When you don’t start with a plot…

I couldn’t think what to write this week.  This is my fifth start.  However, my deadline is approaching, so the pressure is on. I have to go with whatever slips onto the screen.

Actually, I prefer this way.  You know that old Tommy Cooper joke, ‘I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not quite sure’? That’s me.  I’m hopeless with all kinds of decisions if I’m given some space, from what to order in cafés; to deciding on paint colours; which film to see, or which book to read next. In such situations, ditherers like me can be time-consuming nuisances.

Set me a snap-decision-situation, though, and I’m transformed.  In writing terms, I’m what’s technically referred to as a ‘seat of the pants-er’. I tend towards instinct rather than working to a plan.

Even when copying notes from the page onto my laptop, I often stray from the original, and it only takes a couple of extra words to throw a character off-plot.    I used to try and control this, to align the new material to my original plan. It never worked. Situations became forced, characters acted in unnatural ways, spoke lines I didn’t believe in.

Some writers work out every stage of their story before they pick up a pen, or touch the keyboard.  I’ve tried pre-plotting: used post-its, mind-mapping, charts, story-boards…  They’re in boxes at the back of my office, mouldering.  Ideas may have spun off them, but the careful central workings remain untouched. Why?  They feel wrong.

It was workshops that helped me to become comfortable with ‘pants-er’ writing. Taking part in timed-exercises, when the aim is to produce a first draft for re-working at home, often I’d produce something that felt close to complete.  Sometimes it was only as I took my turn in reading out, that I realised the sense of what I’d written.  I’d come away from those sessions walking on air.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGradually I learned to trust my creative responses.  Over the years I’ve stopped measuring how random or surreal a starting point is.  I let the words, the characters, lead me.  Sometimes they go no-where, but I keep them.  I’ve found, often, that it can take time for the sense of a piece of writing to become clear.  The opening lines for one of my stories that made it into an anthology waited over a year in my notebook, before I began to see what it could become.

*Picture by By Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40274671

Free-writing part 3

With a stunning lack of foresight, last spring, when I was arranging my autumn term, I set myself up with four classes that would each be discussing different novels in the same weeks.  Consequently, I’ve recently been on a readathon, and my writing time has been squashed into snatched fragments.

book pileAt least most of my brain space has been taken up with some excellent literature.  How could I have forgotten how brilliant Tolstoy was?  Meanwhile, I’ve been discovering new joys – particularly Dorothy L. Sayers.  Re-reading her carefully, as I prepare class notes, opens up all sorts of literary trails.  I shall definitely be looking at some of her other novels again.

I’m about half-way through Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives Tales with one group, and reminding myself that he is not so dusty as he’s sometimes painted; while nearing the end of Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at The Museum with another.  It’s been a fascinating autumn, but hectic.

So given only an occasional five minutes writing time, I decided the best use I could make of that space was to take my own often offered advice, and free-write.  The result is a satisfyingly expanding notebook.

These jottings are intended as rough drafts: a collection of words I might ‘mine’ for ideastimer at a later date.  No sense intended, only a fancy to free myself from the restrictions of preparing reading groups.    I set the clock for five minutes then let my pen lead the way.

Describing the process is always challenging, so I’ve decided this week to share one of my quicker fragments.

She would always want the things that he told her were unobtainable belonging to worlds that had not yet visited the western leaning curves and when the dog left home without her nothing would stay where it was but electricity sang when the moon rose and bloomed in delightful sequences of song that lifted lifetimes from their shoulders the past disappeared and gravity took years from their faces because the long winded clock gave up they were free, see the sea, shallowing and delightful, played with her ankles drawing her deeper towards a world she had never imagined.

If you’re wondering what I might do with this, I’m not sure yet.

On a previous post, Random ramblings that work I’ve gathered some thoughts on the benefits of using time in this way.

If you’ve never tried free-writing, and would like to have a go, I’ve put a recipe on Writing Blocks – strategy 2.

Finding the right story-strand.

Sometimes we need to be reminded of the obvious.  As one of those tutors who likes to stress the importance of re-drafting, this week I was forced to think about what I do when I came across this Phillip Pulman quote:

I don’t agree with the emphasis that teachers lay on drafting.  I never write drafts – I write final versions.  I might write a dozen final versions of the same story, but with each one I set out to write it as a final version.

Is this a good point?

I agree that we should aim for excellence in all our drafts, and intend them to be flawless.  But, I’m not sure that this approach is encouraging to the less experienced writer.

In my own case, one of the most liberating discoveries I made was that great writing is usually achieved through a process of re-draftings.  George Eliot’s notebooks of Middlemarch, scribbled over with extra ideas and corrections, were reassuring. I can’t say whether she thought of them as drafts or final versions, what I needed to understand, was that she re-worked her writing.

Most good writers do the same.  We just don’t always have evidence of that available.

I share this revelation with my writing groups, because too many people doubt their abilities if they don’t create a flawless and beautiful piece of writing at the first try.

On the other hand, when drafting there are times when it feels as if I’m wandering in theSpiderinwebL_tcm4-571483 midst of a labyrinth, and Ariadne hasn’t just supplied me with a single story thread, I’ve got a fist full of possible routes.  Pulman’s suggestion offers a sensible solution: stop dithering, go back to the beginning and start again.

Sounds like a reworking of the solution another spider offered to Robert the Bruce.  There’s never just the one rule in writing, it seems…

*Photo: http://www.stephen-coley.com/blog/spiders/

Thoughts on recycling for writers

Re-reading old diaries, fragments mostly, I cringe and promise myself that one of these days I will have a bonfire.  One of these days?  Why wait? The ground is dry and I’ve other garden rubbish that needs destroying.

Well, there are environmental considerations.  I try to be responsible about my carbon footprint, perhaps the diaries should go into the compost bin.  It’s probably not so romantic an image to think of them slowly being eaten away by the microbes, worms and slugs who process the weeds and peelings we generate, but it’s practical.

Let’s pause a moment, and imagine harvesting the carrots, cabbages and flowers that have been boosted by a creative compost.  There’s so much energy in my old diaries that they’re sure to improve the productivity of my veg plot. Hah, I’ll cry, take that you plant-whispering, foliage-fondling (yes, there is a theory that stroking leaves improves a plant’s growth), moon-phase-sowing radical gardeners, as I sweep the board at the local garden show.  Only you and I will know the secret of my success.

Stanley Spencer paintingCan I bring myself to do it though? While I don’t want anyone else to discover the mundane or angst-ridden moments of my life, let-alone discover the unedited ramblings littered with comic-book punctuation, the diaries are a writing resource.  I haven’t exactly logged weather, politics and the latest fads or fancies, yet they’re there, implied by the activities and pre-occupations I’ve written about.

Reading them time-slips me back to those moments.  There are things I’d forgotten about daily routines, visits, the dynamics of family, friends and neighbours, that when re-read evoke how I felt at that time. Add to that the advantage of distance, which allows me to recognise an alternative shape for some of the stories I’ve recorded, and I am reminded of a favourite quote by Hilary Mantel:

I have sat, at moments of purest heartbreak, in mental agony, and put my thoughts on paper, and then I have taken those thoughts and allocated them to one of my characters, largely for comic effect.

So, I’ll hold back from destruction just now, and dip into them for some inspiration.

I wonder though, should I put a clause in my will?  Perhaps I’ll revive the custom of grave-goods.  If there is an after-life I’d like to give myself a head-start in ‘the writing game’ (as Katherine Mansfield called it).

And, the gesture would be in-keeping with the tendency towards gothic-melodrama that my diaries reveal I’m prone to.

 

*Illustration: Sunflower and Dog Worship, 1937, by Sir Stanley Spencer. 

Hearts and minds are in currency.

Have you been looking for a way to both have displacement activities and make time for writing?  Would you like a solution that doesn’t involve a series of complicated spread-sheets and rotas, or the setting up of rigorous rules about how you divide your day?

Well, dare to dream.  This week I was supplied with a solution, and I’m going to share it with you.   Yes you, for free.

We all know how tricky it can be to make time for our writing, well despair no more.  I’ve discovered a simply wonderful gadget that will remove all need for self-discipline, scheduling and juggling of priorities, and not only is it on the internet, all the models are pre-owned, so it gains points on environmental grounds too.

Is there a catch?

Anything this good has to have a drawback, doesn’t it?  The Time Machines of Tomorrow – Yesterday website states that:

…you will not be permitted to buy, own or operate such a device before 26/05/2514. Due to strict continuum and time line regulations it is forbidden to allow technology to be sold before the technology exists.

If you’re interested, and can spare some time to speculate right now, I recommend a visit to the Used Time Machines website.  There are eight fascinating models to fantasise about.

time machineOn the 26th of May, 2514, this Philips Portal will cost – ♥ 12.9.

Even if you don’t have enough spare Bitcoins gathering dust down the back of your favourite chair, or tons of ‘hearts’ to spare  (do any of us, these days?), you could start planning, now.

I’m sure that if anyone can figure out how to overcome this, minor inconvenience, a writer can.

In fact, with so much time available, mightn’t it be worth thinking big, and aiming for the delux version?  The Lightyear 404 is a military model, so it’s big enough to carry a platoon of people.

Remember the old saying that the more we share, the more there is to go around?  This is me passing the message on.  Good luck.  I hope you’ll let me know if you work it out.  If we aim big, there should be room for all of us, shouldn’t there? 

time machine 2

What makes an artist?

I went out on an errand yesterday and left the radio on.  I was only supposed to be gone a minute or so, but gave in to gossiping, so by the time I returned my provincial play had been replaced by an American voice I vaguely recognised.  Time to get back to my paperwork, I thought, heading for the off-switch.

‘I had no idea what kind of composer I wanted to become,’ the man was saying. Kerry Shale, I thought, can’t mistake him.  But who is he being?  Fact or fiction?  It was a fatal hesitation.

Mahler-Symphony-9-Grant-Park-audition‘My study of the orchestra’, he continued, ‘came through a time-honoured practice of the past, copying out original scores.  In my case, I took Mahler’s ninth symphony as my subject and I literally copied it out note for note on full size orchestra paper.’

I was hooked.  One of the little cartoon characters racing round in my head gave the attention bell a resounding ping.  Musicians did that too?

Shale continued, ‘This is exactly how painters in the past studied painting.  Even today, some can be seen in the museums, making copies of traditional paintings.  This business of copying from the past is a most powerful tool for training and developing a solid tool for orchestration technique.’

The cartoon character in my head stopped ringing her bell and turned to cartoon character two. ‘You see?’ she said triumphantly. ‘You see?  Isn’t this what I’ve been telling you all along? It’s not just painters who need to keep a sketch-book: all artists learn by studying the work of previous generations.’

‘He didn’t say study,’ objected character two.

‘But you must see that’s what he was doing,’ said character one.  ‘How could an artist copy out a work of art and not learn something about the means of its construction?’

‘Sounds like plagiarism to me.  And what about innovation?’

‘Surely that comes from an understanding of the past.’

‘Well,’ said character two, ‘I don’t want to have my writing infected by someone else’s style and ideas.’

‘Mmm,’ said character one.  ‘It’s not an exercise that suits everyone.’

Meanwhile Kerry Shale read on, and I looked up the schedule to see if I’d correctly guessed the author.  I don’t know much about music, apart from whether or not I like the sound of it.  But I do know a well shaped story when I hear one.  It was the memoirs of Phillip Glass, Words Without Music.

Time I widened my musical horizons, I think.

 

 

A breath of fresh air.

I’m sorting through the papers on my desk when the office door is slung open, and in walks my mentor.  ‘So, is this what you call writing?’ she says, nudging at the heaps of notes.

I put a saving hand on the avalanche.  ‘Just clearing a space,’ I say, ‘sorting it all out.’

‘Course you are.’

‘I can’t think in this muddle.’

Mentor leaves the doorway and leans past me to throw open the window, drawing in a gust of wind that scatters my tidying across shelves, floor and my lap.  All that’s left on the desk is my brand-new notebook.  ‘Look at that,’ she says.  ‘You haven’t even creased the spine yet. What would Ruth say?’

‘I would have found it.’

‘After you’d read everything on top of it.  Then what?  Lunch, I suppose, or do I mean tea?’

‘It wouldn’t have taken me that long.  Anyway, I’m saving this notebook,’

‘For something special?’  Mentor scuffs her walking boot through the drift of words on the floor, crumpling and creasing.

I wince.  ‘Do you have to?’  I say.

Mentor snorts, and turns abruptly, scrunching more paper, then exits, leaving the door and window open.

window

The Siren & Other Strange Tales: Six Supernatural Stories by Sheila Williams.

the siren 2Are you looking for something new to read?  Here’s an interesting selection of approaches to the supernatural that is well worth a look at, easily downloaded from Amazon.

There are a variety of geographical and historical settings.  My favourite is the title story, The Siren, a North-East coast of England story, vividly told.  I swear I felt the draft of that wind, despite sitting in warm sunshine on the other side of the country.

Sometimes, it’s good to dance with things that defeat rational explanation, and how better to do that than in fiction?  That’s just what Sheila Williams has done.  How do I know?  Because I’ve read her blog.  Click ‘This‘ and you can too.

We don’t often get the chance to see where a writer’s inspiration came from.  This glimpse provides a few clues about how you can use what you know to write what you don’t know.  I like that.

the siren

Watching Marlon Brando: thoughts about story.

Saturday evening I watched a documentary about Marlon Brando.  The program, presented by Alan Yentob, used a lot of private Brando footage as well as the usual publicity material and film excerpts.  He was a more reflective man than I’d expected.  I suppose what I remember, aside from the iconic films, are the flamboyant marlonbrandomj096ftnews-stories that surrounded him.

I’ve never really thought about the human side of his life-in-the-headlines, until I listened to what he had to say, not only about his private life, but also about his acting.  What I heard were doubts and fears I could identify with.

It wasn’t one of those destructive, feet-of-clay shows that revel in demonstrating how flawed our best-loved celebrities really are.  This felt more like the rounding out of a character that I’d never quite been able to see.  At the end I had insights into a way of life beyond my usual experiences, and sympathy for a lifestyle that I’d viewed as shallowly flamboyant.  Those ideas may or may not be accurate: what matters is that my perceptions shifted…perhaps widened?  I hope so.

I didn’t stay up to watch On The Waterfront that night, but I will go back to some of his films.  I have an idea that knowing more about him will affect the way I view them.

I’m reminded that at the heart of most good stories is character, flawed, to lesser or greater degree.  What dictates where the empathy of the reader, or viewer, will be placed is how the story is presented.  Thinking about fiction particularly, aren’t some of the most interesting, and memorable characters the ones whose behaviour we find challenging, even scary – or offensive?

One of the theories about why we read, is that we read to understand.  I like that, both from the angle of writing and reading…both work for me.

marlon_brando_gallery_12

 

The joys of a Treasure Hunt

Once, these were the staple event of children’s birthday-party games.  Remember?  The simplest, youngest, versions took place in a sitting room, with an adult directing us:  ‘Hotter, hotter, no colder, freezing-colder … that’s better, warming up…’  I know it wasn’t just me who got excited, because that game was always followed by: ‘I think we need to calm down now.  Let’s play statues.’

It disappeared from the party menu long before pass-the-parcel or charades.  I suspect it was too stressful, both to organise and, to watch as the carefully tidied party-house was usually dismantled in the process.  Hide-and-seek was an easier replacement.  It was fun, but lacked the sense of story that a true treasure hunt has.

enid-blyton-illustration-famous-fiveI think the hours I spent with Julian, George, Dick, Anne and Timmy gave me high expectations, because although I’ve never told anyone before, I’m ready to share my certainty that one day a treasure clue would come my way.  I wasn’t sure I’d be as clever and brave as the Famous Five, but I lived in expectation of adventure.

Long John Silver had shown me what a real treasure map looked like.  There was no sign of one in any of our books or boxes, and believe me, I looked.  So one summer afternoon my friend Jane and I created our own treasure map.

It took hours.  This was no casual project.  It was paced out, checked with a compass and taken through several drafts before we made our best copy.  There were landmarks, written clues, and a large scarlet X to mark the spot where we had buried a carefully wrapped ladybird book for our brothers to find.

The final document was drawn on a heavy fly-leaf that I ripped from an old book.  I hope it wasn’t anything precious, even then I don’t think I would have damaged a book unless it was already in a bad way.  But if I did, it was worth it.  I can still remember how impressive the finished article was.  We artistically ripped the edges, then aged it with cold coffee before rolling it up, tying it with a red ribbon, and hiding it in a jar.  Then we handed out the first clue.

Much later I created treasure hunts for my niece’s birthday parties.  Each one reminded me of that long summer afternoon.  I don’t know what we did with that first map.  Perhaps it’s still tucked amongst the paint pots in Dad’s shed.

pirates-of-the-caribeanThis year my grown-up nieces asked me to create another Treasure Hunt, for Boxing Day.  It was fun working it out.  This time the map was in my head: the clues were anagrams, puns, allusions and poems that I secreted along a footpath to a distant field, then back again.  While the family were out of sight, I snuck into the garden and set a final leg that led them round the house, to finish with a hoard of chocolate coins hidden near where they’d started.

And you know what?  It was a creative buzz.  In this story I had real characters to work with.  I’d set them a journey that I hoped they would be able to pull off, but I wasn’t sure.  I climbed up on the picnic table to watch for them.  Was it too easy?  Was it too hard?

Oh, the relief when they came into view.  Keeping out of sight, I watched them track the next clue, then gather to read and discuss it.  I sneaked closer, and eavesdropped. Even when I saw that it was working, I couldn’t walk away.  This was story, and I was in it too, a flawed, but omniscient narrator.