Walking the Tightrope of Doom between juicy and confusing.

What to do with my multitudinous plot strands? (a) Fashion them into a natty hairpiece, (b) weave a folksy rug, (c) tempt my cats to chase them, or (d) all of the above.

Answers on a postcard, please.

You may think I’m joking (and you may, of course, be right) but, finding myself at the midway point of my novel-in-progress (let’s call it my NIP), I’m genuinely perplexed by plot strands. ‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!’ Right on, Sir Walter, because what is a novel if not a giant pack of lies? I’m accustomed to writing short stories – where sub-plots are the kiss of death – but a novel needs plenty of strands for the reader to grab at, and several times recently I’ve surprised myself with a corking great strand that’s emerged from the ether like ectoplasm from a Victorian psychic’s underskirts, and what else can you do – when ectoplasm rears its gooey head – but catch hold of it, run with it, cackle with glee that you’re so in the zone that your novel’s begun to write itself. (N.B. I do not recommend performing any of these tasks with actual ectoplasm.)

The birthing of an accidental plot strand.

The birthing of an accidental plot strand.

And then, hello, it’s the following morning and, look, it’s all gone tits up now. You turn to your Scrivener cork board to see what you’ve planned for yourself and you brew your morning barrel of [insert name of preferred caffeinated beverage] and merrily tap out another great scene, and you’re just on line four of your Booker Prize acceptance speech when – hang on! That doesn’t make sense now. Yesterday, in the white heat of genius, didn’t you write a new scene? Yes, you did. In that scene [insert appropriate dramatic action] happened in front of your protagonist’s eyes. And has she reacted? No, she hasn’t.

Heart pounding, you start to look back through the NIP (though you promised you wouldn’t, not now, not when everything’s ticking so nicely) and, whaddya know, there’s a theme emerging: this isn’t the first time she’s failed to react…

The reading of the NIP commences. It is a joyous occasion.

The reading of the NIP commences. It is a joyous occasion.

Stick a pin in a scene – any scene – and the odds are you’ll find something juicy that your village idiot of a protagonist has failed to react to. Failed to even notice.

Thank god that this isn’t a Nancy Drew novel, or the jig, as they say, would be up.

Imagine me writing this one. The ink's drying on the 'd' of The End and… 'Oh shit, there was meant to be a clock in it!'

Imagine me writing this one. The ink’s drying on the ‘d’ of The End and… ‘Oh shit, there was meant to be a clock in it!’

So what now? Can it really be me who’s the idiot? Can my ‘white heat’ be trusted? Perhaps it’s just leading me further astray, like some bleached and tattooed reprobate round the back of the bike sheds, offering fags…?

But the world of ‘astray’ is a rather fun world to be in. Right? So, for now (for NOW), I’m filing ‘reactions’ and ‘tying of plot strands’ in the giant To Do folder (move along, housework, make room please) and just Flipping Well Cracking On With It. And I’m walking that tightrope of doom between juicy and confusing (I’m owning that tightrope, goddammit!) and either I’ll exit gracefully to the crowd’s applause or I’ll plunge to my death on the circus floor.

If you, too, have found yourself trapped like a hapless fly in a web of your own devising, then here’s what I heartily suggest you do: stop reading this post (because, to be honest, all the best bits are over with now) and read these instead (via the Writers’ Centre Norwich). Not specifically related to plot strands, but specifically related to the eek, and the argh, and the blurgh of the NIP-writing process. It’s always good to know that others have suffered as you, now, are suffering, and even better when those others are famous writers who’re meant to know what they’re doing. Incompetents of the world, unite!

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Ye olde Brain Back-up and the prickly issue of about-ness.

I woke up this morning with the first line of this blog post fully and perfectly formed in my head.

Then I went to make tea and forgot it.

So now this post is about two things: the original thing (which I’ll get to in a minute), and the new thing (which I’ll get to right now): the importance of keeping a notebook. ‘Backing up your brain’, I think I’ll call it. These days I’m so wholly dependent on the ‘undo’ button that I find myself alarmed, in real life, when I can’t recall my last, lost thought at the touch of a key. Oh my god, but that sentence was great! What do you mean, brain, it’s gone forever? Undo, undo, UNDOOOOOOOOOO!

The second thing this post is about is the word ‘about’. More specifically, the answer to that time-worn question: ‘What’s my novel about?’ There are layers of response, I think, to this question. The top one (the cherry on top) that draws readers’ (and publishers’) eyes is your much-discussed elevator pitch, without which, by all accounts (and a modicum of personal experience, I might add), you will quickly commit Career Harakiri in front of an agent’s eyes. And while this needn’t be quite as bold and crass as Fifty Shades meets Cannibal Holocaust (although I probably would buy that) it ought to have something a little bit ‘jazz hands’ about it. You needn’t describe yourself as the ‘new’ Dan Brown, for instance – because, obviously, one of those in the world is sufficient quantity already – but it does help to have a handle on what genre you’re writing in: ‘It’s a psychological ghost story set in the 1970s’ is my own opening gambit. Most of all though, you need to assess, condense, and regurgitate your book in two or three bite-size sentences. 

But I digress. It wasn’t the cherry on top that I really meant to write about, nor even the cream-cheesy layer beneath – which contains the full arc of your plot, all the ups and the downs that the novel’s ‘about’ on that second, slightly deeper level. Peep under that cream-cheese bulk, and you’ll come to the crumbly, brown, biscuit-like base that holds the whole shebang together (enough with the cakes now, Lynsey) and that’s what this post (and your novel) is really about. And the reason I’ve skirted the issue so long is that, sshh, we don’t say what our novel’s about. What it’s really about. We have to stand there madly semaphoring it through the subtext of our story, and hope against hope that the reader catches on.

This third layer is meaning (or theme, if you’re feeling grandiose about it), and, honestly, you’ve got to have one. Eventually. It might always be shadowy – more about feeling than knowing – but feeling a thing, in the fictional realm, is far more important than knowing it. Most likely the meaning will follow on after the novel’s got going, e.g: you’re mid-way through your latest knee-jerk ‘Save File’ on the 117th page, when reading the word ‘bananas’ you realise your novel is all about fruit as a metaphor for mental health (I would not buy this one) and in draft two you subtly tweak every sentence accordingly (a nectarine here, a melon there, etc). Meaning ought to be fashionably late to the party, I think, or it risks being fake. ‘Oh yah, well my book’s about social injustice’, you say, when really it’s just about shagging. We’ve all had a middle class dinner party version of an answer at one point, but penetrate your soul – go on, do it right now – and you’ll probably find there’s a far less palatable truth. You may very well also find (as I’ve done in the last few days) that you’re basically writing ‘about’ the same thing every freaking time you set fingers to keyboard and of course we escape through our writing – we do that with rip-roaring plots and fantastic locations – but finding your novel’s true meaning is all about burrowing deeper, not running away from yourself. And, hey presto, the writing will magically fill with all manner of juicily universal truths. In the style of a mustachioed Lord Kitchener inviting men to war:  Your novel needs you.* So (wo)man up and do it. You know you want to.

* Dig deep for victory, I might add. (Sorry.)

Does the universe need another writer?

Since joining Twitter a couple of months ago, two things have become immediately obvious: (1) that I’m not half as interesting as I secretly hoped I was, and (2) approximately 97.5% of the population of planet earth is currently writing a novel.

Another wake-up call came via a recent workshop run by Writers’ Centre Norwich (you can also read my guest blog on their website if you’re so inclined). From the doctor-esque scribble I found in my notebook the morning after, I’ve managed to decode (and probably falsify) the following, rather sobering, fact: each year around 86,000 new titles are published in the UK. Around 59,000 of those titles will sell an average of… 1000 copies? 100 copies? 50 copies? (Knees trembling slightly now.)

The answer is 18 copies.

And that’s the average. Meaning, of course, that many new titles sell fewer than 18 copies. Which, by all accounts, is a bit of a slap in the face.

It could be that I’m labouring day after day (my social life dwindling to Howard Hughesian proportions; my bank statements gathering dust in the hallway – too frightening to open) on a book that only my mum will buy. (And, if I’m honest, she’s not that keen on my fiction anyway, so…) Gulp. And that’s if it’s even published. Anyone fancy an uphill struggle?

Well, yes, actually. I do. There aren’t many things in my life that I’m really wholehearted about, but writing is one. And here’s why: I can’t not do it. Jump cut to Jean-Paul Belmondo in À Bout de Souffle‘Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love.’ And writers write. A day without writing feels wrong and unworthy. A day without tumbling headlong into something made-up makes my brain feel like two pennies rattling around in a pauper’s money box (by which, of course, I mean my money box): depressingly lonely. That’s right, yes, I’m really that sad: I feel lonely without my imaginary friends. And since they’re still there, in mid-gesture (a bit sore and stiff from their freeze-framing yesterday, when I had ‘proper work’ to get on with), I’d better scoot off now (my brain nicely heated from writing this blog post) and bring them to life again.

What to do when your novel hates you.

Last week, while lovestruck writers all around the globe were frantically conjuring upwards of 1667 words per day for National Novel Writing Month, my own novel announced that it hated me.

Oh god, not you again. Another 500 words about wallpaper… Oh, look, and now somebody’s walking the length of a shadowy hallway… Again. Now they’re opening a door. Now they’re filling the kettle for tea. How exciting. You’re really beginning to grate on me, Lynsey. Can’t someone else finish me? Sarah Waters, for instance. Susan Hill… 

Every sentence I wrote was shrugged off, refused entry, deleted again with a head-shake of shame. In my absence, my novel got dressed by itself and walked off. It went down to the courthouse and took out a restraining order against me. I couldn’t go near it. The moment I picked up my laptop my novel directed me straight to a game of Prolific on Facebook, or opened a shiny new window and filled it with tweets (yes, you definitely ought to read that link, Lynsey: the one about ’20 Mistakes All Writers Make’, oh, and look, here are 49 pictures of cats falling over on Buzzfeed… you know you love cats falling over…)

The first week of NaNo was racing away. On their website, my word count was frozen in time. Other writers were hitting five figures. I drifted through Panic, past Jealousy, onto the Isle of Don’t Care. On the Isle of Don’t Care you’re so far from the book you once loved that you barely remember its name. Weren’t you writing a book once? What, who, me? I don’t think so. You were. It was called ‘Something Hall’… and it had lots of shadowy hallways and wallpaper in it. That sounds pretty dull, to be honest. Let’s giggle at cats falling over instead.

And then… Bam. There I was on the Isle of Don’t Care, doing nothing particular, browsing some articles, making a playlist on youtube, when suddenly everything changed. This was Saturday (day of the NaNo ‘marathon’). Something was fluttering, off in the distance. And there, on the opposite shore, with a white flag in hand, was my novel. Come back, it said. All is forgiven. That Sarah… that Susan… pah! They’re both busy. It turns out there’s no one but you who can finish me. No one else wants to. They’re all writing books of their own. 

So I turned to my playlist and plucked out Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (which it’s physically impossible for me to listen to without feeling something)and out popped 2,340 words. Just like that. As it turns out, the Isle of Don’t Care is a great place to visit occasionally. Ease off the pressure gauge, kick back, and leave your subconscious to wander… and all sorts of things will have planted themselves in your head when you get back to shore. 

Just be sure not to stay for too long…

 


Thank you, Writer Squirrel.

Day One of NaNoWriMo (that’s National Novel Writing Month if you’re one of the remaining 0.0001% of the population that hasn’t heard of it) and I seem to be playing an awful lot of online boggle… (Still, at least it’s not Candy Crush.) My word count for the day is a sorrowful 706 (as opposed to the 1667 I’m meant to crank out).

Last year I scrambled across the 50,000 word finish line by literally (oh all right, figuratively) vomiting ten thousand of those words in the last six hours. What did I write about? Don’t ask me. After roughly an hour I moved to Auto Pilot. My hands seemed to type independently of my head. Looking back on that draft – or, rather, peering at it from behind a cushion – I feel like a 1960s acid casualty watching herself writhe topless on screen in WoodstockIt must have been me who wrote that thousand word scene about peeling potatoes, because – look – it’s right there on my laptop. But, equally, if you told me that one of my cats had randomly tapped out the contents of that document whilst chasing an insect across the keyboard I wouldn’t have had to struggle too hard to believe you. In fact, I’d have been relieved.

The truth is – the whole thing was drivel. M’Lord, I present the following evidence from the festering pus-filled document entitled ‘NaNo2012’ to support this claim:

Thump, thump, thump. Silence. Thump, thump, thump.

Was Miss Bellcomb a virgin, she wondered momentarily, as Nick writhed towards her, grabbing her hair.

‘Oh crap,’ Arthur said. He leaned on the wall. ‘Oh crap. This is bad.’

Couldn’t have put it better myself, Arthur. And who’s Arthur? Forget him: he doesn’t exist anymore. My point is, finding something like this – that you wrote – on your laptop could easily get a girl down. You could start to have dark bleak thoughts of the ‘I’m not worthy’ variety. And perhaps you’re not worthy. (That is, of course, always the possibility.) But aren’t we writers too often too hard on ourselves? Any musician, for instance, will tell you it takes years of practice to master their art. Unlike writers, musicians commit their mistakes to the ether: there’s nobody there with a dictaphone, taping their every last error and storing it up for posterity (by which, of course, I mean future humiliation). Writers, though, are like squirrels in autumn: religiously hoarding our every last sentence in case we can use it one day. What I’m trying to say (I think) is that nothing is wasted. And don’t be ashamed of your drivel. Embrace it. Your drivel is part of your journey, your scales and arpeggios on the way to your Emperor Concerto.

And, while trawling last year’s NaNo drivel for some of the ickiest phrases, I found one I rather quite like:

She sat up, alert, on her chair, as if someone had just pulled her laces too tight.

So, thank you, Writer Squirrel. Keep hoarding.