Tag Archives: editing

Learning to write fiction…

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.

cheers

Meeks

 

 


#Innerscape and the joy of negative wordcounts

The title is a little misleading – I don’t actually have a negative wordcount, I have a positive wordcount of 137 for the day – but I am very, very happy.

Why? Because I know I’ve written much, much more than that today.

How much more?

I don’t know. I didn’t check my total wordcount in StoryBox before I deleted a huge chunk of verbiage this morning. That meant I started the day with a negative wordcount, and it’s taken me all day to fill up the gap. So the fact that I do have a positive wordcount is great news, especially as they are all good words, the kind of words I won’t want to delete when I start work on the story again tomorrow.

I know everyone says to ‘just write’ [and edit later], but that’s never been how I work. The story comes to me in fits and starts, and it’s often the nuances that point the way to the next scene. That’s why I write and delete and write again, groping for the story like a mole in a coal mine.

Writing isn’t always painful though. Sometimes I hit patches where everything is crystal clear in my mind, and the writing flows like a river in flood. Those are the times that keep me going because they produce a high that surely rivals the best drug on the market. And it’s free. 🙂

Sadly, the highs have been few and far between the last few months, but yesterday and today I began to see how Innerscape must end. I’m not quite there yet, but I know that when I eventually type the last word, it will be true to my two main characters – Miira and Kenneth.They’ve taken me on a very long journey, but I think I’ve finally done justice to their story. 🙂

cheers

Meeks

p.s. I’ve turned comments off because this is just me, high fiving myself at the end of a great day. -hugs-


#gene editing vs #GMOs

I just read an article about a scientist at Umea university in Sweden who was given permission to grow ‘gene edited’ cabbage in his own garden because…gene editing is not the same as genetic modification.

The regulations around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products have been tricky to navigate, and plants that fall within the definition of a GMO effectively can’t be grown in the field in Europe.

To overcome this, the team at Umea University appealed to the Swedish Board of Agriculture to allow its particular strain of cabbage to fall outside the definition of a GMO. And it worked: since the mutation that causes a lack of the PsbS protein is naturally occurring in some cases, simply intervening to deliberately switch it off is acceptable, as long as no foreign DNA is introduced.

And therein lies the supposed difference between edited and modified genes:

  • modified genes have something added,
  • edited genes merely have something turned off.

The fact that both techniques produce a change in the DNA of the organism is, apparently, ‘a mere technicality, Mr dear Watson’.

I am no geneticist, but I am interested in the field and I can remember when it was thought that genes were all that mattered. In fact, large sections of DNA were considered to be ‘junk’ because they did not ‘do’ anything. Then, as years went by, scientists discovered that this ‘junk’ DNA wasn’t junk at all. They also discovered that genes can be turned on and off and that it is this malleability that is important. Then they discovered that groups of genes, turned on and off, had an effect in combination…

My point in all of this is that genetics is still an evolving science. Geneticists do not know all there is to know about DNA. At best, given the current state of knowledge, they can make educated guesses, but following through with those guesses involves an element of risk. That risk is recognized in the creation of new medicines which must go through years of clinical trials to reduce the likelihood of adverse reactions amongst those who will take those medicines.

With food plants, however, slippery language has allowed geneticists to alter the DNA of plants without having to subject them to the same rigorous testing as medicines. Monsanto began the ‘spin’ by convincing the FDA that genetically altered plants were ‘substantially equivalent’ to their commercially grown cousins, and therefore did not require the same degree of testing.

The argument behind ‘substantial equivalence’ is that farmers have been breeding – i.e. changing the DNA of – plants for millenia and genetic modication is no different, just a bit…faster. The fact that back then, genetic modification was a shotgun approach, literally, by scientists who knew a whole lot less than they do now, did not seem to bother anyone, least of all the FDA. And the fact that US consumers were given no choice in the matter still doesn’t bother the US authorities.

Now, Umea university is playing fast and loose with language again. Why? In order to get around the law as it stands in Europe. New tool, new language, same old spin, same old lie.

The following is an email I sent off just before writing this post:

genetic-editing-email

I don’t expect to receive a response, other than perhaps something derogatory, but I had to make the effort because we in the West are dying of spin, dying of lies, dying of hypocrisy.

Is it really so much to ask that our leaders, and the most emminent minds of our scientists act with integrity?

We are not children, and we are not stupid. If the only way you can get what you want is by trying to fool us, then what you want is not worth having.

Meeks

 


Cures for the not-so-common Blah

I thought I’d be happy when I finished writing Innerscape. Hell, I thought I’d be ecstatic!

– No more getting up at dawn to squeeze in a few hours of writing before the working day began.

– No more dreaming of storylines – and yes, most mornings I wake feeling as if I’ve spent the whole night writing because that’s what my brain has been doing while the rest of me slept.

– No more hitting myself over the head when I can’t get the plot to work.

– No more worrying about not being able to write/finish – and yes, that is the counterpoint to this. 😦

In short, I really believed that once I wrote ‘The End’, I’d leap into real life again with gusto. Not so. In one of those feats of human contrariness, I’m facing the coming weeks of enforced rest* with trepidation. In fact, I feel blah.

For those unaware of the finer points of language, ‘blah’ is a technical term for not knowing what to do with oneself, and feeling miserable as a result. You must remember this :

Okay, the relevance of that video clip is a bit of stretch, but ‘you must remember’ how it felt when you were a teen, and the end of year exams were suddenly over? After all that furious studying there was suddenly – nothing. Part of you still felt as if you had things to do, urgent, important things, but the energy to do them had no outlet.

Well, I’m feeling much the same now, except that this misery is a kind of double-blah because unlike exams, I actually do enjoy writing.

I know the blah will fade as the habit fades, but the paradox is that I’m equally scared of that eventuality – I know what writer’s block feels like, and that misery is even worse than this one. So in an attempt to keep my hand in – without going back to Innerscape – I’ve decided to re-read the very first story I ever wrote. This mammoth, unfinished masterpiece -cough- took up two years of my life, and I still have a four drawer filing cabinet crammed full of research material.

A decade on, I’d like to think I’ll be pleasantly surprised but …I have a six-pack of tissues close at hand just in case. Remember, this is the story I wrote straight after my last technical manual. Yes, I thought you’d understand.

I fully expect to spend the next few days either crying or laughing hysterically. When I emerge, however, I’ll need some more coping mechanisms, so please share your cures for the blah in comments!

Thanks in advance,

Meeks

*I think it was Stephen King who recommended throwing your newly finished manuscript into a drawer for six months before starting to edit. The idea is that time and distance from the story will allow you to see the manuscript with fresh eyes – i.e. see what you actually wrote instead of what you think you wrote. This technique does work, I know it does, but it’s hellishly hard to switch off from a story and characters that have consumed your life for months on end.

 

 


Creativity – the elephant in the room

As a writer, creativity is important to me because without it I would have nothing to say, nothing to write about, however I truly believe that creativity is rather over-rated and the emphasis placed on it is misguided.

To me, creativity is just the spark that ignites a process that may or may not result in the birth of something new. That something could be a piece of music, a painting, a story … or a new theory in the sciences. Yes, I include scientific theories as well as the arts because innovation in any form requires both imagination and the ability to think outside the box. It also requires hardwork, self-discipline, oodles of dedication and the courage to persist in the face of repeated setbacks. Elevating ‘creativity’ above all the other necessary ingredients is like trying to bake a cake with nothing but eggs. If you’re lucky you may end up with an omelette but you sure as hell won’t be eating sponge cake.

And let’s not forget those pesky tools of the trade. Just as cabinet makers need to know how to use hammers, chisels and saws, writers need to know how to spell, punctuate and write grammatically. These are not optional extras!  As a writer I may choose to mangle the language in order to give a character a certain kind of voice, or to create a mood etc but god help me if I do so unintentionally!

Style is another misused tool. Poetic licence should never be invoked to cover up poor writing. Styles in writing have changed a great deal since the time of Dickens but we can still tell good prose from bad. How? By looking at how well it does what it is meant to do. If it captures the reader’s attention and holds it from start to finish without any ‘what the..?’ moments then it is good prose. It may not be great prose but it is good nonetheless because it is doing the job of conveying the content without intruding.  It is neither bloated nor awkward and it rarely needs to be skimmed because none of it is superfluous. And good prose never makes you re-read a passage to tease meaning out of a sentences groaning with clauses.

What then is great prose?

To me, great prose is good prose that also happens to be lyrical and evocative,  or just plain beautiful. ‘A Postillion Struck by Lightning’ by the late Dirk Bogarde is one of those rare books that exemplify what great contemporary prose should be. I rarely read biographies much less autobiographies but… let’s just say that I made an exception for Dirk Bogarde the actor and fell in love with Dirk Bogarde the writer. The story he told was quite ordinary – I’m sure countless children of his day would have had similar experiences –  yet he made it special because he told it so well.

“The sun had been up only a little while and beside me, close to my face, so that it was actually all blurry and looked like an eagle, was a burnet-moth on a bit of grass, feeling the sun and waiting for the dusk to come.”

This complicated sentence should not work yet it does because the punctuation is perfect, as is the flow of imagery from boy lying in the grass to moth being watched by boy. It conjures images familiar from our own childhoods. And the creativity lies not in the content but in the telling.

I believe great prose can lift any content, even if it is not particularly imaginative or ‘creative’ but even the best content cannot make a book enjoyable if we are forever tripping over the writer’s more mundane inadequacies. So let the creativity take care of itself and focus on the telling. You may be surprised by how good the finished product becomes.


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