The Spark Of Life

Observatory, Reading & Writing

Let’s have a column that’s actually about writing for a change!

Everyone has different methods of working, but I’ve noticed that mine confounds a lot of people. My enthusiasm for writing a new book starts high – I have the concept and I’m very excited. Then I have to flesh it out into an outline; the part I absolutely hate and dread having to do. I struggle with this section, and if I can’t get it right, it might go on a back-burner and I’ll switch to another project until the necessary piece falls into place to make the concept work.

Then, assuming the concept now works, I tackle the first draft, stopping for nothing; clunky dialogue, bad exposition, I just keep ploughing on until I reach the end. I think of this as the ‘Don’t Bump Into The Furniture’ draft.

Then I do a second draft, and it starts coming together nicely. I hopefully finish that. But now, something weird has happened. I realise the book is a Frankenstein’s monster; all the pieces are in place, but it lacks life. It’s a word-corpse.

At this point, the spark of life is required. Something that will make the story believable, no matter how crazy it is. The lightning rod for this process is different every time. Let me give you an example. Conrad Williams asked me to write a cowboy story for his collection ‘Gutshot’. I had an idea, but it didn’t seem real to me. The story was quite good, all the pieces were in place but there was no spark of life.

Two things happened simultaneously.
1. I read Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’.
2. I went to India.

For my final draft I coupled the terseness of McCarthy’s style with what I had learned about Indian history, and it was as if I had attached jump-leads to the story. Suddenly it breathed. It’s the oddest thing, but you know exactly when this happens. Short stories are binary creations; they either work or they don’t.

I’ve been working on a new dark thriller for a while, but there was something dead about it. The plot twists were clever, but the characters were little more than puppets. Last week, I hit upon a simple idea that actually meant a massive amount of work. Worse, I knew the only way of testing it was to do it.

This morning I looked back at it and realised; it’s alive. I can breath easier now, because the story is.
The problem with this approach is that scheduling can require me to let an editor read the book before that final stage, and they, understandably, don’t like what they’ve been given.

So here’s the moral of this story. Finish your work. Then show it. Never, ever show anything unfinished. Because often your brain saves the best ideas for last.

4 comments on “The Spark Of Life”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    I recognize your writing method, particularly the agony of outlining. I have given up on the formal outline, I find it stifles a germinating story.
    Instead, I look for a way in: a physcial location, a character(s), a situation, a bit of interesting knowledge, etc. Then I let it accreate, while I research, visit the story’s site, read, listen, ask questions. I’m always hoping a pearl will develop. After a while I write several paragraphs or pages to find a “starting off” point, which may not be the story’s actual start.
    If a person is an aware reader – not a “critical reader” which can be stifling – and has enjoyably thought over why he/she likes a type of story, or various writers’ work, they must have – even if hidden from themselves – the ability to understand how a story is made and try writing one.
    A story’s plot follows the story arc of beginning – middle – end; the longer the story the more divisions there are in each of these major sections. (Try taking a novel, finding the total number of pages, dividing these in half, and then going to that middle page – you’ll probably have found the top of the arc, or close to it. This works for most fiction, and much non-fiction, and not just formula stries, but the more serious fiction, and hang on, it works for much of literature, which at one time was a novel trying to be sold and read.
    I start writing when I have an end in sight, and then I discover the route there as I go, keeping an eye on the distance covered. There follow many rewrites, or partials, and then I set it all aside to rise. If when I look at it again, it sits up, walks, talks, and grabs me great, but usually it takes more work: sanding and buffing and, yes, with luck it suddenly feels alive. This is an amazing experience! My wife and sister, who read my stuff when it’s well alone, often say: “What did you do? It suddenly all worked and I was drawn in.” Oh Happy Day.
    And, yes, never share a plot idea – it will soar or dry up – and never share an early draft, it harms the story and, at least in my case, the reader will question your abilities and may helpfully take a pen and rejigger your comas. But stopping to correct everything as you go alone strangles the flow and doses the spark. I learned this the hard way and wasted a lot of time.
    “More, posts like this, please,” Oliver said.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Permit me to add one more comment, even if I’m over-commenting. I’m newish to blogs. So, hold the tomatoes.
    You write that reading Cormac McCarthy’s book and learning more about India were the twin sparks that brought life to your novel. I’m sure they were, but I think in addition the trip itself provided the physical and mental distance you needed to refocus on a final revision.
    Intensive writing (or any tight-focus activity) is like being down in a submergable, your parameters are shortened, and even after coming up and closing the laptop the brain is immerced in another world. (“Ah, what did you say, dear?”)
    Going to India (now, there’a a title for Paul Scott or Charles Allen or, perhaps, an expensive weekend awareness seminar); by going to India, I think you distanced yourself – physically and mentally – enought to refresh your thinking and enable you to spot the fixes, and add the detail, so your novel would breathe. Periods of travel do that. They can your seeing. Have you noticed how when you first open the front door your home looks different? The ceilings are higher or lower, the walls closer or further apart, the rooms are brighter or darker, and then the next day you wake up, and you’re again home: No Alice, no rabbit, no funny little bottle. It works on creative projects, too.
    Of course, there’s a downside to travel as too many hotel rooms on a trip can be quite disorienting. Hotel bathrooms are tricksters and like to shift about while you’re in a desperately deep time-shifting sleep, even if you went to bed sober; and then politely getting up in the dark you risk doing yourself serious damage against a suddenly doorless wall, as well as startling your spouse or partner, who then may laugh themselves fully awake and hold you responsible.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Fascinating insights from both of you. I know you don’t go back & read, Dan, and it’s a good thing blog entries are not subject to emendations by casual bystanders.
    Mystery stories are usually an exception to the middle-of-the-book-is-centre-of-arc rule because you don’t want to get too far along before you reach the denouement. People who hold to the middle way have to do something sneaky like have the ‘detective’ receive a phone call/letter/e-mail the contents of which are not revealed to the reader until the end. I hate those. I may not exercise my brain sufficiently to solve the mystery but I want it to be at least possible.
    You’re right about travel, too, Dan. My house does a number of strange things while we’re away.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I should read myself more carefully. You *do* want to get well into the the last quarter before the plot starts to clear up somewhat.

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