Tag: fiction

Oak-aged

The other day I looked at my grey hair and receding gums and thought, I’m sure I was about twenty last time I checked. Or thirty. Either way, this weird little middle-aged face is something new. I also thought, it’s been an age since I had a story published, and I should get on with it.

I’ve been writing as ever, behind my somewhat quieter blog, but in the last couple of years I’ve very purposefully slowed down my submission rate.

I started writing fiction in late 2009 and, for a year or two,  churned out short stories for publication. I enjoyed being published. Then I went on maternity leave, with all the joy that brings (and no time to write at all).

When I came back, I realised how much I dislike most of my old stories. If they aren’t clunky, contrived, self-aware, expository, naive, boring, sloppy, pretentious or, worse, didactic, then at best they aren’t “me”. 

I want to change that;  to submit work that I like rather than just something “good enough to publish” (or both, of course). I want to savour the writing, layer it, and fully enjoy it for its own sake. I think a lot of people make that transition the other way around, but I don’t want to get stories published for the sake of it; I want to build a body of work that fits together as an integrated whole, perhaps with a view to publishing a collection, or collating shorts into a novel. I don’t know how realistic this is, but the only way to find out is to try. 

The initial result is that I’m writing almost exclusively for my bin. I’ll draft something, have an honest re-read a day or two later, and smack the delete button so hard it hurts. That accounts for 8/10 stories. For the remaining two, there’ll be an edit, followed by cold storage, a further re-read, and one more binned. The last story will be edited a third or fourth time before being binned. Once every four or five rounds, a story will emerge that doesn’t make me wince, and I might submit it. At the moment, that’s about two a year, about 2% of the stories that I start.

It’s painfully slow, but I’m trying to see it like whisky — you can chug back a cheap blended whisky with coke, and throw it back up when you’ve had too much, or you can sip an oak-aged malt, savouring the peat, wood and smoke of decades. They aren’t the same experience, in the distilling or the tasting.

So that’s why no one has heard much of me this year, but I am still here, and I am still writing.

Meanwhile, I’ve been interested to read other writers’ views on the writing process, and the percolation of stories over time.

On her blog, Alison Wells has written a series of posts about slow writing and quality. This month, Valerie O’Riordan blogged about her writing process. Just now, Marcus Speh has taken it a step further and speaks of a transcendental process in his writing, along with the interplay between different languages (and a McCarthy quote that I wish I had found). These people are great writers, and they are all advocating slow writing. Maybe there’s something in the air — or maybe ‘slow’ is just a good thing.

I’ll add more links as I find them — later, though, because I have to dash now. My writing process might have slowed down, but the rest of life is still zooming. I have children to entertain and a house to clean, before my hair goes white, my teeth fall out, and all the stories rot out of my head.

 

Plots, pants, etc

I’ve heard a lot about ‘plotters and pantsers’ — there are enough articles (sss, ssss), and obviously my favourite would be this one, but that’s not how I write.

My stories come fully formed. They arrive. They filter through the clouds, fall through the clear bit between the clouds and me, plonk themselves in my head and shriek, ‘Write meeeeee.’ I then have about an hour to wallop them out, before I forget them entirely.

Because of this, my life is a story graveyard.  I remember very clearly a point last week when I genuinely thought about my latest idea, and realised, this was THE ONE. The perfect book; something I’d be enthusiastic about writing, with a story that was both complex, with strands of complementary subplots, while also retaining a simple humanity at its core. And it was original. It was a psychological thriller cum sociological observation, but basically a story about a girl.

Finally, I was flushed full of enthusiasm and that elusive joy, certainty — hurray. Then my child needed feeding, exercising, and putting to bed, and can I remember the story now? No. I remember how I categorised it, but the main story is absolutely gone.

I sometimes wish I were a ‘plotter’, because if you throw down a corkboard and cover it with post-it notes, jotting character references and peppering them with back-story, all the while picturing what this, that and the other character would actually do in a given circumstance, then even if you were to forget the whole premise of the book, at least you’d have some notes to jog the memory. For me, though, this kills the fiction. I plan my scientific writing because that’s how it’s done — but for me fiction is a fly-by-night, a flash (no matter how long the story), and the exhilaration comes from racing to catch it. So my post-it notes end up lurking behind the furniture, growing fur and becoming curly, until I finally realise how disgusting they are and throw them away. They do not speak story to me.

Pantsing, on the other hand, looks like a surefire way to write ten thousand half-stories. Does anyone finish a story that way? Just by starting something, writing, and ‘wondering where it will go’? It’s a brave way to go and I admire the adventurers, but I would not finish anything other than flash that way, and possibly not even a flash that I liked.

I have to know the story before I start, and it has to arrive fully formed, running like a little imaginary film in my head. I get clips; my art is to describe them before they fade, leak out of my ears, and float away to another, more functional skull.

I should use a Moleskine but I’m not going to, because again that doesn’t work for me. (Writing methods aside, £12 for a little notepad? Yez gan barmy?) No, I’ll stuff the back of an envelope into my jeans, and a Bic biro, and next time I look like I’m going to miss a story, I’ll scribble, ‘Mary, telephone, loser-Mum’, and if I can still decipher that when I get home, there’s a chance I might have netted something that’ll make the hairs stand up on someone else’s neck.

Just saying, there might be.

In other news, I like this post: Eat Your Lima Beans: The Importance of Becoming the Writer You Aren’t.

So if I don’t write something eye-boggling after the next ether drop, I’ll have to go back to Scrivener and pull up the last lot of fake, electronic post-it notes, and start the trudge. Oh my…

Someone pass the Bic, and please keep something crossed for me.