Unhinged

The other day I found myself pontificating about hinged and unhinged thinking. As it happened I was at a party, drink in hand, spouting general gibberish as I am too inclined to do, but unusually and inadvertently I might have said something that is almost true.

I need to be unhinged to write or at least to write easily. I need to uncouple my brain from my rational, logical mind, from my inner critic, my sub conscious editor, the still small voice of reason that might say – ‘Come off it – who are you trying to kid? That doesn’t make sense!’

My unhinged self is happy with the impossible, the unplanned and the illogical. In response to the whinging of my hinged self she simply shrugs her implausibly broad, pale green shoulders and responds: `‘And your point is?’ and then she’s off with a flick of her iridescent, metal wings.

My unhinged self has infinite faith in the power of the story, in the capacity of my unconscious to work things out. She doesn’t much care what anyone else thinks: she plunges into the story world and believes wholeheartedly in everything she puts there. She is quite obviously certifiable, but remarkably productive when given her head. The problem is that as she lives in mine, I am not always able to free her, to unhinge my thinking and let her out.

It’s a pity really because she can write really fast…

The Leaden mean

What is it about middles? I don’t mean the bit of flab that sits where one’s waist ought to be, but the middle of a novel (where in truth there is often a bit of extra padding where the plot should be.) Normally I like middles – I mean the middle of a sandwich is always the best bit – as a kid I never ate the bread.I was also extremely good at deconstructing Jaffa cakes so I could be left to savour the delicious orangey bit in the centre. Even today when eating cream cake I’m quite likely to skip the cake and go straight for the cream. The middle of the year is good, the middle way had a certain appeal and I’m even finding middle age tolerable, but I hate writing the middle section of books.

In the beginning there is that excitement – this is ‘The One’ – the breakthrough book, the best thing I’ve done. At the end there is the promise of those two wonderful little words ‘the end’ when all is resolved and the damn thing (note no longer ‘The One’ – just another one) is finished. The middle, however, is just all that stuff that makes the story work – I think it’s called plot and then there’s character development and world building and … Well, the middle is just graft – the hard yards through which the shiny new idea is dulled and tarnished by much thought and occasional reworking.

I left my current book at the beginning of the summer at the mid-point, the middle of the middle. I do not know what I was thinking! Take it from me, you should NEVER leave a book in the middle. I have done it before and that story never got finished. This current one is lurking at the back of my head, taunting me even as I write this – half formed and whimpering…

I am sooooo past the point of initial enthusiasm and such a long way from the finishing line. I have procrastinated for weeks, but today the kids are back in school, my friends are back in work and I have just run out of excuses. Wish me luck – I’m going to need it.

Planning by clockwork

How do you picture a year? A week? I’m very conventional in my imaging I think a week goes up hill, the hardest part being the steep scarp slope of Sunday night when homework has to be done and clothes prepared for the week ahead. Monday morning is pretty steep and then from midday Wednesday it is downhill all the way to the lush valley of the weekend which is delightfully flat.

OK. Maybe I am barking, but I have always visualised time as terrain which I suppose makes it natural enough to visualise the terrain of a story as time or more particularly as a clock face. A story is a circle where the end answers the questions asked by the beginning. Picture an old fashioned school clock – the kind that marks the minutes of exams and that interminable last period on a Friday afternoon. Divide the clock into quarters and you have the outline of a novel. First quarter is set up. The second quarter is the further development of key plot points with the half hour as the mid-point, the moment of deepest crisis, when all hope is lost. By the third quarter you may have begun attempts at resolution, usually foiled, which give rise to further problems but, however bad it is, by quarter to the hour (or soon after) you have to begin to move towards the resolution which occurs at the o’clock, the top of the hour, home.

This way of looking at a book is deeply ingrained in my head, even when I don’t actually plan a novel this pulse is ticking away at the back of my mind – time to complicate, time to simplify and finally time to take the story home. Barking. But I find it helps.

Worldbuilding for Beginners

In the beginning there was Tolkein and he really did world building: language, geography, history, the lot. I think he is probably the model for the kind of writer who devises a complete world before putting pen to paper, the kind of writer who has notebooks full of background material. I get the impression that JK Rowling did much the same thing with her class lists and drawings. I know many people for whom the pleasure of building a world certainly equals that of writing the story.

Well, I can’t do it. I just can’t. I open a notebook and the most I can come up with is a bad drawing/doodle and a shopping list. Even if my brain would let me, I suspect that trying to build a world from scratch would set off my (long dormant) perfectionist streak and I would be immobilised by ignorance. What happens to tides if you have two moons? How would plants photosynthesise when the sun grew dim?

There is another way. It isn’t a better way, but it is an alternate way. It is called making it up as you go along. I don’t know much about how this word works but I know what it feels like to be here, so in writing about other worlds I focus on what it feels like to be there. Then I work out why things are as they are. In my mind’s eye I see a woman in a painted wooden mask by a dung fire, a glowing silver boy in a ditch watching a baby-faced bird, a soaring golden dragon in a blue sky.

Why? What? How? I write the story to find out. Everything should connect: everything has to have a credible explanation.

If someone wears silk in a climate that wouldn’t support silk worms they have to belong to some kind of trading culture. If a woman burns dung on her fire and lives by a forest there has to be a reason why she doesn’t burn the trees. Each new world building detail sets into motion a domino effect; repercussions crash through the fabric of the story. It is quite fun.

I still get immobilised by ignorance, but at least I don’t have to know everything up front, only those things that affect my story directly.

World building in this ad hoc way is a bit like a developing a picture. Everything in the foreground has to be in sharp focus; the further away it is the less well defined it appears. My characters leaving the city of Lunnzia,

the known world of my imagining, walk into a landscape that does not yet have form. I don’t know what lies beyond the borders of the Island of the Gifted and unless my characters escape them I’ll never find out. Like I said, this isn’t the only way of world building, but it is a way, one that allows the words to keep flowing and the ideas to keep developing as the story and the world take shape together.