Thursday, 5 August 2010

Avoiding the hole in the road

Original Post

My lack of blogging over the past weeks has been due to some extreme focus on writing a paper that has taken my interest. I love being focused and interested; instead of getting caught up in family's and friends' drama I can retreat into my own world of thinking.

Whilst this may sound really boring to some people, it serves me a a kind of gestation time, an incubation of my thinking process where I can be quiet and alone and consider ideas that may, one day, be woven onto the fabric of my external life.

It's been a strange couple of months preceding this, with lots of difficulty and joy, being let down and realising people are not what they seem to be. Lot's of moving around outdated areas of my life to make room for the future, which looks very, very bright. So, instead of constantly going back over old things, reliving learned helplessness and old patterns, I am making my own new patterns. Making these new patterns depends a lot on whether you listen to other people's advice and to yourself.

Years ago someone gave me an anonymous poem (it was passed to me as anonymous, but I now realise it was based on Portia Nelson's 'Autobiography in Five Short Chapters') and it is still relevant today when culling the dead wood.

Edit notes 18th April 2011 Many thanks to the reader who left a comment below. It's interesting because when I wrote this blog I was working from my own memory of this poem, and from notes I took, at a time when I was working very hard to change my life. The comment relates to my not giving credit to the author, which of course I will do immediately. The poem was 'Autobiography in Five Short Chapters' by Portia Nelson. However, my own interpretation of this poem, through the lens of time and personal experience, and maybe even forgetfulness and sadness, has been mistaken for a misquote, and I will remove my own interpretation of this poem on this post, but not from my heart; this was how it filtered through my consciousness when applied to myself, an example of how memory can sometimes distort words to provide personal comfort - and perhaps exactly what the author intended.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Plot Thickens... learning when to plan and structure

As I start another new story, I'll be blogging my progress. At the moment I am planning my novel, and I'm thinking about what will happen in general, an overarching plot.

I've written several novels to date, and it's been a learning curve. The first couple were a download of some stories I had in my head, with bits added along the way, in no particular order. They were stories about people and what they did, what scrapes they got into, and how they felt.

As time went on and I became more experienced, I discovered that although there is nothing wrong with writing for all you are worth, and worrying about the editing afterwards, as it helps to embed the 'write every day' habit (Nonowrimo is a perfect exercise of this) it makes the whole process a lot more interesting to plan first.

I did plan the other novels on a spreadsheet, chapter by chapter, in the full realisation that the end result would bear no resemblance to my neatly organised, colour coded, boxes. Instead, the novel would develop as it went along. In the first few novels there were likeable characters, perpetrators, crises and an ending, but there was always something missing, kind of meandering that didn't quite hold together.

During the rewrite of my last novel I discovered something really important, that had been lingering at the back of my creativity, squashed into the background because of my resistance to conformity. There is a universal, traditional plot structure. And, further, it helps rather than hinders and flattens. I researched plot structure and sure enough I came up with several variations of the three act, crisis-turning point-crisis-climax-resolution model. I'm particularly keen on Freytag's Pyramids (below) and the three act structure, which has been around since Aristotle's days.
 A version of Freytags Pyramid, combined with the three act structure, is even more helpful.

So why use these structure? Why not just go into free-fall and write a totally unique story with no real beginning, middle and end? Of course, that's up to you, but people resonate with traditional story, because that is what our lives are - a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's tempting, for me at least, to be very creative with story, and write something unusual, something different. It's taken me a long time to reel in the feeling that somehow plotting and structure take something away from my novels. This has been my learning curve, realising my own psychic connection with structure.

Writing to a three act structure, around a storied plot, does not necessarily means writing to genre or writing commercially, or, as someone put it to me, selling out your creativity .Rather, it is like a hidden message in the work, a shape that readers can recognise. The detail must be unique and engaging to hold attention, but she shape can still be solid and traditional. It makes sense, if you do want to sell your work, to present it in a recongnisable form: a story.

The Internet is brimming with information on plot and structure, but it is something that many writers shy away from, feeling that the sameness it brings will spoil the wonderful worlds they have created. Structure won't spoil your story, it will provide signposts and navigation for the reader, a matrix to build your world around.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Gestation of ideas in creativity

I'm gearing up for National Novel Writing month. During November I'll be writing about 2000 words per day to progress my latest novel. I'm currently in the gestation stage, where something small will trigger me into thinking along a particular tangent.

I'll develop this over time (sometimes a long time, sometimes in a couple of hours) by collecting clues for my plot. These can range from character formations to backdrop scenarios. Eventually I will have notebook full of - well, notes - that will form the basis of the story. These notes range from single words to scenarios and short stories about the story.

By the time I start to write I know the approximate journey. It's like looking on Google maps to plan where you are going, you can even see the location. However, going there is a whole different journey, and what happens along the way will seriously affect what gets onto the page and the arrival. After finishing previous novels I've looked at the gestation notes and they rarely bear a close resemblance to the story I have ended up with.

I consider the gestation period as my most creative time, where ideas are unformed and malleable. This is a time before I consider the audience for my writing or even the urpose of it. The story is unbound and living large in my inner voice, where it is unchallenged and uncensored. As it emerges onto the page, the story morphs into a container of rules and regulations, a language that allows someone else to understand it.

Words I would use to describe this stage of the process is exciting and uplifting, optimistic and free, because whatever happens in this novel is entirely loosely formed at the stage, just a glint in the mind's eye. I can wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for the story, or it may come to me in the middle of the day as I work at my desk. I carry a notebook and post it notes everywhere, and if I find myself without these, I've been known to phone my own answerphone and tell myself the idea!

I write in first person present and I have to get to know the main character really well before I start to write. I might try to imagine what books they would read, what they watch on TV, how they would dress, the rooms in their house; it always helps to know the mundane things in their day to day life before I try to describe how an extraordinary event affects their existence.

I'm looking forward to writing 50000 words in one month with focus and routine, but first I'm reclining in the garden of my mind with my ideas for a while.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Change is good...

It's been a funny couple of weeks with a couple of u-turns. The most significant was my return to fiction writing. I decided on a change of genre and wrote a psychological thriller - they say write what you know! I 'd had a big break from fiction writing because of disillusionment with the publishing world during the recession, but now I've decided that I can do it for fun, it's is fun again!

It was like riding a bike. The familiar rush of excitement at the plotting stage, the waking up in the night with a new idea. Of course, I was doing the novel for National Novel Writing Month, and reached 50000 words just in time. This time, though, it would be different. I'd been reading Scarlett Thomas books for a while, and really resonate with her writing because it has a scientific and philosophical edge to the content. So I decided that I would try to write something along the same lines. I actually felt like my brain was going to the gym, waking up the imagination neurons and the storytelling axons that had been resting for a little too long.

In previous novels I have written a love story, or a story about relationships, and inserted some quirky, sometimes, downright weird, scenes. So I decided to write something weird and just outside the field of normal vision, and insert a relationship! It's going really well and I'm glad I managed to change my mind about fiction writing. It's fun and a big part of my life. Watch this space for more about 23 Acacia Road.

I've also moved offices to a more modern place outside the city centre. One Central Park is a beautiful workspace and a perfect environment to work, a very different place to where I spent the past fifteen years. My office on Piccadilly, Manchester had a prestigious address, and looked good on paper, but was dirty and cold inside. It just didn't live up to expectations once you really got to know it. My new office hasn't such a good address, but just stepping inside gives a sense of serenity and well being. I was dreading leaving the city centre, but after just two weeks I'm very happy to be working in Newton Heath.

Change is good. Finally. Risky, but good. I've always been a safe routine kind of person - even holidays are a stressful break from the day to day, week to week, year to year. Yet now, I've managed to change two major aspects of my life and I'm feeling pretty chilled out about it. Maybe I'm finally emerging from the my caterpillar constraints and learning to fly? So all I need to do now is take a risk and write some fiction in my new office and who knows what might happen!