Friday, 20 January 2012

“It’s not you, it’s me..." ( or, why I had to break up with my protagonist)


I’m working on my latest story and had a bit of a revelation this week; about my main character.

I’d done all the preparation I was supposed to do; you know, the character description. I'd worked out her family background, discovered her dream, her likes, dislikes, star sign, favourite colour and all that stuff. I knew what she looked like, what she ate for breakfast and when she clipped her toe nails, and more importantly I knew where she was (mentally and emotionally) at the beginning, middle and end of the plot. I knew exactly what she was going to do with her life over the next few months and how she was going to do it. In fact, I was so darn sure that I’d worked her out to perfection that I forgot to like her.

And so it hit me; the ugly truth - Alice Smith is dull; so dull, I don’t actually feel like writing about her anymore.

We all know how important good and likeable characters are to a story, but the revelation was that it’s not just the reader who needs them, it’s the writer. And without any passion for my character, it was getting kind of tedious writing about her. It’s like having one of those friends who is undoubtedly a really ‘nice’ person, but you end up making excuses as to why you can’t see them or why you have to cut the phone call short or would you believe it, “something has just come up and I’m going to have to cancel…”

Well I’m afraid that’s how I felt about poor old Alice. For all her niceness, and for all her great qualities and good intentions, she had to go.

We’ve parted company on quite good terms. We both know it wasn’t her fault and I said as much. “It’s not you, Alice. It’s me.” And I would like to keep in touch. But I’ve got my eye on someone else.

The new girl is  brazen, passionate and outspoken. I don’t know her name yet or what she looks like, but I can hear her voice and I’m drawn to the page by her crazy language and off-beat observations. She shakes things up and gets things moving. She's active, proactive and reactive and almost certainly insane. She may get me into trouble and cause all sorts of problems before I reveal her to the world, but at this distance I am already falling in love. I've started to sneak out of bed in the morning, just to be alone with her, and when real life intrudes on our time together she is never far from my thoughts.

If, or should I say when, she makes it into the final first draft, I may have to tone her down a little for fear of offending sensitive readers, but for the duration of ‘the write’, at least I will have been entertained.

If you’ve got any thoughts about a kick-ass name for her, please feel free to suggest.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Of Chaos and Dancing Stars


“One must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

I am interested in the creative process.

I am interested because it’s in my nature to be organised and plan; I am the Queen of lists, a person who keeps her clock ten minutes fast, and a walking diary of other peoples’ appointments. And yet, when I’m writing a book something else takes over - an inability to stick to plans, word limits or goals; I simply lose control.

The only certain pattern to have emerged over time, is that there are days which feel like ‘work’ and there are days when I can’t wait to get out of bed and live in my story world. On really good days, something pours out of me and onto the page which is so inspired and ‘right’ it feels almost like divine intervention! And then on other days, everything is DOOMED; I know the inspiration which filled me the week/the day/the hour before was probably just a fluke.

There’s a kind of circular thing going on; work, flow, inspiration, low, work, flow, inspiration, low… and so on. It happens on a small scale, chapter by chapter, and on a larger (whole-book) scale too. I work, I feel good, I feel amazing, and then I read it back and think ‘this is rubbish’! It’s chaotic and crazy and not for the feint-hearted.

In an attempt to tame this chaos, and bring the whole creative process back under my control, I did a little research. I googled Models of the Creative Process. There are quite a few! Clearly I’m not the only one who wants to make sense of this madness.

But it’s one of the earliest models, from Graham Wallas in 1926, which resonated most with me. He suggested four phases of creative thinking.

Preparation - Incubation - Illumination - Verification

  1. Preparation - This is the first phase which feels most like work. It’s relatively mundane and it’s all about the planning, the research, the reading, or revising earlier drafts. It can be enjoyable, but it can be tedious too.
  2. Incubation - This is the bit you don’t often realise you’re doing, because your subconscious mind is working on the idea, making new connections, separating unnecessary ideas, and grabbing for other ideas even when you’re asleep. You need time and space to do this. It’s unquantifiable and intangible and can be terribly frustrating. But, from these dark depths springs…
  3. Illumination. Suddenly something makes sense! Everything (something) falls into place; you find the perfect word; a character makes you laugh or cry; a plot line ties in with another. Whatever it is, it’s so intensely satisfying that you want nothing more than to get on with the process and find out how it all ends.
  4. Verification is the moment you stand back and see if it all hangs together. In early drafts this might be the low - when you realise that it doesn’t work and you have to change something. It’s time to evaluate.

And it’s circular.

Nine years after writing and rewriting and going through the work-flow-inspiration-low cycle countless times, my first novel and another muchly redrafted effort, are now sitting on a publisher’s desk, awaiting their verdict. I could never have written these books without repeating the creative process time and time again, on many different levels.

It’s a process which begins with work and ends with work, and somewhere in the middle is all that brooding and chaos. I finally accept that I can’t plan steps 2&3, because who knows what’s bubbling under the surface and what inspiration is going to pop out? But understanding the process helps me let go of the need to control it. 

And one day, maybe soon, that nice publisher will give me the verification that I have indeed given birth to a dancing star.