So here I am again, with a sorta kinda essay-type post that I went and lazily pulled from my previous blog. It’s still relevant, I should think, and doesn’t make me cringe. Yet.
My first novel has evolved a bit since I wrote this, and I might make another post on the topic soon, as I am currently working a lot on revisions.
Hopefully this will be the first of many more posts about writing techniques, musings and advice – to take or leave as you see fit, eh? I ain’t the boss of ya. So let me know what you think, let me know if you’d like me to tackle any particular topic, let me know if you think I ramble on too much.
Here we go…
When we were little, my brother and I used to play with something called kaplas. Kaplas were these small pieces of wood that you could pile up in all sorts of ways to build constructions. I absolutely loved them. They were the simplest toys ever but there was no end to the possibilities. Just as I loved kaplas, I now love stories. With these simple little things that are words, you can build sentences and shape paragraphs. It’s not easy. You have to be smart about it, and careful, because a story built on a shaky base will eventually fall. A word too many on one side of it will impair the balance of the structure.
I grew passionate about the workings of stories, in a compulsive and geeky way. I began reading extensively on the subject. John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, Yves Lavandier’s La Dramaturgie, everything I stumbled upon, really. A bit formulaic, maybe, but in these recipes I found some useful tips as well as the reassurance that the craft I wanted to learn was indeed a craft, and that it could indeed be learnt. But as much as you can know in theory about how to tell a story, in the end you still need a story to tell.
The premise of my first novel, Half the World Away, did not come to me. I went looking for it. You see, as much as I love the developing part of writing, the whole plot-characters-voice business, I’m not overly furnished in the ideas area. This lack of whatchamacallit – could inspiration be the right word? – used to be the source of great shame and a whole lot of worries. How on earth was I to be a writer if I only got a decent idea once in a blue moon? And worst of all, my brother was riddled with them. Somehow it seemed like an unfair deal that he got all the ideas and I got all the allergies.
This was because I used to think, as people often do, that any idea that’s not entirely original, that hasn’t come to you from the depths of your brilliant artist mind automatically belongs in the trash.
To be deemed worthy of the title, a work of art has to be the result of some touch of the Inspiration, or the Muse, or whatever higher power happens not to be too busy at the moment. Not to be rude but this is just utter bullshit. Terrible – and dangerous, if you ask me – misconception. One discards a lot of potentially excellent material.
This particular material was waiting for me in the form of a French writing competition. This particular short story competition was themed, and here, loosely translated, was the prompt:
Invent a future in which all women have disappeared and men rule the earth. Main themes: science fiction, action, romance.
Quite specific, as you see, and yet this was precisely the starting point my unimaginative right brain needed. From there, my much better equipped left brain began working, covering sheets of paper with tiny handwritten notes. Shall I bore you with the details of the process? It involves bubbles, arrows, columns and quite an impressive amount of tea bags. No takers? Ah, well, let’s just fast forward to what came out of it then.
About women’s rights – the obvious subject skilfully hidden in the premise – what can I tell you? In my teenage years, I was desperately trying to keep far away from anything feminist. I sighed heavily at anyone who went all girl-power all-men-are-bastards on me. For the most ethical reasons, you understand. I simply wanted people to regard and speak of men and women as part of a single undistinguished group. Gender equality was not something we should have to fight for. Except it is, of course it is. It’s a terrible thing, really, but sometimes you have to tug very hard at the blanket just to get an inch of it back to your side of the bed. And as much as you love that person on the other side, well they are bloody annoying when they drag the whole blanket to themselves, aren’t they?
At this point, you might be telling yourself something along those lines: “that’s a great theme but if it wasn’t her idea to write about it, maybe it means she’s not that interested in the subject of her own book.” To which I would answer quite simply that I would never have chosen this prompt if I wasn’t interested in the subject. It is a bad idea to write about something you are not interested in. In fact, it may well be impossible.
And if you still feel there is something dishonest about that method, consider this: when you are creating from a prompt, you want to make it your own. So it is going to be about men and women, about how the ones think of and treat the others. Possibly a good start, but this is not enough. What you want now is a point of view, an angle to approach the theme. This is where you have a huge margin for originality. This is how you create a personal story, one that could not be told by someone else. One of the many great things about working on an idea that didn’t come from you is that it removes the temptation of skipping this necessary step. Because as long as you haven’t found your angle, a nagging guilt constantly reminds you that the story you are telling is not yours.
It took me some time to work out my angle. Months, maybe a year. Trying to find a way into the subject, I turned the thing over and over in my mind, looking at it from every possible side I could think of. There I stood in a world totally devoid of women. Why were there no more women on earth? They had been exterminated. What triggers a mass killing like that? Hatred, no doubt. What triggers hatred? More often than not, incapacity to connect. The trail of thought led to communication issues, which was not strictly speaking a surprise. In everything human that ever existed, there was always the problem of communication. We need other people, we want to connect, and at the same time, we have the hardest time getting it right. And getting it wrong has all sorts of consequences, ranging from unpleasant to catastrophic.
Imagine you are, say, in the pub having a friendly chat with your mates. Suddenly, an itchy subject creeps into the conversation. Let’s say politics. Chances are that around that table is someone who disagrees with you on every point. This otherwise charming person is your friend and you really don’t want to fight with them. They state their point of view while you roll over and over in your mind the vehement sentences you couldn’t possibly say aloud. By the time they are finished, smoke is coming out of your ears. If you’re going to say something, it’s now. You should say something. He or she got it all wrong. You should say something. But you hesitate one second too long and then it’s too late. The subject has been changed again. Everyone has moved on except for you. This kind of frustration eats at you for weeks.
Here is the point: one needs to speak.
By the time I figured all this out, the submission deadline for the competition was well behind me. Well, don’t you know, it didn’t matter anymore. When one spends so much time with a story, one tends to become sentimental, you understand.
It is a wonderful feeling to narrow in on what you want to say. Everything around it clicks into place. You get a picture of what the book is going to look like and you can start moving stuff around so that the actual thing matches the picture in your mind. At this point, the canvas, as you may imagine, was not blank anymore. You do not wait until you’ve figured out what you want to say before you start building. Maybe some people would say you should, although I’m not convinced it would lead to better stories. Anyway, the fun part is the moulding of the characters and the world and, for better or worse, that is what I tend to start with.
Because they are human like us – well, most of the time – characters are our most immediate and emotional link to the story. They are among the first things I think about when I write and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that other writers work the same way. But, ideally, you want the characters that will be best suited to illustrate the point you want to make, and to achieve that, you often need to refine them so that everything fits better together.
Sid is an overly self-aware, slightly paranoid, twenty-seven-year-old pizza delivery guy. Jamie is a thirty-year-old freelance journalist, disappointed by the world and bored out of his mind. When we meet these guys, they have given up on communication (linking them ever-so-subtly to the theme). They are not trying anymore. To stop trying is the worst possible thing to do, but it is easier and can get very tempting at times. We all have a well-rehearsed reproach-proof excuse at the ready in case we should stand accused of not trying. I’m shy, is my excuse. It’s more difficult for shy people, you can’t deny it. Sid will tell you that nobody would take him seriously anyway. He’s paranoid. It’s not his fault. Jamie firmly believes that people are stupid and not worth the trouble.
As for the world, it pretty much came naturally from the premise. Although the novel was obviously going to be a science fiction of sorts, the subject matter called for a feeling of reality, so it became more of a dystopia. Had I tried to add flying cars, robots and whatnot it would have felt wrong. Or rather, it would not have felt wrong enough. One big thing that goes crazy in a world of normality attracts more attention. No women meant a slowly dying mankind, a feeling of impending doom that would have a considerable impact on the atmosphere of the story. I chose to make it slow and oppressive like a dying animal struggling to breathe, with sporadic outbursts of violence, as if the creature were kicking in protestation against its fate.
After a lot of building, tearing down and rebuilding, this is how the story came out.
One night, Sid and Jamie come back home to find somebody waiting for them in their living-room. Olivia is one of the only women who escaped the killing, she’s traumatised, scared and she wants to speak. She has an urgent need to establish a connection, to communicate. This is why she has the potential to propel the other two into action, which is exactly what she will do.
Half the World Away is the story of three people struggling to bring communication and truthfulness back into their lives, in a world that has not seen either of those things in years. And once you’ve let them slip away, well it might be hard to get them back. The story came from a prompt, but it sure as hell is my story.