So, Leaving on the Tide is with the publisher (New Generation Publishing) and Hills of Gold will be following shortly once I’ve summoned up the courage to part with the manuscript.
I owe a debt of gratitude to my guinea-pig readers, Helen, Dan and Annette, and to my wonderful editor, fellow author Karen Tucker. Not to mention Andy for putting up with me throughout the process and keeping me well-fed and watered (or rather, tea-ed).
It’s ten years since I published my last book, Spirit of Shehaios in 2010. The world and I have changed quite a lot in that decade, and this time round I have had the experience to be able to stand back just a little and observe the writing process. I thought maybe it is worth sharing some of those observations.
The key thing I figured out is that I have to tell the story to myself first. That’s the reason I write. I do not want to re-hash someone else’s story, follow someone else’s formula. I am on a journey of discovery. I want to know what happens next – but when I turn the page it’s blank. So I’ve got to figure it out from the clues already laid in the pages with writing on.
I once saw the late, great Terry Pratchett give a talk at Winchester Writers Conference, in which he compared starting a new novel to standing on one side of a cloud-filled valley. Your travelling companions – your key characters – are standing beside you, but you don’t necessarily know them all that well. You have no shared experiences. They tell you their back-story as you travel on together through the plot. And you don’t really know where that plot is going to go. You can just about make out the end-point of the journey in the hills opposite you, but you have to go down into the clouds and bumble about a bit before you can emerge on the other side.
Quite often, I find I’m climbing up the valley on the opposite side heading for the final destination, only to find I’ve lost one of my characters in the mist. Or left them stranded at the start of the story. I have to go back and retrieve them.
When Grant and I used to do hill-walking with the Scouts, the rule was always that one of the more experienced members of the group should be the back-marker, staying with the slowest member of the party to make sure no stragglers got lost along the way. (Our collie, Megan, considered it her job to keep us rounded up, but she tended to just race backwards and forwards between the fit and determined heroes at the front and the strollers sub-group at the back.)
Karen has been my “back-marker”, pointing out the missing links, the bits that don’t quite work from the reader’s perspective, and the sections where I’d left behind the scaffolding I’d built to construct the narrative on. Usually because I was in love with the words and phrases I’d used. Sometimes I was able to salvage my favourite phrases and put them in the mouths of my characters. Sometimes, they just had to go.
That’s the point about recognising that my early drafts are always about telling the story to myself. Although they do contain quite a lot of dialogue, as my characters tell me what’s happening to them, they tend to be heavy on exposition. On telling the story, rather than showing it as it unfolds. Telling the story to myself is the bit I find most exciting and rewarding. This is the part of the process that feels as if it’s coming from somewhere beyond myself, as I reach down into all the memories and experience buried in my subconscious, absorb influences from the news and stories surrounding me and process my emotional responses into the thoughts and actions of my characters. But it’s the very opposite of what works best for the reader. For the reader to invest time and emotion in reading the story, they need to be able to engage with the characters and travel through the plot with them. The motivations buried in the back-stories of the character; the history that shapes their present; the root causes of their problems and dilemmas need to become apparent as the story unfolds – they can’t be pointed out in flashing neon letters.
I used to struggle with the idea that when the final work failed to connect with people, failed to make its mark on the world in any meaningful way, that negated it’s significance to me. The conception of the story taught me so much, meant so much to me, it hurt that it meant so little to anyone else. But if it meant as much to others as it meant to me, it would have been a work of genius. And my rational brain knew perfectly well that it wasn’t a work of genius. So I didn’t know how to value it. I vacillated between valuing it at nothing and defensively thinking of it as having the enormous value it had to me. Not the most helpful state of mind to conduct a sales campaign in.
Whenever I finish that early drafting process, I have always needed a friendly reader to validate the story and persuade me that it’s worth polishing for publication. Because all I am aware of is the extraordinary, emotional, exhilarating process of creating it. I have no idea if there is anything in it that makes sense to anyone else. Grant used to be that reader – I always knew if it didn’t make sense to him it wouldn’t make sense to anyone. This time round, my daughter Helen was able to fulfill that role. She was invaluable in helping me understand what I needed to retrieve from the mist and where the scaffolding was getting in the way. And in retrospect, I began to understand, with the help of a little mindfullness coaching, a little more about my writing process.
The first stage is an outpouring of personal creativity that for me is expressed in story-telling, through the written word – others paint, dance, play music, talk, make things in wood, till the soil or nurture plants. Train dogs. Restore steam engines. Whatever. We do it for the pleasure and satisfaction we get from doing it.
The second stage is to tell the story to others. And that requires technical skills and knowledge that needs to be learned. It’s something that can always be done better. So if my stories don’t connect to readers, it’s not because my story is worthless. It’s because I need to improve my skill in communicating the story.
Of course, I also have to recognise that many people – perhaps even most people – will not be interested in my journeys of exploration. They want something that takes them on a more familiar journey – they want a formulaic tale, a re-hash of a story they’ve read a hundred times before. There are times when I want that kind of a read too – that’s when I turn to a Georgette Heyer, or an Inspector Morse tale. I don’t write that kind of story. I don’t want to write that kind of story. So I will never write a best-seller.
I am retired. I write mainly for my own pleasure – in purely monetary terms, my books cost more than they generate, just as my music always has. I’m going to spend my time writing the books I want to write, whether or not they’re the books people want to read. But I do derive a lot of pleasure from sharing my work, so I do want to improve my craftsmanship. I want the modest number of readers I do have to have the best reading experience I can give them. What I’m aiming to do is delight and intrigue the kind of people who want a book that makes them work a bit. Think a bit. Dig a bit deeper.
I want to do it with enough wit and skill to keep my reader turning the pages. I want to create characters who behave like real people, that the reader does not necessarily like, but can relate to. I want you to feel glee when the villain gets his come uppance. I want you to feel frustrated with the obstinance of the anti-hero and the naiveté of the hero. I want their adventures to make you smile and their tragedies to make you sad. My characters teach me a lot about human nature and human folly as I swivel my writer’s lens to look at the action from their point of view. I want to share those insights.
Those of us engaged in the folly of trying to create the Fair Land in the real world have a really important story to tell. It’s about the survival and evolution of human beings on planet Earth. It’s about being part of the complex adaptive system of life on the blue-green world of dreams.
What I see happening right now is that there is a bunch of us who have told the story to ourselves quite lucidly. We are passionate about the outpouring of creative thinking that went into that process, and we have a tendency to yell at people who have just opened the book, because they’re making rookie mistakes based on the most rudimentary grasp of the problem. We’re like Olympic athletes condemning a toddler who has just mastered walking. He comes to us beaming with pride because he can walk upright on his own two legs just like us, and we scowl at him because he can’t get near the world record for the 100 metre sprint. He gets tired walking down the garden path, and we’re trying to coach him to run a marathon. How would you feel if that happened to you? Or worse, it happened to your child?
Those of us who have been active in the environmental movement or campaigning for social justice for decades need to learn how to tell the story to the reader. In a way that people who don’t want to do the deep dive into the fascinating complexity of the chaotic adaptive system of life on planet Earth can relate to. Negating the story of their own experience, telling them what they should and shouldn’t do (or even what they should or shouldn’t think) is as counter-productive as trying to get them to think like people who are fascinated by the complexity of the chaotic adaptive system. It just isn’t going to build the social consensus we need to transition to a sustainable lifestyle.
We need to start condemning less and celebrating more. We need to talk less about the problems and more about the destination, the joyous hope of life abundant, that contrasts so markedly with the dark fatalism of the old economic story. Then, and only then, can we trust each other to find a way of getting through the clouds to reach our destination.
Enjoy the journey.
Oh – and buy the book(s)!