Friday, 25 August 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 8 - Trying to Find the Click

By Sophie Wellstood
Images courtesy of JD Lewis

In Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof there’s a pivotal scene between Brick and Big Daddy, where Brick explains his need to drink.
Something hasn’t happened yet, he says. That click in my head. The click in my head that makes me feel peaceful. It’s like a switch clicking off in my head, turns a hot light off and a cool light on and suddenly there’s peace.
Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to equate Brick’s struggle to find his ‘click’ via pints of Bourbon with a writer trying to find theirs by way of a jumble of sentences - and of course Brick’s search is for oblivion rather than revelation, but never mind. For me the struggle is similar. The click is a rare, contrary creature. It hides. It beckons, then disappears. It sometimes feels like it has never existed. Oh, it visits every other writer, all the time, generously depositing its gifts of character, plot, dialogue and drama and two thousand words a day, but it avoids my front door like I’m the village hag who eats frogs and abducts orphans. It flirts, makes promises, then breaks them.

But we keep trying, don’t we? Because when the click does arrive, it’s why we write. It’s peaceful. It’s a hot light turning off and a cool light turning on. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle, the thrill of a new birth. It’s where we want to be. It’s just right.

But how do we find it, and, equally as importantly, how can we trust it’s the click we want, and not its loud-mouthed perma-tanned sibling, cliché?

There are countless exercises which develop the muscles and discipline of writing, countless lists of good habits, good advice and inspirational soundbites from fantastically successful writers. All have their value. The most true and comforting for me is Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ Accept that, and that’s the first hurdle cleared.

I guess the three or four main strategies for me in terms of searching for the click are these – in no particular order:

Psychic (narrative) distance

John Gardner explores the concept and practice in his book The Art of Fiction, and the authors, editors and tutors Emma Darwin and Debi Alper teach it (brilliantly). Understanding and using psychic distance in any fiction is probably the most effective way of finding a missing click – and essential in terms of changing text from a monotone drone (like my ex history teacher imparting the key dates of the industrial revolution) to an operatic orgy (like my dreams).

Scene structure

Oh it’s such hard, hard work. Why not just have page after page of lovely sunrises and birdsong until BANG, someone’s carked it? The first draft of my novel had over a dozen sunrises. In the current draft (probably around the 25th, I’ve lost count) I’ve managed to reduce the sunrises to about three, plus one very foggy morning. I love writing about weather but sadly readers don’t like reading about weather. Kill the sunrises and make every scene muscular, every page powerful, make the reader compelled to continue reading.

Some of the best advice I’ve found about scene structure comes from Dwight Swain / Randy Ingermanson here:

This should be tattooed on the inside of a writer’s eyelids:

Goal - Conflict – Disaster – Reaction – Dilemma – Decision.

Ingermanson also describes at length the concept of Motivation-Reaction Units. It all sounds very unsexy and un-arty but it works. With practice it should become second nature and provide clicks galore.

Cross dressing

Who is the narrator? Why? Whose story is it, really? Send your narrator away for the week and re-write the crucial scenes and / or the whole idea you have from another character’s point of view. By character, we can choose the dog, the lover, the parent, the china dog on the mantelpiece, or even the flames burning in the fireplace. It’s fiction. Of course we can give fire a voice. And change the other characters. Do they have be the gender you’ve assigned them? Or the age, the sexuality, the race, the height? How would it change your protagonist if they existed outside the stereotypes? Could the male hero be four foot ten? Could the female love interest be hairy?

Gifts (or stolen goods)

All writers should be eavesdropping, all the time. It’s basic, basic stuff. The click for my story ‘The First Hard Rain’ came before I’d even written it, during a car journey with a dear friend who announced, in all seriousness, 'But the M6 - now that’s what I call a motorway'.

I knew then that I had something, and I would use it, at some point. The sense that someone could have feelings towards a motorway… I would never have come up with it, ever, and it rescued my story. I’m eternally grateful to her. Another friend had a very elderly boyfriend who was at the time very ill with pneumonia. ‘Or Old Monia, as I call it!’ she laughed. And I’ll have that, too, thanks very much. So listen, listen, listen to people, take their words, hoard them and when the time’s right, use them.

There are a few writing exercises /games I use too when inspiration is low. They may not all lead to clicks, but they really help to just warm the word muscles up, to become focused.

One syllable stories

Exactly that. Write a story of 500 words using words of only one syllable.

Animal, vegetable or mineral

Some characters seem to arrive fully formed, others are less clear. One of the ways I get to understand my characters is to turn them into an animal. Or in a couple of cases, vegetables. In my second novel, I have a (gay) couple who are a polar bear and a fox. In the current novel, I have a couple who are a carrot and a turnip. It helps me to ‘see’ them and their characteristics very clearly. So give every character their equivalent animal or vegetable. It’s a lot of fun and may provide some lovely insights.

Free writing

From all good creative writing classes. Choose a random object – or get someone to choose something for you. The duller or weirder the better. A cat hair. A breadcrumb. A cork from a wine bottle. An intestine. (Spot the clues about my lifestyle here…). Write for fifteen minutes about that subject without stopping, without lifting the pen from the paper at all. No stopping to re-read, no editing, no judging or worrying about spelling or grammar or whether it’s ‘good’. Just words, words, words, one after another, for fifteen minutes. Something lovely happens with the subconscious, and there’s the huge satisfaction of seeing a page fill up with writing that wasn’t there fifteen minutes ago.

Mixed length sentences

Fix a dreary passage by using sentences of varying lengths (which should be standard practice anyway) e.g the first sentence must be exactly six words, the second exactly fourteen words, the third exactly four words and so on. Or write your Booker Prize acceptance speech using sentences which increase by one word until you get to twenty.

Hi. I write. I write books. I write good books. The book won a prize. This is a wonderful achievement…and so on. (This is a very bad example and you will do much better).

And finally … stop writing

More often than not, my best clicks have come from stepping away from the computer and going for a long walk or a long swim, preferably in the cold north sea. The rhythms of walking and swimming just loosen up my creative knots. I can visualise settings and people, and ‘watch’ them as they move around. I can see how they stand, how they interact with each other, how they laugh or cry. I talk to my characters too, out loud, and they talk back. I don’t care if it’s mad.

We all write because we feel compelled to create authentic imaginary worlds, to inhabit a new universe where we are the God of absolutely everything. It’s the most wonderful activity, and extremely difficult to do it well. There’s no quick fix for bad writing, and often no reward or recognition for good writing. But I hope some of these suggestions help you with finding your own clicks, and help you to take your writing closer to being the best it can possibly be.

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