Getting Biblical on Your Book’s Ass

The American spelling of ‘ass’, of course. ‘Arse’ wouldn’t do the job. Just wanted to point that out in order to pre-empt emails that fall into either of two cat­egor­ies: (1) That I can’t spell ‘ass’; (2) That I wish to pro­mote viol­ence towards beasts of bur­den.

I’m talk­ing, in this instance, of the long job of writ­ing a book — Flashback. The first draft was com­pleted a couple of months ago, and now I’ve returned to the manu­script fol­low­ing a break. There are many chores. Some of these are artist­ic: I take a scene, attempt to work out the point of it, decide on a way of recon­fig­ur­ing it for max­im­um impact, and re-write it in ‘final draft’ mode (this last is a game I play with myself; like hell it’ll be the final draft).

Tediously, the major­ity my work rests upon the answers to research ques­tions. What’s the rank of the low­est invest­ig­at­ive officer in the German bor­der police? How fast would an air­craft be fly­ing at the point of ver­tic­al impact fol­low­ing a dive from 30,000 feet? What day of the week is it? What’s the age of Jem, my main view­point char­ac­ter?

And that’s before I con­sider the con­vo­lut­ing effect of time travel.

Some writers pro­duce a ‘bible’ that stores all their inform­a­tion about the fic­tion­al world. Character bio­graph­ies, timelines, all that. For reas­ons I can’t quite artic­u­late — it has some­thing to do with the idea that ‘prop­er writers’ don’t plan their books, an idea I picked up as a teen­ager and have yet to truly eval­u­ate — I feel that inform­a­tion in a note­book is dead inform­a­tion. I want the inform­a­tion to stay in my head and rub along­side all the oth­er bits as I write. I do this to serve the uncon­scious writ­ing mech­an­ism that seems to be respons­ible for the major them­at­ic ele­ments of my work, and per­haps it is an appro­pri­ate meth­od for the first draft — which should be the form­a­tion of an emo­tion­al, not phys­ic­al, land­scape — but now I find myself sorely in need of basic inform­a­tion.

So do I go bib­lic­al? Hmm. Maybe. Perhaps at the third draft. Planning reeks of con­straint, and I want all stor­ies decisions to serve the emo­tion­al land­scape, not the phys­ic­al. Where there is a con­flict, the phys­ic­al land­scape will need to be changed. For example, if I want my main char­ac­ter to change from someone with a troubled crim­in­al past to someone with a troubled psy­chi­at­ric past because this, in some way, improves the book, then the phys­ic­al land­scape — con­ver­sa­tions, memor­ies, motiv­a­tions — will just have to get with the pro­gramme. (This is some­thing I did in the middle of the first draft.)

But it’s true enough that the phys­ic­al land­scape will need to be served at some point. The nov­el works like that: It starts as a (over­whelm­ingly) cre­at­ive act and slowly trans­forms into a lot of paper­work. Perhaps I’m just put­ting off the inev­it­able; per­haps I should get with the pro­gramme myself.

For those with an interest in such things, here is a brief excerpt (draft two) from near the begin­ning of the nov­el, in which the heroine, Jem, returns to the Berlin apart­ment of her dead friend, Saskia. She finds a man there. Though she does not yet know it, the man is a killer.


When Jem arrived at the door to Saskia’s apart­ment build­ing, it was anoth­er mid­night, and the drizzle had worked its way down her col­lar and into her boots. Her wet tights itched and a zit had taken root in the corner of her mouth. Her belly, though empty, was bloated and sore. Jem lif­ted her chin to the rain. She had no lan­guage to trap the wed­ding-cake edges of the apart­ment build­ing. But its sad cur­licues were like glasses lif­ted to toast eleg­ant times, and it felt right that Saskia would live here. Sadness flared match-like in her belly and her mood switched from hope that Saskia was still alive, in this build­ing and curs­ing Jem, to a sud­den creep­i­ness, a cer­tainty that Saskia had died in the crash but her essence yet walked, unre­flect­ing, across the ebony decks of her apart­ment. The spooki­ness filled her like the gases of rot­ting meat. She saw a Saskia-shaped hole in the air next to her. Rain stayed faith­ful to its shape and dribbled over the bob-cut of her hair, ran down ghost shoulders, and kept two patches dry on the pave­ment where Saskia might have stood in her flat shoes.

Flat in case I need to run.”

Jem stepped back from the appar­i­tion, alarmed that her eyes atten­ded the voice of her grief, and the ghost Saskia dis­solved. The rain reclaimed her space and she was lost.

Jem pressed the buzzer marked ‘Frau Dorfer’. The door hummed to indic­ate it was unlocked.

Bitte.

A man’s voice. Not, she thought, Inspector Duczyński.

Jem pushed through the door. The stair­well was dark and echo­ic. She pressed the light and heard the timer rotate as she climbed the stairs. Her legs were slow. She reached Saskia’s door. It was open an inch. The squeak of rub­bing cloth con­firmed her fear, but it was only her ruck­sack as she shif­ted. She knocked. She stared into the skinny gap and under­stood that she could not see into the gloom as eas­ily as someone could look out from it. Then the stair­well light clicked off to com­plete the dark­ness. The door swung inwards.

In the small lobby, where Saskia had once flicked away her shoes and explained to Jem that they were flat in case she needed to run, there was an old gen­tle­man rendered sepia by dusty bulb above the coats. Behind him, the stair­case rose to dark­ness. He might have been a count open­ing the door of his castle to a trav­el­ler at night.

Seien nicht ers­chrock­en Sie,” he said.

His eyes were rheumy and his eye­brows flam­boy­ant ticks of white. His hair was thin, rusty at the temples. His throat was swollen by a cravate. He wore a pullover with dull epaul­ettes and elbow patches. His short cane: Jem judged it to be an affect­a­tion. Despite his age, there was some­thing of Saskia about him.

His free hand reached towards her. She frowned at the way his fin­ger­tips gathered to a point, like a rap­tor. She stepped back.

Bitte sei­en nicht ers­chrock­en Sie,” he said.

No, I’m English.”

The quick nod betrayed his tal­ent as an impro­viser. “You must be one of Saskia’s friends from the read­ing group. She men­tioned that a young English woman atten­ded.” He inclined his head. “Partly to explain the slang in Nick Hornby nov­els.”

Jem wanted to burst au con­trare, she was just a lesbo tart. She would unleash this with a smile. His com­pos­ure would crys­tal­lize, fis­sure, and slide from his face. But her breath stalled.

My poor girl,” he said, “come inside.”

She allowed him to cup her elbow and bring her across the threshold. Jem jet­tisoned her coat, which was heavy like wet wash­ing, and tucked her ruck­sack into the space where Saskia stored her umbrel­las.

She fol­lowed the stranger up the stairs. His shoes were wet, like hers. At the land­ing, he turned and tapped his left shin with the cane. “It is sens­it­ive to the weath­er. Rain is the worst.”

The hall­way light is on the left at the top,” she said.

I know. Here.”

He pressed it and Saskia’s spir­it returned with bril­liance: the antique phone in the middle of the hall­way, next to the open­ing that led to the kit­chen; a ‘wooden man’ kung fu thingy, with Jem’s spe­cial-occa­sion knick­ers hanging from a stump; a poster from the Checkpoint Charlie Museum that showed a young bor­der guard leap­ing a bar­ri­cade; the rippled glass door that led to the liv­ing room and the bal­cony; the nearby indoor palm tree; the black door; the side­board with Saskia’s neon weight-train­ing gloves crossed on top; the ebony floor. Jem could smell the toast that Saskia had cooked for her that morn­ing. Saskia had been singing. She had a beau­ti­ful voice. When asked, she pre­ten­ded to for­get the name of the song.

I’m Jem,” she said.

The man turned. He, too, had been con­tem­plat­ing the hall­way. “My name is Kirby.”

At last, they shook hands. His palm had a rough island of knot­ted skin and, on instinct, Jem turned it upward.

An old burn,” said Kirby. He made a fist but Jem had already read ‘Pyrene’.

Pyrene?”

They make fire extin­guish­ers.” He smiled. “Ironically.”

I came,” blur­ted Jem, “to see if Saskia…”

Let me fix you a drink.”

Saskia kept a whisky bottle on the left of the dish­wash­er.”

Kirby searched her face. “I know.”

Jem, embar­rassed, looked at her own hands. An apo­logy wanted to climb her throat but she pressed her teeth togeth­er. She raised her head with a ques­tion – what, by the way, are you doing here? – and saw an empty hall­way. In a single click of time, Jem under­stood that she did not want to be alone . Another thought fell upon the last: She would search the apart­ment for Kirby but nev­er find him, ever. He would be the last ghost in the story of her fugue from England, a punch­line to widen eyes, souven­ir from loop-the-loop land.

Mr Kirby?”

She heard move­ment in the kit­chen. Relief. Kirby came out. He no longer had the cane. Instead he car­ried two tum­blers.

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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