In This Post:
- Practical time-travel for the practicing writer.
- Massive Site Updates, lots of new content.
- Video: Gil Scott-Heron, ‘Me and the Devil’.
You’re bigger on the inside.
This week you’re going to learn how to time travel. The bad news is it only works backwards. The good news is it’ll make you a better writer. The bad news is it only works with voice, and then only with your voice. The good news is it’ll make you a better writer.
Creating a new story – from first idea to last line – tends to work like the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance). Only in our case it’s more like: Thrill, Manic Typing, Creeping Doubt, That Doesn’t Work, Wait It Works Like This, This Is Kinda Dull, Why Would Anyone Read This, Look Get a Grip We’re Almost Done, Holy Crap This Is The Best Thing I’ve Ever Written, No It Isn’t, Yes It Is, The End, Oh It’s Not As Good As I Thought, Still It’s Not Bad, Fiddling, Send, Shit I Forgot To Include That Bit With The Thing, Frantic Edit, Resend With Apologetic Email.
Writing is a solitary profession for the most part. I suspect most writers much prefer working with others, as it breaks that isolation and it keeps everything fresh. Ideas and takes are generated with greater alacrity and you can keep each other buoyed. Solitary work, if it goes on for long enough, can amount to autocannibalism. And you don’t want that.
SO: my version of time travel allows you to collaborate with your past selves. As you sit in your room, office or library, well dry and utterly stumped, it’s possible to call upon the aid of dozens of people who are smarter and more inspired than you are right now, all of whom are people you’ve been.
If you want this to work you need to diligently keep one thing in mind at all times: “I’ll remember that” is the Devil’s whisper. Never, ever listen to it.
For twenty years I’ve maintained what I call a Points File. It’s not a new idea; most writers keep something similar. It’s a collection of ideas, scraps, names, detail… anything that’s occurred to me as being inspired, useful or noteworthy in all that time. I note it down on whatever’s handy (notepad, iPhone, tram ticket), and later transcribe it to a central file. And there it sits for months or years at a time, preserved, in stasis, until that one time in the future that it’s called upon.
Part of The Music of Razors, for example, was helped by a communiqué from Cam Rogers, age 23, circa 1995, then resident of Brisbane. He’d just run a session of Vampire: the Masquerade for three friends in a soon-to-be-condemned art deco house by the riverside. He thought the inclusion of the clockwork prison he’d used as a centrepiece for a scene at an art show involving Stephen King might be helpful. In Razors it became something the character of Suni was working on, and later made a reappearance in The Boulevard, a short story that picks up laterally from where Razors finishes. Later on a line that Hope has, about kohl eyeliner making her look like a strung-out drag queen, was sent by Cam Rogers, age 25, circa 1997, now resident of Melbourne. It was something his friend Rose had said the day after a fairly messy night out.
This is how I work: I’ll have an idea. I’ll try to marry that idea to another idea, see what kind of context or story that suggests. If I like it I’ll structure the skeleton of the plot in maybe five or six bullet-points. I’ll refine that, sketching out the connective tissue with sub-points. By then I feel I have a good grasp of the story, the mood I’m after, and what I want to say with it. Then I open the Points File and go through it from the first page to the last.
You can’t overestimate the value of that first rush of enthusiasm for a new story. You need to make the most of that honeymoon while it lasts, because it won’t last long. Reading the Points File amounts to flying low over a landscape of inspiration, looking for landmarks, waiting for something to ping. Anytime something strikes me as having potential I cut-and-paste it to a new file. Once that pass over the Points File is done I close it and then read this condensed file from start to finish, stopping at each item, hoping to find a home for it within the plot structure as it stands. These can be whole characters, a joke, a plot angle or something as minor as the description of a texture.
In employing this technique what you’ll find is that your work develops greater depth than you could have imparted to it on your own. There will be a richer palette of ideas present in the work. It gets back to what I was saying last week about how it’s often the meeting of two disparate ideas that cracks a story open. A Points File is pages and pages of disparate ideas. It’ll provide the kind of contrast and verisimilitude that’ll give your story a greater third dimension, a substantial depth, by dint of the unexpected. You may build a fine mansion, but this is recess lighting and filigree. It’s hedgerows and ornamentation. It may even be a whole other wing. Just be careful not to overload the story with too many ideas. Rampant creativity is enviable, laudable even, but your story isn’t a plate and this isn’t all-you-can-eat shrimp night. Be judicious. Keep the story in shape, true to the point of it, and on target.
Once I’ve written the first draft of the story I open the Points File once more, go through it again and see if there’s any fine detail I can add. Subtle stuff. Stuff that might help fill the gaps I’m now aware of in the story, in either plot or character. It’s spak filler at this point, for want of a more graceful term.
Using the Points File is the part of the whole process that I find the most fun. I’ve often wished I had a clone; someone I could send to work while I goofed off. This is a lot like that. I get to outsource the brainwork to unpaid labour from 1992-2010. You can too, but only if you diligently note down the good stuff as it crosses your path. It takes time to build that kind of hyperawareness, but before long you’ll get this tingle – this spider-sense alarm – when something tickles your fancy, gets you thinking or makes you laugh. That’s the prod to write it down. And then you’ll get a call from yourself three years hence, you’ll pop that note in the mail, and Future You will wind up with a far better story for your diligence.
I’ve got it into my head that I’d really like to see Tilda Swinton play David Bowie. Opinions?
I’ve got a sizeable interview on the way with some very funny people; something I’ve been working on for the last week or so. Should be ready for next week I’m hoping, if I can get the time around this other thing I’m working on – which hopefully I’ll be able to talk about in a month or so. If either myself or a fickle God don’t botch it.
- Added a ‘Short Fiction’ section to the site, along with its first entry: a short story entitled ‘The Boulevard’. It was written shortly after The Music of Razors saw print, and is something of an unofficial follow-on from it. I’ve never reconciled myself to it being canon, but maybe it is.
- Added three sample chapters from Nicholas and the Chronoporter to the ‘Sample Chapters’ section.
- Altered the formatting on the The Music of Razors sample chapters to make for an easier read.
- Added links to Facebook and Twitter in the sidebar.
- Added a Flattr button to the sidebar. Typically writers are terrible at self-promotion, and this is a form of that. The idea behind Flattr really is brilliant. Click on the video below and see for yourself. In the meantime I need funds to live, and the time I spend writing articles here is time I’m not earning. So if you’ve liked what you’ve read here you can show your support by Flattr-ing us, or using the PayPal tip jar in the sidebar. My cat needs wine. Seriously.
I first heard this track when April Fecca put it on the stereo during the road trip from Cleveland to Louisville. I immediately went and got the album on the strength of this track. I love the whole thing, it’s a beautiful piece of work. I only wish I could write to it – the spoken word nature of it gets in the way of that. But it’s great for just listening to; something people rarely do any more.
Oh, and PS: don’t forget to use the little buttons down below to ‘like’ what you’ve seen here, or mention it to friends. Thanks a bunch, and see you next week.