For me, starting work on a new book has been easy. Getting beyond the first chapter – let alone to a completed novel – is an entirely different matter. Some might compare embarking on a new novel to falling in love … again: This is The One, at least you think that when it starts to take shape. Of course, all previous ones seemed exactly as special at the time – it was going to be your magnum opus, nothing was ever going to top that. Then reality hits. In my case in the form of reviews. Although some have been positive I always like to fixate on the negative. My initial reaction (in my head) is: But you haven’t read it properly; you don’t understand that character’s motivations or the underlying causes. In truth, I would get carried away with an idea. But – in science fiction – you can get mired in trying to unravel a complex theory shaping an event with an even more complex explanation. Brushing over it can seem like a lack of attention to detail or authenticity; the obverse seeming weighty and stymie the reader if not the plot. However, this type of insight has tended to be very much after the fact (when the book is out there). At least with an E-book it’s never really too late.
If I’m going to stretch my initial analogy, then think of that work-in-progress as a new relationship. You invest your all into it and expect to find answers very quickly. You are filled with hope but also troubled by insecurity, the latter tends to happen about a quarter of the way in. Life eventually intrudes: distractions, maybe personal events or outside that can make your big idea seem insignificant, irrelevant or inappropriate. At the start it might have been like living in a bubble. But when that bubble bursts is when you can truly get a handle on what your WIP will become. Not that there’s anything wrong with quixotic thinking at the outset, because the voices of doubt telling you to prepare for failure are rarely useful. Anyway, if you make it halfway (for me around 50,000 words) then there is that sense of having been on a journey with a possible destination, maybe not what you expected it to be, but still well worth continuing.
Time Over is now free to download for a very limited time.
The most commonly quoted advice, write about what you know, is often open to misinterpretation. I’m not entirely sure how much it refers to personal experience or general knowledge. But it’s generally accepted that experience of life is a good thing for a writer. That is, going out and travelling as much as possible, and just living. But should there be limits?
There have been times when I have forced myself to go on risky holidays where things haven’t worked out as I’d hoped. We’re not talking any life-threatening adventures here (I could happily brag about trekking along the Amazon or Gobi desert were it true). The only things truly threatened were my sense of morality and bank balance. Possibly this has helped my creativity, given a better perspective on my writing. Possibly.
I wonder, as a writer, the way of dealing with things that go wrong is different; you process them differently. Maybe it takes a while, and then: I could incorporate that experience for one of my characters. Even in science fiction, in my view good sf, you should bring something of contemporary life into whatever future. After all, it’s all about transposing … and it’s probably something I should have done more of. I’ve tended to avoid autobiographical writing in previous years; it had seemed somehow self-indulgent. But I guess there is always a way to finesse that into fiction.
It is said that the best writers are often the most troubled. Not an observation I entirely buy; I know of some seemingly very well-adjusted prize-winning authors. Maybe, though, writing is a therapy in itself, and without it those authors would be wrecks. Certainly with a novel in progress I seem to be at my most contented, even if there’s no knowledge of it ever being publishable. Otherwise writing this blog comes a close second. But without either would problems and worries become insurmountable? Well, I wouldn’t want to test that.
One of the basic rules writers are taught is make your protagonist believable. That can be interpreted as: make it easy to relate to them on some level. But it could also mean: give them an internal logic and consistency of behaviour.
But what if a writer invents a character for whom there are none of the realistic constraints associated with ‘normal’ people? Well, they couldn’t be human. You could not empathize with them, right? Even in the more morally simplistic world of video games the least sympathetic protagonist has some kind of flaw or disadvantage to overcome, otherwise there is no sense of jeopardy or challenge for them.
I once created a character who, though not possessing any superhero powers, was genetically engineered to be superhuman in some ways. Roidon Chanley was highly intelligent, charismatic and almost entirely without self-doubt …. and of course he had a lot of success with women. So he seemed like the writer’s enviable third-person alter-ego, having qualities I could hardly even dream of. One compromise was to not make him especially good-looking or tall; in The Hidden Realm, Roidon is described as having a striking, deliberate ordinariness (which was useful for him). Nevertheless, to have him as the main protagonist would be difficult to sustain. At best the reader could admire him, at worse they would think him implausible. For me it didn’t matter that he should be liked; even for for a first person protagonist that is not essential. Perhaps Roidon had become a writer’s self-indulgence, needing to be curtailed in some ways. Yet he lives on, in new iterations.
The Hidden Realm can be downloaded for free. http://www.feedbooks.com/userbook/10887/the-hidden-realm-the-full-version
I think most writers develop rituals for their creative work. Even the most rational can harbour a superstitious belief that sitting in a certain chair, a place, or even wearing a particular type of clothing will summon that creative genie. Well if those things worked before…
There are of course the ultra prepared who have their novel all mapped out before they even begin the first chapter; they know the story arc and roughly how its going to end. These tend to be the more prolific writers who can churn out a novel a year, and start early morning writing for five or six hours a day every week day, without fail. They are often successful. And though many of those have their quirky rituals, that’s the only thing I share in common with them. From the outset to right near the end I had no plan of how my novel would finish. I’d be ensconced in my shed with an old netbook and have no idea of how to move the story on, just staring at its little screen. Then somehow the next scene would come to me, and a sentence became a paragraph, became 500 words. Reaching 103,000 words really felt like an achievement (though still, a lot of rewriting to be done!). In short, I found the best way to keep making progress is to put myself in a situation free from distraction where there is nothing else to do but write.
Here’s a link to the first few pages of The Captured that have been edited (but subject to change). http://www.scribd.com/doc/216172212/The-Captured-the-beginning
And there’s links to other samples of my writing on Scribd.
I’ve always been attracted to apocalyptic themes in fiction; these stories have resonance going back millennia, most notably Noah’s Ark and the great flood, whose origin pre-dates the Bible to ancient Mesopotamia. This idea of some great force eradicating all of existence represents humanity’s anxiety of some grand punishment for its sins; but also there are those (especially of the religious persuasion) who find a certain appeal in the notion that all will be wiped out except perhaps for a select few, who then rebuild and repopulate the land. This has also been a common theme in dystopian/ post-apocalyptic fiction. There is even an aesthetic appeal in post-nuclear landscapes, commonly featured in games: Chernobyl from STALKER; the eerie beauty of Half-Life 2, or the headily atmospheric Metro (based on a novel) with its corroded and rotting remnants of civilisation.
Although I’ve not actually read those ancient stories or many of the modern equivalents I did write a story – a novel Time Over – on a similar theme, in which planet Earth is faced with annihilation. Being science fiction it is set centuries in the future; the reason for the impending doom is not made entirely clear but suffice to say that an alien race has taken issue with humans and created the ultimate weapon to wipe out all sentient or technologically advanced life, evinced by a spreading wave that erases millions of years from star systems in its path. Meanwhile the people of Earth just go about their business oblivious to what’s heading towards them. Those few that are aware of the threat are persuaded to remain silent. But if they did try to tell the people, who would believe them?
So if we are faced with some catastrophe of biblical proportions and can do nothing about it, is it worth worrying?
Time Over is free to download: http://www.feedbooks.com/userbook/31889/time-over-limited-edition-free-version
My website: http://www.timeover-sf.com/
The short answer is yes, as far as I’m concerned. A successful and talented enough writer could write from the point of view of the most despicable character and be praised for it. Being a big name in literary fiction affords you that freedom.
Myself, on the other hand, would avoid writing a first person narrative of, say, a sociopath. Certainly anything more than a few thousand words would become unbearable. I wrote one short story about someone who planned to commit an atrocity, and doing so in the first person made it a more interesting if not powerful narrative than how the idea originally came to me. But it felt risky, making it seem personal.
Few people nowadays at least under the age of 50 would have any qualms about playing a game from the viewpoint of a killer, even if that character is a brutal drug-dealing gangster. Although I’ve played many a 1st person shooter I haven’t played the GTA games but I can see the appeal: it’s a chance to be transgressive in a controlled and safe way. Maybe it’s even a safe outlet for that darker inner self. The same could be said for those who write crime or horror fiction; it’s perhaps a truism that they are considered to be the nicest and most well adjusted people.
Yet I always harbour a concern that writing through the eyes of a warped or nasty character would somehow reflect back on me as an author. After all, they say write about what you know, which often gets interpreted as write about what you have experienced. And of course, we don’t live in a bubble; life must have some influences that come through in the work. But if actors can play at being bad without the consequences then why not writers? OK, slightly different: an actor interprets and channels someone else’s work rather than creates it.
Well, one piece of advice i’ve taken is don’t let your creativity be thwarted by what others might think.
It’s a mysterious thing, the creative process. Truth is, I try not to analyze where those ideas come from, otherwise it can feel like the spell is broken. Most often, though, there are subliminal influences from the myriad of media we ingest and somehow it gets distilled down into a seemingly original work. I’m not even sure if anything is totally original these days.
However – and this blog will now take a darker turn – an idea can truly come from the unconscious (or subconscious). Almost never does a dream translate into a coherent narrative, much less a story; they exist with a different set of rules to the logic of reality: the surreal, the inconsistent is accepted. But on one Saturday morning I had a dream that was clear and vivid. I watched – like a movie – someone planning an atrocity, a man angry at the world and how it had treated him and his kin. So all a bit dark, and seemingly random at the time. Still, I couldn’t get it out of my head and had get it down into a story to see if it made sense. Well, it did that evening after hearing the news reports of the atrocities in Pakistan, Iraq and of course Kenya. I had a different take on it in my dream/story. Of course, as humans we look for connections and patterns where there are merely coincidences. So I’ll leave it to you to decide.
My short story: http://www.scribd.com/doc/170073967/Something-About-Mary