Longer Writing


But before I get to anything serious, let’s start with what isn’t.

The non-writing bit
I’ve now made it to the end of the first season of Doctor Who.  And I like parts, and dislike others.  I like the broad scope of the ideas that they play with, but I hate the fact that they too often resort to obvious, easy parody when there are much more interesting sci-fi angles that they could have taken.  As a result of that, for all of its ideas, in the end the show very rarely surprised me.  I suppose that will mean the show gains a broader appeal, but I like what like, and I wish they’d taken some of this in a better direction.

That said, I still loved the cult parts.  I love that they can’t shed their old skin, and that they have to keep the Daleks, an alien enemy that has been getting poked fun at for my entire life.  So I’ll keep watching.  However, my enthusiasm for the show is certainly dampened.  Eccleston is the only truly memorable thing here, and he just turned into David Tennant (who I also like, so as much as I liked Eccleston’s Doctor, this may not be entirely a bad thing.)  Aside from him, not one of the episodes has stuck in my memory on its own merits.

Except in the case of "Do you remember that really bad episode?"

Except in the case of “Do you remember that really bad episode?”

And Then, The Writing Bit
There is a point at which you can get caught up in planning and forget to do any actual writing.  Lately I’ve been working on my novel outline, including developing a world-map.  That’s something I’m particularly bad at, but I recently found a freeware program that is pretty helpful.  It’s a little unfriendly to start with, but there are tutorials online, and it becomes familiar quickly enough.

It's called AutoREALM.

AutoREALM is freeware.  Just click the image to go to the download page.

(That’s not my map, by the way.  Mine looks much, much worse.)

Now, I don’t need a world map as much as some writers do, because the geography isn’t critical to the story I’m writing; I just wanted to have a consistent sense of the world around it.  I have the memory of a goldfish with Alzheimer’s, so if I don’t record it I’ll contradict myself a lot.  So the map, like my lists and notes, is part of an Assistant Brain.  But while I was assembling the map, I found the geography suggesting new ideas to me.  That was unexpected, but welcome.

But that’s not the point here, really.  As important as this is to my writing, the point is that I’ve not been doing a lot of actual writing over the last week or so.  And that’s the part I love.  Both getting the ideas down onto the page, and ensuring I’ve done so with the correct words.  (And as much as possible, both in parallel.)  So today, I’m putting this planning to one side, and turning back to some short fiction.  I have a notebook of ideas that I write down when I think of them; I’ll probably pick one and simply run with it.  It may go nowhere, or become nothing of value; but that’s not the point.

The point for today is to write; simply because I love writing.

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So, I find myself today trying to outline my novel.

I may need to buy this shirt.

I may need to buy this shirt.

No, wait, wait.  I’m not quite as full of crap as that just made me sound.  The thing I realised today (while reading an article by Brandon Sanderson in an issue of Leading Edge) was that I actually like outlining, provided that the story is big enough to need it.

Sanderson’s own description of outlining sounds a great deal like something I’ve done more than once myself.  It’s detailed, but not obsessive; a process that develops the frame for a story instead of a point-by-meticulous-point map of it; and the scope of the outline fits the scope of the project.

The issue I take with Lovecraft’s Thou Shalt Outline approach isn’t that it’s bad to outline, but that you don’t always need to outline.  After all, he wrote mostly short fiction, and sometimes quite tiny short fiction.  If he genuinely sat down and outlined some those pieces, I’d be just as genuinely astounded.  For me, particularly with shorter pieces (anything that’s, say, five thousand words or less), I love the spontaneity of taking an idea and just running with it.  Sometimes there is an outline, and for longer stories I’ll certainly have a concept of a few points that are key to the tale I’m telling.  But even for those, the outline is usually simple enough that I can hold the entirety of it in my head.  I never need to sit down and plot it out on paper.

But for bigger works…well, outlining is definitely an asset.  There are more people, more threads, and there’s a whole lot more scope.  And for me at least, the two are wildly different in this regard.  Short fiction is something of an outlet for me to simply write, to create a story without careful planning.  Novel-length fiction, on the other hand, is an opportunity for me to craft something larger.  They both appeal to me in quite different ways.  And while I can write something out that’s novel length, entirely spontaneously and without any planning or outlining, this typically becomes a bit of a mess.  And what happens more often than I’d like is that I find myself feeling stranded, lost and directionless within my own story.

Outlines prevent that, and this is where they get wonderful.  As much as I don’t like outlining, they make the writing part of the writing totally awesome.  You’re never lost.  You know what’s coming next.  And, chances are, you have some big climax for the story in your head that you’re working towards, you know how you’ll get there, and you can’t wait to write it.  That’s part of what excites me about writing in the first place, that process of getting from A to B.  And so, as odd as it is, the idea of actually outlining my novel right now feels exciting to me.

But for short stories?  No thank you.

The non-writing bit
So, lately, I’ve found a little more spare time than I expected to, and I’ve been able to expand my entertainment horizons a little.  Firstly, I finally completed Silent Hill 3 — that’s a nine-hour game from start to finish, and I somehow stretched it out to last around fourteen months.  On the reading front, I’ve been concentrating on H.P. Lovecraft, which has been an interesting experience; and when it comes to television and movies, aside from watching some truly excellent South Korean productions (including the superb I Saw The Devil, which I recommend unreservedly) I’ve been watching a number of sci-fi and fantasy shows that I’d been meaning to try out.

Seriously.  If you haven't seen it, go and watch it.

Seriously. If you haven’t seen it, go and watch it.

First amongst these, as mentioned earlier, has been Doctor Who: it’s a series that spirals from crap at one end to pretty good at the other, and is good enough in its good moments to hold my attention (and has an excellent Doctor), though after six or seven episodes it still doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.  Also in the list is the (apparently unfairly-cancelled) Dresden Files, which is mostly decent but occasionally descends into the realm of naff, predictable tropes.  And to cap it off, I’ve also watched the first third of the first half of the pilot mini-series of the Battlestar Galactica reboot.  (As I’ve said before, I like to come to shows quite late.)

But so far, given what I’ve seen, Galactica fails to grab me — and I’ll try to illuminate roughly why.  So far, the story is as follows: There was a war between Cylons and Humans, the latter group apparently having  never read any Isaac Asimov.  Then the war ended, and the Cylons went away for a while, presumably a nice vacation with beaches and a massage chair.

Forty years later, the Cylons came back in a Little Red Dress and kissed a guy while things blew up for no apparent reason.  (I assume the reason for the blowing up will become clear; but the reason for the kissing is certainly ratings, no matter what spurious reasoning they offer later.)  Then, the Red Dress Cylon snapped a baby’s neck before having sex with some other dude and glowing a bit.  Either that, or there are multiple red-dress women who all look the same, which could be possible, since she’s apparently a robot, and you can make two of them look the same if you like.  However, two other non-Cylon people had a pointless and obviously pre-sex fight which began to become sex, and…by this point I was completely, painfully bored.  Galactica is, so far, apparently all I feared; a bad soap opera that happens to be set in space.

"By the way, I'm sleeping with your evil twin."

“By the way, I’m sleeping with your evil twin Boris.  And your sister Marge.”

What keeps my attention is the stuff that is, currently, lingering around the edges of the crap bits.  That stuff is interesting, it’s legitimately science fiction, and it seems like it could become something good.  But it damn well better stop hanging around the edges and get into the middle, or I’m going to get bored.

And that’s it, really.  I can live with crap, but not boring.  That’s how I survived the early episodes of Doctor Who, as I was amused, bemused, and confused, but never exactly bored.  And I’ll watch Mega Shark versus Crocosaurus, and as crap as it is I’ll enjoy it, because the nonsense is rarely dull.  But predictable and boring will make me turn off, and make me very hesitant to turn back on again.

The Writing Bit: Part 1
To begin with, I come to Mr. Lovecraft.  Not his writing, which a friend summed up for me succinctly, and which is excellent for what it is.  But more to do with something he wrote about writing, which is something that I think proves perfectly that not all writers are the same.  It’s from a list of points that he wrote about what writers should and shouldn’t do:

“It would not be amiss for the novice to write the last paragraph of his story first, once a synopsis of the plot has been carefully prepared—as it always should be.”

Firstly, this almost entirely describes the process of what I would do if I wanted to hate my writing and never return to it.  I can’t write this way.  I may have the ideas of a plot, perhaps, but I don’t always know where it’s going, and the idea of sitting down and drafting the plot out makes me inclined to chew off my own feet.  But secondly, I think it deeply highlights Lovecraft’s shortcoming, as well as his strength.  His work is seemingly rich in description and idea, but generally weak in character; and that’s a really important fact when you look at the above quote.

Sometimes, fiction is plot-driven, as with Lovecraft and some others.  Other times, it’s character-driven; and when it’s driven by the characters, sometimes they’ll take it places you don’t expect.  I used to read quotes from other writers, talking about how their characters had lives of their own, and I used to laugh at the idea because it sounded like nonsense.  But now, I’ve written enough to know it’s true.  Sometimes, I may expect a certain set-piece to come up, or for certain events to happen, for certain characters to end up in certain places.  And then, when it comes down to it, they end up doing something completely different.  The set piece never happens, and the characters end up in all the wrong places.  But I don’t complain about it, because when it happens, it’s almost invariably right.  And it’s nothing that I could predict in a plot synopsis; the only thing I can say for certain about a plot synopsis for me is, if I write it before I write the story, it’ll be wrong by the time I’m finished.

However, there’s another quote from another author — one Mr. Vonnegut, who you may be familiar with, and who I am somewhat ashamed to say I’ve read very little of (though he, like Lovecraft before him, is on my List To Read — I will get to him, hopefully sooner than later).  And he had this to say, with regard to eloquence and editing:

“It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”

This echoes greatly what Stephen King commented in his own book, “On Writing”, when he talked about having learned about the importance of editing.  Removing the superfluous and the unnecessary is like making Scrumpy; you’re not weakening, you’re concentrating, turning your story into a more potent brew.  Sometimes, words can be left, because they add beauty to what is written; but sometimes, the words simply add words, like the unnecessary water in that barrel.  Getting rid of them is a good thing.

The Writing Bit: Part 2
Away from other authors, I come to myself, and the strange function of the unconscious mind, and specifically the way that information creeps into the brain — sometimes incomplete, and sometimes only shadows of things — without you noticing.  I have a terrible memory for many things.  I remember story names, author names, actor names, people’s names, with unerring inaccuracy.  In my attempts to describe a movie, I may well describe it as “that movie, with that guy who was in that other movie with the thing”, or something equally helpful.  I will eventually remember some key detail that lets someone else remember what it is I’m talking about, in essence using other people’s memories as a kind of external storage device for my own.

However, things get in without me knowing, and that happened to me today.  I was reading the news briefly, and noticed that: A) An Everton defender had been denied a goal in his match, and B) the name of the Everton defender looked worryingly familiar.  It turned out that one of the more important second-tier characters in my novel had exactly the same name; and seeing it come up in print was a shock, because until that point I believed it was a name I’d made up.  Somewhere in my brain, though, the names must have been linked.  The character’s first name was given to him over a year before he acquired the second, and somewhere in that time I must have seen this name in passing.  Not important enough for me to remember it, or remember who it was; but it still made it into my brain somehow, and then treacherously crept back out when I was trying to think of a surname for my character.

He looks almost exactly not like the character in my novel.

And he looks almost exactly how the character in my novel doesn’t.

So, now I need a new surname for him.  However, as much of a shock as this was, it’s still not too terrible — the name may suit the Everton chap, but in all honesty, the surname never really suited the guy in my novel.  So I get a kick to think of a new one!  Hurrah!

(And, also, I get a fine reminder to Google all the names in my novel before I’m done.  Mr. Distin is the second name I’ve had to scratch because of something like this.)

One of my friends is a professor of English, who teaches a variety of classes and courses.  He’s extraordinarily smart, making me feel a little daft at times to be honest, and he has what is a substantially different approach to novel-writing to me.  Where I write in a mainly front-to-back fashion, starting the novel at the beginning and then finishing it at the end, he writes scenes out individually when they strike them, having a beginning and an end that he’s thought of, and then tries to assemble them jigsaw-fashion to create his narrative arc.

This is a narrative arc, also mostly known as "what we mostly write without thinking, why do we need a diagram?"

This is a narrative arc.  Also makes a good hat.

He described to me how he printed out all the scenes he’d written, cleared all the furniture from the living room and then set about layering them between the two scenes, figuring out which one goes where with printed piles of scenes end to end.  I liked the image, partly because it reminded me of my hare-brained approach to things, even though at the time I thought it was massively different to how I write.

Now that I’m sitting here and tinkering with my own novel, I’m not sure it’s as different as I thought.

My first draft ended up being 94k words (which is, at best, only half of the complete, finished tale, and probably less than that.  It’s where I draw the line for a “volume 1”, mostly — a critical turning-point that opens a new, directly connected tale while, at the same time, closing the initial story-arc that the tale is built up around.  The break point allows me to take a step back, revise and rethink what comes next.)

My second draft is currently just short of 20k.  This is a mixture of about fifty percent new writing, forty percent directly copied from the original draft and the remainder a mix minor tweaks and edits.  But what I’ve noticed is that as I restructure the narrative arc, although some of the writing is completely new, some scenes get pulled in from the first draft and dropped into wherever they fit within the second draft’s progression.  Although some of the tale seems to be dependent upon the characters’ drive and direction, the specifics of where some of the scenes land is clearly more loose than I’d thought.

And what’s also clear about this is that, if you’re just writing scenes you like and that are individually strong, then you’re rarely going to end up in that “What happens next?” situation where you fill in the gaps between A and B with Scene That Seems Like You Need It, but Is Incredibly Dull and Crap.  I have a few of those scenes, and generally when I get around to editing, I cut out the entire scene and summarise the entire thing back down to a single sentence, if I can’t eliminate it completely.

All rambling nonsense really.  But I write a lot of this junk for myself, to get my ducks in a row.  And now it’s time to return to actually writing the novel, instead of rambling on about novel writing.