Writing at the speed of story

I’ve noticed that my writings fall into one of two buckets. The labels for these buckets haven’t crystallised for me yet. Not “short and long”, not “character-driven and plot-driven”, not “good and bad” – these do have some truth in them. Maybe “fast and slow”, though those words don’t describe how I write them – a “slow” piece might flow out much more freely than a “fast” piece that had to be dragged out by its ankles a word at a time. These descriptions apply more to my mental attitude about a piece.

Often I find that when writing a strongly plotted novel or short story, the plot rushes me through. These are my “fast” stories. I see the dots and I’m in a hurry to join them. My fingers furiously forge the chain of causality that is plot. I hit each scene like a pinball and bounce off in search of the next. I don’t have a metaphor for the kind of writer that I want to be, but I can tell you it isn’t “a pinball”.

Of the stories I’ve had published by others, 2/3 were not that plot driven. Yes, there was forward motion carrying the tale through the scenes, but it was not the focus of the story. In those pieces, my focus was inside each scene and on making them evocative and forceful. These are my “slow” stories. They are almost always short and I can see why: when the destination is close, I can take the journey more slowly.

My problem is a problem of tense. Writing the “fast” stories, I concentrate on “What is going to happen next?”; writing the slow, “Where am I now?”. I believe I get better writing out of myself when I hold the second question in mind.

I’m finally beginning to edit a novel that’s been languishing in first draft purgatory for over a year. The edit is hard, because this is a book from the “fast” bucket. I’m not present in the scenes. I’m in the next scene, waiting for my words to find a way to get there. They catch up; I skip on. Much of my description feels perfunctory or for pacing or to provide a floor plan for my characters to move around in without tripping over any continuity mistakes.

I’m taking my despair as a good sign – it lets me know I’ve learned things and grown as a writer over the last year or so.

There’s more to learn yet.

I must learn to linger. I must learn to stay inside a scene and run my fingers through it, taste the air, spy out the bright details.

In this way, I can create more stories to be proud of.



Performance Art vs Garret Art

I had the opportunity last month to head up to the Edinburgh Fringe and see a friend of mine act and dance in a show (that she had also choreographed). Fringe is something I’ve been meaning to do for years and this extra incentive finally got me there – that and an 8 hour train journey broken in Leeds. After I got over my mind being blown by this awesome show and my friend’s incandescent talent, I started thinking about the difference between introverted creativity and extroverted creativity.

What do I mean by those terms?

I think of introverted creativity as what I do. I sit, generally alone, in my own space and write, draw or sew. When I have something ‘finished’ – by which I mean, something that can survive being abandoned – I push it out into the world as a thing that is almost separate from me. Then I step back into the shadows. If an audience comes to interact with my creation, it is asynchronous. If they choose to feedback to me, that feedback is often filtered through the process required to commit thoughts to keyboard.

Extroverted creativity, then, is performance. The creator and the creation entwined. The creative is out there creating in front of the audience’s eyes. Even under the weight of all the prior preparation and planning and practice, each performance creates anew. There’s always the potential for new discoveries and new interpretations. No performance is ever the definitive performance. The piece does not have to be abandoned. There are no shadows for the performer. The spotlight of the audience’s attention shines on them. The feedback is immediate. It flows across the faces of the audience. It thrums in the energy that is shared between performer and audience. The connection is human, not textual.

This is what I envy the performance artist: that connection. I create, but I can’t stand close to the reader, peering over the top of their screen, and watch fear, sadness, surprise and joy move their face. I stay in my garret.