Friday, 3 August 2018

Writing, Editing, Creating

I wasn't planning to write a blog article, but felt after yesterday I wanted to make some notes while the recent events were fresh in my mind. I'm not sure what this piece will be about, but I guess it's going to touch on creativity (also see The Creative Process and the Unconscious, Where Ideas Come From) and An update on Creativity and the Unconscious), blocks, editing, and book 4 progress.

Yesterday was one of those wonderful writing days that sometimes happen, so this is partly about what led up to that.

I haven't written any articles for a while because I feel I'm way behind schedule on where I wanted to be for this fourth book. I had felt pretty comfortable that I could have it ready about mid-2018, but that turned out to be wildly optimistic. I'll lay out the reasons why, and let you see what you think of them.

I think I started writing the MS in 1991, and completed that 1st draft near the end of 1993. I just realised that might be a fun image to share… here's a photo of the MS.

I used mostly used sheets of paper that had been printed. In fact, on the left you can find a draft of a page from my wife Stella's PhD thesis on the Percy Folio.

In my first draft of the start of Leeth's story, it opened on the scene where Dr Harmon is in the office of the Mother Superior of the orphanage, looking for a suitable subject to adopt.

Anyway, the MS went through many stages — the next one being typing it up on the computer, in the troff/MM markup. I worked on it and polished and edited it, sending it off to little or no response to publishers, and then about ten years later realised the whole second half was full of story — but no plot. So I bit the bullet and cut it in half. Then it seemed a little short, and I still felt it was lacking something. The Godsson-Disten idea came from somewhere to fill the gap, and I developed that and wove it in to the story. At the end, the MS was back to its original, pre-halved size.

I still kept editing and polishing, improving my craft. I fed that whole MS, chapter by chapter, through the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, and learned so much from the many very helpful reviews I received, and equally, from writing reviews of other writers' submissions there.

Learning your craft by writing a long novel is a hard way to do it — you need to fix stylistic errors through a much larger mass than a short story — but I rarely enjoy reading or writing short fiction. So I kept at it.

The point of this historical digression is to explain the first couple of special problems I faced with book 4. The first was that I hadn't touched (even read) this half of the original MS in about 15 years, so there was a reasonable amount of work just to apply what I'd learned in the meantime. A bigger problem was the lack of plot. Now, the large anti-emotion plot arc definitely helped, and tied nicely into what was already there — but even so, it needed more. There was also the fear that maybe the old MS simply might not be good enough? I had little idea what to expect when I sat down to read it again, but found myself pleasantly surprised: it was kind of nice, I felt. Leeth had grown and changed more, however, thanks to all the additional trials I'd put her through while developing the 1st three books, so stretches had to be rewritten: what was there was more the Leeth you saw straight out of the Institute: no d'Artelle spirit confrontation, nothing with Disten, and, a really huge difference — no Marcie in her life.

Due to the need to write a short piece for my local writers' group, the Marrickville Writers Corner, I thought that one incident briefly passed over in the MS deserved some expansion: the heartbreaking Luiz assassination. And while writing that piece, while Leeth crept through the dark apartment in shock at what had just happened, she heard a creepy scratching coming from a drawer in Luiz's desk. I had no idea what was coming, just that it connected to Luiz's nasty past, but that led to the black dagger. That tiny seed germinated into the other major plot element for book 4.

The title came surprisingly easily: Violent Causes having several meanings, all of which were applicable for this book, so that was one element that I didn't have a big struggle with. But with all the things that needed addressing, and my desire to keep as much as I could of what was there, somehow even getting to the stage of the MS ready to send off to Dave at seemed harder. I'd arranged a slot, and as the deadline approached I found I was struggling to meet it. In the end I sent it off before I'd done my usual 2nd polish, which was stupid. I'd told myself it would make it easier for me to cut things if I hadn't made over-polished them. Instead, it just made more work for poor Dave.

And when I received his detailed critique, he had some big issues with some of the early sections, and lots of the early chapters had a lot of small issues, too. (Oops: note to self: never skip the polishing!) After some very fruitful discussions back and forth, we got a handle on them and a plan for what I should adjust, and I carried on. And after a month of hard work, I was halfway through Dave's comments, and it was the end of July. Sigh.

There was also one major extra piece of plot to work in, involving Marcie, and a key point in that was to be Marcie's inclusion into one incident. The problem was, that incident was kind of tightly scripted, dramatic, and I could see no way to work Marcie in without disrupting a sequence I'd been looking forward to making concrete, for at least fifteen years. In fact, this scene actually blocked my writing for a whole year, as I wanted to work it out so I could then move on to the next piece of the story. This was before I understood the role of the unconscious, and the simple trick of just writing it down, or skipping past the block. Instead, I'd sit down, and try to work out the scene in my head… and eventually fall asleep, and have used up all the time I'd set aside for writing, with visible results of zero.

Yet here I was, in 2018, with that scene looking and working like a dream — I think it would make a great piece in a movie — and now I needed to add Marcie, in a significant way. So I worked my way closer to this with, not exactly a growing fear, since I had confidence in UTT and my unconscious… but some trepidation, let's say.

And then on Monday I was at the brink: the next thing to do was what I had begun thinking of as The Marcie Problem. Tuesday I visited Mum, and saw the Equalizer 2 with her and a friend (hi Jacqui!), and then had afternoon tea and dinner with Mum, and watched an episode of The Avengers (courtesy of my brother Jonathan: B&W, John Steed and Honor Blackman as Dr Cathy King, not the Marvel Avengers), followed by the Hammer Horror film The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. (He seemed tall. I looked him up: he was: 1.96m, 6'5"!)

So, no writing on Tuesday. A whole day with ‘no progress'. But I wasn't too worried, since panic and fear are your enemies and I knew I was just giving my unconscious more time to come up with something good. And it's always a great day, visiting Mum; not to mention, relaxing and having a great meal to boot!

So, Wednesday arrives, and still no breakthrough. I could also tell I wasn't going to get it without a bit more positive action. And now we come to the nub of this article, and what drove me to write it. Because this time, I was more sensitive to what was going on in my own mind.

I remembered my own advice, of using pencil and paper to write stuff down so you're not wasting mental energy juggling ideas in your mind while trying to create new ones. So I took my little hand-made A6-sized notepad with its 4-leaf folded ‘pages' clipped to it, and my trusty propelling pencil. There are some nuances there: that style of pencil, using 2B leads, means your letters are crisp and sharp and the physical act is effortless; and the hand-sized pad means it's not flexing and flopping and you're fighting to support it. It just fits in your hand, you can lie back on the sofa, comfy and warm, and think, and write as ideas spring to mind.

All trying to make it as frictionless as possible when the ideas start flowing, you see?

But I still didn't have my idea. What I did have was some issues. So I started writing down stuff, and also thinking. Not rushing myself. Not stressing myself because I wasn't actually writing the story. Just trying to make the solution coalesce out of whatever soup of ideas was floating around in my head.

What started happening was somehow like doing a jigsaw puzzle, except the pieces of the picture didn't exist until I thought of them, and it wasn't two dimensional but three. The depth part is not especially important, but the time dimension was critical. I started with asking "How would Marcie plausibly end up in this scene?"

(By the way, I'm going to avoid talking about this in a way that gives any spoilers.)

Marcie's appearance needed to fit in with a major plot strand we'd agreed on, that involved Harmon. But how would he know? So, that meant Nelson gave him the info. And then Harmon needed to persuade someone else. And that was kind of interesting. And then Marcie herself needed to find out enough to wind up in the scene. So I wrote that little sequence, which worked very plausibly and nicely I felt, and did good things for the plot, tension, and pacing. I now had the background of my jigsaw, in the sense of both the chain of events that led up to it, and of course I already had the tightly-written scene where Marcie would appear.

Her appearance also had to be significant: it'd be pretty weak if she just waved from the sidelines. Dave had suggested Marcie's appearance should cause problems for Leeth, so that was kind of the ‘shape' of one piece. But I still didn't see how to fit her in.

Now, I'd had one thought, too, that disturbed me: "if Marcie is here, and X is here too, then Scary-Y could easily result, and blow everything to pieces." But at the same time, they say you're supposed to place your characters at risk. Yikes! So that was percolating in the back of my mind.

1st Wednesday of the month was my MWC meetup, so I gave a quick polish to a scene I'd written the week before, and headed off for a very convivial and inspiring evening at Where's Nick. But I still didn't have the Marcie Problem solved.

Thursday arrived, and I kept feeling, for some reason, that Marcie wasn't going to go alone into this scene. I kept imagining someone with her. Which just complicated things, I felt, and I didn't want to do it. But in the end, since I was just lying on the sofa and not exactly making massive progress, I shrugged and decided to explore that. I asked myself "How does Marcie go from where she is, to here?" and just started imagining and jotting down some points. That all seemed pretty natural, and that would put Marcie at the required place, with this other person. And their reaction to my smoothly-scripted scene would definitely fit into new-Harmon-plot-item-Z, and advance that.

Then Scary-Y idea popped back in my head.

And I suddenly saw that Scary-Y could easily unfold after the smoothly-scripted scene. And with that, the problem was solved. The solution wasn't to force Marcie and her scene to meld into the existing scene: it was to let that follow on and develop from the scene!

This definitely felt a Eureka moment.

So then I just let the characters do their stuff. All the different parties with their own agendas, colliding and reacting. Let me just have a count ([Spoilers stripped out]): total of 9 parties. And so events flowed, and the drama climbed, and Leeth pushed back, and things started spiralling into dangerous areas. Maybe half of it was just in my head, the other half the occasional explanatory note written down so I wouldn't forget, or a line or two of dialogue. My notes occupied less than two A6 pages of my tiny writing, but I had enough to set off and I was eager to do so. I broke for dinner, but basically wrote from 4pm till 1am, a bit over 4k words. Sitting back, I summarised it in the flush of excitement as "very plausible, didn't change the existing scene much at all, upped the tension, fulfilled more expectations, causes more troubles down the track, and also has some laughs and more character development, all while advancing the plot!"

And it was time for bed. Looking at the page, I saw that I just needed to write the emotional aftermath, and in due course explore the repercussions of what happened. "I'll just write a little bit, to start that," I thought. Then sat back and saw it was 2am. I'd summarise that effort as taking what had happened to a whole new level. Leeth once again surprised me; but this time, herself, too, and even scared herself.

So I ended the day feeling high, extremely pleased with how it all worked out, and of course relieved to have the Marcie Problem solved and the pressure/stress removed.

I won't have a chance to do any editing or writing today, and I'll be taking a day off tomorrow, so no progress then, either. And I still have the other half of the MS critique to work through. But I'm feeling much more relaxed now. Hopefully, there should only be small bumps in the road ahead.

So, what's next? I hope to have my editing and polishing done by around the end of August. Hopefully I'll find a slot in Dave's schedule for a 2nd round critique, and then with any luck a much easier job for both him and myself following that. Mirella is on the job with the cover design (again, with another idea mainly from Dave), and then I need to try to do some proper marketing for a month or two before releasing this one. So my guess is it will be ready near the end of the year.

Better late than half-baked.

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