Friday, 30 January 2015

A day with words in

I had a good day with the writing, the other day.

Here's how it goes.

I am busy. I have only so much time, and lots of demands on that time. Family things, household things, life things. School runs, chauffeuring the children to swimming practice, shopping, cleaning, cooking - that kind of thing. The stuff that makes up the bulk of each day.

Generally speaking, I like my life; all the component parts of it. I've got to middle age and found that the things left in my life by this point are pretty much the things that I want there, and yet there are times when I wish it would all go away and leave me free to do this thing that I want to do more than anything else. I dream of a remote cottage lined with bookshelves, with a log fire, comfy sofas, coffee and custard creams. And WiFi.

And then, I have a day with no interruptions. If I close my eyes, I could be there in my wilderness cottage, in blissful solitude, nothing to do but work on my bestseller. I have a whole (albeit school-length - about five hours, allowing for the school runs) day to myself. Then what happens?

A whole host of things happen, ranging from excessive time spent on Facebook, to rearranging the cutlery drawer, from repotting aloe vera plants to taking a nap.

The precious time ticks away. I cannot fathom why I do this thing, but I do.

That's normal behaviour for me. Round about half past one in the afternoon, inspiration might strike, and I'll be deep in another world when it's time to extricate myself and dash off for my daughters.

Not this day! I managed almost 4,000 words, and then another 800 the following day to complete the scene. It's not at the beginning of the book; it doesn't follow in any sequence from anything else I've written so far, but it starts in one place and takes my character to another place, and I like it. I'm quite sure that it needs substantial editing, but there it is.

It was a good day. A good day words-wise, and also a good day because I proved to myself that I can do it. It is possible to make good use of time. I can sit with my fingers on the keys and arrange words on a page to tell a story.

I want to do more of that.

Image credit:
Christmas_in_Houston_079.jpg by beat0092
Used with permission

Friday, 16 January 2015

Telling a story, and telling it well

Ok, another moan.

I've been reading more novels than usual lately, partly to inspire me, to check out what other people are doing, and (I suppose) to see what makes the grade these days; how good does something have to be to be published?

I have had a good run; since Christmas I've read eight novels. One of them I found poor, with typos a-plenty - even at one point a misspelling of one word twice in different ways on the same page - and with a predictable plot and some fairly glaring problems. However, it seems to be doing well. Another three I thought were entertaining, quick and easy and well-deserving of their place on a bookshelf.

And then, another - ah. It's so good that I find myself despairing. Why bother, when there are such skilled storytellers out there? When someone has had an idea so original, so intelligently told, with such complexity and confidence? The characters are three dimensional, beautifully brought to life and I actually care about them.

Sigh. My story looks pastel coloured and simple in contrast with the vibrancy and life of this novel. I am consumed by the story; I want to know what happens next. I've found myself tucking this book in my bag in case I have a chance to read a few pages waiting for the children outside school, rather than checking Facebook on my phone, or browsing pictures on Pinterest. It's like the old days!

With novel no 1, the poor editing pushed me right out of the story, even before the poor story did that too. I was too aware of the quotation marks that opened and never closed, the missing question marks, the misspellings, to get caught up in the story.

Some books have the same effect for a different reason - if the author tries to be too clever with the writing, using words that are too unwieldy or too high-brow, then I find myself pushed out of the world she's trying to draw me into. It can be too self-consciously intellectual.

This novel is neither of those things.

The writing is intelligent and the plot satisfyingly multi-layered, and the author does me the courtesy of assuming that I am capable of coming along for the ride without patronising me or trying to impress.

She tells a story, and tells it well. Isn't that exactly what you want from a novel?

I so want to write a book as good as this. I have no idea whatsoever whether I'm capable of it, though I rather doubt it at the moment. It just seems so hard. I know that everyone has a different voice, and I am (for the most part) content with mine, but now and again I read something that is just so good that it brings a wry smile and I wonder if there's any space for beginners at this game.

I should say that the novel I'm talking about was this lady's debut novel.


I would go so far as to say that I'd rather not write a book at all than write a bad one. Or even a mediocre one.

Someone asked me whether, given the choice, I would rather write a Booker Prize winner, or a bestseller (I can't have both). Of course I'd like to make a fortune from my writing. I'd like to know that someone will publish my books without the awful angst that I might be putting in all these hours and all this soul-searching for nothing but rejection slips. But a bestseller for the sake of being a bestseller? Only if it's GOOD.

The Booker Prize? In my experience those books are so intellectual and high-brow that research has been done on whether anyone actually reads them. As the owner of several Booker Prize winning novels I can attest that I have on occasion reached a point several hundred pages in and still decided that life was too short  and given up.

So, I'd like to write a book that will be read by people, and enjoyed.  That the reviewers like, and that my former English teacher likes. I would like to impress her; this hasn't changed in the last thirty years.

I want it to be a grown up novel that makes people think, but not so much that it's too heavy to read on a sun-lounger on holiday where a person has gone to relax and be entertained. Something that people put a bookmark in and anticipate getting back to. Something that makes an early night with a cuppa something to look forward to.

Can I do that? Is it possible?

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Nocturnal scufflings

I'm feeling sleepy today.

Lots of things going on in life at the moment; my eldest daughter, a talented swimmer, has been moved up to the next squad at the swimming club and has started training a couple of days a week at 5.30am. Five-thirty-in-the-morning, in other words, and so requires her chariot to be available at about five fifteen and her alarm clock, breakfast-provider, chauffeur and cheerleader to be ready for duty at 5am. This has had knock-on effects on the rest of my life.

Sleepiness. I think this may be the year where I am forced to learn how to push on despite wanting my bed with a longing previously unknown to mankind.

So, here I am taptaptapping with strong coffee.

There's another reason that sleep is at a premium at the moment, and it's rather wonderful. I'm finding that as I settle down to sleep at night, my brain kicks in. While this has never been a positive before, I'm finding that as I let go of rational thought, so to speak, ideas are occurring to me. Little scenes, snatches of dialogue, quirky things to weave into my plot; they're coming to me in the drowsing stages of sleep.

I'm not sure how keen my husband is on this new development, as I am given to sudden lunges for the bedside lamp and then a series of scufflings and rustlings as I find the page in my bedside notebook and scramble for a pen that works (I once wrote down a long and involved dream that somehow seemed vitally important only to find in the morning that the pen I used had no ink in it). No sooner do I empty my brain onto paper and switch out the light than it happens all over again.

So this routine can happen several times in a night until some sleep hormone takes over and washes like a tide over the creative centre in my drowsy brain, sweeping all ideas before it.

This sometimes works in reverse, as well. This is not so good.

The other night I woke up abruptly in the small hours suddenly alarmed that there was a large and ominous plot hole in my book and unless I could find a way to fill it and smooth it over the whole premise of the novel was rendered useless. With this revelation came a rush of adrenalin which meant it was a good half an hour before I started to feel sleepy again, and so for that time I lay there in the wreckage of my embryonic novel trying to work out how to plug the gap.

When I woke up in the morning I realised it was quite straightforward, and a word of explanation early in the story meant it was all alright.

Some night-time moments of inspiration are to be heeded and others are to be disregarded. Unfortunately there's no way to tell which is which until morning comes.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Swimming through treacle

You know what I'm finding hard with regard to writing this novel?

Most things, really. Nothing about it is very easy.

Specifically, I'm finding it hard to sort out the structure. The way the story hangs - how to tell it. How to entwine backstory and the present day, and how to weave together the main character and the supporting cast. I am very aware that I'm probably making untold mistakes in my language, my baggy dialogue and flowery description and scene-setting, but worries about such things come much later. At the moment, I need a framework. I need to order the degrees on my protractor, so to speak.

It isn't easy.

Not that I'm complaining, you understand. I can't think of anything else I want to do, which makes the days when it feels like swimming through treacle a lot easier to manage. I can take myself off to read a novel written by someone else free of any guilt by telling myself that I want to learn how they did it; how it should be done.

It doesn't help that much. Nobody seems to be telling a story like mine. This conclusion strikes me as three things:

1. Tremendously arrogant. Surely there is nothing new under the sun. There must be many stories like mine out there, it's just that I haven't found them. I am clearly not sufficiently widely read and therefore ill-equipped to attempt to create a novel of my own.

2. Very dangerous. If nobody has written a story like mine, then a publisher isn't going to have anything to compare it with, and it's hard to discern what sort of genre it might belong to. Maybe it has indeed been done before, and nobody particularly wanted to read it?

3. A bit encouraging. Maybe I have something new to say? Perhaps there's something original about it after all?

I find that I am thinking about my story so much and so often, regularly waking in the night to write down an idea for scene or a bit of dialogue, that it all seems a bit hackneyed by now. I can no longer tell whether it's even original, let alone unusual or attention-grabbing. I am so familiar with my ideas that I don't know if it's any good at all. I thought I had a good idea, but then sometimes I'm not so sure.

Well, that's one thing I'm finding difficult.  Just one.