There's a tree, some say, at the heart of all the worlds. Its roots wind down into the ashes of the past and its branches reach into future skies. At the centre of a grove at the heart of the first of all forests, this titanic world tree binds the essences of That-Which-Was, That-Which-Is and That-Which-Will-Be together. There are many names for this tree, including Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life and the lotus of Meru.
As if in defiance of my last post, I’m going to share a short story I wrote some time ago. I think I may revisit it and change the flow a bit. Criticism is welcomed:
Break - a walk in the woods goes awry after stumbling upon a piece of ancient history
I’m struggling at the moment. Struggling with time and with motivation. I’ve been banging music reviews out at quite a rate, I enjoy doing them. I like to get busy with the hyperbole and oddly enough, writing factually gets my brain working in a creative sense. My mind is a live with all sorts of threads and I have a couple of short stories I know how to finish. I’m just struggling to find the motivation to complete them. I really want to complete them and show them to you, but I can’t find the zone. Anyone have any pointers?
One thing that always runs through my mind is, am I over- or under-describing? I want to keep the intrigue and suspense, but I also want to demonstrate how well I’ve built my world. So where is the balance? One rule I always keep in my mind is that old chestnut, “show don’t tell.” So we want to be able to allow the reader to experience the world we build rather than tell them what happened. This is the power of written fiction to me really as opposed to say film or even comics, where the action is all presented to you. I don’t mean it’s better, or even that there is no room for interpretation in film, I just mean that in written format, everyone experiences it differently. What does Sherlock Holmes actually look like? Arthur Conan Doyle describes his appearance in great detail, but my mind interpreted that and thus my Holmes is unique in my own mind. Of course, making the reader do all of the work is unfair and there are situations where you may want to break out of a certain idiom for ease of narrative or flow.
In showing though there are various degrees of narrative to which one can subscribe. There are plenty of examples of fiction where, after finishing, I’ve felt like I haven’t really grasped what was going on. Now that can be a good thing, leaving questions unanswered, or it can be detrimental to the feel of the piece. A nice example of a story that doesn’t give too much away is a short story I recently read in Clarkesworld magazine by Aliette de Bodard entitled “Scattered Along the River of Heaven”. I shan’t spoil it for you but it just does enough to tickle the fancy and leave you wanting to know more about the world. I like that approach, especially in short fiction.
Conversely, I have recently finished reading all of the current “Song of Fire and Ice” series by George R. R. Martin, where Martin takes the opposite approach. Over the course of these five mammoth tomes, Martin attempts to describe his lands of Westeros and Essos in such minute detail, sometimes it takes a lot of effort to follow the plots. This started to get a bit tiresome for me by the fourth book, but I think the world he has crafted is done justice by the approach. Concentrating on one character at a time for each chapter means he’s ended up with something like thirty, very well crafted characters. Somehow though, he’s still left enough room for manoeuvre and uncertainty for the reader to make up their own mind about them. Hats off for that. It’s certainly something I aspire to be able to do as I develop.
I’m currently struggling however, with a Robert Jordan book, “The Eye of the World.” I love the world he has created again, and the mythology is deeply textured and rich. However, he has an awful habit – at least thus far – of reiterating character traits to absolute distraction for me. The book, so far, has concentrated on a group of seven individuals, who’s characteristics were initially very well described and they are now set in my mind, and yet a quarter of the way into the book, he’s still hammering home things that could have been implied, without the extra explanation. It’s like he’ll show you something, then explain what it was then clarify why he did it, all in two sentences and it can get very tiring. Tolkien does the same sort of thing. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing by any means, just that it tires me out a bit. I guess this is an extreme example though of what I mean.
So, what have I concluded? Not a lot. Just to pay extra attention to how much I give away and when. Don’t overwhelm the reader with heavy visuals, let them piece it together themselves. Oh, and trust my readers, yes this is my baby, but I need to let them see it through their own eyes, not mine.
Another thing I’ve come to realise recently is that it’s very easy to frustrate oneself. Several times now I’ve sat down and thought “I’m going to do some writing,” only to sit staring at a half finished sentence and a flashing cursor. I’ve written some drivel, deleted it, looked over notes, stared again and achieved nothing for two hours. You could be using those two hours productively. Researching, reading, cooking a spectacular dinner for a loved one, shaving the giraffe, endless things.
My advice, and take it or leave it, is have a goal. Decide what you want for this session. You don’t have to stick to it, but without a clear idea of what you want to achieve, you’ll find it difficult to focus. It might be that you want to wrap up that section where the fish steals the tractor, or just push a bit more back story out of your narrative. Set yourself a time limit as well. Not so much, “I am going to write things for one hour,” more like, “I’m going to attempt to do something constructive for an hour, if I haven’t got anywhere, I’m going to get a choc-ice and a copy of Dune and veg in front of Thundercats.” That way, if you’re on a roll and the narrative is flowing like a good merlot, you probably won’t notice the time. However, if you really aren’t getting anywhere, you can walk away, do something constructive and not get frustrated about your lack of productivity.
The way I see it, if I haven’t got an idea of what I’m going to do next, I probably won’t achieve anything useful. Most of the work is done in your noggin, not on the keyboard so if your noggin is empty, you’ll find it difficult to press the keys in a lucid order.
I’m sure many people more experienced than me will disagree and of course, all of us are individuals with different ways of ticking and tackling writing. This works for me though as a person with an overwhelming sense of guilt for not achieving something all the time. I get guilty playing computer games or watching TV for very long because I feel I could be doing something more productive. This for me, means I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time.
One more for the day, as I’m on a roll. I’ve had an embryonic, sci-fi short story in my head for a while and I started to commit it to paper this week. It started off quite well and I’m fairly pleased with it thus far. I’m not so pleased with the progress I’ve made, but that’s for me and me to discuss. I decided however, that I couldn’t convey the depth of the character I wanted to from the perspective I’d written it at. So, I switched my context to that of a first person perspective. I trundled along, rewriting my narrative and enriching the character a little. Then I realised, this would make absolutely no sense whatsoever with the ending I have in mind. And so, I begin re-draft number two from a slightly different perspective.
So, what is my point? Well, I was annoyed at first. Annoyed that I’d have to rewrite what I’d already written. Annoyed that all of that good work (possibly) was to be cast aside. Then I came to realise that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you stop and re-draft. It’s all part of the process. It’s a naïve chap indeed who thinks that he’ll crack out a story without any kind of rewrite anyway, but my point being, don’t wait until the end. Muck about with the context, muck about with the characters while it’s still infantile. Your job will be much easier at the end. For example, one doesn’t go on Masterchef and produce one’s signature dish on the night. One will have practised it many times at home, and probably chucked a few of those tasty omelettes away. Why would anyone think that omelette and strychnine go together?!
I may as well start with a good ‘un. My esteemed friend and actual real author and everything, Jay Stringer, blogged a blog at the venerable “Do Some Damage,” about writing as he often is wont. This blogged contained within it a lovely diatribe on the subject of writer’s block and why he thinks it is a misnomer. It’s something that has resonated very strongly with me. The long and short of it if you’re too lazy to read that very good post (and very good blog in general), is that writing isn’t just the act of committing words to paper, or to word processor, no, it is much more than that. It’s storming, forming, drafting, redrafting, chucking out the crap and keeping the nice bits. A lot of writing is actually typing yes, but most of it is done in your head. Sitting for hours staring at a wall is ok folks, the writing is just happening in your head. Jay puts it beautifully so read it, it’s worth it.