Sunday, 13 April 2014

Crash

Picture the scene.

There I am, driving along an open road on a beautiful sunny day, the roof of the car down. As I push the accelerator closer to the floor, the car gains momentum and gallops forward; the bushes and shrubs that scatter along the side of the road becoming a constant blur. The summer breeze rustles through my loose hair as I adjust the designer sunglasses perched atop the bridge of my nose.

It's amazing; I feel unstoppable, unbreakable, unbeatable. I could do this forever.

I can feel the warmth of the sun on my arms as I guide the steering wheel around another bend, looking forward to the long stretch of road ahead of me.

Wait a minute!

There's a roadblock right in front of me. I barely have time to react as I fumble with the wheel and pull my foot from the accelerator onto the brake. The sun has disappeared behind a cloud and I can feel goosebumps run along my bare arms. In a futile attempt to minimise the imminent impact I push the brake as hard as I can and squeeze my eyes shut. But it's no good; I know I'm going to crash and there's nothing I can do about it.

That is exactly how I felt last weekend when I was writing.

No I wasn't driving (I don't have an open top car, I don't know any open roads in Ireland without the potential for meeting traffic and it is never that warm in an Irish April), instead I was at the safety of my own desk in my house with my manuscript and plot outline in front of me, alongside the obligatory cup of tea.

I had been surfing the crest of the wave for quite a while and I had successfully mapped out the entire plot for my first book (yes the book is increasingly looking like it's going to be a trilogy... Who says I don't set myself challenges?) to the point that I was actually itching to write the entire book. However, I was sticking religiously to the advice that I had been given by my creative writing teacher (see last blog entry) about planning out my book as much as possible before resuming writing so as to avoid the potential for plot holes. And that is when I crashed.

You see, I know the background and context of my novel inside out. It's been in my head for 5 years so of course I know it well. I know that it has a unique selling point and (I mean this in the least conceited/cocky way possible), people express an interest in it when I tell them the outline. I've outlined the plot of the first book in my head so many times that I can practically do it in my sleep. But (and here's the crux of the problem), when it comes to actually finishing out the rest of the brainstorming and answering the questions I've posed at the start of the book my response has always been "Meh, I'll figure that out later". Except that "later" is now "now" and I'm making myself solve the plot holes. And it is so hard!

In work last week, I had lunch with a colleague/good friend who has always expressed an interest in my book and is an avid bookworm like myself. I know he's a trustworthy source and I ended up divulging some of the plot twists and the dilemmas I've faced in writing the plot. He was fantastic in his response and both of us spoke animatedly in hushed tones about the potential twists for life after death and an alternate universe (all the while getting odd looks from our fellow canteen diners). It ended up being one of the most creative sessions I've ever had and I have to say that I owe him big time (cheers Scott!). There I was flying along again and I remember finding it so difficult to concentrate in work that afternoon because all I wanted to do was write.

And then it happened: I was jotting down all the things we'd brainstormed, my hand barely able to keep up with my brain and I suddenly reached a question that I needed to answer. And my first instinct was What would Scott suggest?

No! I crashed again, and I instinctively looked to someone else to solve the problem for me because I didn't have the confidence to fix it myself.

I've mentioned before that writing is a solitary task and even though one can seek assurance and advice from friends/family/fellow writers, at the end of the day, only you can write the story. And, for me, that feeling of isolation and control has always been terrifying rather than liberating. And that's when I crash. I always crash at that point. When I need to make a tough decision, when I feel completely lost, when I don't know which way to bring the story, I crash. And I stop.

But last weekend, something shifted for me. Yes, I crashed. I was flying along and then the roadblock emerged, as it always does, but this time I didn't stop. I picked myself up, got back in the driving seat and started again. I drove a bit slower, I was a bit more cautious and this time I noticed a lot more potential barriers along the road that I probably wouldn't have seen if I had been driving as fast as originally.

I didn't run from the brainstorming. Instead, I embraced it. I drew spider diagrams (something I haven't done since my Leaving Cert English paper), made bullet points and posed serious questions for myself on top of pages in thick black marker. Questions that I made myself answer before I moved on to the next one. Each question posed a new one and the empty pages gradually filled themselves and equally became a little less scary each time.

I felt exhilarated after I answered my first plot-hole question. That question that has bugged me for months, that niggles at the back of my mind whenever I've written anything and that has kept me awake at night, wondering how I'll answer it. And, guess what, I answered it.And then some. Okay, my answers may not be perfect and might be a little bit rough around the edges and I'll always have a whole host of more questions/plot holes/problems that I need to solve but I know now that sometimes you have to crash to slow down and gain some perspective.

And the key thing I've learned is: I love the book I'm writing. I want it to be finished, I want people to read it and enjoy it as much as I enjoy writing it. And I am the only one who can write it. So that answers one question.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Desperately Seeking Assurance...

It's been said that best advice any aspiring writer should take on board is to ignore any advice they receive. Yes, I too appreciate the irony of that sentence but it hits the nail on the head perfectly.

In case you haven't read my previous blog entries (if you haven't, you should they're amazing. Don't believe me? Better read them to find out!) I am a fully fledged assurance seeker when it comes to writing... and a lot of other areas in my life but that's for another blog. Anyway, assurance seeking is one of the many, many personality traits that I've partly tried to challenge and partly tried to accept.

Basically put, I'm a bit needy when it comes to writing. Is this good enough? Who will read this? Will someone laugh at this part? Is that character believable? Is that dialogue too artificial? Will the reader like it?Will the reader like me?

Yes I know, I sound like that awful, whiny, been-single-for-ages, desperate friend that we all know (except if any single friends of mine are reading this - I'm not talking about you). I constantly doubt myself, compare myself negatively to other writers and essentially tell myself I'm not good enough on a regular basis, which as you've probably guessed, doesn't add up to a great writing career.

Because I am such a habitual doubter, I find it difficult to trust my judgement and make concrete decisions about the book. And guess what? I've just discovered that this is not a good strategy for someone writing a complex, alternative world trilogy series.

Oops.

My survival mantra for writing this book has been to say "Ah, sure I'll solve that problem later" or "I'll come up with a solution to that when I'm editing" etc... And there's been two reasons for said mantra: partly because I'm too indecisive to actually knuckle down and decide what happens in my book and partly because all the writing manuals/books/tutorials have told me that I shouldn't plan, I should write. All the great writers have said that they don't plan, they write and the words facilitate the unraveling of the story.

18 months and 30,000 words later, it hasn't worked for me. And this is why I should NOT listen to any advice!

Thankfully, God works in mysterious ways and I decided on a whim (even though I never do anything on a whim!) to sign up for an evening writing course. It was my first proper writing course and the first time I met other aspiring writers who also feel they want more than the dull 9 to 5. (If my boss is reading this, the 9 to 5 is never dull! In fact, all play and no work makes Sinead a dull girl)

On the night that I presented my work (the outline of my novel) to the group I was delighted to receive praise from my peers. Hand on my heart, when some of them said that the book had a great concept and was the type of book they would eagerly choose in a bookshop, I could feel tears pricking in my eyes. Seriously. And yes, I know I am a cryer, but if anyone ever tells me that they think I'm a good social worker I usually just blush, laugh and change the subject. I definitely don't get emotional!

But that wasn't the best part. I will forever be indebted to the facilitator who gave me the best advice (ignore the first line!) I have ever received in my writing life so far.

She basically told me to stop writing. No, actually, she did more than that. She gave me permission to stop writing.

Now before I go any further, it wasn't like a "Jesus Christ, Sinead that is so awful, please put down the pen and don't ever come back here again" kind of thing. It was more like "Sinead, that's a great concept and a very complex idea, so you're going to have to stop your writing right now and specifically decide what it is that's going to happen in this book. You have to answer all your questions before you can ask them"

If you can picture me with a lightbulb going on over my head, that's pretty much what I looked like.

Of course! My book is partly set in a different world, it has two potential sequels and a complex life or death plotline. I obviously need to plan it!

It was amazing how one little sentence has completely changed my view of my writing. Already, I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders because I knew all along that I needed to plan, I just didn't give myself permission to plan. I needed to hear it from someone else.

I know it's not a good way to be, I know I need to challenge myself on it and I have to start accepting my own inner voice. But it's early days and it's getting there. And I think by focusing completely on the plot and forcing myself to answer the questions that I've asked, I'm a lot closer to getting there.