Tag: writing about writing

Ghosts, and revelations

It’s the classic question: “where do you get your ideas from?”. My brother asked me the question the other day, when we were talking about my still-in-progress novel. That’s quite a phrase, isn’t it? Still in progress. It assumes so much, such as that – one day – the document will be complete, the bow drawn finally around the sprawling story. When does still in progress become incomplete, then unfinished, abandoned? There have been literally months since I wrote a word of Ghosts of the Revolution. But, I still feel good about it. It has strong bones. Sometime soon, once I get a little more free time (hahahaha!), I’ll write some more. I have another legacy to work on for the time being, all 4.62kg of her.

Back to the question. To quote the great Alan Moore, there’s always someone who asks such a thing…
“where do you get your ideas from?’ And you know what we do? We sneer. … The reason why we have to do it is pretty straightforward. Firstly, in the dismal and confused sludge of opinion and half-truth that make up all artistic theory and criticism, it is the only question worth asking. Secondly, we don’t know the answer and we are scared that someone will find out.’

I have a bit of an answer. Not much, but a little. I’ll take Ghosts… as an example because, well, it’s the biggest, most ambitious work that I’ve attempted (if not quite there yet). First off, I simply started by writing down things that interest me. Loose ideas, circling, germinating. The list includes both images and concepts, and had (amongst many others) the following ingredients;

Harbin. It’s in northern China, just another city. But a hundred years ago, it was occupied by Russians, building a rail-line in the bandit-infested Manchurian badlands to short-cut their way to the Pacific. A dozen years later, and the city is a hold-out of pro-Tsarist refugees, the ‘Whites’ who lost the Civil War against the ascendant communists. A decade after that, and the city is surrounded by Japanese forces, who are busy crafting a fake Manchurian empire to justify their expansionism. The city is an onion, layers peeling back.

I have, in my possession, a copy of a marriage certificate belonging to a man found in Harbin, claiming to be a British national. I have copies of the correspondence backward and forward between embassies, trying to determine who he was, whether he was indeed who he said he was, and how and why he was there. It sounds like the start of a mystery novel.

I’m reading Ellroy, Hammett and Chandler. Noir, pulp. It’s sex and death, molls and gangsters, private eyes and femme fatales. It’s the thirties, the forties, the fifties. I wonder what Marlowe would look like in a foreign country.

I am reading about robotics, and about how much development came in the early twentieth century. And, how automatons had an era of popularity around the turn of the century (and yes, I have seen Hugo before you ask). I wonder how these would operate in a world that was different from ours, just a little.

I’m on the Dieselpunks website, realising how much I love the aesthetic of that day and age. The images of retrofitted technology on that website and others strikes a chord with me far more than, say, the ‘brown goth’ chic of so much steampunk (and yes, I realise that it’s a stereotype, but it’s one I’m confronted with more often than not).

Next, some Mad Max on the television, some My Chemical Romance pumping through the headphones. It’s post-apocalypse, but the soundtrack is spiky teen aggression and supercharged day-glo. I imagine a motorcycle gang on the Russian tundra, leftovers of the Civil War, left parent-less by famine and strife, ready to create their own civilisation from the shattered ruins of what came before. They are Yesterday’s and Tomorrow’s Children, black-eyed and orphaned.

I am flicking through a Frankenstein comic by Grant Morrison. He describes the concept that water has been found to take on different chemical properties depending on how you label and describe the container it is stored within. What if you labelled the water ‘love’? Or ‘cure’? And then, what about, ‘hate’ or ‘weapon’? Which do you think humans would use more often? (The concept is bogus, apparently, but it’s unbelievably fascinating in that way so much pseudoscience is.)

I have shipping lists, detailing the refugees of a dozen wars. Russians leaving Asia by Chinese ports, bound for Australia and other Commonwealth countries. They list families, individuals, spinsters and widows. Religion: Orthodox, athiest and Old Believer.

I’m watching del Toro’s first Hellboy movie, and I come across the scene where a man is thrown into an quasi-magical explosion. As he hits the edge, his flesh strips away but the body continues to move and react. The skull’s jaw widens, as if to scream.

There’s more than that, unsurprisingly, but I hope this helps in seeing how some ideas start coming together. Essentially, begin with things that interest you, and find new ways to connect them. And, don’t be afraid if most of your jottings end up in the bin. I junked a good three-quarters of what I initially thought I was going to write: or, to put it another way, the story started swiftly outgrowing those concepts I’d begun with. That’s a good thing; it means it’s taking on a life of its own.

Now, a realisation that I made early on was as follows: be prepared to either make yourself an expert, or make shit up. If your story has even a passing resemblance to reality, your instinct should be to research until your eyes bleed. This is also a good thing, to a point. The more you know, the more story ideas will emerge. The fuller and realer your characters will become; the world that they inhabit will have more depth and structure. Think of it like the difference between filming a movie on a cheap set – the buildings only paper-thin – versus filming on location, where the actors and director can get into the trenches and understand the world the characters inhabit. I have pages upon pages bookmarked (both physical tomes and on the internet) detailing wars, street maps, skeletal structures of various animals, cars, clothes, uniforms, biographies, death camps, who was who in various embassies and delegations. The list goes on. But if you’re basing something on reality, there’s always more to know, and someone who will know more than you. The former will drag you down in detail and potentially cause you to lose the spark of whatever tale you wanted to tell, while the latter is a constant bogeyman hanging over your head – in your quest for authenticity, you’ll miss some vital detail and be greeted with howls of condemnation from the reader. So, don’t be afraid to make it up. That’s probablt part of the joy found in writing fantasy or speculative fiction: except in cases where you’re working in a shared (i.e., franchised) universe, things that work however the hell you want them to.

This quickly became an easy decision for me, in that I had already decided to write an alternative history of sorts; the real world, off by a few degrees, changed incrementally at some earlier stage. The background reading I did gave me street names and geography, but I could paint the buildings whatever colour I wanted, and tear down or rebuild anything that didn’t suit my narrative. And if I didn’t know about it in the first place, well, no big loss; the over-informed reader could suspend disbelief on that small point because s/he was already suspending disbelief over a number of other things.

This reminds me, in a roundabout way, of a comic book called S.H.I.E.L.D., which came out a year or two ago and was intended to tell a ‘secret history’ of Marvel Comics’ shared universe. It was a clever enough conceit, weaving in real-life luminaries such as Da Vinci and Isaac Newton into broader conspiracies of a less-than-real world. My enjoyment came tumbling down over the most minor of issues; a double-page spread showed Da Vinci looking over a Renaissance-era Roman cityscape while a giant creature rampaged the Eternal City. And there, smack bang in the mid-ground, was a building that I knew had been built hundreds of years after that era. The frustration I had lingered for pages thereafter. I was frustrated that the artist hadn’t done enough research; it was like he’d taken a picture of the city and drawn over anything he suspected looking too modern, but didn’t notice something that was ‘fake ancient’. My enjoyment of the book faded as the story progressed – more to do with the writing than the artwork – but I can trace my first flicker of disapproval from that image.

I’ll be back next time with some further minor epiphanies on the writing process.But before I go, a quick comment that the thoughts above are not, by any stretch of the imagination, enough to turn you into a best-selling novelist, or even a published author. I’d think that getting a good agent and finishing your book would be the best place to start for that (and not necessarily in that order). These are the baby steps only, as taught by someone only just learning to crawl.

be glad i didn’t write this

I made a shuddering, abortive attempt at another mash-up the other day. Faithful readers may recall my efforts in merging Candace Bushnell’s Sex And The City with China Mieville’s The City & The City. I caught a brief glimpse of a Sandra Bullock / Ryan Reynolds rom-com with all the usual tropes – fish out of water, humorous misunderstandings, uptight city gals, protagonists finding that their initial hatred of each other is blooming into love , etc. – but the setting was, oddly enough, the small Alaskan town of Sitka. All that I know of Sitka comes from a rather good alternative-Jewish-history-noir-suspense novel by Michael Chabon (I half-expected it had been made up, from whole cloth, for the story). So, my mind instantly started whirring about adding Sandra Bullock into a chapter of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, or alternatively transplanting tough-as-nails Detective Landsman into a romantic comedy setting. There’s something enticing about a mash-up, about seeing the familiar become unfamiliar and new again. I ran through a series of scenarios in my head but my efforts were, unsurprisingly, doomed to fail. Scenes where Margaret, Sandra Bullock’s headstrong police chief takes on a gang of Jewish paramilitary cultists failed to write themselves. Perhaps for the best: the world may not be ready for the Yiddish Policeman’s Proposal.

Progress report

While this blog has been quiet for the past couple of weeks, I promise that there’s movement at the station. It’s been a productive time for the manuscript – you remember that thing? – with a writing blitz last week that left me a little stunned.

I had woken up to find the sun blazing mercilessly down on Melbourne (the middle of a three-day hot spell of 40-degree weather, coming not less than a week after wild hailstorms and flash flooding. Bless this city.). So, I kept the curtains drawn and turned on the laptop, sat down at the dining table, and wrote. And wrote. And just kept on writing. Without distraction, without temptation, without music to get me into the mood or one of my favourite books nearby to inspire me on a turn of phrase. The lovely wife estimated that I wrote for ten hours, give or take. And every minute of that was 100%, without-a-doubt, enjoyable. Cross fingers for me that every day is this easy, and I’ll do the same for you.

After not having done any major work on the manuscript for a few months, this has been a bit of a breakthrough. By putting it aside for a while and thinking through story arcs, characters and what I wanted to say over these 100,000-odd words, I was able to have ideas gestate in my head a little more freely than I’d be letting them previously. By giving them a little air, I’d found that certain aspects fitted together a lot more smoothly than I’d previously suspected, while others needed more explanation to get the characters and story to where I needed them to be.

I’m not there yet, of course – I haven’t mistaken a milestone for the destination. Much of what I did was centred on cleaning up what had gone before – tightening up motivations, rounding out the dialogue on conversations, beefing up the momentum of the plot and stripping back extraneous phrases and rambling descriptions. But, I feel like a weight has lifted from my shoulders. I now have the first major movement of my story well and truly under wraps and swathes of later chapters completed (if not necessarily ready for scrutiny). The Lovely Wife has read the first 15k and found them legible and mostly free of embarrassing spelling mistakes or inconsistent tenses.

If I was to tack a pithy moral onto the end of this little story, it’s this: sometimes you honestly need to have a break, put the work aside, think about it for a while and come back to it when you feel ready. It’s okay, honest. You still need to prioritise and give yourself time to do what you need to do. And, if you ever feel the itch then don’t put it off if you can – just get stuck into it and ride that wave for as long as you can, whenever you can. To stall or take a little longer than planned isn’t failure. Giving up is.

Reassembling Frankenstein’s Monster: my latest re-drafting efforts

Today was intended to be a day of writing, but it’s turned into ‘writing about writing’… which is, as you may recall from my previous post, not really writing at all. 

I’m still stuck at 30k words, and have admitted to myself that the fundamental thing holding me back is the slightly wonky structure holding up the story. There are one too many flashbacks (interesting enough, but they don’t move the plot along), one too many asides involving mysterious characters who don’t get properly introduced for ages, and perhaps most important of all: as written, the main character doesn’t have anyone to bounce off for large sections of the text. The way I’ve written him (he’s not yet writing himself, more’s the pity), he’s a quiet loner with only one close friend to speak of, and they part company a few chapters in. That turns the next 3,000-odd words into the main character doing Stuff all by himself – possibly all well and good, but it has been increasingly difficult to explore these moments without feeling that I’m not moving it along sufficiently quickly. If I feel the exposition is getting a bit weary, chances are that the reader is thinking that too.

So, time to tear up the structure and start again. Not completely, mind you – Gods know, there are some gems in what I’ve written so far* – but certainly I need to re-pace (rather than ‘replace’ – see what I did there?) the opening quarter of the book, to get the characters, setting and themes introduced through dialogue and action, not through wordy blocks of text where nothing happens. Today was spent drafting out a detailed chapter structure, and I’m already feeling a lot more motivated about the tale I’m telling.

There may be some casualties along the way, of course; I may have to kill or at least maim a couple of my favourite chapters. But, I will take that as A Good Thing. A uni lecturer of mine once said that if you had a favourite turn of phrase in an essay, cut it out; chances are it’s a little too pithy, a little too convoluted, a little too obvious, and it will stick out to the reader. He was talking about 4,000-word essays on international politics rather than 100,000-word novels, but perhaps that applies here, too. Certainly, I have suprised myself by how positive I am over these changes, and that’s probably because the story as I’ve re-assembled it simply seems to make more sense. I’m spending more time with characters I like, less with those that are tangential to the overall plot, and getting to the heart of the story faster. I think that Tom Waits once said (although I may have imagined it) that when he’s writing songs, some bits get thrown into the junkpile, only to get re-used later on. This is what’s happening here, albeit I do hope that when I patch things together the seams aren’t too obvious – I want my Frankenstein to be sans scars and neck-bolts, if at all possible.

Now, to inject it with the spark of life and get back to writing the bloody thing…!

* individual experience may vary.


Or lack thereof, seeing as I’m stuck at 25k words or thereabouts. It’s an admirable height to be stuck at – the villagers down below all look like ants! – but I’m trying to conquer word-mountains here, not pussyfoot around in these foothills. To labour this analogy slightly, I’m stuck in some gullies at the moment, and this month has seemed to be a ‘one step forward, one step back’ situation repeated ad nauseum. The upside is that the quality of my writing has improved – going back over old ground means I’m picking up lessons and constantly making improvements – while the downside is realising not only a) how far I still have to go, but b) how shaky some of my original foundations* are looking. I don’t want to strive too far ahead without getting these basics right, but I also know I’m not going to progress particularly well if I’m only focusing on what I’ve written to date rather than what I want to write next.

* metaphor fail!

busy busy

The past fortnight hasn’t seen a great deal of writing. Real life has interfered in a big way; combined with the nice round number of 25,000 words I currently have and the range of decisions I need to take in the text, I’ve lost that burning impetus to write thousand-word streaks that I was managed across recent months. But, there has been some sort of progress for all that, some inscrutable welling of energies that remain invisible to the naked eye. The first couple of chapters have been re-written, for example, tweaked and re-phrased for better impact. The ‘B-Plot’ has also advanced, and with it a sense that there are elements to this story that can perhaps only be described as horror. How I handle those is yet to be seen; I don’t particularly like reading a great deal of horror, with the exception of Clive Barker’s wonderful Damnation Game – a superbly uncomfortable text that I first read half a lifetime ago, and the images and style of which have clung to me ever since. Rather than thinking too much about technique and mood, I’ve resolved to simply write what comes to mind and think about genre later on.

So, onward and upward. Talk again soon.