Sunday, 21 December 2014

The master of procrastination

When I was a student facing exams, I used to make detailed revision plans that were mini works of art. Different colours, fonts, tick-boxes and so on. These were time-consuming and quite often I didn't get done anywhere near the revision that I'd intended when I made my ambitious revision timetable.

Subconsciously, maybe that was the point. Or possibly not even subconsciously.

I am a master of procrastination. I don't think that there's anyone as good at it as me.

And here I am again with a big project and I am finding endless things in the way. One of the biggest and most difficult to solve at the moment is where I should set up my computer and my pile of notebooks and sit to write.

The kitchen island unit - long my writing home, but it's a stool at a kitchen counter, and although its close proximity to the fridge and biscuit cupboard are in its favour as a venue, the stool has no back and I slouch dramatically, which causes my back to ache, and my feet are off the floor, which makes them hurt too. Moan moan.

The kitchen table - my current location. Pros include the size of it; there's room to spread out papers, there's a radiator right next to me and clothes airer behind, so I'm nice and cosy, and the kettle isn't far away. Cons: the chair is hard and the wrong height and again, I have such bad posture that my neck permanently aches. Also, the table is where we eat most of the time, and so everything needs to be cleared away for meals.

The dining-room table - works pretty well in summer, but in winter it gets a bit parky in there. There's a big table, great for lots of paperwork, but it's also the room where my daughters practice their musical instruments so there's a keyboard at one end, a cello at the other, and piles of music everywhere else. So, if I decide to set up in there, I usually find myself musically accompanied, which is nice on one level, but not conducive to thinking. We tend to eat in there at the weekends when there are more of us, so clearing away is necessary once a week. Better than the kitchen, maybe.

The sitting room/bedroom - both great for slouching and snuggling but not really what I'm looking for if I mean business longer than a blog post.

The office - where my husband sits with all his computers when he works from home like a spider in the middle of his hi-tech web. The ideal place for another desk - and indeed, before the children came along I had my own space and it was lovely. I had all my things around me; pen pots, inspiring pictures, books and drawers full of all the bits that make me feel professional. Alas, the office is full of things now like filing cabinets and sofa beds and piles of things with no other home that have been stowed away in there. No room for my old desk, which is in pieces in the loft, or the nice swivelly chair that languishes with it. Also, I think my husband is possibly one of the most untidy people in the entire world, and I'd struggle to spare a space with all his clutter.

So I am nomadic. I move around with my computer to the room with the nicest light, destined never to find a comfortable home. Ah, woe is me. This book will never get written. Circumstances are conspiring against me!

You see what I'm up against?

Maybe I ought to start exploring coffee shops and write in there with a latte and a toasted teacake. Or tidy more, or put the heating on in the dining room, or sit up a bit straighter.

And just get on with it.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Notebooks and Book books

I am a great fan of notebooks.

The ideal notebook is spiral bound, with enough room to slide a pen down in the spiral, hardback covers, narrow lined, with generous margins and preferably an elastic thingy that means that it stays shut in your handbag. Little flaps for saving notes or photographs is nice to have, but the icing on the cake is when the pages have an inspiring quotation or inscription. This makes it a Very Nice Notebook, but also increases the pressure to make sure that anything I write in it is worthy of its inclusion.

I have several notebooks on the go at any one time - journals, ideas books, handy pads to scribble down To Dos or shopping lists, and now, my Book book.

My Book book is a notebook with roses on the front, which is sort of appropriate given the subject matter of my novel and the fact that roses feature significantly in it. My youngest daughter stuck a sticker on it, which says, 'Excellent', which sounds good to me.

I so want this book to be good. Just getting it finished isn't anywhere near enough for me; I think I would genuinely rather not write one at all than write a bad book. I want it to be worthy of it's 'excellent' sticker.

I've written down every idea I've had with regard to this project in my Book book and regularly transfer all the jottings on the subject from other notebooks that were closer to hand than this one when inspiration struck. I then put them on the computer when I'm working on the scene in which they belong.

There are ideas for scenes, connections that I made while driving, in the shower, reading to the kids or just about to drop off to sleep. Even the odd scrap of dialogue or nugget of information to remember about a character. They're all jumbled up in the Book book, waiting to be scooped up and used appropriately when the story is told in full.

Sometimes it's easier to write things on a page with a pen than it is to taptaptap it out on a keyboard. I'm sure that if I'd had an efficient online filing system and started with all my ideas in virtual folders etc, they would be close at hand for transfer into the story when I wanted them instead of having to transcribe them from my scrawl, but my computer skills are basic to say the least, and my filing system non-existent. There are so many documents on this computer that are lost forever unless someone retrieves them for me.

Hence the notebook. My notes for the book. It's almost full, so it must be time to start turning ideas into scenes and chapters.

It's exciting. I am just loving this.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Chippers and builders, planners and pantsers

I know that there are as many ways to write a book as there are authors - it stands to reason that everyone goes about it in a different way, but I've also heard that largely speaking (enormous generalisation here) there are two main techniques to writing: the planner, and the fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants-er. I've heard this second category of writer referred to as a 'pantser'.

I am definitely not a pantser.

I don't know why I thought I might be, to be honest, since in every other area of my life I am a careful planner who requires advance warning of everything, who struggles to adapt to change and who loves routine and familiarity. I don't do surprises very well, and so clearly I am unlikely to be one of the writers who sits down one day with a vague idea of how to start a novel, and just starts writing, with no idea where the story might take them.

Goes with the flow, so to speak.

Nope. I have my 'protractor' idea and I am breaking my detailed synopsis down into chapters and scenes and attempting to make myself a plan for writing the scenes that I haven't got yet.

Another interesting way of describing the work of an author is to decide how you create your work in terms of sculpting a masterpiece: whether you start with nothing and slowly add pieces until your sculpture is complete, (a builder) or whether you start with a huge shapeless lump of stone and slowly chip away at it until the shape within is revealed, (a chipper).

Michaelangelo did this with the famous statue, 'David'. David was buried inside a block of marble until a master-craftsman found him in there and released him with a chisel, leaving all the unnecessary stone-chips on the floor around him.

I always thought I'd be a lump of stone-type writer. I am notoriously wordy and find that my writing needs a lot of editing down to get rid of all the bits that I don't need. When I was writing my dissertation at university I found myself with nearly double the word count and had to go through it again pruning off the excess. My dissertation slowly got smaller and smaller.

So, this is how I imagine myself as a writer.

However, sitting here writing this (and surfing pictures of statues and sculptures) to put off actually doing any proper writing on the project in hand, I find myself wondering whether it's possible to be a planner and a chipper at the same time?

Maybe with my detailed plan, my scene-by-scene guide, I am a builder after all? Or maybe a builder who will later turn into a chipper because she's created something vast and unwieldy?

Or maybe it doesn't matter even remotely and I should get on and put some words down and see what happens?

That sounds a little bit pantsy to me.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Gazing at the mountain

The more I think about writing a book, the more enormous and impossible it seems. I feel a bit overwhelmed.

A book! A novel, 80,000 words or thereabouts, with characters who need to become real. A story where present day and back-story are interwoven, where plot is gradually revealed, shown, not told, and characters say things and do things,  make mistakes and develop. A living thing, three-dimensional, with the power to lure readers in and prevent them from leaving. To immerse them in the story and make them laugh, or cry, or gasp, or want just one more chapter before sleep.

I want it to be good.

Can I do that?  Really?

It seems so huge. Like a vast, towering mountain, so high that the air is thin at the top. I'm just trekking in towards Base Camp and already feeling horribly ill-equipped to scale the thing in front of me. I have crampons and ropes and those little clippy gadgets that dangle from climbers' belts but I don't have the first idea how to use them.

It seems so intimidatingly big. There's going to be a lot of looking at this mountain and trying to find out all I can about it before I pull on my boots and put one foot in front of the other. I don't even know which direction to set out in.

Where do I start?

Well, I'm setting up camp at the bottom of this mountain and I'm realising that I won't get to the top in one go. It's too far, and too tricky. I need to break this task down into smaller ones, and then subdivide the smaller tasks into even littler ones. That's the way to do it. Make it less overwhelming, by having smaller, attainable goals. Camp One, Camp Two....

Kind of like a protractor, with the degrees marked off one by one, in fives and tens and so on. Nought to 180 (or 360?) in a series of tiny sections. A mountain marked off in degrees.

I can't begin to get my head around a project of this size. I can't just sit down and start writing (though I know that some people do just that). I have so much going on with other stuff; family and other commitments, that I don't have that much time for writing. I'm going to need to be fairly disciplined and structured in the way I do it because I don't have the flexibility to 'go with the flow' and write as inspiration takes me; rather I'm going to find myself with the odd hour and I'll have to learn to use it as efficiently as I can.

I need to find a way to break the huge task down into smaller chunks. If I can do that, then writing it in pieces might work. If I get to know my story well enough, I hope to be able to sit down on a free morning and know that my plan for that session is to get the plot from there. This is the scene where such-and-such happens. Write that scene.

From one mark on the protractor to the next.

This is my theory. I'm used to writing short blog posts, and so small pieces are familiar territory to me. 100,000 words of structured novel is totally beyond me; I have to find a way to make it manageable.

Bit by bit.  Step by step. The longest journey starts with a single step...

That must be how mountains are climbed.

Image by cohdra (cohdra_100_2045.JPG) courtesy of 
Used with permission.