Tag Archives: creative process

A Thickening Plot

If you write, do you have a method?

Just to be clear – I’m not talking about the sort of method this guy would’ve understood:

There are no words that do this picture adequate justice.  Image: guardian.co.uk

There are no words that do this picture adequate justice. I’ll just leave it here, and you can do what you want with it. Okay? Okay.
Image: guardian.co.uk

I’m talking about whether you have a routine – as in, do you write in a particular place, at a particular time? Do you prefer a pen to a computer? Do you have to start your writing session with a cup of coffee, or a spot of bracing Tai-Chi, or a shot of tequila?* Do you dress in ‘outdoor’ clothes, or do you prefer to slob around in your sweats, or do you (and if you do, it would perhaps be prudent to keep this information to yourself) write entirely in the nude? I’m sure some people do. I firmly believe that if you can imagine something, no matter how ‘out there’ it might seem, it has happened somewhere in the world at some time.

Not – I hasten to add – that I’m imagining any of you writing in the nude right now.

Please excuse me as I drag this post back on track; talk amongst yourselves, if you wouldn't mind! Image: iblogfashion.blogspot.com

Please excuse me as I drag this post back on track; talk amongst yourselves, if you wouldn’t mind!
Image: iblogfashion.blogspot.com

Anyway – moving briskly on.

So, I’m wondering today about routine, and whether or not it’s a good thing from a writer’s point of view. My writing days are pretty much all the same – I get up early, I start early, I work right through the day, usually writing through lunch. I go for a walk in the early afternoon, most days, and then it’s back to writing until about 5pm, whereupon I start getting ready for my husband’s return from work, and I do my best to switch off for the evening. This morning, however, there was a little disruption to that routine, and – would you believe it? – I found it one of the most useful and inspirational things I’ve done in a long time.

My husband had to do some work this morning on our computer, which meant I wasn’t able to log on and footle around on the internet like I usually do first thing. I normally spend about ten minutes checking my blog and my emails, looking at Twitter and seeing what’s going on in the world, gathering inspiration for my blog post and for the day ahead, before I get stuck into the real meat of my day’s work. Today, though, I had the simple pleasure of sitting over a book, waiting for my hard-working and apologetic husband to get through the task he had to complete. Of course it was wonderful to have him here at home for a little longer than expected, even if he was focused on the job at hand during all that time – but that wasn’t the only wonderful thing that happened as a result of my enforced time-out.

A whole chunk of plot, something really exciting and unforeseen, just dropped into my head this morning as I sat looking out at the brightening day, thinking about my work. A whole section of storyline, compelling and interesting and dramatic, started to bloom inside my head like a shy rosebud as I ran to find a pen and some paper to make notes, scrambling like a ninny (I never have pen and paper handy!) I got the bones of the idea down on paper, and then I sat looking at it for a while, wondering how on earth this idea just landed in my brain, and where it came from. Yesterday, when I switched off my computer after my day’s writing, I left the story at a point which could have led me in several different directions, and I wasn’t sure which way I was going to go. I decided I wasn’t going to worry about it. I was keeping things loose, and easy, and free. I was relaxed enough to let it lie, at least overnight, and see what would develop. And, this morning, that relaxed patience paid off.

The last time I wrote ‘Tider’, I had the whole thing exhaustively plotted, right from Day 1. I knew where I wanted the story to go, I had an idea of how the last scene would look before I’d even written the first chapter, I had diagrams and drawings and schematics of all the different plots and subplots and characters and their relationships to one another. I did character profiles, finding out what my protagonists liked to eat for breakfast and what sort of dreams they’d had for their lives as children and how the colour blue made them feel, and all sorts of things. I had Big Ideas for this book, and I wanted it to work. I really did.

But even with all that effort, it just… didn’t. ‘Tider’ (Mark 1) didn’t work. It couldn’t work. It was like a crab with a shell that just won’t stop growing, getting heavier and heavier until finally the creature can’t carry it any more, and it just has to lie down and let the shell crush it slowly into the sea floor. There was so much plot, so many things happening, that the characters were lost under all the encrustation. I didn’t take into account the fact that as you write a book, the plot changes – your characters affect the way the story unfolds. I didn’t, of course, know that when I started out. The plot I’d created was complicated and inflexible and mechanical – Event A affects Events B and C, which affect Event D, and so on – and didn’t allow for spontaneous change. Hence, I was always patching it up and trying to fix it with desperate last-minute tweaks, which ended up having ripple effects that, finally, spelled doom for the story overall.

I didn’t see all this at the time. I do now, which is great, but I wish I’d realised it as I was writing the book. That’s how we learn, though, isn’t it?

This time around, I don’t have an exhaustive plot in place for ‘Tider’. I have an idea where I want the story to go, but it’s not set in stone. The chunk of plot I came up with today only brings me so far – up to the next corner, perhaps, around which anything could be lying in wait. But I’ve realised that’s enough; I can work with that. I can let the characters live out their story, and I’ll write it down as they tell it to me. It’s not exactly ‘pantsing’ – i.e. making up the story entirely as you go along, ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ – but it’s the next best thing, maybe. It’s giving the plot enough breathing room to develop naturally, which makes it more life-like, messier, and more ‘real’.

One thing I do know for sure, though, is that changing up my morning routine shook my brain around just enough to get it to think in a new way, and that my story will be all the better for it. I’ll have to plan a little chaos into my writing routine from now on!

I hope your Friday is unexpected, in all the best ways possible. Happy weekend!

 

 

 

*I’m not advocating writing under the influence, even though it has worked quite well, albeit briefly, for several writers a whole lot more talented than me!

Slaking the Book Drought

Until yesterday, I was (from certain angles, and in the right light) a withered shadow of my former self. I was sloping about my life like a wraith, without direction, without purpose, without meaning, man. There may even have been wailing.

The reason? Why, I hadn’t read anything in ever so long, of course. I was pining for input, just like Johnny Five.

Iiiiinputttt!Image: marketingpilgrim.com

Iiiiinputttt!
Image: marketingpilgrim.com

I think, in some ways, I’m sort of an addictive personality. For this reason, I’m glad that I don’t indulge in anything terribly harmful (chocolate isn’t classed as ‘terribly harmful’, right?) I have a feeling that I tend to be obsessive about certain things, and that it applies to destructive, as well as constructive, behaviour. Being aware of it is pretty much my only tool in the fight against it, but it’s a good tool to have. This obsessive tendency definitely applies to my need for words, whether reading them or writing them. Sometimes, though, there just isn’t room in my life for an obsession with reading them and writing them at the same time.

You’d think, being a person who devotes their life to words, that I’d read more than I used to, wouldn’t you? In fact, in my previous life, I had a long (long) commute to and from my job, and I had lunch-breaks, and things like that. Lately, though, the old compulsion to write has taken me over completely. I do so much of it that I end up with a stooped spine, gritty eyes, thumping head and spinning brain at the end of every day, and my mind is so stuffed full of my own words that there’s just no room in there for anyone else’s. Overall, I think I probably did more reading in my old life than I do now.

So, that’s why I took a day off yesterday, and trekked off across the sunny, cold countryside, and ended up in Dublin. I saw two friends, I drank pots of tea, I laughed a lot and I found myself in a bookshop. It was like that moment in ‘The Little Prince’ when they’ve been walking through the desert, and they come across the well, and they drink deep. Just like that.

So, I bought three books. I started the first one on the train home, and by the time I went to bed last night I’d finished it. If I’d put the book into a blender with a little olive oil and whizzed it until it was a paste and then drank it, I couldn’t have absorbed it any faster. The book was called ‘Anna Dressed in Blood’, and it’s by Kendare Blake, and it looks like this:

Image: readingunderthestars.blogspot.com

Image: readingunderthestars.blogspot.com

I’d heard about this book on Twitter a few weeks ago, and thought ‘Hmm. That might be worth checking out.’ Turns out, it was. I really enjoyed it. It tells the story of Cas Lowood, a young man who feels he has inherited his father’s ability (and duty) to dispatch unquiet spirits who disturb the living into ‘the next plane’; he’s not actually sure where he’s sending their souls, just that he has to get them away from the world, where they are causing pain. A clear distinction is drawn between ghosts who do no harm, and those powerful enough to become corporeal and who are stuck in their own agony, and who feel compelled to draw the living into their vengeful rage. Anna, who was murdered in 1956, is one of these harmful spirits; she is filled not only with fury but also with some sort of strange and unexplained power which allows her to do incredible damage to anyone foolish enough to cross her.

The story takes us back through Anna’s short life, the reasons for her rage and her amazing power, and – of course – through Cas’ own life and his relationship with his father, who was killed when Cas was a child. Cas’ mother is a great character, sympathetic and warm, protective yet respectful of her son’s need to fulfill his calling, and the friends Cas makes in Thunder Bay are made unique enough not to be ‘stock’ characters. For instance, Carmel – the beautiful, blonde ‘queen of the school’ whom Cas befriends on his first day in order to be close to the source of all knowledge and gossip, and to hopefully learn more about Anna and her ghost – turns out to be the least simpering and girly character you could imagine. Despite her prettiness, and her girliness, and the fact that she is adored by every male she meets, she displays serious muscle and courage in this story, defending those whom she loves and putting herself in danger to try to save others. I really liked her. Thomas, the ‘geeky’ sidekick, is a bit more one-dimensional, but he’s still a lovely creation – a young man who is also a witch and a (sometime) telepath, he does not run from his destiny but embraces it, danger and all. There is quite a bit of gore in the story, but I found it got a bit tamer as the book drew to a close. Perhaps I was just more used to it by then!

There are several different traditions, or schools of magic, woven together here – we have the ‘natural’ magic practised by Cas’ mother (of the herbs, tinctures and oils variety), to the voodoo practiced by Thomas’ grandfather and several other characters, to the unexplained and very disturbing rituals performed by a character central to Anna’s demise. I liked this, actually – I enjoyed reading about the interactions between all these ‘magics’, and how they all feed into one another. And, importantly, though I don’t normally like reading about ghosts, because I’m a fraidy-cat, this story did not keep me awake all night peering myopically into the shady corners of my bedroom, elbowing my husband awake every five minutes to check out a ‘noise’. It’s scary, but the friendships and love between the characters, and the warm familial connections described between Cas and his mother and Thomas and his grandfather, keep it from being too scary. So, overall, I’d recommend this book, with the caveat that there are several instances of ‘language’; I don’t mind reading those sorts of words, but I’m sure there are some people who do. So, this is fair warning! Also, as the book cover itself says, this story is definitely not for younger readers. It’s absolutely a book for older teenagers and adults, despite the fact that it’s about a bunch of high-schoolers.

I’ll read the other books as soon as possible, and I’m sure I’ll waffle on about those when the time comes. For now, though, my brain and eyes and soul feel better for having a day away from the screen yesterday, and I’ve made myself a promise not to stay away from reading for so long ever, ever again.

Knowing me, though, I’ll probably get lost in a story again later today and forget all my promises to myself.

P.S. If you’re still here, maybe check out the latest issue of ‘The Bohemyth’. There’s a story in it by a person you might recognise. Though, if you didn’t like ‘Animal Farm’ (my story, not Orwell’s, o’course), chances are you won’t like this one, either. I do apologise!

The Importance of Trust

I’ll keep it brief today. It’s a gorgeous Saturday morning here in Eire-Land, and I’m sure we all have things to be getting on with. I’m looking forward to welcoming a friend to my home later today and giving her a restful weekend where she will be looked after and pampered, so I’ll be happily, busily preparing for that today.

Just like this!Image: jesusjazzbuddhism.org

Just like this!
Image: jesusjazzbuddhism.org

I just wanted to write a quick note about Trust, and how important it is, and how it still has a place in this world of ours despite all the hatred and suspicion that we have to live with on a daily basis. Doing anything creative involves a huge amount of trust – we have to trust ourselves, for a start, that we know what we’re doing when we follow the call to create. We have to trust other people to allow us the space we need to do whatever it is we have to do. We have to trust them not to sabotage us, or not to undermine us – even when they mean well. We have to trust our audience, that their taste will lead them towards our work and that they’ll enjoy it enough to spread the word; we have to trust that our efforts to create something will inspire others to do the same, and that a cycle of newness will be kickstarted from our one moment of bravery.

And we have to be able to trust that people will help us, if we ask them to.

I’ve just watched a TED talk, given by the luminously talented Amanda Palmer, where she talks about this very thing. I won’t attempt to paraphrase her words, but I’ll just leave this link here:

and hope that it works.

Amanda Palmer’s talk is short enough to watch in one sitting, but (like everything she does) it’s full of honesty and love, and shot through with humour and a sense of freedom like very few other artists possess. I like her music, but more than that I respect her as an artist, and as a person. Her talk mentions how she learned to trust her audience while working as a street performer, and how she took that trust through to her later music career. When she asked for help to make an album, she was rewarded beyond anything she could have imagined – she says it’s because she connected with her audience, and trusted them to catch her when she took a leap of faith.

If only we were all so brave.

Have a wonderful Saturday.

The Twilight of the Year

November is probably my favourite month. I love the light, I love the colours on the leaves, I love the spooky holdover from Hallowe’en with All Saints’ Day (today) and All Souls’ Day (tomorrow). Also, it helps that November holds my birthday, though as I get older that doesn’t seem like such a good thing any more.

Although, heck, if Besse Cooper can make it to 116 with a smile on her face, what have I got to worry about?

I hope you all had a great Hallowe’en. We had so many cute and scary callers that we didn’t have a scrap of anything sweet left by the end of the night! We only barely had enough to satisfy all those who rang our doorbell, and it was great fun.

But now – on to business.

Fanfare – Draft 2 has begun!

Yesterday, I officially started my Draft 2 of the WiP. I seem to be adding words, instead of taking them away; I’m doing a lot of rewriting, so it’s taking me a long time. Ever since I finished Draft 1 I’ve had the story on my mind, and I’ve never been far from a notebook and pen, to take down my ideas and thoughts as to where the plot might end up. I suppose this goes against the rules of ‘taking a complete break’ from your work between Drafts 1 and 2, but I didn’t really see any better way to proceed. I’m particularly concerned with my protagonist, and I wanted to do a total re-think of her actions throughout the book. I was a bit concerned that I was writing a ‘Mary Sue’ sort of character – a character who’s pretty much a placeholder, or an idealised, too-perfect sort of person. Having re-read a bit of the story, I now realise the main problem with her is not that she’s too idealised, but that too much of the plot just happens to her. She’s not the agent of change for enough of the book – she’s not driving the action, and of course she should be. Not all the time, though, as there are lots of things about her world, her family and the structure of their business that she doesn’t know about or understand fully, but certainly she should be doing more than just sitting around reacting to things that happen. In Draft 1, she was every bit as intelligent, compassionate, brave and stubborn as I’d wanted her to be, but the way I’d set up the plot also made her seem passive, shrill and powerless. So, that’s a giant no-no.

While we’re on the topic of Mary Sues, I wonder does anyone else ever consciously think about stereotypical character traits while they’re writing? What I mean is, do you deliberately avoid, or change, certain aspects of a character’s personality while you’re creating them, for fear of (unwittingly) writing a character who is too perfect, too exceptional, too pretty, too talented, or whatever? My mind has been spinning around these concepts for a few days now. Everything I’ve read about the classic ‘Mary Sue’ has said something along the lines of ‘a Mary Sue is a ‘wish-fulfillment’ character, one who has powers and abilities that are too perfect to be realistic, or who is too good, wholesome and wonderful to come across as a well-rounded and flawed human character.’ I’m wondering if these sort of ‘goody goody’ character traits are always bad, and to be avoided. I’m wondering if modern writers, in trying to avoid creating characters with these sort of traits, are hobbling themselves and their own creativity – should an author create a character with these sorts of limitations in mind, or should s/he just write the character that appears in their imagination? And if their character has certain Mary Sue-ish traits, should they censor their creation?

Obviously, it’s important to create a character that readers can identify with. But I’m wondering about fashions and trends in literature, too – the ‘Mary Sue’ type seems to me to be a character which has always existed, in some form, and it seems to go in and out of fashion. The term ‘Mary Sue’ itself has only been used since the 1970s, but the idea goes back a lot further. The trope of a ‘perfect’ character has always been used in fiction, sometimes to teach the reader a moral lesson or to show them how to behave in order to attain some sort of perfection; this sort of mind-set was very prevalent in the past. We see it in medieval Mystery and morality plays (after a fashion), and in texts like Pilgrim’s Progress; we see it in early children’s literature and even in some more recent tales for children, like the Enid Blyton stories. The Mary Sue is almost like a medieval allegorical character – they’re like a puppet whose strings are being pulled, and they act a particular way because the writer wants them to, in order to illustrate a point or describe a theme. They do what they do because they have to – there’s no other possible way for them to act. They don’t seem real. This sort of characterisation seemed comforting and appealing, perhaps, to audiences of the past. Nobody nowadays, however, likes to think their books exist merely to teach them lessons – readers want to read and enjoy stories, and they want to take part in the thrilling adventures that their protagonists are experiencing. What’s the point in putting a character in danger if they’re so perfect that they’ll either figure out an ingenious solution, or die heroically in such an admirable way that the ‘baddie’ immediately has a change of heart and turns him/herself in? That sort of story-telling might have worked in the nineteenth century, but it’s not what modern audiences want.

And yet, I’m still concerned.

There seems to be a swing in current writing away from the idea of the ‘perfect’ protagonist, and characters who are unremarkable – i.e. blessed with no particular gifts or abilities, not in possession of more personal charm than any other character, and certainly no better (or worse) looking than anyone else. I was able to do an online quiz the other day to test my character for Mary Sue-isms (which concluded that my character was not in any danger of being idealised!) and the questions gave the impression that for a character to ‘work’, they need to have some sort of imperfection, they can’t be too pretty (or too unattractive), they can’t be struggling with the death of a parent or a family member, they can’t be labouring under a huge psychological burden from their childhood, they can’t have exceptional gifts and they can’t be ‘The Chosen One’. Isn’t this rather restricting? And, if every children’s and Young Adult book written over the next few years features these flawed heroes and heroines, won’t the taste and fashion just swing around again, back the way it came? Perhaps in ten years you’ll have online quizzes telling you to make your characters more heroic, more dazzling, more perfect, because ‘people are sick of reading about characters that struggle under the weight of their own flaws.’

So, I’m wondering if we should just write the character we want to write. Give them a mixture of characteristics, and make sure we know them extremely well before we put them into our story. Make sure we know how they’d react in any given situation before they step onto our mental stage. But if they have a particular ability, let them use it, and if they have a particular mental struggle – if that struggle is part of who they are, and not just there for effect – let them struggle with it. I want my character to be as real to anyone who reads her as she is to me, but I also don’t want to let fashions or trends dictate how I write her.

What do you think?

 

(‘Anne’ image: http://www.rscollect.co.uk; Besse Cooper image: http://www.news.health.com)