New writing, old tricks

To say I found academic writing difficult is a bit of an understatement.

The trouble is, I’m all heart. I fling myself into things without any much consideration: an idea either lights my rockets – in which case, liftoff is pretty much instantaneous – or it doesn’t, in which case, liftoff will never happen.

A lot of academic work I found pretty combustive. The vast array of ideas is fertile ground for a brain that likes bolting in eight different directions at once. I suspect this is why I ended up in media studies: at 24 frames a second, you can pack in a lot of ideas, even in short, throwaway texts like ads and pop videos. And the more academic work you read, the deeper you see into any given text and the more connections you can make to other texts. This is your classic gifted ‘deep dive’, and my brain threw itself at that stuff like a pig into wallow, gleefully.

But conveying what I saw, in writing, was a whole different story. Academic writing is WHOA, NELLY. Before you even start you must locate your text, choose your theoretical planks, craft them into a sea-worthy vessel, pack supplies, toss extraneous stuff overboard, and then navigate from island to island keeping the passengers from mutiny until you get to the New Land. (Where, yes, some set about slaughtering the inhabitants, though I’m more of a ‘settle peacefully’ kinda gal.) That’s a lot more orderly and restrained than gleeful wallowing, you know?

I struggled to get it. Could not shove my brain onto those rails. When my poor supervisor finally made me begin writing, I sat on the floor of my office surrounded by notes and literally moved scraps of paper around until a structure blossomed. Then I gave a presentation titled, ‘My Thesis Is A Flower’ (with diagrams), which caused her to laugh nervously and left everyone else in the room wondering what had happened to Introduction, Question, Methodology, Results, Conclusion. But it made perfect, theoretical sense to me.

In fact each petal (and in the end there were fourteen of the bastards) was a mini-thesis. Every single one had to cover where we were, how we were travelling, where we were going, what we’d find when we got there. Even once I had that plan, it took months of meticulous outlining to ensure I made each step in order, filled all the holes, and forged links between neighbouring petals. And then I could get to writing.

The whole thing took nine plodding years, and it thoroughly ground my gears. It felt like I’d travelled the whole way in first.

So I was thrilled to finally be freed from academic constraints. Now I could write whatever I wanted, full speed ahead. No references! No argument! No thinking – just writing! EASY! Flinging off the straitjacket, I galloped headlong into my novel about ten minutes after my last full-time contract ended. My glee at being back in the mud can be measured: the first draft was over 270,000 words, and getting it to float has taken 14 years.

(How many metaphors have I brought into play so far? That in itself is probably an apt metaphor for how my brain works!)

Quite a lot of that is down to loss of brain function over that time, but some of it was down to the fact that when I started, I knew only that I was headed west-ish. Turned out I was on little more than a raft. It shipped water, ran into countless reefs, someone had smuggled a llama onboard, and I stopped to observe every fish and seagull we passed along the way. I’ve spent easily half those years chucking stuff, reshaping planks, plugging holes, re-rigging, and shifting ballast, so that now I’ve got an actual, working vessel. This last draft cruised into port with the bunting out.

It was a terrific learning process, but for goodness sake, I cannot spend 14 years on each project. They’re light romances, not War and Peace, and I would actually like to sell one or two before I die.

So here I am, six chapters into Number Two and I’ve stopped again. Because I’ve remembered an important fact, dammit: novels have structure, too. (I’ve taught narrative often enough; you’d think I would have remembered and thought to apply it, but no. That’s not how gifted works. Gifted is either all on or all off, and wailing on the floor if you have to work at it.)

And while I am, clearly, 100% a pantser by nature, that really only works if you have sustained or at least regular writing time and a functional brain, one that remembers where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going. (That is not my life, and it sure as hell ain’t my brain.)

So even though this book on writing annoyed the hell out of me triggered a giant attack of SAF, I do realise that the author is absolutely correct. If I don’t want to be at sea for another fourteen years, I need to set off knowing which islands we’ll be visiting, who’s on board, and a route that avoids the doldrums.

Alas, it turns out, I still have to do all the prior planning and preparation that prevents piss-poor performance, as my husband puts it so charmingly. I have to do – SIGH – plotting.

Luckily, I have the skills. And a generous supply of coloured pens and paper, tape, and scissors.

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