It’s been so long since I wrote here, I must first apologise for the protracted absence. One day away just led to another, and then before I knew it that magical momentum had dissipated and no longer drew me back.
The absence was originally due to revising for university exams, which I sat a couple of weeks ago now. It probably went well enough to pass — as long as the examiner can read my handwriting.
The day after the exam my wife and I travelled to London to see Depeche Mode at the Olympic Stadium. That was the night of the horrific attacks. At the time it was happening, the band were performing a rendition of Bowie’s classic song of love, hope, and defiance, “Heroes”. As we passed through London Bridge station on the Jubilee line some 30 minutes later, little did we know the real reason for the station’s closure. It was a dark and worrying time for the whole country.
A week later, our hope for competency and answers from the government were once again put to the test with the UK general election. As though the sitcom called ‘Brexit’ wasn’t farcical enough. We now have a hung parliament led by a robot. But still, let it not be forgotten that Labour has had the greatest increase in votes of any party during this election since 1945. And the clowns otherwise known as UKIP exited stage far right.
In writing news. My current project, which still has the working title of Flat 21, is progressing well. I write every day adding between 1,500 – 2,000 words to it. I am currently on target to complete the 80,000 word first draft before we go on holiday in under a month’s time.
During my work on this, I have confirmed that I am without a doubt a ‘pantser’. I have no concrete plan or plot laid out for this, and this suits me well. I read a useful book called Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. Although Bell concentrates primarily on commercial fiction and his three act approach may seem a little too formulaic, he nevertheless has some interesting ideas worth bearing in mind — even for literary fiction.
One thing I found useful was his chapter on ‘plotting systems’. He mentions various method that ‘planners’ and ‘pantsers’ may benefit from — by either becoming more flexible or more structured depending on your preferred method. There is no right or wrong way, just your way.
From this book I’ve adopted a ‘letter method’ in which I write to myself each day, deepening my understanding of the novel as it progresses, asking what next? and what if? In this way the story and my interpretation grows with it daily. I remain open to possibilities and don’t feel restricted by an already drawn up plan this way.
The other method I’ve found useful is described by Bell as ‘headlights system’. The analogy is that writing is like driving with the headlights on at night. We can only see so far in front each time. So this method does not require you to be able to ‘see’ the whole journey, but at least have an idea of the destination in mind. And at the end of each session jot down a few ideas for any subsequent scenes. And this is repeated until we reach our destination.
My approach on this project is less linear and more fragmented than previous attempts at writing a novel. I have no qualms writing scenes which I feel will be at the end and filling in the gaps. Doing so gives me greater flexibility and opens up more doorways and ideas, where a more linear progression may be more restrictive.
My original premise of a man trying to hold onto his sanity — after a portentous event, ushered in by the arrival of a stranger at the apartment block — has grown. It now encompasses ideas of penal reform; it features a group of conspiracy theorists; explores the nature of reality and identity; and the idea of false memories, and parallel universes.
Hemingway once said that ‘the first draft of everything is shit’. Mine is looking more like a car crash. Ray Bradbury described this very well in his book Zen in the Art of Writing, where he talks about stepping on a landmine each morning and then reassembling the pieces of himself. I am content to let the first draft become whatever mess of ideas it needs to be and collect up, and reassemble the pieces in subsequent drafts.
Another useful book on writing is Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. Dillard’s book isn’t so much as an instructive manual, but rather a beautiful, poetic meditation on the life as a writer. Dillard superbly threads together all facets of life, from the tiniest insect attempting to crawl up a leaf, the daring life of stunt pilots, to the act of splitting logs, and makes it all about writing. In such a way that anybody who has embarked on the beautiful, painful journey of writing will understand. Writing is not just something we do for brief periods, it is not solely about word counts, plots, and character. It is something we live and breathe constantly; it is something we immerse ourselves into from the most unimaginable pleasures to the most mundane activities.