Friday, April 29, 2011

How It Works For Me

Story develops from character and situation.  Narrative and theme develops from story.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


I was chatting with Jon Courtenay-Grimwood last night, after the Clarke Awards, and we got onto the topic of switching from typewriters to word processing, and how it changed our work habits.  Amongst other things, we both retyped final draft pages if we made more than five mistakes when using a typewriter, and we both wrote to the end of the page at the end of a work session; if this meant stopping in the middle of a sentence, then we wrote the end of the sentence on a scrap of paper and the next day inserted a fresh sheet of paper in the machine and carried on from there.  I doubt that anyone, now, reaches their self-assigned word (rather than page) count and stops dead in the middle of a sentence.  You just keep going, chasing that blinking cursor across the screen.  And if you're in the middle of a particular juicy and exciting scene or section, there's a temptation to keep going until the end - which means that the next day you have to cold-start the next scene from the very beginning, and risk getting blocked.  Always leave something you want to write for the next day.

I have a small nostalgia for the steady clickety-clack* of the keys imprinting thoughts onto paper letter by letter, but none at all for the messy task of ribbon-changing, of having to stop to disentangle keys that jammed together because I was typing too fast, or of waiting for a streak of Tip-Ex to dry.  And I never was (nor am I yet) a touch-typist.  As soon as personal computers became affordable, I bought one, learned how to use WordPerfect 4.2, and never looked back.

The mechanical, linear process of typewriting meant that serious revisions were left until the draft was completed.  Now, of course, you can worry away forever at what you've just written, and the changes are writ on water instead of paper.  The process is a lot more playful than it once was, takes place on the screen as well as inside your head, and is kind of . . . indefinite.  When you typed the final word of a manuscript and ripped the paper from the typewriter's platten, there was a real sense of completion, albeit momentary.  For even in the days of typewritten MSS, there was a nagging feeling that there were still changes that needed to be made once the story or novel had made it, after editing, copy-editing and proofing, into print.  That sense is perhaps a little stronger now.  Unless you print it out straight away, there's a temptation to go back time and again to a word-processed document: to tweak and fiddle and adjust this or that sentence, to endlessly fine-tune.  Nothing is ever really finished.  Instead, you have to let it go.

Which brings me to the ongoing novel, which has now about three-quarters finished in first draft, and has reached the point where, rather than start to tie everything up and aim it towards the last sentence (I do know what it is), I have the growing urge to start over, change everything that needs fixing or revision, and cut away all the persiflage.  As usual, I didn't discover the theme of the novel until it had progressed a fair way.  The plot has grown far too complicated, as I followed all kinds of exciting leads.  And just the other day, I realised that I'm missing a whole section that really needs to be included, and not just because it will contain some cool stuff about the fate of Earth, a chiliastic crusade, and involve the hero in some difficult moral decisions.  Well, it can be dropped in later.  Right now, this thing, like a shark, needs to keep moving forward.  That imperative hasn't changed, at least.

*(UPDATE) Of course, the keys really went clack clack clack, but (this isn't an original thought; I can't remember who said it) the human mind imposes a narrative on everything, turning the steady tick tick tick tick of a clock into a time-directional tick tock tick tock.  Does Chinese water torture work because the intervals between drips are just long enough to prevent the subject imposing a tick-tock narrative?  Does the lack of coherent narrative drive us crazy?

Monday, April 25, 2011


The London Underground is an old system.  Its pioneer and prime mover was born in the eighteenth century.  The system itself was built before the unification of Italy and before the creation of Germany.  Its first travellers wore top hats and frock-coats; there are early photographs of horse-drawn hansom cabs parked outside the underground stations. Oscar Wilde was a commuter on these subterranean trains, travelling from Sloane Square station to his office on Woman's World at the bottom of Ludgate Hill.  Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin could both have used the Underground.  The coffins of William Gladstone and Dr Barnardo were both transported beneath the earth in funereal underground trains.  Jack the Ripper could have travelled on the Underground to Whitechapel: the station was served by the East London Railway.
Peter Ackroyd, London Under
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