Thursday, April 09, 2015

Bark: The Writing Bug

I've been a bit quiet here lately, considering that it's the holidays, but there's a very good reason for that. I'm about 47,000 words into writing a fantasy novel, and I've been ploughing a lot of my free time over the holidays into that, rather than doing the usual kind of instant gratification activities I'd normally do on holiday, like playing a lot of videogames (you know the one), watching films, and so on.

Writing and creating stories has been something I've done for almost as long as I can remember. Creative story writing was one of the few aspects of studying English that I enjoyed (the other parts I just saw as a necessary evil that allowed me to be better at the good bits) and I suprised my parents one year (I think I was about 16) at Christmas by asking for a typewriter, rather than the usual crap I would normally ask for. I really wanted a PC, since I'd been captivated by playing UFO: Enemy Unknown on my brother's computer when he came home from University, but recognising my parents' rather constrained financial situation at the time, I asked for a typewriter instead, since they were a whole lot cheaper and what I was really interested in was writing my own stories about the game world, rather than playing the game itself.

I'm not entirely sure what became of the typewriter itself, or the reams of undoubtedly horrifically bad fanfic that I wrote with it. The history of literature, certainly, has not suffered due to their loss...

In any respect, I'm a far more creative and experienced writer now than I was then, though I'm still probably well short of the 1,000,000 words of written fiction that the received wisdom in narrative literature states you have to surpass before what you're writing has a chance of being any good. I think that by now I'm about three-quarters of the way there - and while I would normally thumb my nose to such prescriptive "rules" as elitist poppycock, this one, I feel, does have at least some merit to it. Like most skilled activities, writing is a skill that needs to be learned, practiced and constantly refined. And I also think that there is an element of truth in that no-one really writes because they want to. I don't write because I want to. I write because I need to - and that's a big, crucial difference.

I'm a good communicator - in my job, I have to be. Otherwise I'd have thirty bored kids making their own entertainment by hurling stools and blowing things up in my science lab (and if anyone's going to blow stuff up in my lab, it's me... as the ceiling tiles will testify!) But I've always had more of an affinity with communication through the written word, rather than the spoken word. After all, my academic background is scientific, not the humanities. It's only more recently that I've had to train up and hone my verbal communications skills, but one of the beneficial side effects of that is that it's slightly refocussed the emphasis of my writing. I used to write purely descriptively, building worlds and recounting sequences of events. While there are a great many novels (in all genres) that do precisely this, since I became a teacher I've been exposed to thousands of different people from a huge range of social, economic and cultural backgrounds, which has led me to the realisation of one key idea: people are fascinating.

I didn't always think that. In fact, as your typical, teenaged, introverted Physics student, I wasn't terribly good with people. Fairly awful, in fact. (Some might say that I'm not much improved now, and they're living with me!)

The upshot of this realisation is that now I'm much more interested in the characters than the world building in my writing. I still like trying to create new, unique worlds - which is surprisingly difficult, given the diversity of influences and variety of ways images and ideas can get subconsciously imprinted into your brain these days - but now I seem to spend more time in creating interesting characters. This is also a remarkably difficult process, because you're trying to find character hooks that are unique, whilst simultaneously avoiding cliché, which also allow you to make the characters act and behave in a consistent, believable way.

So while I was in London earlier this week to meet up with a friend, I paid a visit to Foyles and perused their creative writing section (writers, of course, love to write about writing). There I found a fascinating and very informative book: Writer's Guide To Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein. I've spent a lot of time with the book this week, and it's been reassuringly enlightening to find that the character traits I would ascribe to the characters are consistent with the psychological personality types described in the book. The book I'm writing is an adaptation of one of my own scripts (which itself started out as an adaptation of an unfinished short story) that I wrote for the now sadly defunct Script Frenzy three years ago. The story originally started out as a traditional "High Fantasy" story in the J.R.R. Tolkein mould, but Game of Thrones (and me reading my way through the entire series in about eight months) changed all that. The script is almost certainly never going to see the light of day or ever leave the safety of my "Ravings" USB Flash drive, but I have hopes that the novel will. Whether it will be any good is a question that remains to be resolved (I'm far too paranoid and self-critical to be an objective judge of my own work - hence why the sci-fi book I finished last year needs to go through at least one more re-write before I even consider letting it out into the wild) - but when you look at a lot of the other crap on the shelves these days that sell by the hundreds of thousands, you do think "why not?"... I'm not under any illusions about ever having the talent to earn Pulitzer, Man Booker or Nobel prizes for literature... but an actual physical book on a shelf with my name on it? Why not?