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Of abseiling and avoidance

Oh my fine fat furry friends, this time last week, I was stuck. The door to my Shed of Ideas was jammed and I couldn’t lay my hands on a crowbar, or even a flat-bladed screwdriver and a dab of oil.

And this week? The door has been flying open in the wind. There are ideas – dusty but beautiful – lying all over the floor, spilling off the shelves, getting tangled up in twine and squashing the seedlings.

There is enough stuff here that I already know what I want to tell you next week and maybe even the week after that.

But, for now, one little bit of housekeeping:

Because Covid is a pest and because lockdowns are boring
AND
Because we got lovely feedback on my live self-editing webinar a few weeks back (one that was open to JW members only)
AND
Because we love each and every one of you, not just the wise souls who pay us money,
AND
Because self-editing is the only sure and certain pathway to a book as beautiful as you want it to be,
WE THEREFORE DECIDED
To offer a live self-editing webinar to everyone.
*** For free ***
 You just have to pitch up.
It is on 19 November at 19.00 GMT

What we’re going to do is take chunks of YOUR work (see the PSes for more about that) and edit it live on screen. I’ll show you exactly how I would change the text, if it were my own piece of work, and I’ll talk you through my thought process as I do it.

You lot, meanwhile, can use the live chat to pour scorn on everything I do, offer suggestions of your own and generally participate.

The webinar page is here. Remember that although the event is free, you do have to register, because otherwise the system doesn’t know who to admit. Registration is sweet and simple. You’ll get emails telling you exactly what to do. All you need is a computer and an internet connection. More details in the PSes if you need it.

Right-ho.

The Shed of Ideas.

Last week, I told you that you don’t have to be good at everything. That’s true if you only think about marketing. That’s true if you think about writing. It’s most certainly true if you consider yourself as an author in the round.

That was – to judge from the responses I got – a useful, bracing, encouraging message. It permits you to be a bit shit at certain things and still to feel OK about yourself. It matters more that you have genuine dazzle in one or two respects, than that you can handle every aspect of an author’s craft with real competence.

OK. Good. But even knowing this, it’s still easy for us to get stuck.

In my Life Before Kids, I used to do a bit of mountaineering, and I remember one time in the Alps where my buddy and I were descending a mountain. The ascent had been a bit more scary and painful than we’d expected and we were tired and very much wanting to get down to somewhere warm and with hot food.

We were following a ridge that we thought would take us all the way down to the valley, only then – our nice little ridge turned into a 250-foot cliff. There was no way we were going to down-climb that, so we had to abseil off, belaying halfway on a crappy little ledge that wasn’t built to Switzerland’s normal excellent standards.

I’m not scared of abseiling in general, but I do remember being afraid this time. I was cold and tired. I knew that cold, tired descents is where most climbing accidents occur. There was just something about that long, wet drop which I still don’t like to think about. I remember tying a knot at the bottom of the rope to make sure that I couldn’t just abseil accidentally off the end. That’s not something I normally do, but I was scared of my own dulled reflexes.

Anyway. It all turned out fine. The crappy little ledge halfway down already had a bit of climbing tat fixed to the rock, so we hadn’t been the only climbers to have chosen the wrong way down. We got down to the valley. Got warm. Got fed.

But – that fear.

That’s something we all know, isn’t it?

We’re 60,000 words into a manuscript. We know the start of the story, because it’s written. We sort of know the ending (because the thought of it has been keeping us going for that long middle-of-book slog.) Only then, we hit an unexpected plot obstacle. A wet 250-foot cliff that faces north and whose granite has a tendency to come away in your hands.

The fear halts us.

And, OK, your plot obstacle may come earlier in your book, or later. And the metaphor you might choose to describe it might be different from this one. But this I bet is true:

You avoid contact with the obstacle because you’re afraid of it.

Instead of tackling the problem directly, you engage in any kind of displacement activity. You re-edit the stuff you’ve already written. You follow idiots on Twitter. You walk the dog. You hoover the floor. You (ahem) waste your time reading this email.

But you need to tackle the problem directly. You need to take that rope off your back and throw it down that dirty, wet cliff and do what needs to be done.

In plainer language, you just need to write. Don’t know what the next chapter is going to be? You don’t have to know. Write the next sentence. Any sentence. Just get it down. Then write the next sentence.

The trick is to force your character into motion. Force yourself into motion. Yes, it’s possible that a chapter you write in this way is rubbish, but even the act of writing a rubbish chapter will show you the way need to go.

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

That’s a Picasso quote that one of you sent me a few weeks back.

And damn the man – he’s right. With plotting problems more than anything else, m’lady Muse will only solve your problems if you put a shift in.

Here’s another thing: it may not be fun.

Abseiling down that cliff was not fun. It did a job and delivered an outcome. (The blessed, blessed valley floor!)

We mostly think of inspiration as joyous, but that thought can be a blocking one in its own right. Sometimes, the right thing just isn’t going to be entertaining as well.

So, if you are facing a problem that you don’t know how to fix, just say to yourself:

  • This isn’t going to be fun
  • I don’t have an answer
  • The chapter I write now may be rubbish and have to be deleted
  • But in doing these awkward and unpleasant things, I get myself closer to the valley floor and the full joy and happiness of writing my lovely denouement.
  • What’s more, the gifts of invention and understanding will only return to me if I get stuck in. If I move my character and story along.
  • The best solutions are always specific, which means they mostly come when you are working at very specific issues. (Not, “where should the book go next?” but “What paragraph follows this one?”)

And heck. My self-editing style means I edit as I go. I hate leaving crappy chapters in my book and want to scrape them free of barnacles before I proceed. But that’s me.

If you want, just write your bad chapter – your wet, dark, dirty abseil chapter – and move on. Leave it. Finish the book.

When you come back to that place as you edit, you come to it from a place where you know everything else about your story. Exactly what happens and when and how and why. And if the chapter still feels wrong, it’ll be a hundred times easier to fix, because you know so much more and because that sense of fear will have left you. Worst case scenario? You have a couple of dodgy chapters in an otherwise good book.

And so what? We’ve all written a dodgy chapter or two.

We’re not perfect and don’t have to be.

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Comments (145)
  • Julia Wills

    Stuffed and Dusted

    Children's novel - 10 - 12

    “No,” said Tom, cutting the man off. “You don’t understand. I know I can look after her. We have a back garden with loads of weeds and a hosepipe for when she gets grubby. My Dad is brilliant at woodwork and could build her a yak-kennel and-”

    “No, Tom!”

    Tom jumped. 

    The familiar cry rumbled from the back of the crowd, surged over the onlookers’ heads and filled Tom’s ears like a bucket of freezing cold water.  Spinning round, his heart walloping against his ribs, he saw Dad, picking his way, grey-faced, through the crowd. 

    Right step,  “I’m sorry!”. 

    Left step, “Thank you,”. 

    Tom folded his arms stiffly across his chest watching Dad’s polite-don’t-mind-me-dance as he weaved to the front.  

    Right again, “Oh, I do beg your pardon”. 

    Tom simmered, bracing himself for what was coming. Dad never begged his pardon, did he? Or said sorry for rubbishing every single good pet idea he came up with? It was only now that he noticed that everyone was staring right at him. And all with the same stupid slapped fish expression. 

    Children. 

    Adults. 

    Butcher Hendricks, water dripping from his red-striped apron. 

    Each with that same goggle-eyed open-mouthed astonishment. 

    Well, so what? 

    He planted his feet more firmly and stared back. After all, Mum always said that people might laugh at you when you have big and different ideas, didn’t she?  Where would scientists and inventors be, she’d point out, without wild thinking? Like that old Italian boffin who invented flying machines about a million years ago… Leonardo da Versace, or something? Not that Dad ever agreed, of course. 

    “Come on,” said Dad, carefully navigated around two of Marjorie’s Majorettes, who squeaked like overexcited dolphins.  He put his arm around Tom’s shoulder. “It’s time we went home.”


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    • Name - Shane McCrea

      Title - Who Are You?

      Genre - Thriller

      Leslie lay on his back, his eyes still closed. It had been a bad night. He was sure he hadn’t slept well. And it certainly was not the effects of the celebrations that had taken place yesterday evening. He had been tired when he had gotten into bed and yet he seemed to have been awake for most of the night just thinking of all that had passed in the last six months. Or was he asleep and the events were so lucid he was simply reliving them in his dreams? 

             He moved to the side, looked at the clock; it was nearly seven o’clock and he was still tired. He wanted to sleep but it was too hot and anyway, today was special. He had to get up. OK, he thought, give it another ten minutes. He tried to meditate. Empty his mind. Leave himself blank. He needed to prepare himself for the day. He closed his eyes again. Relax he said.

             Leslie threw the blankets off. He was naked. He needed to cool down. He lay there, contemplative still not really wanting to move. It was months since the raid and he had been truthful with his report. He tried to tell them all but they wanted to believe the best. They wanted to believe he had been successful but they had no proof. He rolled over and sat on the side of the bed thinking. He was worried. He got up and walked into the bathroom. He stood at the sink looking at himself in the mirror. He looked so dejected. His dark hair was still long. He had sideburns and a full moustache. All looked such a mess. He just needed to smarten himself up. 

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      • Name - Inky Paige

        Title - Greta Able's Flipping Fable

        Genre - Children's Comedy, 10 + years

        If he was being honest with himself, Prince Perfect was beginning to feel pretty peeved, perturbed and positively put out with all this rescuing a princess malarkey. As he climbed the fourteenth tower that month, he grumbled to himself under his royal hoody, “This had better be the one”.

        The advantage of tower climbing is that when you’ve climbed as many towers as the Prince had, your arms become strong enough to pull a cart full of carts* so as a consequence, he made short work of scaling the main tower. He reached the ledge of the upper most window in no time at all.

        *Well, how else do you think carts are delivered?

        Keeping a firm grip of the rope, Prince Perfect reached up to the ledge with his free hand and called out in his most princely voice (as taught in princes’ school), “I am coming my love!”

        “My prince!” came a deep voice in reply, followed by a whisp of smoke which caressed Prince Perfect’s knuckles.

        “Great!” said Prince Perfect as he strained to lift his chest onto the ledge. “She’s a smoker. Oh well. At least this time I’ve finally found a…” His train of thought screeched to an abrupt halt as a long snout, covered in metallic looking blue green scales, emerged through the open window. Followed by huge golden eyes.

        Prince Perfect simultaneously released both his grip on the ledge and a high-pitched scream.

        “Nah wadwah*!” huffed the dragon and accidentally singed the rope which immediately snapped, sending the Prince plummeting into the murky moat below, but not before contorting himself into a perfect triple somersault. Entry into the moat was near perfect and this was reflected by three toads and a duck who held aloft their score cards – 9.5, 9.5, 9.5 and an 8 – Ducky was always pretty harsh with his scoring.

        *Which is dragon for ‘Oh bother!’

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        • Thelma McGough

          Walking on Walls

          Memoir

          Wk1-Remember.png

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          • Synopsis Ariadne of Europe

            Historical novel about the well known daughter of King Minos. 

            Ariadne’s surname ‘of Europe’ is derived from the name of her grandmother, the Phoenician princess that was abducted by Zeus from North Africa to Crete, Europe. 

            Many lies and false accusations have been told through the ages about King Minos of Crete, his wife Queen Pasiphaë, his daughter Ariadne and his son Minotaur. This, according to the author, is the true story about the royal family of Crete, only this time told from a Cretan perspective. The author refutes the erroneous information that comes from classical Greek sources, read: the Athenians from about 500 BC. Remind yourself that Ariadne and her family lived a thousand years earlier though, around 1.500 BC, among the high cultured Minoans. 

            The novel takes the form of a love story about Ariadne and her divine boyfriend Dionysus, who wants to make her his wife. Dionysus has never before seen such a witty, wise and funny girl. But also the sea God Poseidon and the Greek hero Theseus have an eye on the beautiful and seductive princess, with the stunning blonde curls (καλλιπλοκάμῳ), that Homer already mentioned in his Iliad 18:594 (appr. 800 BC). Ariadne initially prefers her own career at the Court of King Minos to the advances of the divine Dionysus. With a strongly developed sense of justice, she writes a law book that reflects equality between men and women. Crete becomes widely known for its balanced justice system. Ultimately, fate, from an unexpected side, is inevitable. En passant a whole number of pre-Greek myths, more than 30, are told. Some of these classic stories are told at length, others are briefly touched upon. 

            Dalfsen, the Netherlands, November 2020.

             

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