I had a better night last night (thanks for asking) and another vivid dream. This time I was on holiday somewhere with another woman, someone older than me who I didn’t know very well. We were on our way to the beach (at least I was) when I lost my car keys. She was much more anxious about this than I was and gave me a lift back to our holiday home to get the spare keys. I missed out on going to the beach twice but managed to get on with some very satisfying work in the meantime.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is about lockdown. I didn’t get to go to the coast this year, though we had a couple of dates pencilled in; I’ve hardly used the car at all and I’ve done lots of really good work. In many ways lockdown has been like a holiday for me, though I do recognise it’s been awful for many people.
The novel, having been finished in draft form, is now gently simmering on the back burner while I get on with other stuff. Yesterday I sent off a poetry pamphlet to Mslexia and I’m getting another one together for future use. I expect I’ll get back to short stories but in the meantime I’m doing a lot of what I call ‘diary’ writing.
I don’t keep a diary in the usual sense as a record of events. It will not surprise readers of this blog to know that I can’t keep to one topic but go off in dozens of different directions, and that’s how it is with my diary. Though I do record some events in it (it’s my daily practice to write something at the end of each day) it’s more about how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. But it’s also a place for ideas, snatches of poetry, dialogues (especially recording some of the whackier things OH comes out with) plans and anything else I haven’t yet thought of. I never go away without it and I always know where it is should I need to write something down in the middle of the night.
I’ve kept a diary like this since 1984. Sadly I don’t have the original notebooks as I found I was re-reading them too much and threw them out, but I do have stacks going back at least to the 90’s. I’m trying to keep them in some sort of order now and even though I rarely look back at them, they are a record of my life and thought. I can pull one out and read where I was at, say, ten years ago: what was I thinking? What were my preoccupations? Often they reveal anxieties that are now long-gone, things I’ve grown out of. It’s like looking at old photos. Who was I hanging out with in 1995? What were my hopes and fears? What was my daily routine? It’s good to have these diaries because you forget so much.
Gosh, I realised this morning that I went straight from doing the crossword to writing my novel without first composing a blog post. So here I am. The good news is that I have now finished Nanowrimo; my novel passed the 50,000 mark and slid to a halt at around 50,049 or thereabouts. It came to a conclusion as well, which is always a plus: OH hit 50k the other day and is still writing because the story isn’t done.
So here’s the deal: a woman wakes up in a cell or bunker of some kind with no memory of how she got there. The only thing she can remember is falling down a well or tunnel which seemed to be lined with sandbags but these on closer inspection turned out to be bodies, either dead or sleeping. She’s utterly alone but as she begins to explore her new environment unexpected things happen; she meets other people who are also in the bunker and like her have no idea how they got there or what this place is. Together they try to find the way out, but when they eventually do, they discover a truth none of them would never have expected.
So that’s the novel – and that’s the good news. The bad news is that I woke feeling grumpy and depressed having slept badly and with a headache of the kind that feels like a scalpel scraping out the insides of your skull. I know these headaches of old; in fact I’ve become quite an expert on the different types of mal de tete which assail me. There’s the tension headache which begins in the back of the neck and strangles the head, there’s the fuzzy headache caused by poor sleep, alcohol or being emotionally overwhelmed; there’s the banging headache which beats a tattoo against the old frontal lobes – and then there’s the one that visited today, the scouring headache. I have a theory that some of these headaches stem – literally – from one part of your mind blocking information from another part, producing tension in the neck which restricts blood flow and produces the headache. It’s really frustrating and I don’t know what to do about it. I feel like this guy:
I’m nearing the end of Nanowrimo, just two more days to go and I’m up to nearly 46000. That leaves 4,000 to go, which is totally doable. So far my character is in a bunker of some sort and has met three other people who are all trying to figure out what this place is and why they are there. Once they figure out why they’re there, they’ll be able discover the exit. What’s good about this is that by and large it’s coming as a surprise to me, unfolding little by little with each chapter. I have no idea what’s going to happen in the end; I’m like Harry Potter after he’s taken a little Felix Felicis or ‘liquid luck’ – he has no idea what he’s doing but ‘Felix does’ – and it takes him exactly where he needs to go.
This, in a nutshell, is the writing process. Some people plan every chapter and know the ending before they begin but if I did that I’d be so bored I wouldn’t want to write the damned thing. It has to come as a surprise to me. I do some planning and have a vague end point, then we start and all hell breaks loose. As Harry himself says, ‘When has one of our plans ever worked? We plan, we get there and then all hell breaks loose!’
I had no ideas what to write about this morning so took a trawl through last year’s November posts. Apart from a lot of stuff about Nano, it’s a reminder of life before Covid, a time when we still hoped Boris Johnson might not be Prime Minister, a time when Leonard Cohen released his first posthumous album and when – ta-da! – the lifesaving, lipsmackin’, crockery-cleanin’, labour-savin’, utterly wonderful and brilliant dishwasher was delivered. It was a real boon for me since OH does most of the cooking which meant I was in charge of washing up. There were piles of it every day and never enough space; it was the bane of my life. Although in principle I’m opposed to acquiring too many gadgets a dishwasher is about the most liberating thing you can have if like me you’re in a household of four where one person is incapacitated, one is excused because they’re the cook and the other needs so much cajoling that it’s easier to just do it yourself.
Meanwhile 2020 has been the year of living safely: not going out, not seeing people, wearing masks and gloves and endlessly, endlessly washing our hands. Seriously, I’m amazed mine haven’t dropped off.
There – I did find something to write about. The French have a saying: en mangeant, l’appetit vient’ – it is in eating that the appetite comes. Just so: it is in writing that the ideas come.
Stay safe – I’ll leave you with a news item that brightened my morning:
I had a thought yesterday which I must share with you. Now that Boris Johnson’s position is looking more precarious it occurred to me that he might, like Roman Emperors, have someone whispering in his ear: Remember that you’re mortal. This was supposed to provide a salutary balance in the days of imperial Rome and remind Caesars in their moment of triumph that they, too, would die. They could, of course, achieve immortality by being made a God, something both Caligula and Augustus managed and which I’m sure Trump would like to do too if he believed in any kind of afterlife. But he doesn’t seem to believe in God, so I expect he’d like the next best thing, ie immortality on earth. He’d like monuments and memorials, he’d like endless power which he could hand on to his children. He’d like the name of Trump to be remembered and celebrated forever (‘my name is Trump, President of Presidents – look on my works, ye mighty, and despair…’)
Trump may be damaging his chances of coming back in 2024 by his behaviour now; by refusing to concede, by clinging to power and launching challenge after challenge he is, as Joe Biden says, making both himself and America look ridiculous – and if he goes too far, this will not be forgotten. Then again we should never underestimate the blind loyalty of his followers. So we’ll see.
Today I shall be mostly… carrying on with my Nanowrimo project. I’m up to 16,800 words at the moment so we’re on track.
Oh, and the thought I had about Boris Johnson was that if he had someone whispering in his ear saying: Remember that you’re mortal he’d probably mishear it and think they were saying Remember you’re a Womble.
He’d make a good Womble, I think. Probably Orinoco…
Well that didn’t last long: my resolve to avoid the news lasted until just after I hit ‘publish’ on yesterday’s post and then I could no longer help myself. Once I’d checked the news sites and heaved a sigh of something – not sure if it was relief or hopelessness – I kept checking back like an obsessive keeping tabs on a football match they’re not allowed to watch. Biden’s ahead, but will it be enough? It’s looking as if he’ll win but it ain’t over till it’s over. Will Trump’s ridiculous bluffs about cheating translate into anything solid? Or will they blow themselves out like a squall at sea? Even if they do, will his infantile posturing lead to riots and discontent? Even if the courts find against him, how many of his supporters will still believe he was cheated of victory?
I still, after four years, cannot conceive of how anyone with half a brain could vote for such a man. We are through the looking-glass here and it’s not enough to say that only morons and the utterly corrupt voted Republican; plenty of otherwise sane and sensible people did so, otherwise he would not have got in. But as Lady Bracknell might have observed, to vote for Trump once might be construed as carelessness; to vote for him twice looks like stupidity. I simply cannot understand it – and I don’t like not understanding. But hey ho. At the time of writing Biden has 264 seats (if seats is the right word, which it isn’t) and Trump 214: that’s better than it was yesterday and looking good, since postal ballots favour the Democrats. First one to 270 wins. It’s closer than anyone would have liked but I’m cautiously – oh, so cautiously! optimistic.
I started Nanowrimo this week, a project tentatively called A Saturday Afternoon in the Museum of Thought, and it’s going well so far. My daily target is 2400 words and I’m hitting that. Yesterday was a bit of a struggle at first but then it picked up. Since I don’t work weekends there are only 21 working days in November so my daily target is higher than other people’s.
I wasn’t going to do Nanowrimo this year but I seem to feel the need for a bigger project at the moment. National Novel Writing Month, when people all over the world commit to writing 50,000 words during the month of November, is a useful way of getting a draft down on paper. My way of doing it is to divide the words up by the number of working days so that I generally aim to write 2000 words a day. This is surprisingly easy given that I’m not looking at all at the quality, just the quantity. It can be very freeing just to let rip without worrying, and on a good day I can just rattle the words off and sit back with the glow of a job that is at least done, if not done well.
The problem comes with the editing. How do you begin to edit such a pile of garbage? It would be like trying to sift through a landfill site – which some day people will have to start doing because we can’t keep on throwing stuff away like this. So I think this time I’m going to think a little bit about the quality as well and try to write 2000 reasonable words rather than just 2000 words that come to me on the spur of the moment.
There is of course any amount of paraphernalia associated with Nano: mugs, t-shirts, pens, books, certificates and of course the inevitable Facebook group. I don’t know if I’ll check in with the group much this year, because it seems to be full of people bemoaning the fact that they are behind, or else sprinters who write 75,000 words in their first week and are aiming for 200,000. Why? What will they do with all that verbiage? Is any of it good? It makes me feel tired just thinking about it. Not to mention the fact that they all seem to be writing SF or fantasy. Still, it’s an achievement to write 50,000 words in a month and I salute all who try.
When most people say they have an idea for a novel, they mean a plot idea. A man goes to communist Bulgaria, meets a spy pretending to be a milkman and gets sucked into the Cold War. Or a girl walks into a wardrobe and ends up in a land of snow and ice – that kind of thing. But the kind of ideas that come to me are philosophical ones, like a spiral stair or an underground bunker. I used to think that if I explored the idea enough it would show me the plot, but now I think I need something more. I need structure; I need highs and lows; I need problems and resolutions.
I might be doing Nano this year, though if I do it’ll be a rewriting exercise rather than writing something new because I’ve decided that Tapestry, the novel I wrote using the Fibonacci series, should not in fact be written using the Fibonacci series. It seemed a great idea at first – more than that, it was an idea which wouldn’t go away, perhaps an idea whose time had come? – so I diligently followed the pattern. Chapter 1 had 1,000 words. So did Chapter One. Chapter Two had 2000 and Chapter 3, 3000. You may see the pattern or you may not. Chapter Four ran to five thousand words and Chapter Five to 8K. Are you getting it yet? Chapter Six was 13,000 words and Chapter Seven, 21K. If you haven’t got it yet the sequence is: every number is the sum of the previous two. You start with one, then one plus zero which is also one; then one plus one, and so on. The problem was that by the time I got to Chapter Ten I was faced with writing 55,000 words.* Clearly it wasn’t sustainable.
I often seem to get seized by these Big Ideas which I then struggle to fit into the novel form. I’ve told you before about my first novel which as well as telling the story of the protagonist stuck in a nuclear bunker, also spanned the whole of life on earth – a period of three hundred million years. I had no real concept of what three hundred million years was like, so I began to cut strips of paper and rule each strip into divisions of a hundred years. I stuck these up around my wall; in no time at all I was back to the birth of Christ and not long after that I’d reached the beginnings of homo sapiens, yet I still hadn’t made my first million. In the end I worked out that if I did nothing else every day but cut and rule and stick strips of paper on my wall it would take me three years to finish.
So it’s pretty clear that Tapestry will have to be reworked. I’ve tried doing a beat sheet for it from Save the Cat Writes a Novel – a list of turning points in the narrative – and it’s clear the thing lacks some pretty serious highs and lows. I’m a real convert now to the Save the Cat series; I was sceptical at first but it seems to hit on something deep and universal about the laws of narrative. So if I do Nano that’ll be what I’m doing: Save the Cat Writes Tapestry.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that nine-tenths of what I write is rubbish. I don’t mean on this blog because what you see here are finished posts, hacked from the raw rock-face of thought, messed around a bit, buried in soft peat etc etc, honed and polished, sanded and rubbed and sent out to seek their fortune in the world. More on this later. But much of what I write as a first draft is pure unadulterated junk, mostly because I’ve set myself a word limit and I’m trying to reach it. This however does not make it worthless.
Why not? Well, firstly because it’s something instead of nothing. Where previously nothing existed, I have created something, even if it’s only a flat thing like Kipper’s cake (obscure children’s book reference only family members will understand.) And Something can be worked with and improved upon, even if most of it is ultimately deleted. Secondly, there may be some gems in the rubbish, which is why it’s always a good idea not to delete anything while writing the first draft, no matter how bad it seems. When you’re writing a story (this goes double for poems) you have intentions about it. But the story (or poem) has intentions too, and often these come out when we’re not watching. So don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
For example, I once wrote a dialogue between Father Christmas and Jack and Jill. They were talking in the snow and Father Christmas took off his jolly red suit to reveal a convict uniform with arrows on. He was supposed to be giving Jack and Jill their presents and only gave them snow and ice so they weren’t very happy. It’s a short scene and when I wrote this I had no idea what it meant. I still have no idea what it means, yet a little voice tells me that it has some significance and so I hold on to it.
This blog is nearly at 500 followers. I realise that’s tiny in blog terms but I’m just pleased it’s still growing – so remember, my 500th follower will get the choice of either writing a guest blog post or receiving an e-book of poetry.
I know I’ve blogged about this before but the more time I spend on Facebook writers’ groups the more it strikes me that there’s an entire industry out there devoted to (supposedly) making you a better writer. Every week I come across more courses, workshops, talks, lectures, books and videos than I can count; every week I hear of programmes and apps and other things I don’t even know how to categorise which claim to help you to edit or plot or download a cover for your novel or publish or market it. Armies of readers both alpha and beta (and I’ve only just discovered the difference) wait to invade your text and pull it to pieces. And that’s not counting all the Nano-based gimmicks such as stars and certificates, crystals and word-count validations and I don’t know what else. Call me arrogant, but I don’t feel the need for a single one of them. It makes me wonder how the likes of Jane Austen or James Joyce managed to pen a single word without the help of Scrivener or the ever-incomprehensible Save the Cat Beats(OK having read that summary I understand what it is but why is it called that? What does it have to do with cats and why are they saved?
When I started writing I did everything by hand, including editing, and the final draft was then typed up. There was no choice of fonts, no way of putting things in bold or italics (just underlining for emphasis) and copies could only be made with carbon or by using a photocopier. And I never did any courses because I figured (again, call me arrogant if you will) that I was my own best teacher. I still maintain that if you want to write, you need to do two things: write as much as you can, and read as much as you can. Read whatever you like, read good writing and bad writing and try to figure out the difference.Take a notebook everywhere you go and work out how to describe what you see and hear; figure out how to transcribe dialogue and how to convey your own thoughts and feelings.
I’m not saying all these courses and apps are worthless. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never used them and even if I wanted to I can’t afford it. But it does make you wonder. Give me the traditional route any day and you can save your own cat…