Fragments:Lives is my sixth novel. It has just been published, both as a paperback and as an ebook. The tale has had a life of its own: Taking its time on a journey, with just a few ups and downs but mostly with sufficient momentum to always maintain my hope that it might come to some satisfactory outcome.
I enjoyed writing this one (I always enjoy writing my books) and have set out some of the thinking steps on that journey.
The stimulus; the origins
Vancouver is a city that I have visited several times. My next visit (in April-May 2018) will give me a total of around 100 days spent there since 2001.
The city, its people and its happenings got into my brain. When I was thinking about my next book, Vancouver kept persuading me to use what I knew and felt by being there.
Walking around the city’s West End gave me elements of the setting: low apartment blocks; distant glimpses of the water and the mountains; older traditional heritage houses carefully constructed from wood; bits of history leaking through here and there; easy transit routes …
The people in the book are nowhere near being based on actual people I met there. I already had a cast – in rough outlines: A small group of four or five people; an older man and an unrelated older woman; a younger man and an unrelated younger woman – with the two women being connected/related; plus a very small number of background characters to be sketched in very briefly where that helps carry the main story forward. This would give some interactions across age; across gender; across generations.
It occurred to me, early on in the writing, that I tend to locate my novels within very small worlds. No extensive list of characters; no armies of supporting actors. Usually no more than 6-12 people in total throughout the whole of any one book.
One book is based on a woman on a bus calling on assistance from a handful of her regular contacts. Another is structured around five men and their wives plus a couple of hospital staff. Yet another has a girl, her immediate family, and a handful of friends. At the extreme is the story of one man alone in a container, with just his thoughts and imaginings.
Plot? No idea of this at the outset
I picked up on issues in Vancouver. These were reflections of contemporary issues in modern, Western cities – one of my overarching interests. This included housing and homelessness; loneliness and contact; histories, legacies and city planning; decision-making, at the city and personal level; public art and art in general; change and redevelopment; a sense of loss and a sense of anticipation for the future. These were not to be stuck in the book as chunks of exposition, lecturing the reader, or to show how much research had been done – they were somehow to be contexts for the main story, or levers that helped moved that story along. The thing had to be, first and foremost, readable and interesting.
A balance had to be found between rehearsing the issues in all their interesting detail and letting the four characters get on with things. The majority of what was originally sketched in from the background research had been deleted or amended by the end of the journey.
My books tend to take a couple of years to go from idea to published product. This was true in this case. The first year was a matter of getting ideas together, then letting them stew for a while; trying out various possible structures; deciding on whose story it was going to be, and who would be telling it. Then a serious attempt at getting the words down, editing generally as I went along; collecting new ideas and seeing where they might fit (or discounting them) – taking me into the second year. This was rounded off with several months of rearranging, editing, checking, deleting and infilling. Then a month of final polishing and sorting out a piece of my artwork that matched the themes of the book, and which might thus make a good cover picture.
Of the four main characters this was, initially, going to be the old woman’s story – her take on things as reflected through her everyday experiencing of life in Vancouver: her comings and goings; her interactions with the others.
It was going to be told in the First Person to give a sense of action rather than passivity (I had already decided that she was far from being a passive old woman). The danger was that it this might then be a rather endless autobiography – this happened, then this, then this, … It also prevented me from getting directly inside the heads of the other characters. I would only see them as she saw them.
I needed an external observer, watching these four characters interacting. It would still be the old woman’s story (ie a story focused on her character, her thoughts, her experiences) but somehow told through the eyes of a newcomer to Vancouver. This would give me a number of threads:
Who was the old woman, really? What was she like and how could we know that?
What might be deduced about a person from their belongings, their tone of voice, their mannerisms?
How do people relate to each other? Mother-daughter; two older friends; young incomer settling into an existing network of relationships?
The marvelling of a newcomer to the ways of any city.
These were initial threads – but still far from being enough to hang a developing story on. It was, at that stage, a non-story; writing in which nothing happened.
I needed a way in to some potential for change, some unfolding of events.
After a while I came to the conclusion that I needed to kill off the old woman. So, overnight, she went from being centre-stage narrator to a person no longer there, but somehow still having an effect.
It did, immediately, give me a more active start to the story: ‘Elizabeth died yesterday’. (A start that I didn’t end up using in the final version).
There was then a bit of mentally jiggling things around:
• An early introduction of the narrator (who, where, why….) through his actions and thoughts, not through any straight description of him.
• A way of giving the reader a feeling for the location (again without straight description).
• With three other people brought into the first several paragraphs (who they were; how related/connected; hints of their personalities…) – all via actions around the old woman’s funeral.
• Old woman’s life being revealed, uncovered, prised apart in retrospect – becomes an intrigue: ‘Who were you Elizabeth? Who were you, really?’
• Unfolds via going through her belongings, disposing of her assets and ‘little treasures’ – What a life’s-worth of accumulated stuff can tell us.
• What happens to her memory, her belongings, her home – and who decides?
There still wasn’t much there, but enough to give things a kick-start.
One year on, with a credible number of thousands of words in place, there were still reshapings. The young incomer was now a potential writer… so collecting fragments, images, snippets…
The final version of my tale could be the one he wrote whilst in Vancouver, based on his observations there; or at least contain large sections of his practice writings.
This still didn’t have the right alignment between the story he was writing and the observations that may be the basis of some writing. It all felt too jumpy, too disconnected, too fragmented.
I settled, finally, on a format that was the observer’s notebook that he kept for:
o jottings, observations, thoughts
o his explorations into the life of Elizabeth, the old woman
o daily events involving the other people around him
o small snippets of trial writings
leading up to the possibility of starting to produce some ‘proper’ writing.
That seemed to work.
I tried it out on a couple of trusted readers. They liked it.
Then it was a final polish, sort out a cover, and get it published.
The final product is selling – not like hot cakes, more at a level of warm biscuits, but it has only just gone on sale.
Category Archives: My approach to writing
Fragments:Lives is my sixth novel. It has just been published, both as a paperback and as an ebook. The tale has had a life of its own: Taking its time on a journey, with just a few ups and downs but mostly with sufficient momentum to always maintain my hope that it might come to some satisfactory outcome.
Not because I don’t read series-books. Not because I don’t admire the writers of series: I do (mostly).
It’s because I like the variety of writing in a range of styles, for a range of purposes, making the writing available in a range of ways.
What do I mean by a series?
I suppose I mean a set of books in which the same characters develop across several books, rather than within one book.
I have in mind the last series I have just finished reading. I was looking round in an airport for an interesting paperback to fill the time over the next few days of travelling. I came across one by a writer I was not familiar with. It was her latest book and was excellent. On the way home, I came across another of hers featuring the same, very likeable, detective. I started reading that one: same characters, same setting, but a few books earlier in the series.
This raises the first issue with series books. The author produces them in order but a reader may pick up any one book, almost at random, then another – not necessarily reading the books in sequence.
So, whichever book I pick up – with an established set of characters, each with their own set of happenings and attitudes (developed in earlier books in the series) – has to do two things:
• Help a newcomer like me (dropping in maybe in the middle of the sequence of books) to immediately get into the characters and their background, giving me all the details necessary to let me do that.
• Put an old-hand reader, already familiar with all that has gone before, straight in the middle of the new action – rather than repeat the details of the characters in such a way that established readers get tired of being told the same stuff over and over in each book they read in sequence
The second issue, as I see it, is that of the stories developing within a closed world.
Once having the detective based in Oxford, or in a rural area that encompasses a set of Middle England villages, or in an out-of-the-way village near to Montreal – it becomes hard to transfer his /her duties to other police departments, in other locations.
Each book brings out the shape of the person’s individuality – their gender, marital status and sexuality; their cases and career to date; their scars, phobias and quirks of character.
The detective accumulates a set of sidekicks, forensic supports, management officers, relatives, friends and enemies. Promotion (or death) comes infrequently, so they stay in that milieu. This brings familiarity and reassurance, but also tends to fix things: That track will always lead to the forest; the old forge is always next to the village inn; that old burnt tree will always have its unique history; that factory is where colleagues got killed.
Each new book has to stay largely true to these scaffolds.
With each book, the setting and the main people gets described in finer and finer detail. As the series evolves it becomes harder and harder to change things.
There are devices. The detective may take a trip on the Orient Express or on a cruise liner. Even detectives go on holiday or decide to visit distant relatives. After a long run of stories based in their English setting, the detective may suddenly find the need to be in some foreign place for a brief spell – and gets drawn into some crime-solving whilst there.
Mostly, though, the crime takes place in the location where the detective’s job is located. If this is a large city, then crimes may be understandable – but when the writer’s selected closed world is an out-of-the-way set of villages then the reader has to suspend belief on starting each new book; has to unbelieve that this tiny place (with sometimes several murders to each story) has had more murders there than inner-city New York at its worst.
Book series for quite young children are sometimes simpler. No-one dies; no-one is born; no-one has affairs or mental breakdowns; people are rarely changing relationships with each other; world events rarely intrude to upset things. The setting can feel a bit like a set of cardboard cut-out buildings with characters placed there for a one-off set of events. Things are always reassuringly the same.
PC Plodalong, Mrs Bun in the bakery, Captain Sparks in the fire-station: all exactly as they were last time we met them. The scene remains as familiar as it always has for the next detached set of happenings: Sammy Has A Surprise; Sammy Makes a Friend; Sammy to the Rescue; Sammy Gets Wet …. and so on.
In the kind of series I am talking about, though, there is change and development and histories and complexities.
How does a writer keep track of it all? Over three or four books it may be possible to rely on the sense of the character and a good memory for facts, but once we get into a long series (Think of the Discworld stories of Terry Pratchett) then there may be all sorts of histories and subtleties to remember, probably requiring some detailed, colour-coded archive system.
So, I think I’ll stick to each book standing on its own.
There has been the story of a bus passenger in Birmingham; the story of a special forces soldier in Afghanistan; the story of four men in hospital in Manchester in 1956; the story of the thoughts and feelings of a teenage girl in 2097; the story of a young writer on an extended stay in Vancouver in 2017, the book based on a collection of impressions of more than sixty people with quirky characteristics. In only one case was reference made in one book to a character from another book – and that was purely for fun on my part, and probably went unnoticed by readers.
I have no idea what my next book will be, but it is unlikely to be an extension of any of the above existing ones.
Although, you never know.
After some persistence, I am now able to think of myself as ‘an independent writer and researcher’ or as an ‘independent thinker-writer’.
By this I mean that I work for myself – not in the simple sense of being self-employed, but of being self-occupied and self-directed ie the things that I write are things that I have chosen to write rather than being commissioned or contracted, or determined by any influencing organisation. I also mean that more than 50% of my self-occupying development activity is connected with writing, researching, thinking and publishing.
This is structured around four main pillars of activity:
- Ebooks in a variety of genres and styles. These are published via the Amazon Kindle site and are accessible via kindle readers, ipads, mobile phones, personal computers, laptops etc.
- Poems of varying quality, written for a variety of purposes. These have been much improved by participation in poetry events and courses.
- Blogs via WordPress. Two are relatively active and one is waiting to be kickstarted back into use. Of the two active ones, there is this one setting out my approaches to writing, and another which sets out the background thinking to my overall development activity R:2025.
- Website Articles on the www.thewordsthething.org.uk site. It is this fourth pillar of my writing activity that I want to explore further, below.
Writers are encouraged to have a website but usually this is for publicity and promotion of their ‘main’ writing output. In my case the website is seen as a main form of writing in its own right.
The site has been deliberately constructed in a way that:
- Sets a tone of being ‘exploratory’, ‘thinking tentatively about’, ‘as an informed amateur’. It does not set itself out as being expert or definitive.
- Has the feel of being something of a compendium or bazaar ie encourages people to wander, to ramble around a bit, to stumble upon things rather than there being a clearly-directed layout to take the reader to a product by the most direct route. It is intended to be broad-based rather than narrowly-targeted.
- Has a gallery of photographs, selected for passing interest, but mostly is unashamedly somewhat ‘wordy’ as opposed to the current trend for things to be snappy, bite-sized or highly-visual. The aim is for longhand rather than soundbite.
- Is structured around overarching themes that reflect my framework of interests: Language and Writing; Art and Creativity; Place and Locality; People and Society; Policy and Research; Learning and Work; with a catch-all Odds and Ends section.
To date, the site has more than thirty substantial articles on topics as diverse as:
trends in politics; puzzles re autism; identity; planning; bureaucracy; poverty and inequality; forms of writing; employability, work and core skills; researcher roles; ideas of contemporary, progress, flourishing and change; learning in a non-traditional way; issues in cities today; and local history.
There is still more to be done on other lines of interest, including:
- Local jobs, living wages, reasonable expenditures that work for society in general
- Learning and development that will enable more people to move on
- Concerns re wellbeings and sustainabilities (personal and public)
- Approaches to notions of social value and social impact
- Nature of evidence, research, explorations and understandings
- Support for, and usefulness of, art and creativity
- Aspects of how people operate in contexts of uncertainty and contingency
- Policies and their implementations (or failure to implement)
- Considerations of public/private
- Incompatibilities of various ideas and beliefs
…. all of which will keep me occupied thinking, researching and writing for some time yet…..
The Poetry School, based in London UK, runs a range of courses. I signed up to one of these: an online course spread over ten weeks. There were five packages of tutor input and five related assignments.
What made this course so enjoyable and useful?
It was something to do with the level of challenge.
There is a development theory around proximal zone of development (Vygotsky) – identifying the next steps and setting opportunities in place to allow person to ‘spread forward’ into that next zone of skills and understanding. This course moved me across a boundary into a new area that I was just ready to move into and explore/hopefully grow within.
It was also to do with having the right balance of input and production, at the right pitch. The tutor was key to that: knowledgeable, willing to share insights, excellent at constructive support – with links that could be followed or not. The amount of background material gave me a real sense of having gained theoretically and practically – and, on my terms, that gave the course high value.
The fortnightly timespan was manageable in terms of reading and absorbing the background material, getting assignment poems put online within a week, then having another week to mull things over or try out other poems etc.
It was about new forms and new ideas – the changing nature of poetry – but was still about poetry
The course focused on contemporary poetry and some of its recent roots. A key idea was the changing nature of poetry – responding to (and contributing to?) wider changes in society. From a challenge to the calming, soul-saving view of poetry, it went back into some of the strands from the past 40-50 years (specifically the work of the New York poets, the work of poets influenced by postmodernism, and some very recent poetry influenced eg by the internet).
The implication, for me, was that we can expect poetry to continue to develop: to change shape, find new forms, explore new topics, draw on new sources, and be put to new purposes.
Although we were urged to leave behind any over-focusing on older ideas, one of the key things I had to keep reminding myself was that, even though we were challenging the form of poems, each bit of what we produced still had to work as poetry. Every word, every line had to hold its own – to justify its inclusion in that way, at that point of the text, in that particular wording/lineage. This pushed me, over and over, to think ‘What is a poem? How is this thing I am writing attempting to be a poem? How would I know if it is being successful in that?’
In a couple of the assignment poems I wrote there were phrases that I couldn’t let go of quickly enough. They insinuated themselves into the poem then kept quiet so that they would be more easily overlooked – but were clearly (going back after a week or so) misplaced additions that jarred. Similarly with the odd bits of overblown imagery; the clinging clichés etc.
How many edits does it take to change a poem?
In my case, very many. It had been relatively straightforward to get to a poem that I thought might be 80% ‘there’. Moving that poem on the last 20% was much more protracted and fiddly – I fact I don’t think I ever got much further than the 80-85% mark and could have continued fiddling and faffing for much longer on a number of the assignments. One assignment poem went through about 7-8 iterations before ending up in its submitted form – even so, immediately it had been put online, a re-reading threw up a few words that I should still have changed. I sensed that I could tinker and tinker forever but there had to be a point at which there was a feeling that the poem worked as well as possible without further change. Having the deadline certainly helped to say ‘that’s it: like it or not’.
Did I come to any conclusions about Bad Poetry?
Yes, but not in any moral sense or because I found some poems hard to relate to– just in the sense that some poems seemed not to work. If I were to write out a checklist of Things To Guard Against it might be something like:
- Sloppily written; not tight enough
- Extraneous words, lines, sections
- Sounds scrappy and disjointed for no real purpose
- Unclear, imprecise (ideas and language) whilst pretending to have clarity
- Lacks any structure in terms of words/sounds
- Rehashes old, tired, overused ideas
- Too ephemeral – no sense of Presence. There being no motivation to reread it
- Dull, no movement in it (compared to being intentionally ‘flat’ for effect)
- Not been worked on sufficiently, not even at the 80% mark
- Hammers points home; overly didactic
- Shifting/uncertain narrator, to no effect
- Feels more of a chore than a puzzle
- Too closed-down: no space for the reader to think for themselves around what has been written
- Overloaded with cliché, adjectives etc
- High on the abstract, no detail at all
Poetry styles that appealed to me
I loved the input on the ideas around the New York Poets for a number of reasons. Partly because I do Urban not Rural; I go for the fragmentary, tentative, conditional nature of things. I go for snapshots not extended scenes; things glimpsed through bus windows on the way into the city centre etc. Partly because my own writing style has always drifted to cut-off sentences; ideas bumped up against each other; notes as much as essays etc. Partly because I enjoyed the juxtaposing of poem formation with ideas from Abstract Expressionist painting – with words being splashed/thrown/dribbled onto the page – and the effect coming from textures/patterns/disorder.
A newspaper article that I read at the same time, was about Frederick Seidel – a poet writing about inequalities and politics of race – but who, in the interview, was strong on his poems being poems: They come to him as poems and are still poems as he lets them go – rather than being statements of belief. The poems are works – things being worked on – and that work is concerned with language, sound, look (line breaks etc). There is belief and political/social feeling inside the working but that isn’t what he sees as happening within the finished work. For him it is poetry that has to work as poetry.
I also loved the input on postmodernism and poetry. I had come across postmodernism from other angles but never had to apply that thinking to poetry. I found it fascinating: Found poems, incorporating other styles of texts, being playfully serious/seriously playful; caring without showing it too much. My submitted poem for this section was a found poem based on the texts associated with a photographic exhibition I visited; footnotes; ambiguities; disturbing the readers sensibilities re nostalgia, etc.
What did I think of my own poems?
There were poems that I enjoyed writing (whatever the quality of the outcome) and ones that I thought were OK as poems. The assignment on postmodern poetry and the final assignment were the ones I enjoyed most and which (in my opinion) produced my most interesting poems. The one I struggled to find much enjoyment in writing (ie was a task to be got through by the deadline) was also the one that worked least well.
The final assignment – about a man with a boat who used to fish but now gets a living transporting people across from Iraq to Europe gave me a lot of intellectual pleasure. Thinking about this poem put all sorts of ideas in my head around whether people smugglers are evil traders or simple boat-owners put out of the fishing business by war and global forces; there being varieties of people in the smuggling trade (as in any business) including young entrepreneurs with MBA business models willing to see people as units of trade; possible links back to the slave traders and so on. The poem didn’t flow out of me but came in chunks. Arranging such fragments on the page was part of the challenge. In the end the whole thing, set out on the page, unintentionally had something of the outline shape of a boat about it (or my imagination was straining itself by that stage). By the time for submission I couldn’t really judge its quality. It may or may not have worked – I had got too close to it to be able to tell. My feeling that it was interested and good was justified by the tutor’s comments that he was blown away by it, and that I had invented a new poetry form ….
What have I learnt about my own writing?
Certainly that my prose style (to the extent I have one) gets too easily carried over into poems – a cavalier use of colons, dashes, ellipses, lists, lack of any punctuation, etc etc. There is a syntactic laziness there that I need to think more closely about. Certainly there can be a sparseness about the language I use. My background lies in a science training not in any literary training, and in forty years of writing reports that some would consider bureaucratic (in a nice way). Both of these have given me a tendency to be crisp, terse etc. (hence the desire to do more on any poetic instincts lurking inside me).
Does edgy poetry have to be downbeat?
In one poem I tried for humour but it still had an underlying sadness. The street-scene poem captured the buzz of contemporary life but in ways that intentionally hinted at the anxieties and confusions of existence in urban busy contexts. Another poem started off with admiration but ended up saying ‘I might have hated you except you even died before I could get that far’. The nostalgia-undone found poem was sad throughout on a number of levels as was the Boat poem. Either there is an inbuilt tendency for me to generate sad-sounding work or the topics of interest deal with the downsides of modern life or I just haven’t tried hard enough to get into the edginess of humour (or the humour of edginess).
Some thinking points emerged that will buzz around in my mind for some time yet:
- Does it matter if the narrative is clear: if it can be read differently by different people? If the intention of the author no longer determines things? The street scene poem was going to be titled “High Street 3.27pm” and the date – pinning it down as a one-minute observation/snapshot at a unique time (implying that the next minute might well produce a quite different set of impressions, a quite different poem). This afternoon timing would have pinned down the ‘They’ as schoolkids (entangled in their huge schoolbags; entangled in their feelings for each other; entangled in jostlings, appearing to be more legs than arms). Without so specific a title, a different reading might have them as late evening, citycentre youths. Does it matter? Does it change anything? If the poem still has to ‘work’ then does it have to work for all the possibilities that different readers build into their separate readings of it? (And can a poem bear that responsibility??).
- To what extent can a poem do work in the wider world (rather than in the heads of individuals)? Can a poem do anything eg countering fundamentalist thinking because poetry can be subtle, contesting, opening of possible imaginings; or putting some processes in place that work against politically-motivated austerity etc?
I am pleased that I signed up for this course. It did all I hoped in bringing together my interest in ‘contemporary’ with my desire to remotivate some poetry writing. I gained so much from it that I have already signed up for an equivalent course in the autumn (bringing together poetry with another of my key areas of interest ie cities and contemporary urban life).
A current, almost-completed, piece of writing (due for publication as an ebook in April 2016) is set in the year 2097.
This was a deliberate dual challenge to myself. Previous ebooks have been set in the present and have adult narrators. This next one was to be from the perspective of a teenage girl and set in the future.
There are several common devices for writing about the future;
- Set it in another, totally separate world – so the future there has no connection with the present of this world
- Set it so far in the future that there are no realistic links back
- Set it in the future but near enough for extrapolations to be made from life today – often for one aspect, eg genetic engineering, whilst many other things remain relatively unchanged from today
- Build it on some basic worldview eg dystopia or utopia, as an extension of current social trends (eg. an elite in their fortified/gated community surrounded by inner-city collapse)
‘The future’ may itself be a device, using the future to comment on the present; stretching things of today to make a point. Did 1984 seem that far in the future when it was written in1949? When that date was reached, and surpassed, there were a number of articles comparing the ‘future’ of the fictional world with ‘now’ of the real one. Was it about the issues emerging in the post-war society: was it read as a novel of the future or a novel of the day?
The ebook I am writing has had to meet a number of self-imposed criteria:
- Everything had to be grounded in some actual development or piece of research that is available now as an innovation that can realistically be put into practice on a large scale.
- Whilst there would be uncertainty about the direction this future society might take, there was to be nothing that would strike today’s reader as fantastic and implausible.
- It would be based on predictions about the infrastructures within the society of 2097 but, just as importantly, it would also be about the inner world of people: their thoughts, hopes, ambitions and ideals.
- The characters in the book would need to act out their lives within the constraints of the imagined future, but that imagining should not clutter things with so many predicted things that the characters have no room to breathe.
- It would need a style of writing that let the predictions about the future play out within a strong storyline. It was not to read like a storified textbook guide to the future.
- It would need to be a story that worked (at least to a fair degree) for different readers across genders, across cultures, and (to some extent) across ages.
The writing and editing decisions
- Point of View:
Who was telling the story and from what perspective? Having got a basic idea of the main character – a teenage girl – there were finer details to be decided. Was the girl a 12 year old or an 18 year old? Which age would give the better characteristics to get a good fit with the story?
Was it imagined that 12-15 year old girls were all pretty much the same; or having a wide range of potentials as a character? Were 12-15 year olds going to be pretty much the same in 2097 as now; or was the future teenager going to be very different in outlook and interests?
I settled on a first-person approach, telling things directly as seen and imagined by the young woman. This would give a sense of immediacy, allowing the possibility for a sense of a special relationship built up between the character and the reader. It would limit me to only writing what that one character knew but this could be an advantage if I was wanting to create partial understandings or outright misunderstandings. It would suit a work that might have some puzzles, mysteries, things to be delved into in the ways that a bright 12-15 year old might do.
When deciding where to set the plot there are some set-piece options: eg the open-ness of a story ranging across several cities; or the closed world of an isolated country house or small cut-off village. I decided on a small-area setting – a newly-developed neighbourhood or small town – but one that was connected outwards rather than being inward-looking. I wanted to get the sense of close-knit contacts in a small community that also had a strong sense of there being an Outside, an Elsewhere, an Other.
I would attempt to avoid lengthy descriptions of Place. The storylines would keep revisiting some salient points – hooks to help the reader to keep re-orientated around a few fixed beacons: a line of houses, a pattern of connecting streets, a corner café, a barrier, and so on.
Any place has its own histories. So do the characters, within that shifting location. There would need to be a credible logic for any changes that had taken place. How did society get from its form today to its form in 2097? What had happened to people and places across those years?
At the same time as writing this ebook I was writing a couple of connected articles to go on my www.thewordsthething.org.uk website. One was about the identity of individuals and the other was about the identity of places. The thinking from my last-published ebook (about five different men) and the thinking as I wrote the current book (about several characters in their 2097 setting) fed into these articles.
- Plotting and planning:
This piece of writing was not over-planned. I had the criteria above. I had my main character, which suggested 5-8 supporting characters being her family and friends. I had a list of research themes that I wanted to weave seamlessly into the narratives. The main events and the ending emerged as the writing took shape. Certainly, the storylines and the ending were unknown at the beginning – and even at the halfway mark things were still a bit hazy. The narrative arc shaped itself as it built up a certain momentum. Things were open-textured and it took a bit of revisiting sections and filling-in gaps – all the time trying to avoid the patchiness and the clunkiness that might emerge from that.
- How far in the future could I realistically go: Why 2097??
I didn’t want to write a future-fantasy. I didn’t want things to be so far in the future that it anything could happen. Nor did I want it to be so near-future that it became a simple extension of now. I settled on 2097 through a bit of mentally going backwards and forwards across time until I had something that seemed to work for what I wanted to write. 2097 is almost eighty years in the future. Going back eighty years takes us to the mid-1930s. Anyone from then time-travelling to 2016 would recognise the town, the style of housing, the road layout, the local beat policeman, the food, the markets and shops etc. At the same time the familiar would be unfamiliar: Chugging steam trains becoming high-speed electric ones; the few squarish cars on the road having been replaced by traffic jams of sleeker models; rare sightings of rickety aeroplanes, for the use of a few, replaced by jet-engined huge planes for use by many; occasional valve radios with a few programmes replaced by ubiquitous radios sets with an endless supply of 24-hour broadcasting; coin-operated phones in boxes at the end of the street replaced by several handsets in the house that can be simply picked up and used. Some things would be absolutely novel: computers, internet, mobile phones, helicopters, medical services, and so on.
That world, of the 1930s, did not seem sufficiently different for my purposes. The time gap was maybe too short for my leap into the future. The world, however, is not developing at a linear speed. It is accelerating. The rate of development of the next eighty years will have been equivalent to the development over the past 150 years or so. So we need to go back not to the 1930s for a comparator but to somewhere around 1860-1870: the time of the industrial revolution when many industrial towns were being built. A visitor from them, popping up in 2016, would be in a society in many different ways but with lines of sight back to the past of the mid C19th. That is the sort of known/unknown distance I wanted to work with. Eighty years in the future (at a faster and faster rate of change) might just do it. 2097 it was.
- What might change, and how?
A strong aspect to the writing was my own background first as a scientist and then as a sociologist. Early on in the writing I had my list of aspects that I wanted to project forward in order to create a believable setting for the future, with each one having a credible thread back to real trends and discoveries of today.
To me every aspect was a puzzle, a challenge, an intellectual exercise. What would today’s emerging activities most likely lead to as things began to unfurl into that future?
What would the eighty years of double-speed change mean, at the local level, for housing; food; fuel; family structure; finance and money; work; communication; technologies; clothing and fashion; shopping; medicines, health and well-being; transport; crime and social control; education and learning; or governance and community decision-making?
What would the wider structural changes be in terms of global warming; air pollution; viruses and plagues; weather patterns; politics; national and international relations; cities; wilderness spaces?
So, what now?
The text is 90-95% finished. The remaining work, before it can be uploaded as an ebook, is mostly editing (which may involve some minor rewriting of sections).
The text has been deliberately put aside for a couple of months. Some describe this as letting the text stew for a while, as if it does something, unseen, to itself during that period. The change, really, is in me. It gives time for some distance to be put between myself and the text. Having been closely entangled in the detail of the text for a long time, I can now return to it with fresh eyes and a fresh brain. I might see things differently. Things that are wrong, and that I could no longer see before, might now leap out at me.
I have set myself a one month deadline.
During that time there will be a spell-and-grammar check using the facility within Word software.
There will be an edit for continuity: making sure that no characters have suddenly changed names (Was it consistently Gramp or Gramps or Grandad? Was it Granny or Nanny throughout?); making sure that no character has simply disappeared or mysteriously come back to life again having already been killed off; making sure that events have not got out of sequence with any cutting-and-pasting I may have done.
There will be a separate edit for ‘flow’, removing any clumsiness. Then a final read-through, probably out loud to myself. Then a final spellcheck and a final, final overall read-through.
The cover is already done, in my chosen house-style (which may not be to everyone’s taste but is the style I have chosen). There will be a bit of blurb to write to accompany the book.
Then, and only then, will it be anywhere close to being ready for putting in the format for publishing.
‘Five Men’ is the title of my latest ebook, published on the Amazon site in October 2015. The title reflects the theme of the story: A group of men coming to terms, each in their different ways, with events and attitudes in a changing world.
The writing was done over a couple of months. The basic nature of the story was set within that time. The characters didn’t change from there on. The plot ideas remained as they were. There were some additions of bits of text and relatively few deletions of text. There were the usual checks for miss-spellings, for bad grammar, and for repetitions or clunky gaps. All of this was regarded as the simple editing done as the writing was being rounded off. In this phase the aim had been to push ahead, to get words on screen, to ratchet up the word count.
When the bulk of the storyline was fixed; when the words were ‘sufficient’ (ie somewhere around 50,000); when things were OK but not there yet; when the whole thing needed tightening – that is when I started to think of myself as entering the editing phase, which had various elements to it.
What follows is an attempt to set out some of the subsequent editing actions that were undertaken. Some of these were easier than others and didn’t take too long. Some were major decision-makings where I went backwards and forwards between various options, sometimes rewriting whole chunks only to rewrite them back again when I decided that the first way of presenting things was better after all.
During this protracted set of editings the almost-final text was picked up, worked on, set aside for a while to let it stew a bit and to create some mental distance from it, then picked up and worked on more determinedly. The writing was in ‘almost-finished’ form at the beginning of 2013 but the on-and-off editing, with subsequent redraftings, took around thirty months; far longer than the time taken to write the text in the first place. You can see why, elsewhere, I have said that I see writing as half the work and editing as an at least equally-consuming task.
At any stage, during that period, I could have abandoned the task – particularly as I had other, fresher and more fascinating bits of writing that I wanted to get on with. What kept it alive was a sense that, even if I put the task to one side for a while, this story wasn’t going to let me go that easily. The commitment (and thus the need to complete editing) wasn’t going to relinquish its hold on me.
What provided the spur to get the whole thing finished was the need to clear it out of the way to make space, time and mental energy to forge ahead with those newer writings. Once that point was reached it was a matter of determinedly getting my brain into editing gear and dedicating the time and focus needed to finish the job – which took a month or so.
I hope that the following reflections are of interest or of use.
The five characters were all different personalities. At the same time they were somehow representative of types: The politically-minded trade union organiser; the moralistically-intellectual newspaper reporter; the pragmatic workman; the over-stressed weakling; the unfulfilled artist etc.
Having finished the writing, one part of the editing process was to track each of the characters in turn and check for inconsistencies in their character. Each had ambiguities, and that was intentional. Each, in their own way, had internal tensions to deal with. What was edit-checked were any instances where the character acted totally against their own characteristics.
At the same time each character was checked to make sure that, whilst being typical of a kind of man, they had not been written simply as cardboard cut-out characters. We may all have an image of the strong labour organiser, or the loyal reporter, and I didn’t want the characters to stray too far from those impressions but nor did I want them to be so representative that they were reduced to simple, one-dimensional caricatures, predictable in everything they said or did.
A different editing read-through was to check for context. The main part of the story was set in Manchester (UK) in the mid-1950s.There were parts where the history of the characters referred back to the early 1940s and the early 1930s. The final section of the story took developments on into the 1956-1970 period. Each of these time periods had its own social, political and economic features that acted as context for the men at those times. The editing was to ensure that the men fitted the contexts across the whole time span.
As I wrote the original draft text I developed a number of themes that I felt emerged out of those characters in those settings. One part of the editing was to read through each character in turn and ask myself to what extent they carried the themes or exemplified the themes. Was there any one character that was not pulling his weight in moving the deeper ideas forward? Were there some themes that simply got neglected after a while?
At the end of it all I asked myself, ‘Have I done the best by each of these men? Have I served their interests well?’
Supporting the writing, during the word-production stage, were various bits of research: What were the major historical and political events that the characters might get caught up in? What world events might a newspaper reporter need to be working on? What happened in Manchester (or other places) during each decade? Some of the research was specific to particular events. Some was more generic background.
One part of the story occurred during the bombing of Manchester city centre. The internet was full of descriptions, newspaper accounts, and after-the-event interviews with people. These all provided material that could be woven in to give added authenticity or colour. They contributed to the tone and to the sense of place. Why not include as many as possible at the writing stage?
At the editing stage the bits of research used were scrutinised far more critically. Were these facts, settings and activities being stuffed in unnecessarily? Were they littering the writing, making reading more difficult – being diversions from the main flow; puzzling the reader? Was it necessary to include every detail just because I had it; or was it only to be retained if it had some a real purpose in terms of the storyline?
One key part of the editing became a balancing of interesting or useful context against distracting or superfluous bits of information.
Some of the necessary editing tasks arose as a direct result of the chosen setting (a small four-bed recovery ward in a 1950s hospital) and some came out of the way I had structured the writing (with the main action being over 3-4 days in the same ward).
Having settled on a hospital ward as the setting and the few-days’ timescale for the main episode I found myself writing chunks of text to fill the timeslots: I’ll do the bit between lunch and bedtime now, then the bit between breakfast and afternoon visiting, and later do the evening meal to bedtime slot. There was some tendency for the writing process to begin to be shaped by the chronologies of the men’s time on the ward.
The setting itself – a hospital ward – meant that there were inevitable inbuilt routines: Matron did her rounds; the doctors swept through the ward checking on each patient; the tea-trolley arrived. There were sleeps to be had, meals to be eaten, medicines to be administered, temperatures to be checked and charts to be filled. The routines in the story provided a skeleton for timing the writings. There was, however, the danger of things becoming too predictable, too pedestrian.
There were practical things to edit-check. I had to reassure myself that I hadn’t suddenly got two lots of doctors’ rounds on the same day, or forced the men to miss out a night’s sleep. There was also the danger that the hospital routines would over-structure the writing and itself become the main story rather than simply being used as props for the main thoughts and actions of the men characters.
A substantial focus of the editing was thus removing any over-routinisations, any too-frequent repetitions; any sense of ‘and before anyone realised it was teatime again’. The routines were a necessary part of creating the sense of place (Hospitals being defined by series of routines) but could become so relentless that they might begin to not allow the men time to think.
It was another balancing act. The setting gave a structure to act as an armature upon which to sculpt the action but it should then remain almost unnoticed inside the story that had been constructed.
Another relatively simple bit of editing, but one that needed scrupulous attention to detail, was the hunting down of inconveniences, improbabilities, impossibilities and likelihoods.
An early proposition was that one couple had two children with another baby on the way. Later in the story I felt sorry that I had asked this harassed woman to carry such a domestic load – dragging two little children on the bus with her each time she wanted to visit her husband in hospital. In one editing sweep I killed off the two children and left her with just the unborn one. I simply revised the initial text to say that the newly-expected baby was their first. The two innocents weren’t important to the plot. No-one missed them. I’m sure the woman was very grateful to me. If nothing else, later in the tale, it enabled her to get some time for herself.
The improbabilities were things like me having, in a key scene, a pair of young things going to a dance on the evening of Whit Sunday. Dancing on a Sunday? Highly unlikely in 1950s Manchester. Or using the word ‘scam’: Was it in popular use in the 1950s or was it a more recent bit of terminology? I headed off to my Modern Dictionary which helpfully gave a sense of first usages.
The impossibilities included letting the reporter work on world events before they could have happened; or having a patient go for electric shock treatment before it was introduced into the UK.
Sometimes the editing was helped by having charts or timelines in front of me for constant reference. One timeline set out the key events in the lifeline of each of the five men (birth, marriage, jobs, moving house, etc) against each other and against the background events in Manchester, nationally or internationally.
At a much more practical level, I got frustrated that the men in the hospital ward wouldn’t stay where I had put them. They kept hopping into each other’s bed. In one sentence Man 1 looks across at Man 2 in the bed opposite. Some pages later, Man 2 is in the bed next to Man 1. A quick diagram showing who was supposed to be where helped as a rapid reference tool for checking such situations and getting consistency in the men’s relative interactions around the ward.
The two substantial interconnected issues that really held the whole thing up were linked to deciding on the sequencing of the snapshots of each man at three or four points in their lives; and connecting this with the core action of them being thrown together, by chance, in the same end of a small ward in one hospital in one city in Northern England.
The key puzzle fragments were:
Donald in 1956; Donald in 1941; Donald in 1931
Jimmy in 1956; Jimmy in 1941; Jimmy in 1931
Phil in 1956; Phil in 1941; Phil in 1931
Ben in 1956; Ben in 1941; Ben in 1931
(Davey in 1956); Davey in 1941; Davey in 1931
Donald, Jimmy, Ben and Phil interacting on the ward in 1956 – on Day 1, Day 2, Day 3
This gave me seventeen chunks of text that I might arrange in a number of different ways. I could choose to:
- describe each character as they developed through 1930s and 1940s until, fully-formed, they meet on Day 1 in hospital.
- describe the disconnected lives of the separate men in 1931. Jump to catching up with the disconnected lives in 1941; show how their lives come together in hospital in 1956 – and describe how they interact over Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3.
- start with the action – they all arrive on the hospital ward on Day 1; jump back to dhow the events that put them there; track the men’s lived back through the 1940s and 1930s to explain the things they say and think whilst spending time together over Day 2 and Day 3 on the ward.
- take other possible variations
Running alongside these decisions were the common editing ones of voice, point of view and tenses:
Describing the hospital scenes was best done through the eyes of an omnipotent external observer … but was it better to describe things as happening there and then (Donald goes to the dayroom; Jimmy thinks about what he has just heard on the radio…) or describe things in the past (Donald went to the dayroom; Jimmy thought about what he had heard on the radio)?
It seemed right to let each character speak for himself as they described the events that led up to their being admitted to hospital. (I went weak and fainted ….) – but, again, there was the option of sometimes making this more active by using the present tense (I go weak and faint …).
Things then got complicated when a character (in the present) on the ward in 1956 started describing themselves (in the past) through recounting their earlier experiences.
I tried various combinations for sequencing the men’s lives and their days on the ward. I tried different combinations of the more passive description of things (in the past tense) and the more active descriptions (in the present tense) – sometimes having an observer tell the tale and sometimes letting the character speak in the first person.
There were pros and cons to the various choices but some emerged as preferable to others. Eventually the whole thing settled down into the structure that is there in the final version. All that remained was for me to go back over the whole thing for consistency of voice, consistency of tenses and so on.
Almost there, at the last read-through (and these read-throughs at this stage were best done out loud) was checking for ‘flow’ – ensuring that there were no clunkiness of phraseology or clumsiness of repeated words.
At some stage a halt had to be called on the editing process. The text had to be thought of as good enough rather than perfect. At that stage simply publishing was all there was to do.
I have read Five Men through a couple of times since it went out there in published form and, although Amazon has a facility that allows me to go back and revise the text, my approach is to leave it as it is and move on to those other bits of writings that are now pressing hard for my attention.
There are various facets to this. In the real and potentially messy world of actual writing, these are likely to interact with each other. For clarity, here, I will try to keep them separate.
An earlier post has briefly covered the idea of a place for writing: the particular location that works for the person trying to get down to a solid day’s work of producing new text or editing previous writing, or simply mulling ideas over and over before writing anything. This post looks at the interplays between content and place, mostly within fictional writing.
Most writing courses and ‘how-to’ books talk about the importance of creating a strong sense of place for the reader. Writers are also encouraged to jump straight in to some key bit of the action as soon as possible. So how much scene-setting is preferred? If go for a long introduction, the reader may turn off before the plot can grip them. If start with the action, is it feasible to backfill the setting at some later time without losing momentum? Or is it possible to embed sufficient detail into the ongoing action so that a sense of place is built up as one goes along?
Certainly it needs a bit more than some basic ‘It was a dark and stormy night …’ opening to a dreary melancholic tale. And probably less than the multiple pages of long detailed descriptions of landscape, weather, foliage, wildlife etc. that are common to the long, slow build-up beginnings to some novels from years ago.
There is a view that readers today are a bit impatient and want the interest to get going as soon as possible. This may be true of some readers, of a certain type of book. There may, equally, be readers who want to take time, to go slowly, to soak themselves into the characters in their setting. – and this remains a feature of certain types of book. Maybe therefore there is not one approach but a number of choices depending on the tone of book, the target audience, the view of commerciability and the inclinations of the writer.
Letting the momentum flow at an appropriate pace whilst embedding things that create a sense of place is a feasible option. It is possible to weave in emblems, symbols, local foods, language, birds unique to the area etc., so long as these are easily absorbed and accepted by the reader rather than feeling like stuffed-in blockages to the flow of the reading experience – and so long as it doesn’t reach the stage where an appendix has to be provided to translate each item.
There are particular difficulties with trying to create a sense of place through the use of local accents and dialects. In a national or international world of literature there are few strong forms of language that travel easily. It is the balance between creating the imagery of a specific location and having a worldwide readership. As a child I borrowed local dialect books from the local library and enjoyed reading them because people in my close community spoke with a legacy of that same dialect. This would not be true in the same way today. There are some dialect publications but these are seen more as low-readership and heritage-related, rather than as books for a wide readership.
The main aim for many publishers is for a relatively universal reader to be able to stay with the story and to have that experience enhanced by an appropriately-developed sense of the place where any action is taking place: enough for the reader to create images in their mind as they read; and done in a way that lets the reader become aware of the setting without realising it.
This involves more than simply stating the name of the place (‘It was a dark and stormy night in Vancouver …’), or blandly opting for urban or rural (‘It was a dark and stormy night somewhere in the endless plains of Alberta…’). It involves more than simply dropping the text into some place and leaving it there to fend for itself.
A sense of place comes from those things that turn a physical space into a social place: the numbers of people (crowded urban, sparsely rural); the physical nature (high-rises, suburban sprawl, barns and dust-tracks); the transits (train junction, traffic snarl-ups; fast-moving highways, ambling bicycles, shuffling pedestrians, wanderers and roamers); the poverties and the wealths; the shops (malls, family stores, street-side handcarts, quirky backstreet shops). There are the monuments, the signposts, the smells and the sounds. There is the feel of the place – menacing, gloomy, looming, laid-back, frenetic … In particular, there are aspects of the local culture that go a long way to defining a place.
These details, woven in where they make sense, add to the sense of place as the action is underway.
There are other considerations. Does that location hold any particular significance for the plot or for any of the characters? Has the place shaped a character? Or a character shaped the place? It is a home, or a transit camp, or a place of freedoms, or a psychological prison?
Is it that at least one key character is moving through the place, observing it, reacting to it, being part of it, being transformed by it …? Will the place be the making of them? Or the breaking of them? Or the death of them?
The more the place and characters and plotlines interdepend, the more the tale gets honed down to a certain form: Change the place and you get different character; change the characters and they will be more likely to act in particular settings; changes in characters/places reshape the actions. Maybe this is one of the ways in which a book starts to write itself.
One other potential limitation may be deep inside the writer. To what extent are a writer’s childhood experiences of growing up in a particular location key to how they are able to write, the kinds of settings they get drawn to write about, the kinds of locations they set their characters free in? Do places visited, or lived in, become the basis for settings of writings?
Can a writer only write about a place they have strong personal experience of? Delving into one’s own memories, one’s own histories, is not necessarily autobiographical as such but can be using one’s own emotional memories as a platform on which to construct varying degrees of fact or fiction.
Sometimes that is not enough to satisfy a writer’s feeling that all the details need to be correct. In a piece of my own writing it became important to know the route to Barcelona’s Diagonal thoroughfare from the small secluded square where the action began. Checking a city map was enough for that. It is easy to get more with internet searches for details of a place, photographs, street views, landmarks, dates and events.
Research (online, through books or in libraries) can pay off and be used to create feelings of authenticity. Successful novels have been written without the author ever having physically visited the place where the story is set.
The place doesn’t even have to be real. Writers down the ages have created very believable places purely from imagination: amalgams of idealised villages, cities, planets… easier done for closed worlds that the writer is free to design, describe, map and populate.
If the past is a different country then writers of historical drama have the much more difficult job of trying to transport the reader across time as well as place. Some use substantial research to create a sense of being there. In other cases, a set of hints are all that may be needed – leaving the reader to fill the gaps with their own imagined images. Done well, and with readers with enough imagination, this can work well in the same way that radio listeners can believe that the sense of place is better self-generated than the version fed to them by television.
At the end of the day, proportionality is the guideline. Too much or too little research can spoil any text. Research can be useful for stimulating the writer even if it doesn’t contribute to the final wording. When doing a doctorate on the sociology of a peripheral housing estate it felt vital to capture the ins and outs of the historical development of the small piece of land that eventually got developed into the housing area. In the final write-up almost all of it was jettisoned but it did form the basis of a free-standing account of the History of Castle Vale that now sits on the www.thewordsthething.org.uk website…
Throughout the above I have been writing not as any expert on creating a sense of place but as someone reflecting on my own writing around this topic. So how have content and place come together, in different ways and to varying degrees of success, in my own writing?
In one case, a piece of writing that sits on the www.thewordsthething.org.uk website arose been because of a visit to Vancouver and a personal interest in the public art there. It was based on a day’s wanderings and photography transcribed as a fictitious character’s experiences.
On the same website are two pieces of writing on New York which arose from a writing workshop exercise of walking around Birmingham. These two writings describe the routes taken by fictitious characters, the sights they see. It wasn’t until several years later that I visited New York for the first time and was able to retrace one of the walks in reality.
My ebook ‘It’s Murder on the Eleven’ is a light murder mystery set around the Number 11 bus route that runs for twenty-six miles round the Outer Circle route of Birmingham (a bus that I use often). The main part of that book is the fictional story but there is an added end section that is a nonfiction account of that bus route.
The main character in another ebook (‘Another Glorious Day’) is fixed in a box for the whole of the story – not something in my own experience. Even so, using a few recurring descriptions, there was a chance to set the feeling of what it was like for that person to be endlessly in that setting.
An ebook I am currently editing centres around four men temporarily thrown together in the ward of a 1950s Manchester hospital. The sense of place derives not from description of the physical layouts but from the daily routines that define ‘hospital’. As part of the editing I will need to ask myself if that is enough or whether there is more to put in about the crisp starchiness of sheets, the disinfected smell and so on. At the moment I don’t think so. It is, after all, a story of men and feelings not a descriptive text on hospitals.
Some of the poems in the ebook ‘Made in Birmingham: The Poems’ try to capture the sense of abandoned railway lines, a dank cave, agricultural areas as seen by a city-loving evacuee, and so on.
In the ebook ‘Made in Birmingham: The Tales’ – a collection of around seventy very short tales – the quirkinesses of the person in each tale depends to some extent on the location and setting they operate daily within.
The above four ebooks are detailed on the Amazon site at https://www.amazon.com/author/geoffbateson
As stated earlier, the above is not meant to be the definitive guide to writing with a sense of place. It is a reflection on my own approach to writing, but may still be of wider interest to others. I hope so.