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.