I wrote this piece for myself, back in November of 2010, almost exactly three years before I finally published Vokhtah. I was struggling and trying to work out why [Vokhtah began as a story for Nanowrimo 2004].
Although we all write in different ways, the struggle can often feel the same. I hope this helps someone get over the hump and keep writing.
Insights into writing
The first flash of inspiration is like seeing scenes from a movie that someone has cut and scattered like a moving jigsaw puzzle. Some of these pieces of the movie are quite lengthy and give hints as to character, motivation, culture etc. Others are small and cryptic and give little indication as to where, or even when, they fit into the overall flow of the movie. The only things these disjointed scenes have in common is that they are very vivid and give you the feeling that the story will be worth teasing out.
So you start writing. First you try and reproduce in words the visual and emotional events of each scene. Then, as you become more and more immersed in the unfolding story you attempt to connect up the dots. Sometimes these connections pop into your head very easily, in much the same way as bold, distinctive elements of a jigsaw puzzle make it obvious that they should be connected, but most of the time you fill in the gaps with more or less logical possibilities that will allow you to get from one vivid scene to the next.
Unfortunately these logical possibilities are almost always a ‘fudge’. Again, using the jigsaw puzzle analogy it’s like trying to work a puzzle without having a reference picture to tell you what should be there. So you end up connecting up all the blue or bluish bits in the hope that they are all part of the sky. As anyone who has ever struggled with a jigsaw puzzle will know ‘blue bits’ can also belong to pools and ponds and clothing and children’s toys. So these connecting bits are rarely right however they do serve a necessary purpose – they bring the picture into clearer focus and eventually highlight the missing parts of the story in negative.
So you keep on writing in flashes and eventually you end up with a plot, of sorts, and some characters and even, if you are lucky, some motivation and background but it is still very sketchy. Yes, the story hangs together, just barely, but when you re-read it the clunky bits become painfully obvious and the fudges shriek ‘contrived’ and the characters lack depth. As for the background and all those things that add texture and context to a story, they’re just not there. Your first draft is finished but you don’t like it very much. Those first, vivid scenes may be good but overall, the story sucks.
Enter the first edit. For me this usually begins after re-reading page one. I always have trouble with openings, perhaps because the vivid bit that got me started in the first place actually belongs in the middle somewhere instead of at the beginning. Dissatisfied with the opening I try and massage the prose but I am a storyteller rather than an artist who paints with words so this massaging really only accomplishes one thing: it forces me to acknowledge where the problems lie and what vital things are missing.
Now some people read wholly and solely for the story, skipping all the descriptive bits so they can get to the next ‘event’. I have to admit that I’m a bit like that myself however the best books I’ve ever read have been the ones so rich in texture and detail and personality that they force me to slow down. These books make me want to read every word so that I don’t miss any part of the amazing world that is unfolding. These books also make me want to know the characters, find out what makes each one ‘tick’. In these books each character, even the minor ones, has a distinctive, individual voice and feel. The physical appearance of characters in a book are important but nowhere near as important as they would be in a movie because in a book you get to identify them from the inside so how they talk and think, how they express emotions, quirks of body language and far more vital than any mere physical description. When I read I need to identify the characters and identify /with/ them.
Some writers can achieve this depth of characterisation without even appearing to try. Storytellers like me have to work at it and the only way I know how to do it is to see them within the context of their world.
Enter Edit no. 2. This is usually where I start to ask what it is about the character that makes them who and what they are. I start to type notes. Sometimes these notes relate directly to a particular character but often they are little insights into what sort of world organization my story has to have in order for my character to have developed the way they have.
More broad brush strokes – backstory, history, culture, tech, and let’s not forget politics. Out of all these small insights I start to get a much clearer picture of who my characters are and /why/ one developed this way and the other developed in a totally different way.
Again I start fitting the pieces together only to discover that much of this backstory should /not/ be written because the characters themselves take it all for granted and I don’t like stories with a disembodied narrator.
Enter Edit-the-next. I know I want to bring out this textural detail but I want it to come out naturally, to unfold as part of the greater picture rather than as a series of dry lectures. So again I start to edit, this time adding scenes that will allow me to develop both the characters and the background in an intuitive way. Usually this means a massive restructuring of what I’ve written; bringing in new characters, fleshing them out a bit, allowing them to fill in some of the missing bits.
Around about now I realise with a sinking feeling that my simple little story is either going to be one impossibly massive book or…a series. I seem to be fated to write three books more or less at the same time.
Once I realise that I’m dealing with a series I’m hit with the realisation that many scenes I’ve jammed in willy nilly because they had to be told would be far better placed in book 2 or even book 3.
This is when the storytelling task becomes so daunting, so huge, so much damn work that my mind goes blank. The creative juices stop flowing and I find myself unable to continue.
I take a break. I don’t write anything for a day or two. Then life intrudes and the days become a week. Suddenly a whole month has gone past without me writing a single word, or even /thinking/ about writing. With a sinking feeling I recognize that a fallow period is upon me.
Fast forward six months to a year. I’ve been getting a restless feeling that my life is empty. I know what I’d like to do to fill it but…will the words come? Will I have any better luck this time than the last? Will I find the creativity to finally finish this damn story?
I put it off for weeks and then something will happen that jerks me out of my nice, comfortable, non-creative routine. I get up one morning and find that my subconscious has been doing things without me because, lo and behold, it’s been thinking about some plot problem and found a solution to it. Trembling with reluctant hope I open up the word processor and quickly type up a ‘note’. It could lead to other things but I firmly save and exit. Enough for one day.
This claytons type of writing continues for days until finally, at some point I realise that I now /want/ to commit to writing again and the cycle begins again.
I am no longer confident that this cycle will produce the result I so desperately want but I’m learning to approach writing as a workman rather than as an artist. I commit to putting in ‘x’ amount of effort a day. So long as I write, or research, or edit for an hour or two every day I allow myself to feel satisfied with myself.
This may be a strange way to write but it helps me ward off the desperation and hopelessness I feel when the creative juices are not flowing like Niagara after a flood. I still haven’t finished this damn story but I am chipping away at it. Maybe one day…..
I haven’t edited this so it’s a bit raw. Apologies in advance.