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Writing Ideas and Inspirations (10)
For the tenth in this series on writing, I thought I'd focus on novels - looking at where my ideas come from, getting started, keeping going and all the other bits in between that get in the way before I reach the end.
What to Write
I've no doubt said this before but I'll say it again for anyone out there who still doesn't know: that old adage about everyone having a book in them is a crock of crap.
Yes, I know there are folks who've had fascinating and exciting lives, but that doesn't mean those lives will make interesting reading. It also doesn't mean the person who had that life possess one ounce of talent when it comes to putting it all down on paper.
A good few years ago, I had a close friend who'd had a bit of a rubbish life - he'd been through some of the worst experiences a human being can endure - abuse, illness, homelessness, the lot, but he'd come through it still smiling. As he got older, he decided he'd like to share those experiences and maybe pass on a sense of the hope and optimism that had grown out of his situation.
In theory it sounded great. However, when he gave me some of his early drafts and asked for feedback, it was all I could do to keep my opinion to myself. It was drivel: random, confused, badly written, with no discernible structure or storyline whatsoever. It was also incredibly boring.
I made a few suggestions, but the painful truth is that writing isn't one of those things anyone can do 'if they put their mind to it', Writing requires discipline, common sense and above all, talent. (Though, it's worth pointing out that talent is one of those slippery wee creatures that has to be worked at, practised, honed).
My Incredibly Boring Life— Lackluster Jack
Of course, I'm not saying no-one should ever write about their own experiences, since personal experience is a great way to inform your writing - showing how it felt, how it affected you and how it impacted on your life. The problem - and this applies to all novel writing - is that unless you have some talent for storytelling, the chances are it's going to end up sounding a bit like my friend's writing.
But - good writers don't have to go through painful, exciting or scary situations to be able to write about them. My characters face all sorts of terrible scenarios including murder, kidnapping and torture, but I've never done any of those things. It's all about using our imaginations.
What Should I Write About?
While it's true that many writers need a bit of a push in the ideas department, it's also true that most writers have the ability to take something - a phrase, a place, an object - and run with it. We use our imaginations - we don't expect Madame Muse to hop along with a blueprint detailing every paragraph. But of course, we still need that starting point.
Better the Devil You Know
The first novel I wrote was a middle-grade kids adventure which eventually became known as 'The Devil's Porridge Gang'. For many months, the only thing I had in terms of inspiration was the original (shorter) title: 'Devil's Porridge'. The idea of a 'gang' came later. So, to begin with...
- I didn't know who the characters were
- I didn't know what the novel was going to be about
- I didn't know when of where it was going to be set
For a long time, I simply let the title float around in my head, gathering momentum. But even when I did start to write, I still only had a vague idea of where it was going. However, I did make two decisions:
- Start at the end
- Set it in 1969
Starting at the End
Strictly speaking, I didn't start at the end, but I did start close to the end. In technical terms this is called 'in media res', meaning 'in the middle'. The idea is to hook the reader in with something that causes them to wonder what happened to the characters to bring them to this point in time. Although to be fair, I didn't deliberately think to myself "I know - I'll hook the reader in with a bit of 'in media res..." It was simply a decision that would enable me to have one of the main characters killed off right there in the prologue.
Yeah, I know what you're thinking - killing off a character in a children's book? And right at the beginning? But it seemed like a good idea at the time, and I still think it works.
The Land of Not Planning
Regular readers of my scribblings will be familiar with this concept, but just to clarify:
- I am not a planner
I can't see the point of knowing the ending of my novel before I write it, so I try as far as possible to stay marginally ahead of my characters. I think this gives me that spark of spontaneity that all novels need and helps to maintain an element of surprise.
Of course, I have to know something about the story, but ideally, the cliffhangers, the unexpected twists, and the final outcome will come to me shortly before they happen in the story. The only problem with writing in this way is that it can mean I end up doing a massive chunk of re-writing in order for the later chapters to make sense with the earlier ones. But that's fine.
The Time, the Place
The original idea behind setting the story in 1969 was twofold: firstly, I wanted to have an element of my own childhood in there, and that particular year always stands out in my memory. However, I certainly wasn't intending the novel to reflect my own life - rather, the feeling of how I remember childhood, the places I played, the friends I had and so on. The novel was to be the sort of adventure I'd read about in Enid Blyton's books and the Hardy Boys stories. In short, the sort of adventure I never had.
The second reason for setting it in 1969 was because of the moon landings. I had a vague idea of having a scene set early in the morning on the day of that momentous event, when the villains would be sat there watching TV and the kids would manage to escape. (I think this was inspired by a similar scene in '101 Dalmatians'). However, the timeframe didn't work and I ended up doing something else. But I still liked the idea of somehow blaming Neil Armstrong for what happens in the story.
The Land of Not Planning (Again)
'The Devil's Porridge Gang' wasn't a new experience for me in terms of the lack of planning, since I had pretty much always written that way. Nevertheless, because it was a novel (rather than a short story) and obviously had to be more than a couple of thousand words, I wasn't completely sure I'd be able to 'wing it' for the whole distance.
In the event, I did occasionally grind to a stop, wondering if I should work out the ending (so I could work out how to get there), but thankfully, I resisted and the novel got to the finish line in its own sweet time.
So What Did I Learn?
I imagine that all first novels must leave their creators with a sense of accomplishment - passing the 50,000 word mark was a bit of a thrill for me - as well as recognizing a few things that perhaps might be best avoided the next time I embarked on such a project.
Things not to do:
The regular breaks I took between chapters due to lack of inspiration was difficult, as it meant I needed to generate greater momentum each time to get started on the next chapter. I now know that instead of puzzling over how to continue, I should've just ploughed on and the story would (somehow) work itself out. I do still have to work at the ploughing-on thing, but I've found that it's better to write and not be sure what the hell's happening, than not to write.
There's a section in the novel that I now see is completely irrelevant to the story, and in fact is almost a short story in itself. I puzzled over this for a long while, but eventually left it in as I think it tells us something about the relationships between the characters. Even so, it gave me an awareness of the particular way I'd begun the novel and how it kind of winds its way into the story, taking time to establish characters, rather than starting with a scene that's more dramatic.
Another thing I learned was that leaving any kind of prolonged gap in my writing schedule - whether I'm working on a novel, a story or even a Hub article - is that I really do need to write every day. And it doesn't really matter what I'm writing, so long as I'm creating something.
Whenever I don't write for a day or two, getting started again is always that much more difficult - like not riding a bike for a few weeks then getting on it again and wondering why you've got a sore butt. Writing is like a muscle and it needs exercise.
So What's Next?
The day after I finished writing 'The Devil's Porridge Gang', I started writing another novel - 'The Architect's Apprentice'. With that one, I got into the action much quicker, avoided anything that wasn't relevant to the story and I worked on it every day. And, as Susan Orlean says: