Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Pattern Analysis, Redux

Many, many years ago - before print-on-demand, 9/11 and home internet - I got it into my head to write and publish a short story collection. It's a tale I've retold many times as a motivational exercise in my capacity as a writer and as a civilian (the lessons of those days are useful in real life too) so I won't repeat it here, but there was a specific moment during the pregnancy of Paying For Breakages that I thought about again today.

Any good short story collection has a theme, and at the time I was struggling to think of one - I already had a half-dozen stories that I'd written over the previous few years so it needed to be vague enough to fit around them but strong enough to propel the stories I'd yet to write. In the end I flipped the exercise on its head and re-read the stories, hoping I might be able to find a common theme - and I was surprised to find one leapt right out. All of the stories, in one way or another, were about illusions: hallucinations, lies, deceptions, dreams, fantasies - things unreal temporarily promoted to reality. Reviewing the outlines I'd drafted for the yet-unwritten content, I recognised the same theme throughout those too.

Whether this was a particular unconscious obsession of my twenty-something self or the residual imprint of reading too much Neil Gaiman (or, more likely, a symbiosis of the two), it gave me a jolt. Writers bare their souls on the page, but we don't always realise it - we tend to recycle experiences and conversations we've had, the stuff of life pulverised and remixed into new cement, but the shadows that move  beneath don't always become apparent until we read our work again later, long after we forgot the ending, as if we were our own customer.

I've been a bit stuck lately. I wouldn't call it writer's block - there has never been a time in my life when a blank page has been anything but irresistible to me - but The Vagrant And The Snowflake has been a lot harder to focus on than any other book I've started. It might be the nature of the genre (I like worldbuilding a little bit too much, and can spend hours idly doodling maps or writing travel guides to the various countries of Komorolia), or the fact that this is the first of a trilogy and so requires far more planning than usual before I am comfortable enough to nudge that first domino. I'm certainly not uninvested in the characters, whom I already love dearly.

I had a similar problem with The Writing Class, actually: that one was difficult craft because it was a tangled ensemble, and while tangling is easy to do by accident it's murderously hard to do on purpose. I solved that problem by breaking off part way through and writing another book, Control, which was shorter, sharper and very different in tone. A useful distraction: each book became an escape from (and safety valve for) the other.

The Writing Class opens on Valentine's Day, but that's not why I'm referencing it here: I'm thinking of pulling the same end-run around myself that I did back then, by writing something shorter, wilder, less planned and more experimental as a mid-season distraction. I had the beginnings of an idea a little while ago, when I discovered I could suddenly do climb-ups when they had always bested me before, and caught myself staring down at my own hands, incredulous at this new ability, like every superhero origin story ever. That moment of unexpected self-discovery stuck in my mind.

It occurred to me while I leafed through some of my old blog entries that, like Paying For Breakages all those years ago, there is a theme that I did not previously recognise: the masculine appetite for gaining new powers, trying new things, uncovering talents we did not suspect, doing things that are out of character precisely to shake up that character. It's a primal driver of much that men do, and I think there might just be a story there.

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