For me, the most important aspect of writing a book, is holding onto the FEEL of what I want the finished book to be. If I lose that, it's all over.
I won't know every detail of the book, I'll only know what it feels like, and the feeling is distinct and specific and perfect and impossible to summarise.
So I send myself reminders, I write mini essays about what this book feels like - elements I mustn't forget, elements I definitely mustn't add. I tell myself what the book is and what it's not.
I listen to music that contributes to the feel. I try to only read books that contribute to the feel. I create documents that contain nothing but a list of words that give a flavour of the feel.
I write myself muse statements, instructions for how to get back into the feel if ever I should lose it. I try not to read the work I've written, in case it doesn't feel like the feel - and I'll just write and write, slowly translating the feel from my mind into the document.
If I'm lucky, I'll manage to hold onto the feel right until the project is done. If I'm luckier, the thing I've created IS the feel.
Whenever I sit down to write, of all the scenes that need writing, I feel like there's one scene I'm supposed to write tonight.
The hardest part is when I'm not sure which scene it is.
Only write the most important scenes once you know your characters inside and out. This will usually mean waiting until you've written everything else.
While creating a piece of art, always hold the FEEL of it in your mind, like a memory. Like it's a piece of art you've already seen, and loved, and you remember what it felt like, even if you can't remember every detail.
Dialogue, for me, is where stories can start to break down. If you're not careful, dialogue can expose the plot like the man behind the curtain, because the characters say how they feel, what they want, and what they wish were different. This is gross.
There are a few ways around it. Make your characters skirt around the issue. Make them hide what they really mean. Never let them say how they feel.
There are 2 issues with this.
Problem 1 - in real life, people often do say what they really mean, and state what they want. A novel isn't real life, but this still doesn't sit right with me.
Problem 2 - dialogue is the only part of a book where we ask the reader to perform. Our readers have to say what our characters are saying. So unless the reader is an accomplished actor, they're going to play the scene in their head like a Saturday afternoon B-movie. Your carefully-crafted words are being read as if from a script for the first time. (Because that's almost literally what's happening).
This might be an unpopular opinion, but sometimes I find it's best just to tell the reader what the characters spoke about rather than showing each line of dialogue.
Instead of having some icky back-and-forth between two divorcing parents, where they say how they feel, or they mask their feelings and skirt around the issue - instead of the characters melodramatically shouting the plot at us - why not say something like: 'We spoke about the day we got married. We spoke about Billy, and which one of us would take custody if I left.'
To me, this is far more elegant. Yes, it's "telling", and we're urged as writers to "show not tell". But to me, this leaves it to the imagination. Instead of being shown exactly what was said, line for line, we're forced to consider how that conversation might've unfolded based on our knowledge of the characters. This can feel much more real. It's like one of those scenes in a film where the voices fade, the music swells, and we watch the characters speak, argue, fight, without needing to know exactly what was said. We don't always need it.
Sometimes we do. Sometimes - most of the time, in fact - it's definitely worth showing us exactly what the characters are saying. Or maybe start by showing, and end with telling, or vice versa. But when we get to the real on-the-nose meaning of the conversation - the whole point of the dialogue - try just telling it.
Because the truth is, in real life, people say stupid, boring, obvious things. We can try to circumvent this with clever misdirection and subtext. But with a few well-chosen lines of telling, we'll know enough, and fill in the rest with pieces of ourselves.
I think there are two kinds of stories. Bridges and paintings.
Bridges take you from A to B in the most entertaining way possible. They can be funny, scary, romantic, anything - they don't even have to be linear - but always they carry you forward. Bridges are good.
Paintings also tell a story, but they can be studied piece by piece, and usually the true meaning comes from within. It often involves seeing the painting as a whole. A painting can be interpreted. They can be nebulous, with no real path - just layers of beauty and emotion guiding you. Paintings are also good.
(These 'paintings' are often called literary fiction, though that's not strictly what I mean. I think literary fiction can sometimes be a bridge, and genre fiction can be a painting.)
I like paintings the most. I like reading them, I like writing them.
My problem, I've realised, is I try to turn my paintings into bridges. I'll have a gorgeous idea for a painting, and I'll start painting it, and it's going well, but by the end I've welded it all together in a way that isn't true to myself, because I'm trying to create what I think people want. I've made a bridge.
I need to stop doing that.
I'm not Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
I'm a painter.
I don't have a lot to say to anyone about anything. But I do have everything to say to myself about whatever project I happen to be working on, and how to make it the best it can be.
I'm at that stage in a project where it's starting to feel pretty good and I'm like, "oh shit I actually need to make sure I don't accidentally die so I can finish this."
I walked to the shop or I walked to the beach. I bought some bread or I built a sandcastle. I walked beneath the underpass or a boy kicked my sandcastle down. I saw a dead swan or I built another sandcastle. The bridge smelt like piss or I collected some broken shells. A man asked for a cigarette or I put the shells in a bucket. I walked along the canal or I took the shells into town. I walked to the beach or I walked to the shop. I don't know who I am or I don't know who I am.
We need to learn everything and then forget everything. That second part is important. If we don't forget everything, we're creating what we've learnt, and what we've learnt is everything that came before.
So why learn and then forget? Why not just never learn in the first place?
Because our minds are barren like the surface of the Moon. We need to borrow some soil and seeds from Earth to grow vegetables and trees. They will look like Earth vegetables and Earth trees.
Now we have a fertile foundation, it's time to chop down the Earth trees, to dig up the Earth vegetables.
It's time to grow moon plants.
There's a certain type of humour that writers use sometimes, and it grates on me a bit. It's hard to explain, but I'll try.
Let's say we have two characters - a father and a son. They look alike, but the father is bald, and we (the reader) know he's bald.
Now at some point, the writer reminds us what these characters look like. The father looks like the son, only with "...significantly less hair."
This isn't a joke about being bald. The 'humour' comes from the fact that they've said "significantly less hair", when we know he's completely bald. It's a kind of nudge-nudge-wink-wink. "Get it? Because he's bald? Significantly less hair?"
The humour isn't coming from the situation, or an action, or an event. Nothing funny is happening. The humour only comes from the way the writer has worded the sentence. And that's why it grates on me. The writer is popping their little head out of the darkness, injecting themselves into the story, and trying to say something clever. Some books do it a lot.
Maybe there's a character who doesn't have a car. The writer might describe her as "transportably-challenged". Again, it's the writer trying a little too hard to be clever. "Get it? That means she doesn't have a car, remembeeeeerrrrrr?"
It's not so bad if it's a first-person story. It can help to show the character's personality through their internal thoughts. But sometimes it can take me right out of the world.
Just something I noticed.
P.S. How has it been FIVE MONTHS since my last post? Life goes too fast, and it actually terrifies me.
It's my birthday so I thought I'd do a painting.
Like many people, I have a habit of giving up on my creative projects. A project I'm head-over-heels in love with one week could be thrown aside the next. I'm actually surprised every time. I never saw it coming.
But here's the thing. I don't give up so I can sit around doing nothing. (Not that there's anything wrong with that). Nine times out of ten if I give up on a project it's because I've found something I'm even more passionate about. And no one should ever feel guilty about that.
Do what excites you. Do what you love. And maybe one day you'll find your way back to those projects that excited you so much before.
Life has a way of making you feel like you're wandering. Never walking or running, always wandering. As a storyteller it's ingrained into me that every story should have a satisfying arc - a clear beginning, middle and end. But life isn't like that. I am a man writing things that no one will ever read, forever and ever until I'm dead.
This sounds depressing, but I'm not depressed. It's more of an emptiness.
It's not like the work itself is empty - I'm proud of what I write. I put everything into it. Maybe this all just sounds like a teenager moaning on his blog.
Maybe all that matters is the work itself, and even when it fades away, leaving no trace it ever existed, that's okay.
It's a sunset that only I saw.
My main project at the moment is writing a novel about a magic box. I can't go into much more detail than that, but I think it could be a really great book, and it's coming along nicely. I've written maybe a quarter of it.
But recently I hit a roadblock that I've never really hit before. It wasn't writer's block. It was a what's the point? block.
You spend months and months writing a book, send it out to agents, and they say no. If you're lucky, your closest friends might read it. You could self-publish it, but it'll just rot away on Amazon, and then you could never really get it traditionally published even if your writing career took off with a different book.
You've got very little to show for those months of blood, sweat and tears. Just another book to gather dust on the shelf of books no one will ever read. Even if you're proud of what you wrote.
At least with a painting or a piece of music, you can post it on social media for people to maybe see. I toyed with the idea of posting my writing on various writing platforms. But they're all very genre-based. Almost no one seemed to be looking for "literary fiction".
Here's where things changed though. I was desperately searching for any way to "get my writing out there". And I stumbled upon a piece of advice I've seen many times but have always kind of glazed over.
Literary journals and magazines. You can submit short stories, flash fiction, extracts, and poems - and maybe they'll publish it.
So I gathered a list of about 100, then whittled them down to about 50 I liked the look of - all based in the UK. And now I'm submitting my work to them. I've done six so far.
They might all say no, but still, it's revitalised me. I already have dozens and dozens of bits of writing that I think would be great for magazines and journals. If they say no, I'll try another piece, and another. Even if I only submit 10 different pieces to 10 different magazines (and I'll be submitting a lot more than that), that's 100 chances to get published.
That's much better than spending the best part of a year writing a whole novel, sending it to about 20 agents, all of them saying no, and starting all over again. (I will still do that as well, of course).
I've heard stats like the chances of having a novel traditionally published these days (if you're not already famous) are about 1 in 10,000 - and even then, you're expected to do a lot of the marketing yourself.
With the magazines and journals thing, I feel like it's given me more of a reason to write. More of a shot. More of a goal.
Above all, I need to remember that I should write because I love to write.
But why do I want to be traditionally published?
Well, that's a post for another time.
There are a few things occupying my headspace at the moment. Those things are (in order of importance, top being most important)...
I'll speak about some of these in separate posts.
Alright. It's time to do a blog.
I've toyed with the idea of doing a blog in the past but have never seen the point, because who's going to see it? Literally no one. It won't show up on Google, and there's nowhere I could publish it where people would care.
But I will care. It'll be nice to have a little record of what I'm doing and what I've done. Especially if I keep doing it for the rest of my life.
So here it is. The first post.
These are my messages in bottles.
If you find them, you've found me.