Over the past few days, I’ve been writing. No great surprise there, I hear you say. However, I haven’t been writing words to knit into my new WiP, which has really been left swinging in the wind, or a new story, or something towards one of the many competitions I’d like to enter. Instead, I’m preparing for an upcoming event at which I’ll have the chance to talk to some very important people about my wee book, and why it’s marvellous. So, I’ve been writing about my beloved ‘Emmeline’ – elevator pitches, synopses, this-is-why-the-book-is-great documents – without, it has to be said, a lot of success.
So, okay. It’s not all bad. I think I have my elevator pitch, for instance; writing that was no picnic. You basically need: your protagonist/s, what they want, and what’s in their way; your antagonist/s, what they want, and what’s in their way; how these two struggles intersect – and all in two sentences. It’s harder than I would have imagined to condense an entire book like this and, scarily, it really gets you to focus on the core of your story. The risk there, of course, is: what if you find out that the core of your story isn’t all that good?
Quite, Ted. Quite.
It’s amazing to think you could write an entire book – eighty thousand words, almost three hundred pages, and only really discover what it’s about when you write a two-sentence ‘potted plot’, isn’t it? But that, of course, is why it’s important to do it. If the core of your plot isn’t strong, or worth telling, then all you’ve done is create three hundred pages of window-dressing around an inadequate idea.
And nobody wants that.
Anyway, I’ve discovered that ‘Emmeline’ is essentially about searching for an idea of home, which was a surprise. I think this is one of the oldest, most basic and most comforting plot arcs in human culture, and it turns up everywhere. It was also something that interested me when I worked as an academic researcher – I remember writing a paper about a character who tried to create a ‘home’ wherever he went, only to have it destroyed over and over, forcing him to keep moving – and so it’s almost fitting that it’s turned up again. Until I wrote this elevator pitch, though, I would have thought ‘Emmeline’ was a quest story – save the world! Outsmart the baddies! – but it seems that, at its heart, it’s about family. I quite like that knowledge, to be honest.
Then, I had to write about the story.
I tried to do this five or six times, starting and deleting and starting again, until I eventually had to admit defeat. I walked away from the computer. I did other stuff. I went outside and breathed the sweet air. I tried to calm my spinning thoughts. Through all of this, though, I knew that I had to go back and try again, and so it never fully left my mind.
So, what’s it like to write about a story you’ve written? Well.
You know when you meet someone for the first time and you get nervous and start babbling, and you hear yourself talking and you say ‘holy heck, will you just shut up?’ inside your head but you don’t shut up, you just keep talking and with every passing syllable you look more and more insane? That’s kind of how it felt, except I was alone (which made it even weirder.) I started flinging random sentences at the page, including my feelings as I started the book and how I loved the characters and how I felt it was the kind of book I’d have liked to read at the age the characters are, and it turned into a giant mess. There was no direction, no structure, no meaning – and it made zero sense. I suppose it was a tie between having too much to say and not really knowing what was the right thing to say – the thing which will catch an agent’s attention, and which will set my work in its best light.
And then I remembered something vital.
I wasn’t writing a document that was going to be read – I was writing a document that was designed to help me to speak. This is going to turn into a presentation, of sorts; I’m not going to be handing over my written description of the book and sitting, in silence, while the other person reads it. That, naturally, changes the dynamic of the text completely. I pulled on my copywriter hat, looked critically at the mess I’d created, and started again.
I began by asking myself a series of questions. What is your book about? Who is your protagonist? What does she want? Who tries to get in her way? What obstacles does she face? These, and many more, became my new framework. I made my answers brief – a few sentences, at most – and ruthlessly edited if they went over. I imagined myself being interviewed, and how I’d respond (well, how I’d respond if I were being my most erudite, self-possessed and collected self, which is unlikely to happen in reality), and it really helped.
I’m not quite finished the document yet, but at least now I know that I can do it. I hate feeling out of control and overwhelmed, and things tend to get on top of me when I start to lose my grip on what I’m doing. It’s a dark spiral; things pile up, and you can’t keep up, and it gets worse and worse until eventually you have to start again from scratch. I lose my sense of direction and balance, and end up going all over the place looking for something that usually ends up being under my nose the whole time.
The mad thing is, if I’d been doing this for someone else the first thing I’d have suggested is making a list of questions. When it comes to doing it for myself, though, I have to go through all the panic first like it’s a rite of passage, or something.
What a funny little person I am.