Final words

It’s a slow old busi­ness, is writ­ing. The stretches of time involved are so stag­ger­ing that I won­der how I man­age to keep the story on the rails. Well, it’s reach­ing that happy time when a book is fin­ished. This is ‘fin­ished’ in the com­edy sense employed by all writers, of course, which is usu­ally defined as ‘wait till you get the editor’s report, Sonny Jim’.

I speak of none oth­er than Flashback. It’s been a year and a half since I had an idea about a char­ac­ter from my first book, Saskia, who had trav­elled back in time to the year 2003 (with a chip in her brain that provides her per­son­al­ity, and so on and so forth). Saskia knows that, in the year 2023, she will be around to save someone’s life. So her death would rep­res­ent a time para­dox. Result: She can­not be killed. She is as indes­truct­ible as Cap’m Scarlet — SIG. But, I thought, death isn’t the only way a per­son can be in jeop­ardy (as I thought this, I dry-washed my hands evilly and stroked a ger­bil).

Then I had anoth­er idea. Let’s say you’re a time trav­el­ler. You’re stuck in the past. You know that the ‘present’ (‘when’ you come from) will even­tu­ally pass in its exact form, oth­er­wise ‘you’ won’t be ‘you’. You’d be someone else. It’s akin to shuff­ling your genes; that would make you your broth­er or you sis­ter. Anywho, if you spend long enough in the past, you might come to think that all these people are zom­bies act­ing out a scrip­ted exist­ence with no free will. But, of course, you have free will because you’re from the present, aren’t you? But if the state of the uni­verse at a giv­en point is fixed, you must be fixed as well. Meet para­dox num­ber two.

I think most people would be driv­en slightly bonkers by this. Not Saskia, though. She’s made of stern­er stuff. But the second time trav­el­ler — whom would be the ‘vil­lain’ of this piece — has been shag­haied [ update: that should be ‘shang­haied’ 🙂 ] in the past for sixty years, and he is loop da loop.

Mixed up with my favour­ite quote from William James (‘I will act as though what I do makes a dif­fer­ence’), and the mys­tery of a cer­tain aero­plane crash, I decided to write a book.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been get­ting some feed­back from read­ers (on the first couple of chapters at least). Feedback is a tricky pro­cess. Some people are bet­ter at giv­ing it than oth­ers; some can identi­fy what needs to be done to cor­rect the manu­script, where­as oth­ers have no idea; but all feed­back is use­ful. It allows you to get inside the head of a read­er some­what.

The short­com­ings of Flashback are two-fold right now. First, my prose style in the first couple of chapters — where I’m obvi­ously try­ing very hard — has become so hard­boiled that, unless the read­er is work­ing out the implic­a­tions of every scrap of dia­logue, they can’t know what’s going on and feel stu­pid. I put this down to ‘high stand­ards’ (the quote marks are to sig­nal to the irony, since the product doesn’t seem to achieve this) and read­ing Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Harris. After The Road, I don’t think I’ll be able to write the same way again. But poet­ic prose doesn’t have to be obscure; you don’t need to write cryptic­ally to write well. After all, McCarthy has been writ­ing for years. I need to weed out the self-con­scious meta­phors, and put in about forty years more writ­ing prac­tice. One of my review­ers wrote, “If you pub­lish this, you’ll be the first per­son since Virgil to write a thrill­er in poet­ic verse!” I thought that was won­der­ful.

The second short­com­ing fol­lows closely on the heels of the first: obscur­ity. Because I’m a fan of McCarthy and Raymond Chandler and oth­ers for whom the style is equal to, and occa­sion­ally out­guns, the plot, I’m quite used to nar­rat­ives where the read­er is not party to the motiv­a­tions or spe­cif­ic driv­ing factors of the char­ac­ter until later in the story. Now, this is obvi­ously a dan­ger­ous game to play, and you’ve got to get the bal­ance right. Readers won’t fol­low char­ac­ters they don’t identi­fy with in some sense. So…the lack of inform­a­tion has got to be an inter­est­ing lack. When you read about a mys­tery like the loss of the Star Dust, the absence of an accep­ted explan­a­tion isn’t actu­ally irrit­at­ing; it’s a pos­it­ive force that makes you want to know more, and makes you inter­ested in the story itself. You feel like you are about to dis­cov­er some­thing. This kind of anti­cip­a­tion can make twists (i.e. re-con­fig­ur­a­tions of a story’s iden­tity) quite power­ful, and I used it a great deal in Déjà Vu. It’s some­thing I need to get right in Flashback, and the solu­tion will be to go slightly easi­er on the read­er. I want to avoid the fatal pit­fall of, with apo­lo­gies to his fans, Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.

So these are just some ran­dom thoughts about the edit­ing pro­cess. Back to work.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

3 thoughts on “Final words”

  1. That was a shot­gun blast. Bear with me while I try to track the ran­dom pel­lets. 🙂

    Re: The Road — yes, this one hit me with the prose and style. It’s not the story I would choose to tell, but I can’t help but admire the dis­cip­line in its sim­pli­city and style. It’s kind of a slap in the face to the ‘Everything and Kitchen Sink’ approach. McCarthy illus­trates well how less is more, and a little can go a long, long way.

    Re: Your con­cepts… inter­est­ing. I’ve got a fair bit of time-goof­ing in my stor­ies. And one char­ac­ter which I’ve had on the back­burn­er for a while has a chip in his head. The funny thing is my ver­sion of these con­cepts couldn’t be fur­ther from yours in almost every oth­er aspect. Not even the same ball­park.

    Ah… that famil­i­ar sea of memes in which we all float. Siblings of Skiffy.

  2. Tis a troubled sea, O my broth­er.

    McCarthy’s oth­er stuff is great too (though you prob­ably know that). Blood Meridian (west­ern) is excel­lent, as is No Country for Old Men (mod­ern thrill­er). Can’t read enough of his stuff.

    re: my con­cepts. Yeah, Spinoza lives on. Oh the bleak­ness. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *