Torc: origins - getting the original idea down

This is a post about where my novel Torc came from.

It's August 2011, and I'm in London for the week working on my doctorate. Actually, I'm not. Not unless you consider wandering around the capital acting like a tourist as representing high-level academic endeavour. Which, for me, qualifies as work. So, yes, I'm counting it.

So, yep. I'm hard at it.

It's the Saturday of the bank holiday weekend; naturally I'm in the City of London. A couple of streets have been cordoned off because there's some filming going on. The financial district is like that; a ghost town outside the working week. Ideal for filming purposes. I skirt the shoot. No, I don't see anyone famous. 

I've been walking the path of the book that I'm working on as part of the PhD - I'm getting the timings right for my characters walking around the area. You can do this: 21st century London is pretty much laid out according to the medieval and earlier street systems.

And besides, I tend to gravitate back to Pudding Lane, the Monument, and the environs of the immediate Great Fire of London geography. If you've read The Prospect of This City, you'll see why.    

So I'm there or thereabouts. Not that far from the multiple entries into Bank/Monument tube station, though on this occasion I've walked over the Millennium Bridge, skirted St Paul's, and headed east.

And then it hits me. An idea drops from the Story Gods, or rises from the Hell Of Unprocessed Vaguely Promising Ideas. It doesn't matter. I've got to capture it, whatever it is.

I don't know about you, but when an idea arrives for me, it comes in one of two ways. It's about 50/50 which way it'll be. Half of the time, an image or a fragment of prose will roll around, or there'll be a creative red flag that posts itself next to something. Finding out what the whole idea might turn out to be then becomes akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. A puzzle of uniform grey tiles - they're all face down  - when you've only got one bit where you can see the bigger picture. And the box the bits isn't to hand. So you've got to assemble it the hard way.

This wasn't like that. It was one of the other occasions. When you get a bulk delivery of story all at once. It's like Santa dropping in. When I was a little 'un, I had (as did my siblings) a paper sack (I was born in the late 60s and we didn't use plastic for that kind of thing, you young whippersnapper). And so Father Christmas left his presents in the sack, which had been put out at the end of the bed. All you had to do was to empty it out to see what you'd got.

I'm in possession of a sackful of story. It's old, old advice this, but it's nevertheless right; record that idea in some way, and then come back to it. If you trust to memory then there's no guarantees that you'll even be able to recall that you had something important not to forget. So write it down. Send yourself a text, write a memo on your phone or on the back of your hand. Whatever. Just get that notion preserved.  

A few words won't do that for this, though. I've got pens and notebooks in my bag. Let's sit down and scribe it out.

There's a Starbucks at the north end of Pudding Lane, at the junction of Eastcheap and Gracechurch Street. I go in. Being the weekend it's all but empty, save for staff and a huddle of five young male City workers; they're discussing some office coup they're scheming. They're all in suits despite the weekend and they each give off the whiff of not being sure about what to have worn. Each has snuck off from a significant other with a tall tale about having to go into the office for a couple of hours.

I get a coffee and a pot of yoghurty breakfast mulch. And I start writing. It takes about an hour and a half. I buy a second coffee at the half-way point. By the time I'm done, I've got the whole thing charted out, chapter by chapter. Soup to nuts. it's out of my head and onto the page. At some point between coffee number two and finishing up, the City boys have scuttled away. 

And oh, the relief.

I'm left-handed, and I drag my hand over what I write. I do what I can in the coffee shop loos to soap off the ink stain from the gel pen, but all it does is fade some. Ah well.

It's done, and that's the main thing. 

This is where the idea stays. It's not until 2014 that I come back to it. I re-read the notes, find them workable, and start thinking about how to go about writing a first draft.

Other ideas then come to hand: a couple of holidays that I've been on give me location details - I end up using aspects of a Welsh coastal village and a Scottish one to synthesise the eventual main location - and I write up an opening list of research needs, plus some initial character notes. There's nothing that can't be back-filled though, no information that I can't proceed without. So I get to work. Eighteen months later,some shifting priorities (both writing and otherwise) and here we are. Job done.

I may well have written the same core idea if I hadn't made those notes. I might have let it go altogether. I might have had that nagging doubt; that I'd let a book slip away. This way, at least, I don't have to wonder. For good or ill, the core of Torc was captured on August bank holiday, on a Saturday morning, in a chain coffee shop, when I should really have been doing something else.  

Torc is available here.

The Prospect of This City is available here.    






Old notes from the classroom...

So. I got a new phone, and as part of the setting-it-up rigmarole, along with the minor awkwardness of shifting contacts and whatnot over from old device to new, I came across a load of pictures that had been backed up onto the SD card in the old phone. 

I spent a happy hour or so going through the images, deleting many of them as I went, backing a few others up, and then I found a sequence of pictures that I took to make a record of some notes given in class to email onto the students after the session. 

I was good like that, you see. 

So here they are. They're a partial record of some notes (mostly crowd-sourced from the group, though with some guidance in places from me). These were undergraduates studying short story as part of a wider degree, and IIRC, were at the beginning of their second year of studies. So they'd had a first-year experience to reflect on, and some regrets and success as part of that first year to inform the discussion.

I can't be certain if these images are in the same running order as the notes made on the whiteboard in the session, but they're a not-bad reflection of a couple of hours' worth of discussion.  

First up, some observations from me. These notes were capturing general observations on issues with year one work. These observations were entirely consistent of what I'd see year after year from first-year undergraduates, and, I'd extrapolate, from people whose adult creative writing experience was comparatively limited.  

Technical issues. A lack of attention, basically. Many were the times when stories handed in bore little relation to any story anyone might have seen printed in the history of anything, ever. I'm not talking publication-quality work (which was never the objective). I'm talking work that if you squinted at it without reading it, you would know, in a single rush of cognizance, that the author had a shaky-at-best grasp of what a story looked like. 

The main issues are as indicated above: 

  1. The lack of a focal character. "Whose story is it?" I would ask in feedback. And also, oftentimes the lack of a character who we might be inclined to empathise with. Not necessarily a "nice" character, just someone who we are allowed to understand a little and perhaps become involved as to their predicament.
  2. Dialogue punctuation. Weak stories are invariably punctuated poorly, and dialogue punctuation is where it shows up most. Top tip: if the dialogue punctuation is off, then the story is seldom worth your time. 
  3. Tense control. Present to past. Now to then. Often patchy and spasmodic; little nuggets of writing from different sessions stitched together without the courtesy of a readthrough for the barest bones of consistency. 
  4. Detail. Often too much. Adverbs and adjectives a go-go. A lack of understanding/appreciation of what's the important aspect of the item being described. And conversely, sometimes the important thing was hidden, sometimes because it was buried in extraneous detail from elsewhere, sometimes from a misguided sense of craft - because this item was being concentrated on, it got the care that the rest of the writing also needed but didn't always get.  

And then some promises to selves based on the previous writing experience (and sometimes the feedback as well, I'd have thought). Apologies for the blurriness of the image; posterity wasn't my aim. 

Managing writing time is so important. All too often, tyro writers make the assumption that writing is easy. That assumption comes from a straightforward though tricksy observation; that because I already know the alphabet and have seen stories before then it can't be too hard. You see, many other creative and/or artistic endeavours come with a practical competence in a skill. Compare playing the piano, for example, or painting watercolours. Or juggling. Writing doesn't. It's easy to mistake the observable skill for the creative/expressive practice. The two are not the same.

This leads to the second observation: stories take time. They gestate. They fester. They lurk and pounce. So you need time for that to happen.

Third:  originality. Too often, what would come out would be rehashes of stuff the writer liked. Emulations, not stories. Don't copy. Make something up. Imagination is free and your pockets are full of it, even when there's nothing else in your pockets.   

But don't be reckless. What we meant here was the notion that stories aren't complete until they're read. And it's useful to have a readership in mind. That ideal reader might be a specific person, a genre fan, simply "someone like me". But work to evidence some control in the writing and in the planning of the story so that your ideal reader can be challenged and surprised as well as entertained/entranced. Don't give them exactly what they want, but don't piss on their chips either.

The last one was the "use the tutor" reminder to self. Weaker stories tended to be written late, sketchy, and entirely un-workshopped in class. That way madness tended to lie.  

The next pic was a summary of what students thought of their own submissions from the last year, given time and reflection. They're all reasonable observations. "Unfair marking bastard" was my interpretation of their comments, and not meant wholly seriously... 


The next image; a recapitulation of the idea that writing is a process, and that story-drafting is iterative. It takes a few goes over the work to get it as good as it can be. So, a sample way of working: 

  1. Sketch an idea. Get the ending if you possibly can.
  2. Plan it out. Work backwards from the ending if you can.
  3. Write a first draft.
  4. Edit it. My suggestions were invariably that first time around, just fix the typos and punctuation issues so that you're left with a clean first draft.
  5. Then redraft, and re-edit. Do this as many times as is necessary. I'd usually suggest going in this order structural fixes / character consistency / scene fixes / paragraph fixes / line fixes. Adverbs and adjectives to be scrutinised.
  6. Then proofread. Get opinions from critical friends if possible.
  7. Then leave the story be, and come back to it after time has passed. Then see what you think.  

An initial shopping list. What ideas have you got? What kinds of people are you interested in writing about, or who would work in the context of the story that you're interested in telling? What do you need to research (research here is interpreted pretty widely - anything from books and libraries kinda research to going on a mooch down the promenade to get the atmosphere of a seaside setting, to making a mood board for ideas on locations and the like.

And then reading needs. It might sound counter-intuitive, but many creative writing students that I worked with weren't very well read. And I don't mean in the classics / the literary canon sort of reading. In everyday "I always carry a book in my bag" reading. Many were quite cine- and tele-literate, but not necessarily with the written word. And that, as you might imagine, could cause issues from time to time. 

And now a set of promises from second-time-around creative writers. Most of them are very sensible suggestions and ones that derive from hard-won experience; a couple perhaps need a little bit of fleshing out. 

Write what you know. Maybe this should be a bit broader, but the sense is there in the bald statement. Too often, people wrote about stuff that they hadn't got a clue about, or situations and perhaps whole genres they knew only vicariously. This is the "Don't set your story in a US high school if you've not been to the US, let alone an American high school" commandment. Your John Hughes movie expertise is insufficient here. All too often, stories were clearly TV and popular movie franchise emulations; as a consequence, the stories felt second-hand. Several times, and in several different situations we had conversations along the lines of "You can't learn anything about fantasy from reading Harry Potter". What you have to do is read the stuff that JK Rowling read so that she could synthesize those materials into a new universe. That kind of thinking. 

Start the story as late as possible. Often, the first thousand words or so of stories would be world-building, character set-up and/or establishing an equilibrium. Or the student didn't yet know what the story was going to be except in its most general terms, and was writing out from an uncontentious start point and hoping that the story would design itself along the way. 

The story starts when things go wrong. Why not start there? In short fiction especially, each word is both a vital word and a luxury. Let's not waste it on the "character gets up out of bed so we can observe them about their morning routine and so learn something of them including what they look like when they check themselves in the bathroom mirror" malarkey. Let's crack on.  

The last one's a companion piece; things I'm not going to do this time out. Some of them are pretty obvious, but that's not to say they don't bear repeating. The first draft is simply that; a good start. Not good enough to hand in / submit to a competition / send off to a magazine.

Check your damn work; if the dialogue punctuation is inconsistent, then I know that you don't know what you're doing, or you don't care about what you're doing.  

Don't cock it up: tell the story.

Don't be too ambitious: tell a story that fits in the word count. Don't try and fob me off with a cliffhanger or make out that "it's a story, yeah, but it's also the first chapter of a novel".   

Use the word count. If you don't need it all, fair enough. But better to over-write word-wise and cut back than find yourself struggling. 

And an oldie-but-goldie to round things off. A bit of tell is okay, but if you can show, show. Reserve tell for those occasions when you've got no other option. 

Hopefully, it's all common-sense stuff. Teaching creative writing, I found, isn't really possible. What is possible, though, is that you can encourage / support / nurture other people into learning for themselves. You have to work it out for yourself. I'm still doing just that. Creative writing is a set of processes; it's not a straightforward A to B sort of journey. Which is why, I think, I find myself coming back to the first principles over and over, and why I've got a fascination with the mechanics of writing and the how and why of their communication.  

Jumping-off points for stories / The Girl and the Sadness Inside (a short story)

This was going to be a blog post about short story writing competitions, and to a certain extent it still is, though not in the way that I'd imagined. Last Wednesday, while waiting for a delivery that hadn't shown up, I was browsing through Twitter and came across a 50-word short story competition being run by the Scottish Book Trust in association with The Literary Gift Company. So I had a quick look at it. (Incidentally, the competition - at the time of writing - is still open. Why not give it a go?)   

The task was a seemingly simple one: in 50 words, write a fairy story. OK, I thought, I'll give it a go. Starting with "Once upon a time...", off I went. Now, I didn't get a 50 word story. Instead, what I ended up with was a 350-word piece of flash fiction, still staying with the competition's brief, that came more-or-less fully-formed and was out of my head and down on paper in half an hour. A bit of tidying-up and it was done.

I was in the middle of something else. I was a bit distracted - the delivery never arrived, by the way - and so was grateful for the task. But, and here's the little lesson I reinforced to myself: you never know where the stories might be lurking. 

So, keep yourself open to opportunities and springboards. Look at competitions and magazine calls for submissions in particular, because they often come with a rubric, an idea, a theme, or a start point. These can be really useful for triggering ideas. They can work better than author website or creative writing guide how-to prompts, as they're "real world". 

It doesn't matter if what you produce doesn't really fit with the competition. It doesn't matter if you've no intention in entering the competition, or sending the story off to that publication. What does matter is reminding yourself that, when the stars align, you can do this and produce something out of nothing.

Big thanks, therefore, to the competition organisers, for providing the writing prompt. And as for the story itself, which I've called The Girl and the Sadness Inside? Well, you can read it here.   


My novel The Prospect of This City is out now and available in paperback from me (signed if you prefer!) or in both paperback and ebook via Amazon.