So tomorrow I return to getting paid to do something other than write. About twenty months ago I ignored the one piece of writing advice all the professionals seem to agree on and quit my day job.
The plan was that I would write a novel and get it published and that nearly two years would be more than enough time to do that. I still haven’t finished the novel. I’ve abandoned two and am now working on the third. I have high hopes for this one.
It has been an amazing time. I am so much a better writer for it. When I left my day job I had a first draft of a novel I’d written during NaNoWriMo. I thought I would rewrite it and turn into something good. I spent weeks reading through it, marking it with a red pen, until I realised two things: 1. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing when it came to rewriting. 2. There was something fundamentally wrong with the story but I didn’t know what that was.
I decided to focus for a while on short stories to learn about rewriting in small chunks. That went well. I had a story in my head that needed to be told and Pantechnicon liked it enough to publish it – Innocent. I had a go at writing articles and found I didn’t like it so much and for a couple of months got paid for blogging.
Then I started on a second novel, working from an idea I’d had years ago. This time I had piles of character sheets, timelines, outlines, research and even a map. It was loosely based on a real period of European history and so I was able to get lost in the research. The writing wasn’t coming easily at all. And in the back of my head I wondered if there was the same fundamental flaw in this story as there had been in the previous one.
Last summer I took a part time job and switched to working on another short story. The second novel wasn’t going anywhere and I’d reached the point where I needed some success. I returned to the strategy that had worked before. This story never seemed to be done; it just grew and grew. The part time job ended in September and for three months I worked flat out on what was now my third attempt at a novel.
Then something unexpected happened. I stumbled across a feminist critique of one of my favourite TV shows and it shook the way I’d been thinking about things. After a few weeks of re-educating myself on matters of prejudice and privilege I realised what had been wrong with my previous two novels. They portrayed relationships and characters that entirely reinforced the status quo and I had been under such a false consciousness that I’d failed to see it. It was also true of the third novel but in this case was fixable. This novel will get finished and I will be happy with the result, but I may sweat blood doing it.
Of course, I have also read and critiqued and studied writing. I’ve learnt what my process is and I’ve learned to view my own work more objectively. The last few months have been mostly dedicated to job hunting and now I’m returning to work. I’m happy about that – I like to pay the mortgage and have nice things – and I’m looking forward to it. But I would absolutely quit my day job all over again. Just as soon as I find a big pile of money.
I’m almost caught up. This is Issue 86 of Hub. There’s only one more in my Inbox, although I’m expecting another one tomorrow.
There are two stories this week. Wink by Lucy Kemnitzer is a surprisingly affecting story. She packs a lot into few words. It starts out with the idea that puberty can be controlled, thus it need only be started when required and packed into a couple of months. This is well told through a character embarking on puberty in response to meeting another character. Then the story abruptly twists into an exploration of gendered communication, misunderstood expectations and ultimately rejection and disappointment. It’s really good.
Tastes of the Dark is by Malin Larsson. Something about this didn’t work for me. It has the well used twist of leading the reader to believe that the POV character is the prey when they are actually the predator. Generally I don’t object to using a structure or idea that has been done before because a good story is a good story. I guess what I’m learning from reviewing other people’s work is that the telling matters more than the tale. And in this case the telling lacked tension.
I am now reviewing Hub in the same month of its publication. I’m giddy.
The story in Issue 85 is Old Clothes by Chris Cyr. I didn’t like this. It’s a ghost story and is the experience of a woman’s spirit after her death. Old clothes are used to hang old memories on and tell parts of the woman’s life story. For me, it lacks conflict and emotion. It is, unfortunately, just a bit dull.
Special treats in Issue 83 of Hub. There’s a poem as well as a story.
Story first, as usual, and it’s Mother Sponge by Mur Lafferty. This is really good. Exposition is handled in great dialogue and adds to the story rather than slowing it down. It builds from a strong start into a gripping finish – something that I now realise is rare. Stories often seem to start strong and falter towards the end but this gets better as it goes along.
The poem is The REAL Easter Bunny by Peter Roberts. It’s cute in a horrible sort of way. I should mention that I don’t read much poetry, although I do appreciate some of it. I’m interested in form and prefer stuff with some structure rather than free verse, so the rhyming couplets appealed to me.
My Dad’s Idea by Llinos Cathryn Thomas is kind of fun. It’s a tongue in cheek solution to resource exhaustion and its impact on the human race. It’s worth a read.
On an aside, and as I don’t have much to say about the story in Issue 84 of Hub, I recently watched a few episodes of Primeval based on the review in this issue. And I’m glad I did. Someday I’ll make the effort to catch up with Series 1 and 2.
Ten years ago I bought a flat and in a moment of feeling terribly grown up, I also bought a ‘DIY Last Will & Testament’ pack. Having procrastinated on it since then, I found the pack when I was clearing out some paperwork. Despite my fortunes having taken a downturn and my estate being significantly smaller than it was (I’d be lucky to raise 20p at the moment), and despite general good health and a family predisposition to longevity, I find myself motivated to settle my affairs.
A large part of the procrastination on this matter has just been lack of knowledge. I didn’t know how to write a will, what else I needed to do, whether a lawyer was necessary and what is legal/possible in terms of funeral arrangements. Turns out you don’t need a lawyer and there are no legal requirements in the UK for funeral services. I can be buried anywhere I like so long as I have the land owner’s permission. The pack, once I’d opened it and started reading, provides templates for a will, letters to executors, notes for funerary wishes and a handy list of what people will need to know when I die.
I’ve always been fairly certain about what I wanted to do with my money, should I end up with any. I want to give it to the British Museum. I don’t plan to have children and it would be nice to have something with my name on it in my favourite place. I’m less certain about funerary arrangements, but it turns out there are many more options than I thought.
This has been an energising and motivating experience. Living in the now is all very well when your circumstances are good but can be depressing when they’re challenging. Writing my will got me thinking about the future, about what I want to achieve, and reminded me that things will get better.
And when they do, I’m going to buy some woodland so that I can be buried in it.
Once upon a time, I thought I was catching up but this is real life and there’s no happily ever after. Which sounds more depressing than I mean. There are endings and many of them are happy and then the story keeps on going. Much like my quest to catch up on my reading. Oh happy fool.
Issue 82 of Hub contains the story Under A Bridge by Paul Fairbairn. It’s okay. It’s a modern fairy tale and that’s quite nice to see. I like the idea but the telling of it lacks depth. Exposition is nicely weaved in with dialogue and the writing is competent. It took me a moment to put my finger on what was missing – and in this case, it is that something is missing rather than that something is wrong. There’s no sensation. A very physical scene is described very cerebrally. There’s no smell or sound or texture and little colour.
Still struggling to get used to the new blocky design of Hub‘s website. And still struggling to catch up with all the things I want to read.
Anyway, Issue 81. The story is Gifted by Philip Palmer. Wow. This is fantastic. The very sad tale of a lonely boy who wastes the gifts he has, and knows that he wastes them. The non-linear structure underpins the sense of dislocation and conveys some of the backstory without words. I loved the repetition of some of the scenes and the way it helped to heighten the emotion. Definitely read this one.
Today I typed up 2,300 words of Sacrifice. On the way I realised a scene was missing and added it to my list of scenes to write. I also realised one of my main characters needs a life of her own, rather than as an appendage to the other main character, so I gave some thought to her life and have decided her sister needs to become visible. More scenes added to the to-do list.
My process is a little strange I think. Certainly none of the ‘how to write’ books I’ve read describe a process like this. I write some scenes in no particular order, fresh, raw material, until I run out of steam. Then I run them together and start rewriting. This suggests more scenes which I make a note of, and throws up problems which I try to solve. Then I get stuck and go back to writing new scenes. And it goes back and forth like that until I eventually come to the end. When I got to about 30,000 words with Sacrifice I decided I needed scene cards and notice boards to make sense of it all, but before that point they wouldn’t have helped at all.
Discovering my process has been hard. I always want to think I’m doing the ‘right’ thing and if I’m doing something different to the books or the people in my writers’ circle I think it must be me that must be wrong. And I cling to the fantasy that if I was more organised, more disciplined, then the writing would just flow. Which is of course, nonsense, but very seductive nonsense.