Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The inspirational power of a good bath

I find writing can be bloody hard work at times. Sure, some days you fly, our fingers can't type fast enough to keep pace with the dialogue spilling out of your mind and everything is right with the world. Other days, it's more like having all your teeth removed without aid of a numbing agent while being whipped with barbed wire and forced to watch The Magus on a perpetual loop. Not so good, in other words. Those days are about sucking it up and keeping going, grinding your way through the Slough of Despond [hoping you'll make it to a Reading of Delight]. In such moments, it's amazing what restorative powers a good bath can have.

Starting a project is always tricky. Are you ready? Do you know your characters, their motivations and the dark, hidden urges driving them that even they don't know exist - yet? Have you got a clear sense of what your story's about [i.e. the plot], and what it's really about - the theme(s) underpinning the plot? Do you know how it all ends? A lot of novelists don't want to know how their story ends when they start writing it, preferring the process to be a true journey of discovery. Me, I like a final destination and a road map of sights to see en route. My journey may vary wildly from what I'd originally planned, but I need to know my ending to write with confidence.

When it comes to film and television drama, the commissioning process generally requires writers to know their ending before they start writing. I read or heard somewhere that Paul Abbott wrote his stunning serial State of Play without forward planning or a clear sense of how the story would end. That tells you two things about Paul Abbott - he's a great and instinctive writer to pull that off, and he's got enough clout within British TV to get a commission for doing that. I'm sure if the resulting scripts had sucked like a Dyson, State of Play would have struggled to get out of development, but that's a matter for another discussion.

When I was selected for the words@work mentoring scheme [under the aegis of the Scottish Book Trust], I wasn't sure what to expect. I spent the first three months developing a story that didn't work. Discovering how to recognise you've taken a wrong turning or wandered up a creative cul-de-sac is a valuable lesson, though not an easy one to learn. Having realised my mistake at the start of November [and with the full support of my mentor], I jumped to another idea I had simmering at the back of my head and kickstarted development of that. By the end of January I had a detailed 16-page treatment and was ready to start writing my first draft.

But instead of doing that, I spent February rewriting a 95,000 word novel from page one. It was frustrating, because I wanted to be working on my first draft. Once I got the novel done, I needed to write and submit the first part of assessed work for the research methods module on my screenwriting MA course. Plus there was going to Norway for the comic course, writing an issue of the Phantom, two Inspector Morse-related projects that fell into my lap and numerous other distractions.

All of those things meant I didn't finally get to start my first draft until yesterday. But the many, many delays and postponements have only served to make me more eager to delve into this story. Best of all, they gave my subconscious a chance to produce one of those light bulb above the head moments of creative clarity that can make such a difference to your story. I'd been carrying this story and its characters around in my cranium for months, but it was only while mulling over the story in the bath last Thursday that I realised one of the central characters was the mother of my protagonist. Ding!

Suddenly two disparate and unconnected story strands mesh beautifully together, producing a neat twist for the final sequence that pays off so much I'd unintentionally set up earlier in the plot. I love moments like that, when a few synapses collide in my cranium and I see a clear line of connection between things. The trees part, the wood becomes obvious and all is right with the world. That's the second such moment I've had in the bath of late. Now I'm beginning to understand why Douglas Adams spent so much time in the tub.

1 comment:

SK said...

I'm actually not surprised to learn that about State of Play because, much as I think it's excellent drama nearly all the way through, the ending is really weak. After all that investiagation, and some really deep soul-searching, it turns out that -- look away now if you don't want to know the end -- the murder was done by some minor character who either wasn't seen before or was just glimpsed, who did it because he was misguidedly trying to 'help' the politician.

Sorry what?

After all that, six hours of brilliant drama, turning up all this stuff... and the central question is answered by such an out-of-the-blue, meaningless, effectively, coincidence?

There wasn't even anything made out of it, like a theme about the 'butterfly effect' of life and how a random meaningless, murderous act by a damaged person had led to such personal and political upheaval. And there couldn't have been, beccause the way it was structured everything was about that central question of 'who killed her?' and as soon as that's answered the story is over.

So I think (rewriting Paul Abbot, how presumptious can you get?) that it would have benefitted form being planned out in advance -- then if the answer to 'who killed her?' had to be such an anti-climax it could have been dealt with in episode two or three (or maybe four), but by that time the investigation would have built up such a momentum of its own that it would carry the viewers forward into the second section.

Like in Conviction (which I actually think is better than State of Play) where the question 'given the guy they murdered didn't kill the girl, who did?' is answered about halfway through, thus giving time to deal with the fallout. If that question had been kept to the end, like in State of Play, it would have been built up to such an extent that it couldn't possibly satify and would have left the audience with a feeling of anti-climax (as State of Play did, for me at least); but by getting it out of the way early it avoids that and focuses on the real meat of the drama, the characters.

Hm. Something to take from this to my own writing: do I not trust my writing enough to keep attention by itself, and feel I have to rely on dangling the carrot of a mystery in front of the readers/viewers to keep them interested? Could I reveal the mystery earlier, and have faith that I have done enough to establish the characters so that the audience will want to follow their story through to the bitter end , even though they know the answer to the mystery?

(By the way, on your advice I'm going to the Mead course in London on Saturday. I hope you get your commission).