Creativity is a bizarre thing and after years of writing I still have little understanding of it. I guess I don’t really need to understand it to be able to use it, the way I can drive my car without really knowing how the internal combustion engine works, but I sometimes wish it could be a little bit more predictive, a tad more controllable.
I’m currently working on what will (fingers crossed) become novel number three. It’s about the effects of a disaster on a family and since large parts of it deal with intense and heightened emotions, it’s proving quite a struggle to write. Due to this, plus time constraints, other calls upon my pen and the standard writer’s ‘oh my god everything I do is shit’-style panic attacks I haven’t made much progress in the last few weeks nay months. This situation is self-reinforcing, the inability to proceed increasing the certainty in my mind that it’s all wrong and must be burnt. I had about 60 pages (I’ve stopped counting words and started counting pages, it helps me feel like I’m moving forward) but despite carefully planning everything, I wasn’t sure where to go next. I knew what was supposed to happen next but every time I sat down to do it, it didn’t work. Yet more reinforcement to the idea that I was on the wrong track.
Fine, I thought. It’s all shit. You’ve been here before. I ditched 200’000 words before I got a decent draft of First Time Solo. I made some changes. Go back to the start. Move to third person, past tense. That would solve some problems of perspective, knowledge and give me some freedom. Part of the problem was the structure. The dramatic event happens at the start and the rest of the book is about the aftermath. I realised that wasn’t necessarily a problem in itself (plots are not the be all and end all of novels) but it was causing me a problem of pacing, direction and, if I’m honest, motivation. One attraction of writing mystery and crime fiction is that the novel is building towards a reveal – whodunnit, will they survive, will they fall in love. It’s what I did with my second novel, and that was a dream to write primarily for that reason. But I want to do something different this time. A rollercoaster plot is often used to distract the reader from an intellectual or philosophical emptiness at the heart of the book. Sometimes dramatic plots are disingenuous. I want to read and write novels that explore and hopefully enlighten something. Whether I can or not is a different question. That is the ultimate goal. Kundera says, somewhat hyperbolically but convincingly, that ‘a novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral.’ (The Art of the Novel).
So I could crowbar a mystery in, a MacGuffin, I could leave breadcrumbs and shepherd the reader to a denouement but that would be disingenuous, trickery. Immoral even.
But I was still stuck. Lofty aims and theorising about the novel is all very well but it doesn’t make the next chapter worth writing or reading. If the writer feels like they can’t make it to the end, the reader’s definitely going to feel it too. The problem, I came to realise, is structural. The novel can’t be chronological. That doesn’t work and is too boring. So what should it be?
I woke this morning, a cold rainy day marking the definite arrival of winter, my mood matching the weather. I didn’t want to write. I didn’t want to do anything but watch TV and piss around with my guitar trying to learn the solo for Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock and Roll’, but that’s what I did yesterday (before teaching for seven hours, I’m not that lazy). I opened the file. I started typing a new chapter one. 2000 words later the problems had all been solved, a new structure had come into being, the story can be told in an interesting way (at least I think so) with drama and humour and correct pacing, the aftermath of a disaster can be examined from all angles without the need for a high-speed rush towards a climax.
All these writers forums, advice pages, 7 point, 10 point, 23 point plans to write a novel, they all come back to one thing: write. Even if you don’t feel like it. Even if you’re convinced you’ve got a nothing but the Word.doc equivalent of an overflowing chamber pot. Even if you’d rather wonder exactly how many fingers Jimmy Page really has and how he can possibly move them that fast. Even if you’d rather watch The Walking Dead and wonder how no one has the sense to just shoot Carl and stop his irritating whining. Start typing and somehow creativity will do its thing and you’ll be at least slightly closer to B and further from A than you were.