It’s been an odd year so far on the creative front. After setting some grandiose fantasy goals about raising my profile, I succumbed to a virus which meant I could barely manage the weekly 99-word stories. But, once the acute phase was over, while still lacking the energy to leave the house, I found I could edit. Big time! So that what began as a gentle tidy-up of the (already much-edited) manuscript of my possibly third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, cutting out modifiers like just and only (of which there were actually surprisingly few), morphed into a mammoth spring clean, where almost every word was subjected to the third degree.
I can’t decide whether it’s good news or bad news that the sap is finally rising in Anne Goodwin’s head. I’ve had one of those weeks where something that looked like nothing has mushroomed, within a couple of days, into a story I’m bursting to write. There ought to be a mathematical formula to describe that exponential growth: a function of a chance (and not particularly interesting) news item; my unpublishable reflections on something I’m reading; and my core preoccupations (oh look, it’s about attachment again).
As fascinating as I find that process, I need another formula to represent the way it takes me over. For me, that’s the downside of a new idea. It’s not a matter of Mm, that might be interesting to explore at some point, at your convenience, but Write me, write me, now!
Now, I experience this in some form with any internally-motivated writing project. Even a blog post like this. But if it’s small, it can be managed, either by putting other commitments aside and writing it out or insisting it shut its mouth until a more convenient moment. And if that means it withers and dies, so be it. Another idea will arrive eventually to take its place.
But this is a novel. And Begin new novel was not one of this year’s real or fantasy writing goals. Of course, a few days old and still vulnerable, it might, conveniently, die on me. Except that I’ve already written 3500 words (a lot for me in a couple of days).
Those words aren’t wasted if I bin them. That’s not the point I’m trying to make. It’s that I’d have liked to have been more disciplined, to let the ideas breathe on their own before translating them into words. It’s like I’ve breakfasted on the cake that I was saving for tea. Worse, I’ve eaten the batter straight from the bowl, before I’ve switched on the oven.
While I’m becoming accustomed to this process, I fear I’m getting worse at holding back. That bothers me because, while I doubt I’ll ever be a novelist who outlines chapter by chapter, except retrospectively, I believe a plan, even a loose one, helps. The oft-heard advice to just write, you can always edit, is all very well, but sometimes the best writing is not writing. It’s easier to edit good prose that knows where it’s going than flat writing that stumbles along.
Another reason I don’t find this a cause for celebration is that I’d like my fiction to become more commercial. While no-one – including editors and agents – knows for sure what makes for literary success, my reading and reviewing has given me some pointers to assess my new ideas against. It’s not quite a recipe, and nor would I necessarily follow it if it were, but it’s something to measure (weigh) my ingredients against before I start to write. In my defence, I do have some boxes ticked (in line with – are you listening, Charli – the hero’s journey) but not all.
So why couldn’t I resist the urge to splurge? As an introvert who doesn’t get out much, I often refer to myself as manic when I’m overexcited at social events. But maybe I’m just excited. Being driven to pursue a novel idea has some elements of this excitement but, as I intimated earlier in this post, it has a less positive side resonant of mania as a mental illness (and I don’t often use the term illness to refer to mental distress).
I don’t mean to exaggerate the mental disturbance in the creative process, nor to minimise the disorder of psychosis, but there are some similarities. The mix of excitement and anxiety. The compulsion: a sense of being taken over by something bigger than the self. The grandiosity: of course, the idea is brilliant until it’s put to the test. Fortunately, mine doesn’t stop me sleeping, or make me forget to eat.
Or is it like being drunk? Having never set much store by Hemingway’s advice to Write drunk, edit sober, perhaps I’m coming round to a sense of the need for different states of mind. Based on recent experience I might say Plan manic, write sober, edit sluggish. How would you put it?
Or is it like having fire in your belly? Or in your head? Which fits neatly with this week’s flash fiction challenge to write a 99-word story featuring fire. Having noticed on yesterday’s walk how dry it is for this time of year, I’m also thinking of moorland fire.
Beneath the surface calm, she smoulders. Quiet now, change is on its way. The fuel’s deep, it only takes a spark to ignite it and, when it does, it sets her whole world alight.
There, a glowing flicker! There, another, crackling the bracken. The fire jumps from one hummock to the next. Connect, connect to horseshoe around her. Should she stay inside the circle or race to safety through the gap?
Peat burns and engulfs the moor, like ideas in a writer’s head. Should we douse the flames to save the landscape, or fan them into a new story?