What can you do in February?
Go to Plymouth, that’s what we decided. Driving from Sheffield to the south coast simply must increase the temperature by a degree or two, mustn’t it? The photo above is where we stayed: Royal William Yard. This is the early nineteenth century, Granite and Devon Limestone built, Mills Bakery. Fabulous place. This is the huge central area on the third floor; the picture taken slightly off-centre to annoy those who are annoyed by such things but also to show the structure more clearly.
Structure. Now there’s a word.
There is no argument, everything needs structure. Without a skeleton, we’d be a useless, fleshy puddle. Without foundations, support beams and walls, buildings would collapse into a heap of rubble. Without a spine, story arc and basic structure, a novel would be a meandering, pointless waffle (I’ve written a couple of those!) But I don’t think it’s a particularly contentious argument to say that the skeleton, the support beams or the spine of a story is not where the main attraction lies. Those structures allow the quality of the person/building/story to shine. They have to be there, but don’t have to be, shouldn’t be, visible.
There are always exceptions, I suppose. This tree is definitely showing some degree of its structure, either internal or external. I don’t know enough about trees to know exactly what’s going on here but it looks quite cool. The Terminator looked quite cool, too, when his outer shell was compromised and you could see his inner workings. So there are exceptions. Thinking about all this and the novel that I’ve just read has made me realise something about structure and planning.
I won’t mention the title of the novel but it had a great premise and the writing was pretty damn good, too. Excellent in some places. The problem was that the whole structure of the novel showed through so clearly that it made reading it a complete chore. The old argument about planning carefully or writing by the seat of your pants rages on. Personally, I’m a bit of a seat of your pants type and have enjoyed many heated arguments with the opposition. But I’ve never suggested that there should be an absence of structure; that would be mad. And, for what it’s worth, I strongly suspect that those of us who don’t plan actually do so subconsciously. Anyway, this particular novel had clearly been planned out meticulously with all the plot twists and character swings and blind alleys mapped out in minute detail. The problem, I think, is that the author didn’t really know how to fill in the middle bits. And it showed. I found myself scan reading between the big, pivotal moments because I was bored. And that’s not good writing.
So the answer must be a mix of both: have a plan, stick to it as rigidly as possible but write like a normal person and not like an android. It’s got to look, sound and feel natural, just like this famous landmark in Plymouth. And I think that this proves that you don’t have to be a slave to convention to follow a plan. Even the most rigid rule can be adhered to with creativity still at the forefront. This particular piece of creativity was achieved mainly through a visit to the Plymouth Gin Distillery. Everything was fine before we went in but, after a few gins and an amazing Hunky Dory cocktail, things suddenly started to get interesting. I think that’s the most important lesson I’ve taken from this disaster of a novel: just doing things right doesn’t guarantee a satisfactory finished product. Following the rules blindly because that’s how you’ve been told to do something will result in, at the very best, a boring outcome; at the very worst, a complete and utter car crash.
So the planners and seat of our pants people can all still be friends. There is light at the end of the tunnel whichever route you chose to take.
And having mentioned creativity (I’m sure I did), it brings to mind a recent conversation I had with a musician friend of mine. He’d seen some reference on social media that suggested I’d written a novel at some point. I confirmed that I’d written ten and that none of them had been published but that I was in no way bitter. ‘I can’t seem to do that,’ he said. ‘I don’t seem to have the ability to come up with an original idea. Once a song is actually written, I can’t help but get involved and really enjoy shaping it and changing it and turning it into something special. I just can’t do that first bit.’
Where to start?
‘You do know that the first bit is sort of the easy bit, don’t you?’ I said. I just got a puzzled look. I tried to explain how the idea isn’t the art. There are millions of ideas out there, all you have to do is pick them up. There are only twenty six letters of the alphabet and there are only seven notes in western music. We’re pretty restricted but there still seems to be an infinite availability of new stuff. Take four chords: C, G, Am, F. You could actually make do with just these really. You could probably make a career out of them. Many have. After all, there are two hundred and fifty six combinations of just these four chords. With all seven that would be over eight hundred thousand. Okay, the twenty six letters have a bigger potential but it can’t be argued that they can be used in any combination. That would be absurd. But the Oxford English Dictionary still lists over a hundred and seventy thousand meaningful words. And if you listed all the words in any number of novels you would find the vast majority are common to all works (I have no citation for this and don’t feel obliged to look for one. It just seems obvious). Actually, Wikipedia lists two thousand common words in contemporary fiction.
Apropos of nothing, a shot of the Plymouth Gin Distillery with a dodgy bloke loitering nearby.
My friend went on to say how much he enjoyed working on the bare bones and that he also seemed to have the knack of knowing when to stop. That is where the real creativity is. The edit. The rewrite. That’s why Music Producers, the good ones, are so precious. They’re the people who turn something that would go unnoticed banged out on an old acoustic at a party into a Space Oddity or a Strawberry Fields Forever. The same with Literary Editors. They know how to turn a bright idea into a brilliant, life changing novel or poem. Look what Ezra Pound did with a politically dodgy ramble by T. S. Eliot. And we can thank Max Brod for there even being any Kafka as he refused to carry out his friends death-bed wish to burn everything he had written. He edited and published them instead.
But my friend’s skill takes him half way there. He is doing the job of a producer already. Me and that dodgy bloke above do a bit of sound engineering with bands around Sheffield. It occurred to us that it wouldn’t hurt if we legitimised ourselves a little by doing some formal sound engineering course. We did just that and we discovered that there really was a secret member of every band. The producer or engineer. It was as creative as anything I’d ever done and I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t done it when I was seventeen. And, sitting out there in the audience, controlling the sound that is coming out of the PA system is just as exciting as standing in front of the mic with a guitar. I was going to say, ‘but minus the diarrhoea’, but that’s not entirely true: nerves are nerves and no-one ever wants to mess up.
And that’s where all the fun is and that’s where all the work is. I try to reassure fellow writers who panic when they have no idea what to write. They’re scared of writer’s block or that they just can’t do it anymore. Filling that blank page is not the art any more than banging out random chords is making musical art. It’s the work that goes in afterwards that is the true art. So don’t panic about the blank page, just bloody type something. It doesn’t matter what. Just a word. Wardrobe, or Because, or Miserable. Anything will do. And when you’ve typed that first word, type another. It doesn’t have to make sense, only you will read it. You have something to work with and the delete key is just there by your right little finger.
So get out there are create. It’s fun and rewarding and, you never know, you might even make a few quid out of it.
Here’s a glimpse of potential spring. I caught it hiding behind a tree in Plymouth. Only a few weeks now and there’s every chance that I could be sipping my fifty seven percent Navy Strength gin in the sunshine.