STARTING SOMETHING

I started writing a novel today.

It’s a strange thing, starting something. I always seem to have a nervous energy when I begin a project, and that energy is always somewhat driven by fear. Fear of failing. Fear of it not being as good as I can picture it. Fear that this time when I put pen to paper I’ll find my ability is gone, that the spark of creativity in me has fizzled out and I’m boring again. It’s irrational, but I’ve found a way to overcome it.

Start anyway.

This seems to be the hardest part. That first burst of motivation and inspiration. Until that initial moment of creation, my idea is perfect. It’s in the starting that I open the door to faults and flaws, that I can introduce my imperfect technique and see my ideal concept become something common. Of course the irony is that a concept is nothing, and so much lesser than a flawed something.

A lesson that has recently crystallised for me is one of the path to success. My sister once showed me a diagram that displayed the two perceived paths to success. On the left was a road that diverged to two outcomes: Succeed or Fail. This is the commonly believed path to success. Win or lose. To the right was an image of a road which zigzagged, and at each bend was a signpost which read “fail.” But at the end of the road was a trophy which read “succeed.” The actual path to success.

The problem with the former view is you only get one chance; you win or you lose. There’s no room for error in this path to success, and this makes starting something a nerve-racking voyage to make. With this concept in your head you launch yourself into the unknown and are snatched down the first time you trip up. Done. You failed. Thanks for playing.
This daunting potential for failure can be enough to stop someone from even starting. Much safer to avoid the risk and stay off the path all together.

Luckily this view of success is entirely wrong.

It’s the latter that encapsulates any experience of success I’ve ever had. This truth became starkly apparent when I first attempted to crochet a beanie. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that after envying a beanie my cousin owned I set out to duplicate the garment. Since then I’ve made about ten beanies and it’s gotten to a point where a person can’t visit my house without leaving with crocheted wool draped over their head. This end result shows I succeeded in my goal. But that was the end result; the path to that point was a bloody mess.

To begin my beanie I first had to master the initial ring of stitches. It’s called the magic circle. The magic of this circle proved to be its ability to provoke a string of curses from a man who normally remains quite calm. The wool slipped from my fingers, the hook refused to weave through the gaps I wanted it to, and the stitches were either too loose or so small that no grown man’s fingers could hope to navigate them. After hours of work, after a conglomeration of failures, I had a rather rough, but technically correct, magic circle.

I then laboured in mastering the following rings of stitches. After hours of studying the YouTube tutorial I was watching, stopping, rewinding, rewatching, and stopping, I had added a further six rows to my creation. I was feeling good, I was about halfway through, and the tangle of stitches was starting to resemble a beanie.

But as I bent to watch my online teacher begin the next ring I noticed something. Her needle was slipping through two loops each time she made a stitch whereas mine was only slipping through one. I looked back at my work and immediately saw the neglected loop I had been failing to hook with each stitch. While my beanie still held together, the missing loop meant that it wouldn’t be as strong as it should be and prone to stretch. I was doing it wrong. I would have to start again.

It should have been demoralising to have to pull apart the hours of hard work I had spent sweating over wool and crochet needle, but in all honesty it was a relief. I didn’t trust my new skills enough to presume I had been proceeding errorless, and I now felt I had caught my error. I may have been back to nothing more than a tangle of wool and the prospect of reattempting the magic circle, but I had learnt from my mistakes, which meant this time I would do it right.

And this is the lesson of the latter: the path to success is littered with failure. But each failure isn’t a slipping down a snake back to the start, it’s a step forward with new knowledge earned from that failure. Each mistake I made was a lesson in how not to do it, meaning all other attempts were done with a higher ratio of success.

With this in mind, starting something is a much easier journey to make. I may trip the minute I step onto the path, but each trip is something I can improve on, and something that is now behind me.

So today I started my novel. I did it with the belief that all errors I made could only, inevitably, make it better.

For those of you playing at home, the first word of my novel is “The.” An auspicious start in its vast scope for potential words to follow.

And it can only get better from here.

I HAVE AN IDEA

Story ideas are elusive things to define. I think the most repeated question writers must encounter is: “Where do your ideas come from?” And even though this question has become a cliché and the bane of writers during interviews, every time I come across an amazing idea/concept/character, I can’t help but stop, lower my book and wonder, “How the hell did they come up with that?”

In interviews, the writers always seem to struggle to come up with an answer that satisfies them. I think the reason for this is that writers want to create an answer that is clever and apt; but there is no clever and apt answer. The question would probably have to be delivered on a case-by-case basis for the writer to provide an accurate answer.

i.e.

Q: “In scene x with character y, how did you come up with the idea for character x to say dialogue z?”
A: “I read it on a cereal box.”

As you can see this process would be rather tedious and make for a long-winded interview.

But despite the logical answer most writers eventually give, “Lots of places,” the desire to know, to understand the fountain of greatness and where it springs from, is still there. As an aspiring writer, I can’t help but hunger to understand the workings of their minds and follow the track their synapses took to come to the amazing conclusion that is their piece of writing. The reasoning is a simple one: If I can understand it, I can replicate it.

Recently I’ve been looking over some of my old writing and found myself asking the question of where the ideas came from to myself. Time has fogged my memory enough that the exact moment of inspiration has faded leaving me in a dementia-like fugue about how I came to put those exact words to paper. But my weak long-term memory gives me the opportunity to answer the question of where ideas come from to myself:

Ideas come from lots of places. (Wait, there’s more). So many times it is a random string of events that results in an idea. It could start with the briefest glimpse I get of a man and a child on the footpath as I’m driving down the road. Maybe the boy is picking something off the pavement and the man is bending down to see what he’s found. And maybe as I’m driving past I’m not thinking about writing or stories, I’m thinking about the dessert I’m going to eat that night, but that fleeting images snags something in my head. The image sticks and dessert slips from my brain and I find myself wondering what the boy might have found. Idea.

The next stage to the answer is that ideas are usually more than one idea, they’re a mutated amalgamation of ideas. Maybe earlier that day I was shopping for dessert when I came across a metallic frog that when you click its belly it sounds like it’s croaking. (This item actually exists, my dad has it, but for the purposes of the example let’s say I found it at the shops). I remember this curious item and suddenly I know in my story what it is the boy has found. He brushes off the dirt to reveal a tarnished and beat-up metallic frog that croaks when you push its belly. Idea.

Now this is just the frame of a story, a starting place, but through this string of memories, moments, and images, a story idea is cobbled together. Questions come from this beginning: “What does the boy do with the metal frog?”, “What does the man do with it?”, “Will the frog become an animated spirit, whispering to the boy in the night, speaking of greatness in a croaky voice?” The answers to these questions are part of the story idea process.

And maybe at this point I want to insert a moral or meaning to the story. Maybe I know an elderly man who collects wombat paraphernalia, only now in my story the old man has a frog paraphernalia collection. And maybe the metallic frog was the first item he ever received, and suddenly the story’s about ownership and lost things. Idea.

The beauty of this demonstration is that anything can be story. Or maybe it should be everything is story. Every conversation, every freeze-frame image, every unique quirk, every memory, or smell, or taste can go into a story. These details are what make a story feel real and special and makes readers like me stop and wonder how they came up with something so original and perfect.

One of the things I enjoy most about writing is there is no such thing as wrong. Anything that is sticking to the roof of your brain can be jotted down, explored, and fed with creativity until it becomes something bigger that the original image of a boy and a man finding something on the pavement. It becomes plot, and interesting characters, and mythology, and a mini-reality put to paper.

Where do stories ideas come from?

Where don’t they come from.

POST-TURBULENCE

I’m writing this as I sit in my empty new house. It’s been a busy few months.

I haven’t updated the site in a while for a few reasons. The first and most important reason is that I’ve been channeling my writing efforts into actual fictional writing. I’ve found with this site it’s easy to sate the writing appetite by publishing a new post. One click of the mouse and you’ve dispensed words to a potentially enormous audience. So in an effort to be more productive I’ve been working on some writing that someone else might want to publish.

Secondly, and as hinted at in the opening line, I’ve bought a house. It turns out the process of acquiring a home can take up a lot of your time. The search, the open houses, the negotiations, the meetings with brokers, realtors and solicitors. I was shocked at the cloud of stress that descended once the search began. But the good news is the house is bought (although still far from paid for), and the cloud is breaking apart, and as I sit in my empty house writing this it feels good to be a home owner.

Right now my house is like a blank page, waiting for words and stories to fill it. Empty rooms always feel so strange and incomplete, but right now it just feels anticipatory. Like the heaviness in the air before a storm breaks. I can’t wait to find out what stories unfold to fill these walls.

The final reason for the lack of writing is that I’ve been doing the artwork for a children’s book. I’m not the writer on this project, just the illustrator. Whilst I’ve always enjoying making art, I’ve never been commissioned for any project. When the opportunity came up I thought it would be brilliant. As with purchasing a house, I was unprepared for the effort required to create the artwork for a children’s book. I have sunk hours into sketches, drafts, and learning illustrator software. It resulted in a new found respect for anyone working in the graphic art industry.

The book should come out before christmas, all things going well. I’ll post more as it develops.

So, now that my few months of turbulence is winding down, I thought it only fair to post something on the site. In an effort to entice readers back I’ve posted a new piece of short writing which can be found in the writing page, or simply by clicking here.

In complete honesty, it’s a bribe. Take it. You know you want it.

FRAMING REALITY

Once when I was having a short story of mine work-shopped my lecturer stated that I had written an anecdote, not a story. This irked me at the time; I felt he was being pedantic and finding fault to complete his role as educator. This was perhaps a bit arrogant because after giving it some space, I looked back on this particular story and saw that he was absolutely correct. I had written an anecdote.

The difference between an anecdote and a short story is one of framing. An anecdote, as my lecturer explained, is a situation, an occurrence that lacks the correct framing of a story. This framing is a familiar one we’re all taught from primary school: beginning, middle, and end.

My anecdote had characterisation, dialogue, imagery. It had things happening. What it didn’t have was a point.

After realising the truth behind my lecturer’s advice, I gave the problem a lot of thought. I attempted to create a story that had correct framing. Unfortunately, being not yet twenty at the time and having spent a lot of my childhood in front of the television left me reaching for clichés to structure my stories. I used episodic formats and overused ideas. In other words, my stories weren’t very good. I became frustrated.

After months of frustration I pinpointed the cause of my irritation; life is messy.

I wanted to capture reality in my writing. I wanted to take the chaos of my experiences and display them in my text as they had felt. Even if what I was writing was fantasy, I wanted in to feel real. And life is messy. It lacks format, and at times it even lacks a point. I was frustrated because I felt my anecdotes more accurately represented reality than a neatly framed story. Granted, they were basically a description of events, but then so is life.

I didn’t write for a while after that realisation. I decided I’d wait until I thought of a story that had the correct framing, but at the same time allowed me to express my version of reality. And for a long time I didn’t think I could do it. I thought that any attempt to reshape ideas and events into a neat package was sacrificing my representation of a messy reality.

It took me a while to realise that I was looking at it from the wrong side. I had a story line and was trying to squeeze reality into that shape. But that’s not a writer’s job. What I actually had was reality, and what I should have been doing was looking for the story within it. Because even though life is messy, it’s a writer’s job to take that mess and search for a meaning. To find the point.

A well written story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has motifs, and loaded dialogue. It has subtext. It has a point. It’s a writer’s job to scroll through the mess of reality and find these elements in life. By writing an anecdote I was simply being lazy. I was failing to cut away the excess to find the structure buried inside.

By writing a story you’re finding the point amongst the mess. You’re pulling out the meaning from the chaos of events and structuring it so that meaning is more evident for the reader. An anecdote may capture a messy reality, but then so too does a diary entry. Or, god forbid, a blog. And while these types of writing have their purpose, they aren’t a story.

A story isn’t simply about photocopying reality; it’s about finding the meaning in the mess.

Thanks to my lecturer for pointing this out to me by criticising my work. It was the best thing he could have done.

 

SPECIMEN

Given that I have had a story recently published I thought I’d offer up a specimen of my writing for people to try.

I’ve uploaded a short story titled White Bone, Red Muscle, which explores the fragility of the human body. It can be found here, or by tripping headfirst into the writing page

If you like what you read and are slamming your fists on the floor begging for more, please feel free to head here, where you can purchase the latest copy of Aurealis featuring my short story, Remembering The Mimi.