How long writing takes

For a long, long time, The Bone People was my favourite work of fiction. I haven’t been back to it for a long while, but found a battered copy again recently and have started it again. As I started it I was wondering whether it’d fit into that “I enjoyed it when I was a teenager but I’ve grown up now” thing – but instead I’m being reminded what a blindingly original, beautifully deep roller-coaster of a story it is.

I did a quick Google search for the author, Keri Hulme – and landed on this page which describes in some detail the astonishing journey behind the novel. Hulme won the Booker Prize with The Bone People in 1985, and also published a selection of short stories which I’ve also read (and recommend) but apart from that her literary career has been somewhat sparse. It seems amazing in some ways that an author who writes with the extraordinary scope and creativity represented in The Bone People hasn’t been more prolific, but this is explained perhaps by the obsession which obviously drove her to write it in the first place. According to the piece on the New Zealand Book Council site, one of the three characters of the novel, Simon Peter, a mute boy of unknown age and origin, began haunting Hulme’s dreams an incredible 17 years before she wrote and found success with the novel. The article describes the journey she took – and in particular how this character kept appearing in some form in her short stories, being slowly moulded into the person he is in the final work. It also explains how Hulme had to fight to keep the original text as various editors and publishers tried to cull it.

I found this stuff very interesting from a budding writers’ perspective – not only does it make me feel better about the long time it seems to be taking me to pull together a chunky piece of fiction, but also that this strange, ongoing, intimate relationship with the characters you’re writing about seems to be quite common amongst those of us trying to write a novel. I think a lot about my main protagonist, Palmer while I’m out and about – and find I’m very often coming back to ask: “what would he do here? how would he react now? can I use this somehow?”. Hulme’s obsession with this lost boy character was obviously hugely intense and drove her through nearly two decades of writing before arriving at some kind of end-point. I don’t dream about my characters (yet..!) but find it fascinating that they occupy large chunks of my thinking time. As a reasonably new arrival in the land of fiction writing, I also find it reassuring that this process of writing can go on over a long period of time and still reach some kind of satisfying and rounding conclusion.

Block

I’m 17,000 or so words into my first novel and I realise I’ve been suffering a bit of writers’ block. It’s probably been a couple of months if I think about it realistically. I now see I’ve been in avoidance mode, ostriching the fact that I couldn’t get past this particular issue, and it’s been bugging the shit out of me.

I’ve realised for a while from friends who write or from poking the web that cracking on and just bloody writing is a good strategy for doing fiction. But it is also the case that a bulk of text this size needs a good (sorry: office bingo alert) “helicopter view” to make it flow. I’ve got a plan, of course, and a plot (yay), but there was a crucial motivation thing missing for my main protagonist – Palmer – that I’ve been really stuck with. For the last two months this one question has been whirling around my head: Why the hell would he do what I need him to do? 

(What I need him to do, by the way, is to leave his hugely successful company and the love of his life and run away from it all so he can live in isolation in the arse end of nowhere…) (oh, and later in the book head back to the company to face his demons..)… so the motivation had to be big, overwhelming, unstoppable.

I’ve come up with pages and pages of notes riffing around the motivation that might make this rupture happen, and things got fanciful and weird and then frankly terribly unbelievable – and then I read the amazing, emotional and heart-lifting last interview with the brilliant Iain Banks:

“…only real life can get away with the really outrageous stuff. The trouble with writing fiction is that it has to make sense, whereas real life doesn’t. It’s incredibly annoying for us scribblers. A lot of the time you’re simply deciding how far down the path of unlikeliness you can go while still retaining the willing suspension of disbelief in the reader…you’re trying to decide how much you can get away with”

…and realised that this needed to be blindingly simple to make it believable.

And finally, I’ve got it. It came to me yesterday after about a hundred beers. I’m not going to tell you what the motivation is – just, you know, so you buy my BESTSELLER when I finally get it done (the butler did it)…but needless to say, it’s terribly simple, and I think (think) will work beautifully to tie up a whole bunch of stuff I needed to tie up.

So yay to breaking the block, and thank you to the gods of beer for helping out.

Meanwhile, as they say, here’s an excerpt. Just to give a bit of context, this is the first time the crack underlying the business (it’s a kind of virtual reality escapism holiday company, if you must know..) shows, and things start to go to shit:

>>>

We’d been back at the beach for the day, hanging out and enjoying exploring an environment which I’d designed out there but had no recollection of. The sun was setting and bright stars emerged in the clear sky as we walked back along the beach towards the boat. Suddenly, Lang stumbled, half falling, and ending up on his knees, his head in his hands. I thought he was just drunk, and sat down next to him. Then I turned to speak to him and saw with shock that his eyes were wet with tears, his jaw clenched and his upper body shaking.
Behind us in the darkness of the jungle, a long, loud moan rose up, ripping the quiet night air with its intensity. The yacht, the sea edge, the deck chairs – all suddenly faded and we were pitched into an impenetrable blackness. Lang cried out; the noise from the jungle stopped briefly, and then there was the sound of hard galloping hooves, heading inexorably in our direction, louder and more intense, pounding at what was once sand. My heart was thumping as I reached for Lang, pulling him upright and beginning to run. I could feel his breathing, and his terror, and it matched and built with my own until we were both screaming with the intensity and running as hard as we could, holding on to each other for fear of losing it – whatever the fuck “it” was – completely. Behind us, the noise increased in volume, the hooves dashing down against the ground, a rush of air as the noise gained on us.
The darkness was absolute. I knew and understood nothing apart from fear; a primal fear of the thing behind us but also a deeper, stronger fear of being left alone – alone in this place, with the darkness and the noise. Lang obviously felt the same: we ran holding on to each other, stumbling over each other, pulling each other up, willing ourselves to get the fuck away from whatever was making the noise.
Suddenly the darkness was split by a flash of white light and I saw the thing, reared up on its back legs, its horrific red mouth poised open above Lang’s head. I pushed him to one side and struck out forwards as hard as I could with my fist but I hit nothing but air. The light came on again, and then again, beginning to strobe. I turned with my back to Lang, and we twisted a circle together, back to back, staring outwards into the beyond. Whatever it was had evaporated and instead the space was filled with people, their faces twisted in pain and suffering. With horror, I realised I recognised some of them: Lang’s brother, his father, his mother, shuffling forwards as their broken, bloody arms flailed towards our centre. Lang just stood and screamed, frozen like a rabbit in headlights, the horror burnt on him. I fell to my knees, and covered my ears, needing the rasping sound of Lang’s terror out of my head, unable to offer him any more comfort or solace.
Suddenly, the light stopped flashing, and with one fluid movement, the figures receded and were gone. I suddenly found strength from somewhere and pulled mentally upwards with everything I had, feeling myself slipping back into the darkness for a moment, but just about managing to open my eyes and pull myself up and out. I ripped the headset off and opened my eyes again, and instead of the darkness or the beach, I was back in the kitchen, slumped forwards on the table, the computer still chattering away as the hard drive worked on the simulation…

Teetering

Writing – whether a new song or a bit of fiction – is very often like walking along a thin wire over an abyss. The abyss isn’t death but the loss of the idea – if you look down too long, or think too hard about the almost intangible thing you are running through your brain then it’ll go, just like that, and it’ll never come back.

That crucial moment when an idea is just forming is the most precious, fragile thing – you’re a matter of seconds away from falling off the edge. All it takes is one of your kids to ask you a question, for the phone to go, a text to arrive.. and your idea has gone, tumbling down over the edge into nothing.

This is why I find rapid, easy to use tools are absolutely key to the creative process. For music, it’s either Audio Memos on my phone or a piece of paper on the piano (and a totally non-stavelike and slightly quirky musical notation system I seem to use in preference to writing down real notes..). For writing, it’s a paper notebook or Simple Note. When I’ve caught it with one of these, the fear of losing an idea subsides – and that’s when I can turn to more serious tools like Ableton Live or Scrivener to shape and hone.

What’s interesting though is how many times I tend to come back to the original rough-edged bits – a terrible, static-laden recording of a guitar or a half nonsense scribbled down in the middle of the night. These snippets start off as the most fragile thing but further down the line they quite often turn out to be the most important part of the whole idea…

Kurt is dead

It turns out that Kurt is 6’3.

We know this because the fucker wouldn’t fit in the damn box, no matter which way we tried stretching him. All the while, rigor was setting in and he wasn’t getting any more flexible. Overhead, the trees swayed in the breeze, casting a spooky shadow over an already less than ideal experience.

After a while of trying, Darv just sighed and sat on the edge of the box, pushing Kurt’s size million shoes out of the way for about the thousandth time, reached into his pocket and drew out a packet of fags.

“I fucking give up” he said, breathing out smoke in a thick blue cloud which drifted up before being taken by the breeze and whirled around his head. I could see his point. The fucker was annoying in life so it kind of made sense that he’d carry on being a cunt now we’d finally done something about it. I looked across: Darv looked tired. As well he should, having spent the last forty-eight hours on torture duty. Hard work, torture.

Kurt still had his eyes open, the cunt, staring upwards at the damn trees which carried on their swaying. He pissed me off. The damn hat did my head in. Always the hat, like some kind of fucking marketing bullshit. I made sure I put a hole in the fucking hat when I topped him, slap in the middle of the grey head band. Even in death, he had the hat with him, this time on his chest, a powder burn blooming out in a 2-inch circle from the bullet hole.

Down on the highway, a police car sped past, clearly headed to the motel or somesuch. I watched it go past and then turned back to the hole. The box fit in the hole. Kurt didn’t fit in the box. Fuck.

Darv finished his cigarette, putting it carefully out on the sole of his shoe before pocketing the butt. I’m not sure why he bothered. It’s not like anyone was ever going to come up here, and even if they ever did we’d be in some other county doing some other shit, Kurt long forgotten, some kind of hat-shaped smear on our scoresheet. Even if we just gave up on the whole box / hole idea and just left him out here under the trees with a note with our names on it, it’d probably be an archaeologist rather than a policeman who’d finally uncover him. He’d probably decide that our society was indeed doomed given the crappy hats we obviously all wore. No wonder – he’d say, in some academic paper given three thousand years from now – no wonder they couldn’t procreate: look at the damn hats.

I stepped away and looked down over the lake. It looked peaceful from up here. I could see someone in a canoe over to the west, a thin trail of wake on the surface spreading back like a white tail behind them. I wished I was down there, some kind of normal, a day of fishing or paddling, a family, a kid.

I turned back to Darv, took a deep breath, and thought.

Where the F have you been?

It’s been a long while (possibly the biggest gap since the launch of this blog..) since my last post – over a month.

This is unprecedented for me, and I’ve had four or five emails (thanks!) asking me why. I’ve always dodged around with an answer, not because I was trying to avoid some horrific truth but because until the last couple of days I simply haven’t had the brain time to devote to the reasons.

The first part of the answer to “Mike, where the F have you been?” is this: I’ve been busy keeping balls in the air: another presentation (What does Web 2.0 DO for us?) which I delivered to a roomful at Online Information 2008 on 4th Dec…the beginning stages writing a module for the new Digital Heritage MA/MSc at Leicester University – an opportunity which I’m hugely excited about, and not a little bit scared too…continuing work on three side-projects, none of which I can talk about just yet…development and writing for a corporate blog for internal comms…a desktop notification app…not to mention the hectic craziness of helping look after a 2-boy young family. Etcetefuckinra.

All of which is terribly boring, TBH, because if there’s one thing we all know about each other it is this: we’re all much too busy. In fact a corporate stat somewhere a while ago said that everyone believes themselves to be busier than 90% of everyone else. This is, of course, also true for me.

This leads to the second part of the answer: I’ve felt for a long time that the landscape of blogging has been changing considerably, particularly with lifestreaming now a part of our daily diet. I’ve blogged about noise on various occasions, and I’ve also noticed a huge shift in my own reading habits – a shift which has an obvious effect on my writing habits, too. I’m less interested in “blog post as news”, instead preferring longer, deeper, better written pieces like the beautifully-crafted Business Requirements Are Bullshit. I’m me – you’re you – but the important thing for me is that I write in a way which complements the medium and as much as possible brings some kind of value to those of you who have given up some of your valuable time to read what I have to say.

This brings me neatly on to the third part which was summed up in a conversation with Brian Kelly and Paul Walk over a post-work pint recently: why the F do we all blog, anyway? We were talking at the time about Paul’s much-commented post on blog awards. Paul is similar to me – and different to Brian – in that the former blogs as a hobby and not as a job. Paul runs his blog under his own name; Brian runs his (albeit not “officially”), under “UKWebFocus”. Brian has a series of blog policies and sticks closely to his particular topics; Paul could write about his washing powder if he so chose. I’ve always been clear (both to my readers and employers) that this isn’t a “work blog” – but it isn’t a “personal” one, either.

I started Electronic Museum as a way of reflecting on technology in the museum space. More than a year on and I’m interested in innovation, in technology ubiquity, in sharing data, in real people, in the value of attention data, in the user as focus. All of these call back to what makes museums unique, in my opinion, and it is in these arenas that I personally feel the battles for online content will be (or are being) fought and won. The point is it isn’t just a conversation about museums any more. And really, it never has been, in this always-on, radically-connected crazy internetwebthing we spend so much time staring at and talking about.

Much as I’ve carved a niche here with museum professionals who seem to value what I have to say, I’m also fascinated by the irony that nowadays it isn’t niche professionals that we need any more. Curators (museum and otherwise) – IMO – aren’t anything at all without the vision to see that what they know needs communicating in new, challenging ways; ways that may well undermine their professionalism purely because the social network they engage with has dug up someone who knows better than them. Content owners need to start to understand that value simply can’t be measured by “visits” when many people are out there having experiences with their content and not within the walled garden of their site. Technologists have got to stop hiding behind PEBCAC and start engaging with the people that are currently alienated by technology.

So what – exactly – am I saying?

I guess it is this: you’ll notice a shift over the coming weeks and months as I write about more of the things I’m doing outside of the museum space: my dabblings with the Arduino, for instance, the various other projects I’m continuously working on, a secretish partnership I’ll be able to talk about in January, and so on. I hope I won’t break the niche I’ve created – I hope that if you are a “museum professional” then you’ll continue to hang out here – I think what I have to say will be interesting, or at least mildly entertaining, whoever you are.