Writing Strategies – Displacing Procrastination

I’ve had my other hat on recently, not the writing, but the reading one.  Over the Christmas break I read a lot of novels, for pleasure.  I have a significant backlog of books on my ‘to-read’ shelf, which always seems to load up faster than I can keep up with.

Another HatThat’s an excuse, of course, because I’d really intended to use the time for writing.  I have several short stories that need more work to finish them, and lots of notes on new ideas to follow up.  I’d been looking forward to this desk-time for weeks.

So what went wrong?  I could give you a list… it would begin with Christmas, because I always forget how much time is involved with preparing, celebrating and clearing up.  It might move on to that spell of icy weather we had, and the temptations of an armchair by the fire.  It would certainly include Anna Karenina, because studying it closely with my reading group last autumn re-awoke my old love of novels, and set me thinking about whether that short story that I’ve got lost with is really part of something less compact.

Perhaps, I thought, this time I’ll ‘knock off’ a novel.  I have a lot of ideas about this character.  It seems a shame not to use them.  Then I could use several of the story strands I’ve developed, and build-up the other characters.  Yes, there’s plenty to be said for extending this piece of writing.

So I gathered together all the notes and fragments of story I’ve played about with over the last six months – yes, it has been on the boil that long, and no, I don’t see that as a problem.  Sometimes a story evolves in a rush, others it takes time to see the ‘true’ line to take.

Re-reading it all, I surprised myself.  I’d forgotten several of those early ideas, and I was glad to find that although they were fragments, the writing was pretty good.  Of course, there was room for editing.  Isn’t there always? However, the overall picture was of a consistent ‘story world’.  Great, I thought.  I shan’t need to waste anything.  I’ll just figure out how to put it together.

Which is what I’ve been doing for the last two months, really.  I’ve been justifying my reading as research, and my fiddling about with those sketches and scenes as plotting, but, I’ve not added any new writing to the original story or the potential novel.  There’s nothing to show for the hours at my desk.

So I realise that what I’ve written today could be described as a confession.  I’ve been a little more subtle than washing the floor or cleaning the windows, but have I just found another variation on my old enemy, The Displacement Activity?

Well, I’m not so sure.  It seems to me that The Displacement Activity is as much about state of mind, as it is the physical action involved. Perhaps this is just me, trying to make myself feel better.  But it could be because this week I went back to reading short stories with a group again, and in the process of discussing with them the nature of short stories, I reminded myself of the Iceburg Theory.

You’ve probably come across it, but just in case, here’s the relevant quote from Hemingway’s, Death in The Afternoon.

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

No, I haven’t figured out how to pull my short story together, but that doesn’t matter, because I’ve remembered now how I was able to discard those old ideas, and I’m ready to move forwards with it, when the time comes.  Meanwhile, I’ve improved my understanding of how story works – both long and short and I’ve got a fresh story idea to start on today.  That’s got to be worthwhile, hasn’t it?

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Looking for Structure

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off the camera hard-drive 020The plumbing has gone wrong in our bathroom.  It’s not too serious, no flooding, just a constant dripping in the cistern.  I’m not sure why we thought taking the lid off was a clever idea, neither of us are practical.  I know where the stop-tap is, and he can wire a plug or reset the trip-switch, but we should have known better than to unscrew a modern flushbox without making notes.

The old toilet, the one we replaced because it kept leaking, had an old-fashioned ballcock.  There was a brass lever with a plastic float on the end, and a bit to unscrew so that we could replace the washer.  See, I even know a couple of correct terms for that one.

The new one though, that’s a complicated system of nylon levers, tubes and boxes that were holding the lid in place.  So, as soon as we undid the top we began to dismantle the mechanism, and now we’re stuck.  The only kind of deconstruction and construction I’ve ever been any good with is the literary sort.

This means, that I can see how the saga of our toilets could become a metaphor for story on several levels, but can’t figure out how those nylon tubes slot back together.  So let’s set aside that trail of plumbing-innuendo I am working hard to avoid, and think about short story structure.

We start, surely, with the simple linear plot: a beginning followed by a middle that leads to an end.  Nothing neater.  Those linear plots may be as old as speech, and they’re not worn-out yet.  They make a lot of readers and listeners and writers happy, and don’t be misled by the word ‘simple’, pulling off a successful story is no easy task.  If it’s going to work properly everything has to fit neatly, just like that cistern.

The advantage of something straightforward is that it’s open to re-interpretation.  Technicians can make dynamic or sophisticated designs based on the principles of collecting and releasing water: writers can follow or work against the form.

Only there’s a ‘B’ word to use here.  It’s a ‘But’, because they have to know and understand the form first.  Okay, some people appear to be natural story-tellers, and have an instinctive understanding of what is needed to engage us with a tale.  Do they?  Are we sure?  Is it really down to natural genius?

Let’s say it is.  Where does that leave the rest of us?

How about with the trainee plumbers, mechanics, watch-menders and technicians, taking the backs off stories and opening them up to see how they work?

When You Can’t Throw It Away.

DSCF4814I woke, in the middle of last night, with a brilliant idea for this weeks’ blog.  It wasn’t a dream, I was awake for half an hour or more, forming sentences into a coherent stream.  I had it all worked out beautifully.

I keep a notebook on the bedside table for that kind of situation, but last night I ignored it.  The idea was so powerful and logical that I was certain it was securely lodged in my mind.

When I later woke-up properly it was, of course, gone, or almost.  All I could remember was that I had evolved a simple but unique way of describing the way short stories work.

I do remember how chuffed I was with my ability to build such a sturdy argument, but in this cold morning light, I find it impossible to reconstruct any of those unique fragments.  Everything I think of now has definitely been said before.

So instead, I am thinking about the real value of those night-time notes I do make.  It’s true, that I rarely use them directly.  Often they are barely coherent, which may be either a fault of my note-making, or a reflection of the true state of my semi-conscious mind, and even when they do make sense it is generally true to say that they prove less unique and fantastic than I remember them being.

The fact is though, I need them to exist.  I use them as triggers to expand, explore and discard ideas.  I don’t know whether those middle-of-the-night thoughts come from the conscious or subconscious mind, but I do know that even though I always discover that the connections I made then are more obvious than they seemed, they are part of my idea-development process, and knowing what I will not use is often as much use as deciding what is relevent.

It’s possible that if I had written them down, I could have taken a fragment from those ideas and worked it into something more viable.  But because I couldn’t be bothered to reach for my pen and paper I’m haunted by the suspicion that I actually did have an unreproducable eureka moment in the middle of the night.

Could anything be worse?

The Story of Two.

Do you remember this?DSCF4810

Once two is two,

Two twos are four,

Three twos are six

Four twos are eight

I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s how I learned my tables.  I think of it as one of the many poems I learned in infant class.

‘No,’ says my father. ‘It’s not a poem, it doesn’t rhyme: it’s maths.’

‘True,’ I say. ‘But what about the rhythm and repetition?’  I begin to recite, ‘Once-two-is-two…’ and behind me, I hear the echo of my infant classmates.  I have a flashback of our terrapin classroom, and remember how the waves of heat drifted up through the wire mesh guard around the storage heater; the runnels of rain dribbled down the outside of the windows, and Miss Johnson, in her pink tweed skirt and beige frilly shirt, bounced a wooden ruler along the rows of chalked squiggles on the wooden blackboard, keeping us in time.  Was it really always winter when I was in the infants class?

‘That’s just a chant,’ Dad says.

‘Can’t a chant be a poem?’ I say.

Our discussion goes round familiar circles that draw in the proper poetry Dad grew up with.  He’s not a big reader, but he knows what he likes, it’s what he calls traditional.  He has an anthology that he can dip into and find a suitable response to anything I offer.

I argue that rhyming in poetry is actually quite modern.  ‘It probably didn’t get to England until 1066, and not everyone approved of it. Even a couple of hundred years later there were people saying that proper poetry shouldn’t rhyme.’

‘Ah, but all the best poems do rhyme.’

I like discussing poems with Dad. I’m never going to change his mind, or he mine. That’s not why we return to our topic now and again. We stretch each other, coming, as we do from different standpoints.  Sometimes we like the same poems, but not for the same reasons.

For one thing, I approach poems in much the same way I do a story.  The ones I like best can be unpicked to reveal not just how they work, but  when something else is going on, just below the surface.  There might be a build up of symbols, of images or ideas.  There might be tricks going on with vowels or consonants, clues that have been embedded in the text by the author.   A story or poem that seemed one thing on the page might transform when heard.  Sounds replicate or reflect each other, emphasis can shift, repetitions resonate…The variations are as limitless as the ideas and interests of their authors, and then the readers.

One of the first rules I learned about short story was the same one that poets understand: Every word must count.  Each must work for its place in a text, not just because of its part in creating a sentence, but in the whole story.

Except that there never is a complete story with a piece of good prose. Each individual who reads or recites a text understands it in their own way, according to their experiences.  For me, the joy of poetry and story is that the rules are never quite fixed.  Yes, rules are important, and it’s a good idea to understand them, but if they become a formula, doesn’t the resulting text risk becoming as predictable as Once-Two-is-Two?