Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Myths and dreams

Often I wake up and say, ‘What an amazing dream. I’ll turn that into a story.” Why does it never work? It never works because dreams and stories swim in different elements. They obey different rules (or rather: stories obey rules.) The dream disintegrates when you try to trap it in words. Stories, by contrast, thrive in captivity. They need the cages of plot and character just as climbing roses need a trellis.

But there’s something wearisome about the standard story. Someone wants something, they set out to get it, something gets in their way, they struggle to overcome it, the end. Yet stories weren’t always like this. The most fundamental stories, the atoms of story, if you will, are myths. These don’t tend to follow the standard story arc. They are both too small and too big for it. They are stories that simply say, ‘This is how things are’ and refuse to explain themselves. As the foundation stones they are immune to the question Why. The curious child stops here.

Could you still write a story like that? I couldn’t. It would be like trying to capture that dream, and you can’t do that with words. But what if you could use something else besides words? I’m lucky enough to have an early copy of Jackie Morris’s latest book, The Snow Leopard. The inlay blurb uses the word ‘myth’ to describe it. This is very astute, I think, for it’s not a story in the standard picture-book sense. It is more like the kind of folk tale you can imagine being handed down across generations by firesides in frozen mountain huts. I have not actually checked to see if the myth is a ‘real’ myth (i.e. really hundreds of years old) or an adaptation of one, or entirely invented; I enjoy the fact that I can’t tell. Either way, it reads like something that has always existed (and – crucially – would have existed anyway even if not written down).

Unlike a lot of picture books there isn’t a (metaphorical) dividing line between the pictures and the story. The painting and words don’t merely complement one another, they are very much part of a whole. On their own the pictures are lovely (in particular the way the snow leopard’s spots bleed into its silver fur, exactly as they do in real life – snow leopards are like living watercolours) but the words of the story seem fundamentally woven into them (a bit like lyrics with music – that’s a good comparison). This is not a book that could have been done as a collaboration; you can tell that the voice of the artist is in the words as much as the pictures. And the overall effect, I think, is very much like the feeling of a dream, like the ones I’ve tried so many times to capture.

At least now I know where I was going wrong. Dreams are delicate flying creatures. Try to catch them in just one hand (e.g. writing) and you will either miss them or crush them. The trick is to use two hands.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Let's go Haiking

I started writing haiku (haikus?) a few years ago, for reasons still unclear. I don’t generally attempt poetry but the haiku is a form that appeals to me, at least in so far as I grasp what they are and sort of get what they are trying to achieve.

Haiku in English, I think, are markedly different from the true Japanese sort, but I think are a valid separate form in their own right. Often people say a haiku must have exactly 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 arrangement, but I don’t agree, since are there many successful examples in English that use quite different structures. One of my favourites (and probably the shortest) is by Martin Lucas:


I still write haiku with stabiliser wheels attached – that is, I’m still not entirely confident about what constitutes a haiku (though this site offers wonderful introductions to them:

However, what I like about writing haiku is that they are a great exercise. For me, a haiku is about trying to capture a single moment, a single thought, feeling or experience, in the most delicate framework. In fact I wrote a haiku trying to express that very thing:

dewdrops in the web
captured like bubbles of time
I think of haiku

I don’t think the above is an entirely successful attempt, though, despite its regulation 5-7-5 arrangement. Using a simile (like bubbles of time) is a bit of a cop-out; I think a haiku should give you stuff straight, laid bare, not hiding behind metaphors. Actually, the more I think about it, ‘like bubbles of time’ is a bit lame. But I’ll leave it there to show where I am with this whole business. Anyway, as I was saying, haiku force you to find only the words that will do, and more than that: they train your mind to seek out those moments that in themselves seem to have a ‘poetic’ sort of force. I’m not sure how better to explain that.

Haiku seem particularly effective at preserving memories, as if they were a sort of reality jam:

rainbow rows of jars
glistening with old sunshine
from hazy autumns

Or these holiday snaps from my three days in Weymouth this year:

a sodden city
smudging the line between sand
and sea

the orange beach ball
escapes over windy waves
light as a bubble

(We never did get it back.)

Thursday, 23 August 2007


Where does your lap go when you stand up? Or: where does the writer go when the writing stops? For I am currently in the state of Limbo (population: hmm). The draft of my latest book (a sequel to The Cat Kin) is with agent and publisher. So it’s pointless me working on that until I get back their comments. And while I could try thinking ahead to the next possible book idea, I don’t have it in me at the moment. In other words, at the moment I’m not a writer.

Mind you, I’ve known far worse. When I finished The Cat Kin I (or my agent) was trying to secure a publishing deal for the best part of a year and a half. In all that time I never wrote a word of anything new. I had made a pact with myself that this was my last attempt at publication, and that if it didn’t succeed I would not waste any more time trying. Luckily, I will never know if I would have kept to it. It is hard to imagine a life in which I don’t try to think up ideas for books, and then try to write them. I would probably have to get addicted to Halo 3 or something as a substitute. Actually, that's a terrifyingly easy thing to imagine.

Meanwhile the state of limbo continues and my inner writer twiddles his thumbs. Limbo is also a good excuse, by the way, not to have to try and think up any new ideas. Sequels are one thing, but an entirely new idea is the proverbial needle in the golden haystack at the end of the rainbow linking Cloud Cuckoo Land with Brigadoon. (You never heard that proverb? You should stay in more.) When contemplating the prospect of coming up with something completely new all over again, an old favourite song by The Eagles springs to mind. In particular the line, “You’re trying to remember: how do you start it over? You don’t know if you can.”

The name of that song is “Wasted Time”. How so very nearly appropriate.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Head in the clouds... as usual

I love dipping into physics, so long as no-one expects me to understand it properly. Things like the cloud chamber fascinate me. Physicists who study the elementary particles can’t actually see these particles, they can only see the trails they make in the clouds of a cloud chamber. By following these trails they can see how they interact with other particles and so deduce many of each particle’s properties.

Call this a foolish leap, but this reminds me a lot of characters in a story. In a good book, you get to know characters not by direct description (“he was a hard, uncaring sort of man”) but by how they interact with those around them; by the trails they make in the clouds. If characters are like particles, then their traces are all the subplots that trail away from them. In the end you don’t need to see the character at all – like the physicist, you can pinpoint him purely from the trails he leaves behind.

On a totally random digression, don’t those particle tracks in the picture remind you of the Nazca lines? Just a thought.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Five mimsy ponderings at Tuesday

  1. The only good stories are the true ones.

  2. Past achievements look easy from a distance.

  3. A bad craftsman may blame his tools, but the good craftsman weeps when his favourite saw breaks.

  4. Good art sails close to the wind. Art in progress should always teeter on the brink of disaster.

  5. Parents have no special talent. Authors have no special talent. An author is just a parent who can hear the unwritten book crying.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Emotional Esperanto

You can visit the remotest human tribe on earth, smile at them, and be understood.

The only universal language is human emotions. You can describe any experience to any person so long as you do it in terms of feelings, not facts. You can even get near to capturing untouchable things like colours and melodies.

That’s how writing works, and it’s what makes it possible to write good sci-fi and fantasy. It should be impossible to describe a world that neither the author nor the reader has ever experienced, but it isn’t. Because in actual fact, the good fantasy writer doesn’t describe an unfamiliar world, but a world that everyone knows intimately: the world of human emotions, just cast in a different mould. You write not what is, but how it feels.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Mixing your colours

Often, when writing early drafts of books, you can end up with whole scenes that never make the final cut, or which simply don’t belong in the story. (One thing I’ve found is that the most carefully planned story can shatter into pieces the moment you start trying to write it). But these orphaned scenes are not wasted, far from it. They are part of what I have started to call ‘mixing your colours’.

When talking about writing I tend to use painting metaphors a lot, which is weird as I can’t paint at all. But I tend to think of characters as different colours. Not in a literal way (I’m not synaesthetic) but in the sense of them all being there, lined up on your palette. To write in a particular character’s voice, to write them into a scene, you have to get into their head. But you can’t do this unless you already know them well.

Just as an artist has to mix their colours properly before starting to paint, so it helps if a writer has already written a number of scenes featuring their key characters. Once this has been done, you have a fairly good idea of how each character reacts in certain situations, how they sound, what they say, and what they’d never say. After a while, you don’t have to think about it… you just dip your brush into the appropriate character’s colour and they appear on the page, with even the smallest brushstroke containing something of them.

I tend to ‘mix my colours’ as I go, learning about the characters during the messy first draft. But I’m sure it can be done consciously and deliberately too. It must be a good idea to pick random dramatic scenes from life, and write your character taking part in them. By the end of the process, you ought to have a good quantity of their ‘colour’ on your writer’s palette, there to use freely when you start writing the book for real. Who knows, I may even try that myself.

A poem


Another flare to fire into the night
More leaden lines to try and turn to gold
More waiting for the fickle fish to bite
Another script is straining to be sold.

A lifeline twists into a hangman’s rope
A brave new spring becomes a dreary drought
Another coal to feed the fires of hope
Another clinker soon to be spat out.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Crystal ideas

Where do you get your ideas from?

Every writer gets asked this question. Many are annoyed by it. The simple fact is, they just don’t know. But why don’t they know? They don’t know because, in most cases, ideas don’t actually come ‘from’ anywhere at all. Instead, they are grown.

Ideas are grown. But they don’t grow like plants so much as like crystals. I got a chemistry set when I was about 9, which included a guide to growing your own copper sulphate crystal (copper sulphate is a pretty sort of blue). I remember the process well, and these days it strikes me that I do a similar sort of thing when trying to conceive ideas for books.

How to grow a crystal / have an idea

First, you must make a saturated solution, by dissolving a salt (e.g. copper sulphate) in a jar of water as you heat it up – as much as the water will hold.

Think of the jar as being your mind. The salt you dissolve is all the things that have happened to you. The things that interest you or worry you, the things that have affected you. All the people you’ve met, all the funny, sad, strange or alarming things you have seen. All these experiences are dissolved in your head. You can even stretch the metaphor to say that the heating of the water represents a major emotional event – something that upsets you or thrills you – for these are often the things that set people writing.

Then (going back to that jar of copper sulphate solution) you stand back and let the water cool. Soon the first small blue crystals will start to form around the edges. These are your first tentative ideas, the things that pop into your head seemingly from nowhere. They are both the most mysterious and the most precious of all, for no-one can say quite how these ideas appear. There’s no guarantee that they will. You just have to hope you have made the solution strong enough, and be patient.

Once you have a nice encrusting of crystals around the edges, you choose the largest or the best-shaped – that is, your most promising idea. You extract the crystal carefully from the solution and, ever so delicately, tie a cotton thread around it. In other words: you write the idea down on paper. This is the point at which it’s most likely to break. It didn’t break? Good. Now this is the crystal you’re growing.

And so the process really starts. You re-heat the water so that all those other crystals re-dissolve. Hang your chosen crystal in the cooling, saturated solution. (It just so happens that people usually hang theirs from a pencil.) This is you letting your special idea just drift in your mind. And just as copper sulphate coming out of solution will magically bind into your crystal along its particular faces, making it larger and more solid, so your other thoughts, feelings and experiences may gently attach to the lattices of your idea, creating characters, locations, situations and drama, turning your lonely, floating notion into a structure – into a story.

Good stories grow. They aren’t built. If you try to construct them as you would a matchstick model, you will probably end up with something just as lumpy and unconvincing. But if you just hang that first good idea in a rich enough brew of emotions and experiences, then it might just develop into something beautiful.

At least, that’s the theory. None of the crystals I tried making with my chemistry set ever grew larger than a sunflower seed.

Ooh, a lump of gold, I’ll have that

Gold is found in stony ground

One of the startling discoveries I’ve made in the course of 13 years of trying to write novels. That the best bits always catch the writer by surprise, and often crop up where you least expect them. That is – the hardest passages to write, the dull bits, the linking bits, the have-to bits, contain the most potential to surprise you and turn up some of the best writing. Because by definition you haven’t planned them, so you are feeling your way in the dark. And that’s when you make unexpected discoveries.

For example, in a book I never managed to get published, I “had to” write a scene near the end to make it feel like a wind-down before the proper climax. It turned into a sweet little family scene of kite flying in the hills, that I still like enough to resurrect someday, maybe. I never would have planned it because nothing really happened, but in fact it helped to round off certain characters’ individual stories. In other words, you never know…

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Novels are impossible

Writing a novel is impossible
Writing a chapter is hard
Writing a paragraph easier
Easier still is a word

That’s just a little rhyme I made up to stave off the despair of facing the prospect of churning out another entire book. I find it helps. Sometimes.

The Green Knight's rules

Three principles of writing that I try to live by:

  1. It’s all about the people, stupid.
  2. Always entertain.
  3. Fiction is memory.

What does the third one mean? Hard to say. But I think it means, ‘Only write those things that you would remember.’ In other words, the most interesting, dramatic or unusual bits. Those are things that live in the memory and in the pages of books.

Why thank you auntie, what a lovely diary

What can an author blog about? I use up all my words writing books. Or rather, in writing sentences that may or may not end up in books. Writing an entire book, I firmly believe, is impossible. The fact that so many people have nonetheless done it is a testament to human endeavour, or bloody-mindedness, one of the two.

I also use up all my spare time writing, which means I have nothing else to blog about. There isn’t actually a lot of this spare time sloshing around, since I also have a full time job in London, a lengthy commute, a two-year-old son with a Lazytown and Balamory obsession and a rubbish lawnmower (the lawnmower is mine, I should clarify, not his, otherwise there would be another ‘and’ clause there, and there isn’t).

I only really got this blog so that I could post on other, far more interesting blogs that required registration. But now that I’ve got it (rather like being given a diary for Christmas by a well-meaning aunt) I suppose I had better put something in it.

For now, I will use it as a dumping-ground for all the little bits of writing wisdom that I pick up or dream up along the long, lonely road. Please, under no circumstances, take any of this as advice on how to write, or even as a description of how I write. It’s a notebook, nothing more. And if there are a few pearls among all the seaweed, I can’t take responsibility for them either. Chance are I nicked ‘em anyway.