Writing ‘Red Star Falling’: Part Two

In this second part of excerpts from my writ­ing journ­al, which out­lines my thoughts while writ­ing Red Star Falling, I’m assem­bling the first draft and think­ing about the revi­sion pro­cess.

Saturday, 30th March

So the theme today is a some­what tech­nic­al. I’m try­ing to get myself out of plot knots that I’ve become ensnared in. For this story, I’ve giv­en myself a gen­er­al view of what goes on—a high-alti­tude ver­sion, if you will—and relied upon my unpar­alleled writer’s brain (sar­casm alert) to fig­ure out the fine details dur­ing the pro­cess of com­pos­i­tion. This is one way of doing it; it’s also a way of cre­at­ing pan­ic. That said, the pan­ic is prob­ably neces­sary. What it means is that I must solve prob­lems as I go along. It makes me focus much more. They aren’t really dif­fi­cult prob­lems, to be hon­est. They’re prob­lems like ‘Character A needs to do X because oth­er­wise things will be bor­ing; but why would Character A do that?’ and selling them to the read­er.

The theme of ‘selling’ is cer­tainly one that I keep com­ing back to. The story itself might be mundane, but it can give the impres­sion of being a crack­ing story if it is sold well. A magi­cian will have only a small staple of tricks—misdirections, etc.—but they can be sold as things like mind-read­ing and lev­it­a­tion. That’s why you can para­phrase a story like Hansel and Gretel and it sounds like a piece of crap. In selling it, in put­ting it togeth­er as a story that the read­er can almost exper­i­ence, almost touch, you cre­ate some­thing like fic­tion. So much of my ‘prob­lem solv­ing’ is really about doing up with solu­tions that the read­er will ‘buy’. Not to have the char­ac­ters be clev­er but seem clev­er. Much the same applies to the writer, I’d sug­gest.

Sunday, 31st March

The struggle con­tin­ues. Since I fin­ished the writ­ing ses­sion last night, I’m bugged by the little uni­verse in my head. The story has reached the point where sev­er­al inter­est­ing things have to hap­pen sim­ul­tan­eously. To be spe­cif­ic for a moment…

Redacted!

Last night in bed, and this morn­ing in bed, I’ve been think­ing over the mech­an­ics of what needs to hap­pen.

In my last ses­sion, I left Saskia…

As the Fonz says, redactamundo!

I did that accord­ing to Hemingway’s prin­ciple that one should always leave some­thing in the tank for the next ses­sion. That is, you should always be able to pick up where you left off.

But once I’ve writ­ten the next bit—which is fairly easy—I’ll then hit the murder-wall of the com­ing action scene, where all things come togeth­er. I know I’ve writ­ten good action scenes in the past, but it does, at moment, seem dif­fi­cult to scope out.

As ever, the best way of get­ting the thing done is to do it. Let’s rock. (Pun-tast­ic!)

Wednesday, 30th April

Well, I’ve fin­ished the first draft of the short story.

Came in at about 15,000 words.

The idea now is to let it mellow—but not too much! The first draft works, essen­tially, as a rough map of the final ter­rit­ory. It now needs to be fin­essed in a couple of ways. The first is a ‘devel­op­ment­al pass’. I’ll need to read through the thing in its entirety and check that there aren’t any major errors of geo­graphy, motiv­a­tion, and so on. Next, I’ll do a ‘research pass’, where I’ll ensure that visu­al descrip­tions, etc., are accur­ate. Finally, I’ll fin­ish the text itself; this will involve re-writ­ing the story from the ground up. I’ll prob­ably start with a blank doc­u­ment and have the ori­gin­al open to one side.

Developmental pass

This comes first. It’s about a high-level over­view. Here, I can change struc­ture to max­im­ise things like pace, clar­ity and parsimony—but how­ever it’s described, it means pro­du­cing a struc­ture that is the best way of telling the story. In a sense, when you change the struc­ture, you change the story, but there’s a dis­tinc­tion between plot and story. (There might be a tech­nic­al one; but I’m using my own dis­tinc­tion here.) The story is what the text is about; the plot is what hap­pens, and in what order. What is the story about? This is a ques­tion I don’t like to ask before­hand, because it stifles the cre­at­ive pro­cess. It’s import­ant for me that I don’t really know what it is about to start with. This needs to be dis­covered dur­ing the writ­ing. In the case of Red Star Falling, I guess the story is about a woman going…

Redacted.

Research pass

This is quite good fun, though there is a per­vas­ive anxi­ety that I’ll uncov­er a cru­cial detail that renders implaus­ible a key aspect of the story. What I need to do in this stage is identi­fy loc­a­tions, the weath­er, sound pat­terns, smells, fashion—anything spe­cif­ic to the situ­ation of the story that I’ll need to men­tion or imply. Red Star Falling is set in Switzerland in 1908. It begins in a mor­tu­ary and fin­ishes on the Eiger Nordwand, or ‘north face’. I’ve been look­ing up descrip­tions and pic­tures of Edwardian mor­tu­ar­ies and drop­ping them into an applic­a­tion called Evernote. I’m not sure how much of the detail I’ll need to use, but I want to have it at my fin­ger­tips.

It might be worth say­ing some­thing about the inter­ac­tion between the research pro­cess and the first draft. I’ve learned, over the years, that the story-based ele­ment is quite inde­pend­ent from the research-based ele­ment, even though they may appear to the read­er (and the ama­teur writer) to be tangled inex­tric­ably. The prob­lem for the writ­ing pro­cess is that you’ve already got a ton of stuff rolling around your head. Essentially, you are try­ing to sim­u­late an inde­pend­ent real­ity in your head. The less you need to think about research the bet­ter. If you write peri­pat­et­ic­ally, the flow of the story will suf­fer, and it will be very hard to write. It’s bet­ter just to crack on. So, these days, when I write (and this is true of the draft as it stands today), I’m writ­ing the let­ters TC (stand­ing for ‘To Come’) whenev­er I need to write some­thing that I would need to look up—time of dawn, name of a minor char­ac­ter, or street, and so on. This means that I can crash through and get the draft fin­ished. However, it’s not easy, because you’re well aware that what you’re pro­du­cing reads like a god­damn lub­berly mess. (It doesn’t help that prose is shot full of cliches, either, but you’ve also got to post­pone beauty to a later draft.)

Finalising the text

This will be lay­ing down a new bed of prose that is all-guns-blaz­ing, pos­sibly over­blown, and cer­tainly purple. It’s when I’ll start to think: What is the abso­lute best way, aes­thet­ic­ally, to describe a night/mortuary workbench/lake lit by moon­light? The draft will prob­ably be much longer than the first draft. Decisions of tone, pace, and all that will need to be made. Then it will be draf­ted a few more times. Probably, that’ll involve print­ing the thing out, cor­rect­ing the lan­guage, and doing it again.

The fun you can have. Next time, the journ­al will look into issues like the cov­er for the book.

Writing ‘Red Star Falling’: Part One

The term ‘lacuna’ means a couple of things. (Etymologically, it comes from the Latin for ‘lake’.) People use it gen­er­ally in the sense of ‘gap’. From this we get lacun­ar amne­sia, where the indi­vidu­al com­pletely for­gets an epis­ode in their life (though they may retain learn­ing from that peri­od). We get the lit­er­ary lacuna; in this sense, we mean a piece that is miss­ing from a manu­script. Beowulf con­tains lacunae. As do many full length nov­els.

I’ve been think­ing about an epis­ode in The Amber Rooms where (spoil­er alert) our own Saskia Brandt jumps into the body of a par­al­lel uni­verse Saskia Brandt. The par­al­lel is called Saskia Beta. This Saskia Beta is on a mis­sion with a mys­ter­i­ous agency (per­haps gov­ern­ment­al, per­haps private) that sends people back­wards in time for unknown reas­ons. The agency is called Meta. Our heroine, Saskia Brandt, left the body of this Saskia Beta with the mis­sion incom­plete. Our Saskia con­tin­ued her story as we read it in The Amber Rooms. Of Saskia Beta, we hear no more.

A couple of months ago, I decided that I wanted to find out more about the mis­sion of Saskia Beta. What was her goal? What is Meta, for her? I’m look­ing to fill in what you might call a lacuna from the manu­script of The Amber Rooms. So doing, I’m invest­ig­at­ing, along with Saskia Beta, her lacun­ar amne­sia of those days when her body was pos­sessed by the first Saskia.

Sounds com­plic­ated?

It is. But com­plex good (The Big Sleep; Fire Walk With Me), I hope.

Anyhoo, I’ve been keep­ing a private journ­al of the writ­ing pro­cess as part of a wider pro­ject to get at cre­at­ive pro­cesses in writ­ing (in my day job, I’m a psy­cho­lo­gist). The journ­al is private only because it con­tains spoil­ers for the new story.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be post­ing extracts from this journ­al. I’ll redact some of the spoil­ers. My aim is to give you some insight into how I put the story togeth­er. Without get­ting too meta (ooh, see what I did there?) I’ve included some com­ments about the com­ments.

Draft cov­er incom­ing.

Red Star Falling  4566790 c

March 28th, 2013

So, this is the first epis­ode of my journ­al. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. The main issue is the choice of what to include. These choices will prob­ably shape up over the course of the work; I shouldn’t think too much about them now.

Oh so mys­terioso.

Let’s start with what’s wor­ry­ing me. In order of import­ance, I sup­pose I could start with audi­ence recep­tion. It’s the case that, thus far, I’ve been lucky to have some read­ers who liked Déjà Vu (book one of the Saskia Brandt series) and Flashback (book two). However, reac­tion to book three (The Amber Rooms) has been mixed. The book moves away from the high-tech feel of the first book until we’re almost into lit­er­ary ter­rit­ory (shock; not to say hor­ror). I don’t feel bad about doing this on one level. After all, I con­sider The Amber Rooms to be a bet­ter book. But I’m saddened that some of the people who were look­ing for­ward to the work (for more than a year in some cases) found it dis­ap­point­ing.

I remem­ber one guy who wrote that The Amber Rooms was the biggest dis­ap­point­ment of the year. That was depress­ing to read.

So that is fore­most in my mind as I make the decisions behind Red Star Falling.

Cool title.

I’d like to have an impact not dis­sim­il­ar to Déjà Vu but with the qual­ity of The Amber Rooms. Hah! Like that will ever hap­pen.

Looking back, from a 90%-done per­spect­ive, I’d say I’m approach­ing some­thing like that. There are the ‘lit­er­ary’ things that I always struggle to keep a lid on (cer­tain repeat­ing meta­phors; visu­al images I return to) but the story should also be a kin­et­ic, third-act-type of story in the mold of Déjà Vu.

Time pres­sure is anoth­er issue. I nev­er have enough time to write. And because my day job involves using a com­puter, I often sit down to write with a cer­tain amount of fatigue. I’ve tried writ­ing using pen and paper but it’s not quite the same. Rather too manu­al, and not how I like to write.

What else? There’s a fin­an­cial aspect. The cov­er I plan to use involves a pic­ture that will be quite expens­ive to buy. Is it worth it for some­thing that will a short story alone?

Ultimately, I went for a much cheap­er option, which the image you see in this post.

Then there’s the wider busi­ness side of things. I’m try­ing to arrange an edit­or for Red Star Falling and there are plenty of mach­in­a­tions involved. They take away from the writ­ing time and are quite annoy­ing, but… I do know from exper­i­ence that it is bet­ter to be aware of all these pro­cesses than to cede con­trol to a third party who might very well fuck it up.

That’s quite enough for one day, Ian.

Yes, I believe it is. Such lan­guage! I hope Dad’s not read­ing this.

The next journ­al entry, which I’ll pub­lish in a few days, will look at some of the tech­nic­al aspects of the writ­ing the story.

Adventures in the Screen Trade

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my fath­er. Prepare to die.

The man who wrote these words is William Goldman. They are taken from his clas­sic movie, The Princess Bride. He is also the screen­writer behind Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, All the Presidents Men, The Great Waldo Pepper, and A Bridge Too Far. In short, he’s been around the block a few times, and he knows what he’s doing—although he would have you believe that he does not.

The notion that nobody knows any­thing about movies, least of all Goldman, per­meates the book Adventures in the Screen Trade. It is not wholly a prac­tic­al guide on screen­writ­ing. That aspect of the pro­cess is covered in a short but inform­at­ive sec­tion towards the end of the book. Rather, for the most part it is a record of his jour­ney from nov­el­ist to screen­writer. As you can ima­gine, the jour­ney is not a smooth one, and in the pro­cess, Goldman has col­lec­ted many anec­dotes.

I won’t relate any of them here. Indeed, I don’t really remem­ber them in any detail. Dustin Hoffman does not come out well. Laurence Olivier does.

The really inter­est­ing thing for me about the book is that Goldman finds a way to speak enter­tain­ingly about the cre­at­ive pro­cess behind screen­writ­ing. His main mes­sage is that the screen­writer is a some­what impot­ent fig­ure with­in the movie mak­ing pro­cess, con­stantly usurped by the dir­ect­or, the pro­du­cer, and any friends of the dir­ect­or all pro­du­cer who wish to improve his screen­play. It’s not a happy situ­ation. He recom­mends that the screen­writer try to make as much money as pos­sible from his scripts, and then return to some kind of prop­erly cre­at­ive pur­suit, such as nov­el writ­ing.

Nothing very new here, then. But the book is enga­ging non­ethe­less. The real value in this book lies in its final chapters. In these, he begins with a short story that he pub­lished many years before and then con­verts right there into a screen­play, out­lining along the way his struggles in trans­form­ing it. He goes on to inter­view a cine­ma­to­graph­er, edit­or, pro­du­cer, and dir­ect­or to get their impres­sions on pro­du­cing a movie from the final­ised screen­play. The inter­view with the dir­ect­or is worth the price of admis­sion alone. The dir­ect­or is not a big fan of the screen­play. Indeed, he rips Goldman a new one. It’s a great illus­tra­tion of the com­bat­ive pro­cess through which a movie is con­struc­ted.