I write blog posts in the usual way. You read them (or not) in the usual way.
Every now and then, we pause for a digression while I check on progress with the fantasy novel that I inadvertently started last week. I was intending to write about the difficulty of starting something – and then I went and did it. I started something.
So we’ll have it in the background. The occasional paragraph. Although this week you get more than that. This week is for pure (sic) self-indulgence. Normal service resumed next week.
If you’d asked me, at around the time I wrote last week’s opening sentence – “Okay, so today we’re going to start the novel.” – whether I was about to start a fantasy novel, or any other kind of novel, I would have said no.
I would have told you that I was going to write about – and then I would have done a lot of telling. About opening scenes, structure, blah blah. There might have been diagrams. I like to think that I would have been quite convincing.
But it occurs to me now that what I actually did – starting something – was showing rather than telling. If I really want to talk myself up, I’d tell you that I acted out the moves I suggest you make, rather than standing behind you and telling you what to do.
That’s a good thing. If you can enable your reader to see what your characters are doing, as she reads, that’s a lot better than just telling her they did it. If you can show (demonstrate) what you want to tell about starting a novel…
The sentence “William started a fantasy novel” is no substitute for the experience of reading last week’s post, however dreadful that experience might be.
Actually, I’m extremely modest and unassuming, thank you very much. Embarrassed, too. A fantasy novel? Really?
I just think that if I’m going to write about how to do something, I should have a crack at doing it as well. The chef who taught me how to fillet a fish, all those years ago, did it by filleting a fish.
Other analogies are available: ride a motorcycle (I followed him); fire a gun (we each had a single-shot target rifle); do joined-up writing (Mrs Thompson did it first on the blackboard); break the siege of a walled city (sorry, that just crept in).
You can pick up learning from people who don’t (can’t?) do what they teach, but it’s never quite as useful as it would be if they were writing from experience rather than from examples of what other people have done in the past. Discuss. Or just get on with it.
Ahem! Anyway. This week’s blog post – the one from which I’m digressing to check on the novel – is all about politics, as you’d expect. It’s perceptive, incisive, and it makes a number of very cogent points about the current situation in the UK. It’s very nuanced and the prose is richly coruscating as well as spare.
That said, my imaginary reader this week is a former Kremlin-watcher who has just started an Eng. Lit. degree at a fashionable university. Out of respect for his old skills and to help him hone his new skills, as he embarks on his first Eng. Lit. Crit. essay, I have contained the entire blog post in the subtext of this paragraph. Read between the lines, Yevgeny.
Back to the digression. I’m mostly happy with last week’s work on The Old Guy With A Thousand Faces (which we might as well use for now as a working title). Provisionally, it gets us past the opening-sentence thing – “You are the chosen one!” et cetera – and provisionally, it gets us past the opening-scene thing. That whole conversation outside the cave.
Provisionally, because we might delete it all later. But for now, it gives us characters to work with, and the makings of a story. A Mage. Two possible heroes with (so far, only lightly shaded in) back-stories. Yak trains, mountains, a monastery with a library. A father, a mother, lots of uncles and brothers, Princess Eustacia and her party on Saturday.
We could take any of them, any of that, anywhere. We could delete all of it in favour of something we haven’t written yet. But at least we’ve started. If there’s anything to be learned from last week’s post, it is: you’ve got to start somewhere. Even in the middle of a blog post if you have to.
Then, just write what comes. I don’t write fantasy novels. I can say that because I know what I do write. I’m a traditionally published and independently published author of books ranging from children’s stories to tax guides (I found a tax guide the other day, that I’d forgotten, with my name on the cover; strange moment).
I’m also an obscure blogger who has only recently grasped the point about specialising in something – writing – and I write elsewhere as well. But I can say with confidence that I don’t–
“I do have one question.”
“Yerk!” William jerks back from the laptop. His coffee mug (empty now) goes flying.
Edgalcius the Mage is standing behind him, reading over his shoulder.
“Yee! What? How? What – you doing here?”
William’s heart is beating so fast you can see the pulse of it in his face. He’s white as a blank sheet of paper and breathless. He puts his hand to his chest. “What? How?”
Edgalcius the Mage shrugs.
“Cut! Do we have to put ‘the Mage’ after my name every time?”
“You wrote me. I’m here. Look, do you mind if I use your shower? Living in a cave, you know? Keep writing; it’s different. I’m interested.”
“What’s the question?” William is getting over the shock.
“It’ll keep. Won’t be long.”
“There’s a towel on the rack.”
I don’t write fantasy. But I do say: write what comes. Said that twice now. Even if it’s fantasy. Don’t edit while writing, and plan whenever you feel like it. But any inspiration that wants to get onto the page, should be allowed to get onto the page. Tidy it up later.
“How do I–?”
“There’s a switch just outside the bathroom door. A red light comes on.”
The shower starts.
So all of a sudden, I do write fantasy. It’s derivative, I suppose, and the “Mage in search of an author” thing isn’t as original as I believe it is.
But I think I can say the story is alive. That’s what matters. I’m interested enough to be writing this while all the sensible bloggers are rabbiting on about Brexurrghzzz (but see below the picture). I want to know what happens next.
Anyway. Opening scene completed, it’s time to drop in some information.
Come with me for a moment. Stand where Pipsqueak was standing last week and look down.
See his village down there?
Yes, I see the bird. Yes, isn’t it odd to be looking down at a bird in flight? Yes, nice bird, but look. The village.
See how the road – no, he lives in the hut complex to the left of the market square, see? – the road goes – very small, yes, tiny, like ants – the road goes up through that valley, past the lake – wouldn’t it, yes? But cold – and then into – this is Summer; we’re in the mountains – the fog? That fog is where I haven’t built my world–
No, you’re still looking at the track up the mountain. I mean that road over there. Yes, through the valley – no, not that road.
Okay, step back from the edge. You can let go of my arm now. We’ll do this the hard way.
Pipsqueak lives in the hut complex that is to the left of the market square as you look down at his village from the ledge outside Edgalcius the Mage’s cave. It’s a hut complex rather than just a hut because Pipsqueak comes of a large family that’s lived in the same spot for generations – they just build on an extra hut when necessary. Nobody in Pipsqueak’s family ever goes anywhere, and if you want me to lay it on thick, there’s an inbuilt bias against shopping trips into town, let alone heroic quests.
Got that? We have some family tension coming up.
Below us, we can see the track – the yak-trail – winding down the mountain to the market square. There’s a road that goes through the market square, from left to right if we switch to map view, but the one I’m talking about is the twisty one that goes up through the valley into the – oh, there’s less fog now. You can just make out the spires and the towers of the faraway walled town that’s just come into my head.
Yes, I suppose it is the continuation of the winding track, if you start from here, and, yes, I suppose it does lead to adventure, if you want to be overtly symbolic.
The shower stops. There’s a moving-about noise, and then a bolt-sliding-back noise, and then Edgalcius – “Didn’t expect to like the name Ed,” he says indistinctly – appears on the stairs. He’s wearing the enormous multi-coloured towelling dressing-gown that William wrote onto the hook on the back of the bathroom door just in time, and he’s using both hands to rub at his hair with the white towel that he would have been wearing round his waist if William hadn’t suddenly remembered this post’s Universal rating.
I know. Clumsy switches to third person. This is an early draft.
The enormous multi-coloured towelling dressing gown is belted securely around Ed’s waist. It covers him down to his ankles. His feet – ugh! – he’s wearing carpet slippers. That was close.
“You put your clothes on to wash?”
We can hear the faint thrum of the washing machine.
“I love your shower!” Ed lowers the towel from his head. His grey hair flies out in all directions. William imagines a shaggy dog photographed in the moment of shaking the water out of its coat.
“It’s just that you’ll have to do the whole first chapter in that dressing gown, while they dry.”
Ed holds his arms out from his body and looks down. The message is clear: Ed likes the dressing gown.
William hands him a hairbrush. “What was your question?”
“Oh yes. It’s a plot point. You’ve set up Pipsqueak as the Chosen One, obviously, with Roland as some kind of comic relief, or whatever he might turn out to be.”
“Some kind of sidekick, I think. Casting against type.”
“What’s Pipsqueak doing now? You’ve established the character, set up the idea of a quest, and dumped all that–”
“–dropped all that information about the scenery.”
“With the hint about the direction–”
“–the walled town–”
“Faraway walled town, yeah.”
“But what’s he doing? Is he refusing the call to adventure? Going back to his ordinary world? I need to know.”
“You’ve been reading that book by Christopher Vogler, haven’t you? The Writer’s Journey?”
“Third edition, published in 2007 by Michael Wiese Productions? Yes, I have. Had it out of the monastery’s library so long I might as well keep it.”
“I like The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, 1949, which of course is where I got the working title.”
“Yes, lately published by New World Library. But didn’t you say something about a kitten…”
The conversation continues. Meanwhile, Pipsqueak is sitting at the family table in the big hut, listening to his mother tell him not to be so silly. His father hasn’t spoken yet, but his brothers’ teasing has stopped and they’re beginning to glance up the table. There’s an atmosphere that you could almost cut with a lot of talk about keeping warm and wearing socks and not going off on silly adventures.
Myrtille, the girl from next door who comes round whenever there aren’t enough women in the story, is leaning in the doorway. Whenever Pipsqueak glances across at her, he finds she’s looking at him. He’s known her since childhood; she’s his closest friend.
“That’s a bit obvious isn’t it?”
“Why are we speaking in italics?”
Finally, Pipsqueak’s mother stops talking. She looks at her husband, opens her mouth to speak and then closes it again. She raises her eyes to the ceiling. “Well, I think it’s ridiculous,” she says. She stands up and hurries out of the room.
Myrtille comes away from the door, raising her arms as if to hug Pipsqueak’s mother, and goes with her.
There is silence except for the muffled sound from the next room of Myrtille comforting Pipsqueak’s mother.
Pipsqueak’s father stands up from the table. He looks at each of his seven sons in turn. Then he goes to stand behind Pipsqueak and lays his hands on Pipsqueak’s shoulders.
“This is my son,” he says. “Like me, he's a seventh son. He has been chosen. But the decision is his, and his alone. If he goes, he goes with my blessing. I hope that he will have yours, as well.”
Pipsqueak’s father leaves the room. In the silence, the seven sons hear their mother and father argue, urgently but quietly, and then Pipsqueak’s father reappears. He places on the table in front of Pipsqueak a small brass lamp.
“This was very useful to me,” he said. “When I–” He stops and turns away.
Pipsqueak looks up and meets the glass eyes of the dragon’s head mounted above the fireplace.
As he listens to his mother opening and slamming cupboards next door, he thinks to himself: how many genies are there going to be, in this story of mine?”
All of this week’s political shenanigans in the UK, the whole B– Br– no, still can’t say the word – reduced to a line, or a paragraph, or a page, or just possibly a chapter, in a book about the early twenty-first century. Or the pre-modern era.
What will be remembered, if anything, is the outcome, and that will colour everything that went before. The bit that hasn’t happened yet will give meaning to the bit that we’re in at the moment. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the future history-book reader to understand that we didn’t know how it ended.
Last Sunday, there were ceremonies to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the start of the Second World War. Nobody knew, back then, how big that was going to be, nor how it was going to end. It wasn’t even “the Second World War” until later on in the conflict.
History normalises the past. Until [insert your own catastrophe] happened, we lived in a world where that couldn’t happen. Then it was one more item in the index.
There’ll be an ending to whatever’s happening now – and we have to wait for that history book even to know what is happening now. There’ll be an ending to membership of the EU, the revolt against membership of the EU, the two-party system, representative democracy, the Conservative Party, the Labour Party…
…and I don’t have the faintest idea where I stand on any of it.
There does seem to be a mismatch between the decision-making apparatus we have, and the problem we face. There doesn’t seem to be much scope for a comfortable two-thirds majority on anything. So maybe this is a bigger change than a tussle over – whatever it is we’re all arguing about today.
Perhaps the role of the media will come under scrutiny. I wonder. Perhaps some enterprising young historian will come up with The End of Liberal Democracy as a riposte to Francis Fukuyama.
Perhaps this is the end of the post-war settlement, or the end of the long century of hot, cold, proxy and trade wars – not to mention the end of wars by other means.
Perhaps we’re reverting to a historical norm whereby the EU takes the role of the Holy Roman Empire, with some version of the Ottoman Empire on one side, and maybe something on the other to fill in for one of the other European empires. Maybe we’re just leaving the century of nation states.
Jillian Becker wrote a book called H*tl**’s Children (my asterisks) about the Red Army Faction, although it was pointed out that Andreas, Gudrun, Ulrike and the rest were grandchildren-aged, relative to him. Maybe Thatcher’s – no, because she did have children. Sorry.
What I would like to try to remember is that we didn’t try to understand each other. We imputed motives to each other, accused each other of lying, labelled each other – “Brexiter” was more enduringly adhesive than “Remoaner”, I think – and each side ranted about how mistaken the other side was. How deluded, delusional, misinformed, et cetera.
We were all confident that we could see the future that we didn't want.
How easy it was to take sides; how difficult it’s turning out to be, to move on.