Saskia Brandt 1, Ian Hocking 0

There are many senses in which the writ­ing life is an easy one. For example, one sits down a lot. The com­mute is short. No boss pops up like the shop­keep­er in Mr Ben to ask why you’re check­ing Facebook when you know very well that the invoice for eight thou­sand and one paper­clips should have gone out eight­een minutes ago.

There are oth­er senses, how­ever, in which the writ­ing life is excru­ci­at­ingly awful. I’m hav­ing one those awful moments pre­cisely now, so, strik­ing while the iron is toasty, here are some words on the curi­ous rage burn­ing in my veins, boil­ing my eye­balls and singe­ing off what little remains of my hair with little ‘zip!’ sounds.

The Good Ship Hocking foundered this after­noon on a Charybdis called ‘lack of plan­ning’. The skip­per ran aground while avoid­ing the swirl­ing waters of a Scylla called ‘plan­ning too much’.

My prob­lem is a clas­sic one. The kind of book I’m writ­ing is a thrill­er, and the genre is char­ac­ter­ised by tightly-woven plot threads. The action needs to be par­tic­u­larly kin­et­ic — each ele­ment needs to lead inex­or­ably to the next. Characters must be under con­sid­er­able pres­sure (usu­ally for their lives) and need to deal in extraordin­ary ways with extraordin­ary cir­cum­stances. But that’s not my prob­lem.

My prob­lem lies with the deep struc­ture of the nov­el. Not all nov­els have this deep struc­ture. Few thrillers do. This deep struc­ture is the meta­phor­ic­al lan­guage of the nov­el. It informs vir­tu­ally all decisions about small-scale meta­phor (the things you, as a writer, make con­nec­tions with dur­ing the text; ‘the floor was blank as drum­skin’, etc.) and large-scale meta­phor (the loc­a­tions of import­ant events, for example; choice of weath­er).

In my lim­ited exper­i­ence — three (pub­lish­able) nov­els — the deep struc­ture only really comes once you’re well into the nov­el. You need to live and breathe the work for a few weeks and arrive at an under­stand­ing of its iden­tity. The deep struc­ture appears without con­scious aware­ness. Sometimes, it’s there before you know it is. You might write a third of the book using ostens­ibly ran­dom meta­phors until, that glor­i­ous third in, the meta­phors sud­denly make sense. It’s as if part of you knew what the deep struc­ture of the book was — but hadn’t yet told you.

Right now, I don’t feel I have a sense of the deep struc­ture. What is this cur­rent book about? My third book, Flashback, felt like a book about grief, pain, mys­tery, and the re-liv­ing of his­tor­ic­al events, about the senses in which memory can be an arti­fi­cial present.

The cur­rent book? Dunno. Saskia Brandt is trapped in pre-revolu­tion­ary Russia. I have strong, almost hal­lu­cin­at­ory ideas about par­tic­u­lar scenes: In one, Saskia is wear­ing a ball dress and stand­ing on the threshold of the amber room (this means some­thing very import­ant to her, but I can’t tell what yet); In anoth­er, she is mas­quer­ad­ing as a cav­alry cap­tain in a Tbilisi square and wheel­ing her horse to clear the area of pass­ersby before they are hurt by an explo­sion; In yet a third, she stands on the bal­cony of a ruined palace (prob­ably here, which con­tains the amber room), and looks out at a man on a horse, wheel­ing it and pulling it into tricks just as Saskia had many years before in that crowded Tbilisi square. The nov­el will be, in some sense, about get­ting home, and mis­taken iden­tity, and revenge. But that’s about all I can tell.

Somehow, I need to pro­duce a sur­face plot that weaves through these moments of deep struc­ture (whatever form they may take). I haven’t man­aged so far. There is a sense in which you have to just write, of course. If you don’t have this instinct, you’ll prob­ably not set pen to paper. But my instinct is warn­ing me that the ini­tial con­di­tions have not been cor­rectly set for this nov­el. There is more think­ing to do before the some­what reti­cent part of my brain comes up with the goods.

First attempt: Four thou­sand words about a mem­ber of the tsar’s secret police arriv­ing for work. Pretty good, but unne­ces­sary. Not what the story is about. *Sound of air­craft nose-diving*

Second attempt: Nearly six thou­sand words of Saskia par­ti­cip­at­ing in a bank rob­bery. Was going well until the Okhrana agent I intro­duced on the train jour­ney north, with the spoils, turned into a clone of the mne­mon­ist Shereshevksy. *Toilet flush sound*

So what is it? What’s the story, Saskia? Why are you stand­ing on the threshold of the amber room, and what does it have to do with going home?

I’m off to Germany for a few days, dur­ing which I won’t be writ­ing. I’m rely­ing on my brain to come up with the answers.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

3 thoughts on “Saskia Brandt 1, Ian Hocking 0”

  1. 4000 words on some­body arriv­ing home? Without a gun held to the back of his neck, or a pair of burly KGB types hanging out in his broom closet… *yawwwwwn*.… I sym­path­ize. I’m try­ing hard to ‘just write the good bits’ but from time to time it’s been the car trip to the north of scot­land, or even just walk­ing across a foy­er — hun­dreds of words of irrel­ev­ant page-filling driv­el. And those scenes that are loaded with poten­tial but you don’t know where they fit.

    Love, love, love the Amber Room idea — can’t wait to see what you do with it. What is the sig­ni­fic­ance of the ballgown? Is it con­nec­ted with the room or is it just that she’s been to a ball? Dresses can be really import­ant to women. Especially really spec­tac­u­lar dresses. (Ever noticed how your wife becomes a slightly dif­fer­ent per­son when she puts on some extra­vag­ant even­ing num­ber?) I once tried to make a paint­ing of a bal­let dress — the long, soft kind — that some­how cap­tured the essence of a dear friend, who I missed ter­ribly. My paint­ing skills weren’t up to it, so it was nev­er fin­ished.

  2. Thanks for your com­ment, Helen. I def­in­itely need to take a step back from this pro­ject and squint a bit.

    The ballgown will be very import­ant, don’t worry! I’ve got a feel­ing that she’s snuck into a ball at the palace in order to get to the room — but I don’t quite know why yet. I think I need to arrange a trip to see the recon­struc­ted amber room in St Petersberg…

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