Going Dark

This will be the last post for a few weeks, unless [a] I get particularly worked up about some idiocy or other and decide to rant about it, [b] something really interesting emerges from my research, or [c] some of my potential guest bloggers send in contributions. Regular readers will know that I did this last summer, when I was finishing off ‘Quinton 5’, The Battle of All The Ages (now available for pre-order, incidentally), and that I provided a list of the things that I expected to come along and distract me from the task – which, of course, they duly did. For various reasons, I’ve juggled around my work schedule for this year, so that I’ll now aim to finish my next non-fiction book – about the fascinating and distinctly eccentric Stepney baronets of Llanelly House – in the summer and autumn, meaning that it’s time to get started on ‘Quinton 6’, for which both the name and story outline are under Star Wars-like wraps at the moment. Suffice to say that it’s very different to all the books that have gone before, and will be much more complicated to write, so I need to concentrate completely on it, at least in the early stages.

It’s at this sort of time, too, that I need to get back into the habit of writing fiction, which means reminding myself of the basics of how I actually do the job. I know there are all sorts of blogs and websites out there where authors provide their advice to aspiring writers on how to write a book, and I’ve always largely eschewed the temptation to do this – partly because I suppose I think I’m still learning how to do it myself! But for what it’s worth, here are a few things that work for me.

  • Always write something, even if it’s rubbish – This invariably appears high up any ‘how to do it’ advice list, but it took me a long time to take this on board. I would wait for The Elusive Muse to come along, only to realise eventually that muses operate like London buses – it’s a miracle if one turns up at all, but if it does, you can guarantee there’ll be another three close behind. So yes, write something. Even if inspiration is non-existent, if there’s no sign at all of the Number Seven Muse, just put something down. Who knows, somewhere within the turgid 500 words that emerged from the depths of a hangover might lurk the germ of an idea that will make all the difference to your story in the long run. Alternatively, though, if your mind really is a complete blank and not even the turgid rubbish will come, then…
  • Get out  Change the scene. Go for a walk. Have a cup of tea. At some point during the day, do these sorts of things anyway – they keep you normal, and they keep you fit. (Well, as fit as anyone who sits around hitting a keyboard all day can be, at any rate.) It’s amazing how often ideas come to me when I’m out for an afternoon constitutional. And as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, when I first start thinking about a new book, I’ll go away for a few days or a week to brainstorm the major elements of the plot outline: it’s essentially the same principle as corporate awaydays, i.e. that a change of scene is remarkably conducive to ‘blue skies thinking’.
  • To plot or not to plot – Some authors construct incredibly elaborate plot structures in advance; some seem to keep it all in their heads and just let it flow. (I was fascinated by a fairly recent TV documentary about the great Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin, who evidently makes up much of what he does as he goes along.) I’m probably somewhere in the middle: yes, I have a fairly detailed plot outline in advance, but it’s still loose enough to allow the characters to go off in their own directions. The classic example of this was the character of Phineas Musk, the long-serving Quinton family retainer who becomes Matthew Quinton’s nominal captain’s clerk, somewhat erratic moral compass, court jester and guardian angel rolled into one. Musk was originally going to be a very minor character whose principal role was to deliver a letter to Matthew at the start of Gentleman Captain, but from pretty much the first lines I wrote for him, it was as though he was metaphorically slapping me about the head to demand a bigger part. Which he duly got…
  • To target or not to target – Similarly, I know quite a few authors who set themselves a target number of words each day and stick rigidly to that. I don’t, partly because I’ve always been able to write pretty quickly. So 2,000 or thereabouts is usually par for the course, although on days where the muses have all turned up in a row and are queuing to get into the bus stop, I’ve been known to get up to 5,000 or so. The record is 8,000 words in a day, but this had the unfortunate side effect that, on the following morning, I woke up with a swollen and painful hand which took a week to recover. So never again!
  • Show, Don’t Tell? Forget it –  When I first started out as a writer of fiction, I started to hear the mantra ‘Show, don’t tell’ trotted out by editors and the like; it’s also one of the standard dicta in the creative writing courses. On one level, this is perfectly good and sensible advice – of course it’s better to show characters’ feelings and personality traits through word-pictures, dialogue, and so forth. But it quickly seemed to me that ‘Show, don’t tell’ was a blunt instrument which was positively misleading for writers of historical fiction. After all, when did you last hear an author of historical fiction described as a ‘story shower’? History, both fiction and non-fiction, demands that a story be told – and let’s face it, trying to write, say, a book about the Four Days Battle of 1666 primarily by ‘showing’ would lead to a tome so long that it would make Gone With The Wind look like a series of tweets. So I came to the conclusion that the balance between ‘show’ and ‘tell’ varies significantly between genres – for example, a tight psychological drama taking place within a narrow timeframe should certainly ‘show’ far more than ‘tell’, but a historical epic covering anything up to several years should do the opposite. It also took me a little while to realise that I’d experienced the whole ‘show/tell’ business before, during my previous life as a teacher. We were trained to let students find things out for themselves, not to hand down words of wisdom from on high as ‘priest teachers’, as the lecturer on my training course put it (I remember us all sitting in the pub afterwards, confessing one by one that we actually quite liked the sound of being ‘priest teachers’.) Like ‘Show and Tell’, it’s another of those situations where there’s an ideal, and then there’s the real world. Of course students should, ideally, find things out for themselves, with the teacher acting merely as a facilitator. But then there’s the reality of it being a wet Friday afternoon, the students having a vital exam in two weeks, and whether you like it or not, folks, you’re getting dictated notes on Metternich and the Holy Alliance from your friendly neighbourhood ‘priest teacher’. (Remind me one day to do a blog about ‘the most boring topics I’ve ever taught’. The Holy Alliance would be right up there, and it’s definitely best not to get me started on Italian Unification; think The Incredible Hulk grunting ‘Risorgimento! Cavour! Garibaldi!’ as he smashes up New York.)

Anyway, I think I can spot a muse in the distance, chugging its way slowly toward my door. Au revoir for now!

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