Tuesday, 22 January 2013

When Writing Feels Like Constipation

With a title like that, you'd be forgiven for suspecting that there may be a lot of toilet references in this entry. I will try not to use them gratuitously, but use them I must, as it is the best analogy I can think of for those certain times when the writing is going... not so well.

I know people who are massively preoccupied with their bowel movements. They have decided, a long time ago, exactly how many times a day they 'should' do a Number Two, and even what time of day it 'should' make its presence felt. They hold this view regardless of what they may have eaten, drunk or done during that twenty-four hour period - to the point where, if they have a bowel movement at a time that does not comply with the schedule they immediately decide they must be ill. For such people, a poo arriving without a scheduled appointment is something to be feared - and being stood up by an expected poo comparable to the end of the world.

It's easy for writers to feel the same way about their craft sometimes. Most of us who try to keep to a regular writing schedule gradually develop natural ways of self-tracking our progress. For some it's to write for a certain number of hours each day. Others prefer a word count - "I cannot leave the page until I have written at least a thousand words" for example. Whatever the chosen method, when we hit or exceed the target all is well with our writing world and everything is working as it should. If we miss the target once or twice - well, that's unfortunate, but nothing worth worrying about, because we'll just catch up another day and it'll all work itself out. But if the failure to hit the target runs into days, weeks... well, just as people who dread the thought of constipation worry that the condition will cause their entire bodies to fill up with poo, until they are nothing but a big, fleshy balloon of poo waiting to explode, the writer can worry that they are becoming nothing more than a big bag of literary poo. And that, should they explode all over their work, it will become obvious to the world that, as writers, they're actually... well, 'poo.'

But in the same way that constipation can be caused by blips in a person's normal lifestyle - eating something different, not drinking enough fluids or having a few couch-potato days, for example - Writer's Constipation can be caused by blips in the writing lifestyle. Stress, for example. Unless you're already a successful writer (and in many cases even if you are) the chances are that you have other things to do in your life besides writing; running a house and/or holding down an unrelated day job, for example. Roles like that will occasionally throw curveballs in your direction that demand your attention, be it physical or mental. If those curveballs are big and emotional enough, that can disrupt your natural writing rhythm.

I have been getting to know this feeling very well over the last few weeks. What with family members in hospital, a sick child and various other incidents paying unexpected visits, focusing on getting on with Draft Two of The Renegades seems almost selfish. Today, according to the nifty piece of software I'm using to write it, I had written minus 173 words at the end of my scheduled two hours. Yep, minus.

It's enough to make a girl think she ought to just give up on the whole thing. But if you have genuine constipation in your body you can't just give up on the idea of ever performing a successful dump again; you'd end up in a pretty bad way if you took that approach. You just have to keep going off to the toilet and sitting, and trying, and hoping that eventually there'll be a breakthrough. After all, if you're still putting food in the top end, it all has to come out somewhere eventually, doesn't it? And this, I've decided, is the approach that's needed with my writing. Keep turning up at the page and sitting and trying, because eventually it'll work its way out.

Oh - and in the meantime, try and banish all those mental images of spontaneously exploding in a big shower of literary poo.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Even In A Pretend World, You Need A Map

I've been having a bit of trouble finding my way around lately.

My sense of direction is pretty rubbish at the best of times, but nothing brings out my navigational doofus tendencies like trying to get to various places in a building I've never actually, physically been inside. Partly because said building is located three thousand miles away, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. And partly because it only exists in my head.

You guessed it - I'm talking about a location in my Renegades novel. A large underground base hidden in the side of a quarry, to be precise.

In its real-life geographical location in New York state where the novel is set it doesn't actually exist, but some specific infrastructure is really there so that, at some point in the future, it plausibly could. (Yep, I did the research for it - God bless the internet!) So even though I've placed it in a real-world environment, the base itself is pure fantasy - mine to carve out of that hillside however I like.

So if it's just a pretend place, I don't need to know exactly where everything in it is in relation to everything else, do I? I mean, it's my secret base; I invented it, so I can tell the readers whatever I want about it, right?

Well... it turns out that no, I can't. Or, to put it more accurately, I can't tell them whatever I want about it whenever it suits me. If I say there's a gymnasium just down from the dining area in Chapter One, then that's where it always has to be - forever, for the entire life of the story. And I can't just blithely assume that, should I make a geographical slip-up at some point, 'no-one will notice a little detail like that.' Because that's like assuming everyone else possesses navigational skills as dire as mine (and that's a hell of a lot of people I'd be insulting.)

To put it bluntly, fans of science fiction novels are smart cookies who aren't easy to fool; some of these people have actually taught themselves to speak Klingon, for crying out loud. They're gonna pick up on every little detail - even those that seem trivial and insignificant to those of us with smaller brain capacity - and if it's wrong, it will jerk them out of the story and that's a bad thing.

I have a fairly flexible imagination, which enables me to create these places in the first place; unfortunately flexible imaginations tend to come with an equally flexible memory. This results in a brain that enjoys creating things on the fly so much, it rarely mentally files anything away so that it'll be the same every time. But, for the purpose of building a believable story, my world has to be the same every time; it can't change from scene to scene. The only way to ensure constancy then is to set it in stone from the start; design and plan it, the same way an architect designs and plans a real-life building.

So, after several hours of: searching through the text of the entire novel for all mentions of the various rooms in my base, cutting out, fiddling with and glueing bits of squared paper, and then faffing about trying to make Microsoft Excel work like a floor-plan-drawing tool (I'm pleased to report that it can, and the results look surprisingly good) I have now made myself a thoroughly detailed map of my fantasy underground location. I could even tell you where the toilets are - if you really wanted to know.

Boring? Yeah, sometimes. Headache-inducing? Oh, heck yeah! But unnecessarily nit-picky? Not on your life. Because now, not only will the map ensure my characters will always be able to take the right route to reach the places they want to get to - but I can make my descriptions of them more interesting. More real, because now I'm properly 'with' them, following them around like a little spy. I'll know, for example, that they can smell disinfectant as they're walking down a particular corridor, because my map tells me they're passing the medical room. And when you're mentally walking through the same environment as your characters, it makes it so much easier to get inside their heads and know what they're feeling and thinking.

Tolkien famously drew detailed maps of Middle-Earth and wrote vast, sprawling back-histories for all the races inhabiting his mythical lands. J.K Rowling did a lot of the same for her Harry Potter series. I can see now that their reasons for doing so went much deeper than mere nerdish pleasure in creating little extra nuggets of trivia for their fantasy worlds. I guess if I'm going to learn a valuable lesson from anyone, it might as well be from two of the greatest storytellers of them all.

Happy New Year, everybody! Let's make this the year that we Get Stuff Done!