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.

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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. 🙂

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