Going off on one …

There’s always a tension in writing between enjoying the process and hitting a deadline, even if that deadline is self-imposed. I’ve written before in this blog that I’m a planner; I like to have the skeleton of the story and an outline of characters in place before I put metaphorical pen to paper.

In my latest project I’m writing a family saga covering over a hundred years, based on family history research I’ve carried out since the 1990s. The principal characters are based on several generations of family members and what I know about their lives. Their stories gave me the structure for my story.

So, as is my wont, I planned the novel from start to finish and sketched characters using the masses of material I had to hand. I then found it a wrench to depart from the facts to create a narrative which hung together. Every time I didn’t have the necessary information it gave me grief – I had to keep telling myself ‘it’s a novel, it’s a novel, make it up!’. I’ve written two earlier novels and lots of short stories which were, more or less, complete figments of my imagination so it shouldn’t have been a problem, but it was. I’d become constrained by the truth. Day by day I started to make little excursions into fantasy, only small steps at first – the colour of hair, the description of a cottage – and I enjoyed it. Before long I was inventing new characters, battles, journeys and, best of all, conversations.

Then a new problem arose. I’ve been enjoying the trips so much that I keep on inventing more and more. I keep, as my wife describes it, ‘going off on one’, travelling paths which are not on my map, creating lives which never existed, just because they’re interesting to explore.

Is this what writing is all about, inventing and exploring the worlds of the mind? I’m beginning to believe it is.

Ringing in the changes

One of my New Year’s resolutions, along with more exercise, eat healthier, finish that draft, etc, is to get my blog, Facebook page, Twitter account and website co-ordinated and streamlined instead of the current chaos. However, I feel this, in itself, may cause even more chaos. I’ve already lost the redirect to WordPress from my web domain address, which I’m about to try to fix.

I’ve also discovered half a dozen plug-ins which, supposedly, will help tidy everything up. I fear this may take some time. So, apologies in advance if I disappear for a while, or start appearing in multiple guises – please bear with me.

In the meantime, if you have any hints for an ageing author please let me know.

Happy New Year.

Is it ever good enough?

Most days I try to write, with ‘try’ being the operative word. Some days the words just won’t come, and if they do they stumble across the page, tired and listless. On other days I might be happy with what I’ve produced and feel motivated to do more the next day, which is good.

Then I might read another author’s work and feel demoralised, ready to throw the pen (or laptop) into the bin along with everything I’ve ever written. Largely this doesn’t happen because being published isn’t necessarily a measure of quality, only a measure of financial viability – a perfectly valid reason but we have to admit that the latest premier league footballer ‘autobiography’ may not be great literature. However, occasionally, something magnificent comes into my reading orbit and I’ll be blown away by the prose.

For Christmas I was given a copy of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which has staggered me by its economy and descriptiveness. At first I thought it may be because these Cold War scenes are so familiar to us through films from The Third Man through to Bridge of Spies but then I realised it was much more than that. Le Carré’s description of Leamas, for example, includes the phrase “He looked like a man who could make trouble, a man who looked after his money, a man who was not quite a gentleman”. How I wish I’d written that. Rhythm, clarity, cynicism and humour tied up in simple words painting an accurate picture of the character we’re dealing with.

Thankfully, I’ve avoided the ‘I’m going to give up this writing lark’ response this time. I’m going to read and learn. Then attack my next completed draft with a different eye.

 

So November is gone

My hope that trumpeting of committing myself to NaNoWriMo this year would force me to show the dedication required to put down 50,000 words in a month proved to be in vain. It’s a punishing schedule and one thing I have learnt is that it probably isn’t for me at this time in my life.

Try as I might, I can’t make myself slam words on the page and worry about the editing later, which seems to be a core method for achieving the goal. I spot a missing comma from fifty paces and I have to fix it. Typos distract me, as do apostrophes sprouting where they shouldn’t. And surely I could say that a little more effectively – it’ll only take a few seconds.

It isn’t the quantity of words that is the problem, I’ve written two 80,000 word novels and am a third of the way through a third, it’s the time frame and my inability to stop from editing as I go along.

On the plus side, and it’s a very big plus, NaNoWriMo made me spend part of October completing my synopsis, research and other planning, and spend November putting down about 22k words, to join the 10k I’d written over the previous 6 months. A considerable improvement in work rate.

So, all in all, I think it’s been worthwhile. I’d be interested in hearing other writers’ experiences (by the way, is that apostrophe misplaced?)

Situation development

I recently came upon a poem Death by Harold Pinter which apart from being brilliant in its own own right is also, in my opinion, an excellent framework for developing plot. Just the sort of questions we should be asking about any character or situation in our writing, not just the dead body of Pinter’s work. Check it out – I’d like to quote it here but it appears to be covered, quite rightly, by copyright but you can see it here http://www.haroldpinter.org/poetry/poetry_inart.shtml

 

I love the line ‘Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey’.

So much talent

Last weekend I had the enjoyable experience of attending a number of sessions at the Allingham Festival, a now-annual event in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, honouring William Allingham. On Saturday, a literary lunch, with poetry for dessert, was followed by a discussion between local writers and the Irish Writers Centre.

We then moved on to the keynote session with Anne Enright in discussion with RTE’s Sinéad Gleeson, providing useful insights into the life and writing processes of Ireland’s Laureate for Fiction. Flash fiction and poetry awards, and the launch of Monica Courish’s new collection A Dying Language, rounded off my time – others, more robust than I, continued with a concert and late right revels in various bars.

On Sunday, Ann and I read extracts of Wild Atlantic Words at a staggeringly good event in The Thatch Bar. allingham1

A beautiful setting and around 20 people giving readings, recitations, poems and songs.

I’ll certainly be going again, hopefully for the whole weekend next time.

Let battle commence!

So I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo. Actually I signed up a couple of years ago but this time I’m actually writing something. Honest.

I’ve been working on a new novel all year, but had to take a break to redraft material for Wild Atlantic Words, a collection of short stories which is being launched next week. So I was around 15k words in and 70k words to go, thinking how I was going to tackle it, then NaNoWriMo appeared on the radar in mid-October. 50k words in a month? No problem. Ha! At least it would give me a deadline.

I spent the remaining time in October developing the synopsis for each scene and finalising the structure. I’d already drafted the structure and produced headline notes for each scene in Scrivener so expanding it wasn’t too difficult.

November 1st came along and I was at the keyboard for 6.30am, mug of tea on the shelf and the cat warming herself on my knee underneath the laptop – not the most comfortable of working conditions but she seems to be happy there. By breakfast I’d knocked out 350 words and filled in some research gaps. The daily target is 1,677 and I think the most I’ve ever written in a day before is less than that. Needless to say, I missed the first day’s target but I was pleased with the 1,250 I’d done, especially as it was a difficult section.

Day two, I managed over 1,900 words. More than the target and not far below what I needed to get back to my daily average. Today, day three, is going less well. A trip to the coffee shop and this blog have emerged as diversions!

Still, it’s raining so I won’t be going out any more today and have the afternoon’s writing mapped out in my head – coffee does that to you sometimes.

And I’ve written three and a half thousand words this week that I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for NaNoWriMo – so I’m feeling good.