-darned lack of a visual imagination. Hell, I have trouble remembering what I look like, let alone my characters, and left & right are but empty placeholders where units of meaning should be. Sure, I’m a modern writer, armed to the teeth with the OCD tools of my trade; but I’m not about to start rifling through personality profiles and building plans before each storytelling session. Do I look like I’m made of time?

Besides which, I shouldn’t have to. I have encountered those for whom my way of thinking is so alien as made them declare outright, ‘That’s impossible, no one thinks in type.’ Except yes, yes they do. Murder She Wrote-like. As far as my brain is concerned, convoluted concepts, ingenious ideas, tall theories are such stuff as synapses are made on. But faces? If only. This means that – no matter how bursting with ideas I may have been upon folding the previous day, irrespective of how positively sizzling with inspiration I know myself to be, in the face of the fact that I know these people like the back of my hand – I will always take way more time than is sensible or practical just seeking to recapture even a vague sense of setting. Such time I could usefully be employing getting words down on paper, hence the 3am angst-ridden rant.

Not that it’s all knotted up annoyance at my psyche, don’t you worry. Quite the opposite: I have, as promised last night, dived headfirst into Chapter 9.3, also known as “The Apparently Schizophrenic World-building Finally Starts Adding Up.” When I casually glance at the fact that the tome is at once high and urban fantasy, people tend to raise an eyebrow. Sometimes they'll raise both, perplexedly trying to imagine the monstrous chimera I must be working on, before I even have a chance to tell them of the extra Cerberian head called horror. Truth is, an incoherent world was the only one that would contain the story as I feel it needs to be told. It is a tricky one to hold in the mind’s short-sighted eye all in the same ago, and conversely none of it would make any shred of sense if not in the light of everything else. I know it sounds bonkers, and it is, yet I promise it all slots neatly into place.

IN FACT. [Insert sailor-like, office-unsafe swearing here]ING EPIPHANY. Of, like, right now this very second – I report live from my brain. Turns out, it does all slot into place, and even more neatly than I could have ever schemed. Not only (1).9.3 foreshadows (2).1.1 – it also retrospectively illuminates (1).1.1.

I go to bed happy.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Write-a-Thon Week #3 Catch-up

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Day #24 Progress: 1,350
Objective: +11,461/+30,000

Alright, touché, my bad.

One’s been horrifically remiss, blogging-wise. One may also be a tiny bit behind as regards the dreaded wordcount of doom. One, however, is getting back on track like a Pendolino on speed. I would stop to wonder why, except I don’t really have the time. Besides, I have my suspicions. The fear of failing the challenge acts as a bet within the bet. “Aha, see?” side A of my brain whispers in my left ear, devilishly attired in Prada, “You’re rubbish. You’ve let yourself go, there’s no way you’re catching up now. Particularly as there’s six, not five, weeks in total, innumerate cretin.” Side B, for her part, looks a different kind of business, and speaks in the other ear the no-nonsense tough love I need to hear. “30,000 – not 25,000 – words, she says? Splendid. Six impossible things before breakfast and all that. Nothing to it. I’ve got every confidence in your commitment, and even more in your fear. Now get back to work.”

And back to work I get, within establishments of caffeine in comfort-sized cups and apple crumble in tall sleek glasses, on picturesque riverbanks and quivering motorways alike. Sitting or lying, I crack on with the craft of lying with the truth in mind. Now, the bespoke mug supposed to remind me of Neil Gaiman’s wise words regarding the truth of the mind is – sadly – delighting someone other than myself, at some unspecified point between rural Warwickshire and Stansted Airport (not specifically an appeal, although one can always hope against hope). Yet if I close my eyes, the wisdom scrolls still against closed lids. 'Oh Lord,' the reel reads, on a roll by now, 'let me not be one who writes too little, a decade man between tales,' and as always, I need to brace myself against a reproach that feels like a kick in an especially grown pair. Ouch. Nothing like injured pride to get one galvanised for the messy business of creating worlds out of thin air, particularly when in fact the air’s half as old as you are, and thicker than the legendary fog of the Po Valley.

So what have I achieved in the past two and a bit weeks of being productive, if a tad on the uncommunicative side? Well, since you break the fourth wall to ask.

I’ve done & dusted Chapter 8.3, affectionately known as “Oh dear, all hell begins to break loose.” Therein I’ve made some rather enthralling discoveries. For one, what I have come to define as Ockham's Razor for Characters. Which, translated into Un-pretentious, means: never posit more characters than are strictly needed to make sense of a narrative. In all fairness, this was originally meant to be but a practical safeguard against a sprawling cast too large for me to even envision in a group picture. Actual application of the principle, though, has yielded intriguing results. Such as, Character Snapshot Too Vivid To Remain Half a Paragraph in Someone’s Backstory + Required Sentient Plot Device = A Living, Breathing, Believable Human Being. Granted, “human being” is here or in fact anywhere in my disquisitions to be taken in its loosest possible sense; doubly granted, it is but my humble opinion that this new (but not really) character is believable in any way, shape or form. This being said, if I don’t hold any such opinion to begin with, why should anyone else bother? More on this fine point later.

Another thing 8.3 reminded me of was that characters know best, always. William Faulkner’s writing process reportedly began 'with a character… and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.' It’s an easy example to forget, when your inner (who am I kidding? Outer) perfectionist turns into an unhappy workaholic, causing – cue reprisal of Gaiman’s rather magnificent voiceover – 'dread to replace joy upon the page.' Possibly the most magical thing about this marathon is that the pernickety OCD planner doesn’t get a word in edgewise, as there’s simply no time to invent psychologies as clear-cut as diamonds. What you are left with are interior lives about as clear-cut as twice caked-over boots, squelching in the mud. Given a blank page and a timer, the one who (for want of a less black/white term) I shall call my main baddie has evolved yet again, right past all my rosiest expectations. Writing about him is currently a dizzying mixture of tenderness, annoyance, respect and plain revulsion; what else’s to say? If he can inspire half that depth of contradictory emotion in readers, I will pat myself on the back and take my Muse down the pub for a pint or three.

Also on the dusted checklist is 9.2, which to begin with was a sheer, unadulterated joy. Quick-fire dialogue that writes itself 100 words a minute as characters bounce off each other like the bezzies they’re meant to be makes this a very happy bunny indeed. To end with, which brings us up to speed with today’s progress, 9.2 nearly made me weep into my coffee. It was all I could do to hiccup silently, teeth sunk into my hand in a strangled attempt at public composure. A good sign, surely, for – to take back the fine point I gave you to hold, and end prettily by borrowing a touch of (Robert) Frost – 'No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.'

Programmatically, tomorrow will see me delving into 9.3, excitingly enough also known as the last subchapter of Part 1. Once that and a couple of odd & end-y snippets here and there have been dealt with, I will officially find myself on Peak Halfway Through the Blasted Thing, looking down through the aerial perspective at the finishing line. I cannot begin to tell you how fantastic that feels.