Thursday, September 16, 2010

Forecast: grey with occasional cloud-bursts

Back in February I wrote about those cloud-bursting moments writers have every so often that show you the way forward and give you an energy boost to push on with a story or novel. At the time I’d had a small revelation in relation to the novel I'm working on (a.k.a. Novel B).

Well, it was a long time between drinks, but I had my next cloud-burst today. That's seven months between revelations for those of you playing along at home, which partially explains my snail's progress on Novel B.

Status report, Dr Spock

I'm still mired in Chapter Three. I've had problems with how to make the transition from the first two chapters which take the narrator down to the bottom of the well (so to speak; this isn't another Wind-up Bird), to the more positive, more active section that follows. I did my best Sisyphus impression, pushing and pushing the narrative up hill each evening, only for it to roll back down overnight so that I felt as if I was always sitting down to write with my toes crushed.

But like I said, the clouds cleared momentarily today and I will take this chance to examine once more this cerebro-meteorological phenomenon.

Conditions for a Cloud-burst

You need three things for a cloud-bursting moment.

One: A problem.

Two: A build up.

Three: An idea.

In practice, you identify the build up first. You have to be writing (or at least sitting down with the intention to write but giving up soon after because it's all too hard) for the build up to occur. You then have to spend several days mooching around feeling lost and frustrated and blaming things like your day job and your new keyboard for your inability to finish the chapter. (If I could figure out how to skip this mooching period it would make several people's lives easier, but alas.)

You can then either:

A) identify the problem and the idea follows instantaneously and voila, the clouds have split.


B) on occasion, you'll have an idea and then find out that in order for it to work, you'll have to change something, and in figuring out the changes you realise what the problem was that was causing the build up in the first place.

A Worked Example

You're writing a story about a boy who wants to go sky diving. In your current draft he dreams and dreams of sky diving, then one day wins a free sky dive. Ugh. You know there's something wrong. Think. Think.

Aha! You realise the problem is that the boy gets what he wants with too little effort. People don't believe life works this way. This means readers may view your story as unrealistic, which is another way of saying they see can see the writer at work in the story. So you have the idea that the boy pesters people who can help him achieve his aim of sky diving. His parents, his grandparents, a family friend who works at the airport… Not only does this make the boy getting to sky dive more realist (he's earnt it, at least in story-logic terms), but it makes him an active participant in the narrative rather than a passive one.
This is scenario A above.

Under scenario B it would be more like this: You think, 'What if the person who offers the boy the chance to sky dive knew the boy somehow?' Then, 'What if, the father past away or was in a wheelchair or something, so the man felt sorry for the boy.' So you begin to formulate a reason, or a set of reasons, why the boy gets his wish, based on this first idea. In playing around with things in your head, you can tell straight away this makes the story more compelling, and realise that the problem that had plagued your story was that the boy got what he wanted too easily.

You'll notice that both solutions started with the same problem, but in option A, the boy earns his reward through action, and in option B he earns his reward through suffering.

More action. More suffering. These are two pretty standard ways of fixing stories.

You'll also notice that neither of these solutions sew up the end of the story. In fact, for me, the heart of this story (which I just made up on the fly here) is the experience the boy has when he actually goes sky diving. That would be the idea that makes you think: I want to write this story. The image of the boy falling through the sky (either loving it or hating it, you decide) would always be in your mind as you sat down to work on the story. But you hit the road block while trying to write yourself to this point. Cue mooching. Cue cloud burst. Cue finish the story, submit it to a literary magazine your read, respect and subscribe to. Cue literary success.

One final point for those of you wondering how you could get stuck with such a silly conceit as the boy winning a sky dive in some competition in the first place. It is often the case that you’re in such a hurry to get to the heart of the story – the boy falling through the air – that you take an expedient route to get there. Prizes are won. Offers are made out of the blue. Dei ex machina swoop in from the wings.

The more I write, the more I find the expedient route is the surest path to a rooted story.


Bonus FAQ

Why do you call it a cloud-burst? It sounds like a rain event. Surely you see blue skies and sunshine when you have your revelation?

Sometimes. Other times it feels like a bucket of ice cold water has been tipped over you. Other times you feel as if you’ve been caught in a sudden, unpredicted storm – that moment just after the two minute downpour stops is as magical as any sudden burst of sun. And you can’t forget the feeling that comes right after the eureka moment when you realise the foolish assumptions you’ve been labouring under. It feels very much like being caught in a downpour without a coat.

When is your ‘sky diving boy’ story coming out?

I told you, I just came up with the idea on the spot to help illustrate my point. I wouldn’t be surprised it someone has already written it. It seems like a good idea. Very traditional structure. If I were to write it (I’ve said these words before) I’d be mindful of making it too perfect.

This was all very interesting, but shouldn’t you be capitalising on the boost of energy that came with your latest cloud-burst and actually work on your novel?

Uh, true. Excuse me for a moment...

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