Got a bit further this week, and feel better as a result. The breakthrough came after a few more mornings looking at a blank page and not feeling particularly inspired by the last section I’d written.
I write for an hour in the morning then get on the bus to work, and spend an hour on the top deck writing up ideas. In my experience it’s as soon as I put down my pen or leave my computer that good ideas come.
I realised my ideas don't necessarily lead on from what I was writing. They're not linear, but scattered across the place: a particular scene, or event, or character development that may happen way down the line. Normally I wrote them down in note form, then sat in front of my laptop for another hour the next morning with my head in my hands, trying to rewind my brain back to the stumbling block I was at the day before.
I worried that my inability to keep a story going from start to finish means I'm a bad or not very natural storyteller. Instead I over-intellectualise it, preferring to go over the structure and themes in my head and on here, than actually writing the damn thing.
I tend to think of conflict in too thematic terms, meaning I find it hard when push comes to shove and I have to write something compelling, a story. When I finally write a few hundred words it feels forced and lacks direction. The existentialist writer Paul Bowes once wrote that “Someone’s got to get in trouble, or no-one’s going to want to read it,” and if he gets it, I figured I should too.
Then the book I’m reading mentioned how the novelist Claire Calman writes her books in the wrong order, putting it all together at the end, and a light bulb lit up over my head. That’s exactly how I think about my story – while I’m writing about a mail depot here, I’m thinking about what’ll happen later backstage at a concert, or how this tendency in a character will first emerge in an earlier scene.
To be honest the idea of hacking away at ideas, seeing if they all string together at the end, and smoothing out the edges feels like a more likely way of “getting this book down” for me. It’s how I write most things.
I’d love to be able to write in a straight line, and maybe it’s a skill I’ll learn with the more I write. I try to practise it on here by just writing what comes to mind, and not editing too much. But the fact is I think about my book in bits – I know where it’s going, I know its span and how things work out. I imagine it all at once, in a whole, so it’s hard to write from scratch and in a straight line, moving from one scene to the next.
It’s like standing with a chisel in front of a massive 30ft block of stone, not sure where to start tapping. I suppose some sculptors start in one place and move in one direction around the block until they are done, whereas others tap away at different edges until they create the shape they want. The former has made me nervy, forcing myself to think of the next thing rather than the bit that excites me, and I feel there’s a lack of momentum as a result.
So this week I decided to try the latter. I wrote in whatever order ideas came to me.
I tightened up my opening scene, and wrote a few hundred words inspired by a picture I saw on my tea break. I felt my writing was punchier and more in line with how I want my characters to express themselves, but I don’t know if that's the result of taking the pressure off writing in a linear fashion.
I’ve written before about the fallacy of so-called “linear” narrative, and now I’m trying my hand at writing and just reading, I’m certain it’s true.
Stories don’t roll out in succession – they stop and start, get waylaid and find detours, come in the wrong order. (Anyone who’s heard me trying to tell a joke knows how that is.)
More than ever I believe stories are not what you tell, but how you tell it.
Word count this week: 2,960 Total word count: 41,968 First draft: 24,504