Wednesday, 5 February 2014

We built this novel...

I had a bit of a “bad parent” moment the other day.

No, I didn’t let Ben drink toilet cleaner, or send Thomas to school in his pyjamas.  But it’s almost as bad.  It could spell the end of any credibility they might hope to have with their peers.

On the way back from the school and nursery run, I listened to the strange caterwauling in the back of the car, and it gradually resolved itself into a fairly clear rendition of “We built this city on rock and roll – the acoustic duet version.”


Ben does the chorus, while Thomas chimes in with “Marconi plays the mamba” and the bit about “Tell us you need us ‘cos we’re just chips and fools.”  And yes, I’m willing to contemplate the possibility that those aren’t the exact words of the song, but I can’t really argue, given how adamant I once was that Abba were sick and tired of being thin, when they called you last night from Tesco.

Anyway.  I may need to review my choice of in-car entertainment.  This isn’t the first musical cheese incident.

Not by any means.

In my defence, while my car playlist does have its fair share of driving-drivel, there are a number of perfectly acceptable songs on it.   Thomas regularly entertains me with his rendition of 30 Seconds to Mars’s From Yesterday Wednesday or Gabrielle Aplin’s My Salvation Nice Invention. 

He also does a good line in lyric analysis. 

Apparently, when Labyrinth sings “Take it off now girl, take it off now girl” in Beneath Your Beautiful, this is because she’s wearing something nice, and he wants a turn at wearing it.

But I’m not planning on changing my in-car soundtrack any time soon.  While some of the tracks are there just for cheesy singalong value, the majority of the playlist has evolved for a particular reason.

When I first returned to writing after a long hiatus, I was convinced that I could only be productive in substantial slabs of time.  Unfortunately, I’m a bit lacking in the time-slab department.  Time-pebbles – yes.  Time-slabs – not so much.

However, after a while, I realised that all those bits and pieces of time could be utilised.  Obviously, several hours of uninterrupted time would be helpful – although I’m sure Ben and Thomas would be surprised to hear that tuneless singing and cartoon dust-ball-esque fighting aren’t conducive to creativity – but there are effective ways of using a few minutes here and there.

For me, the point when I realised this was the point when I stopped thinking about everything I was trying to achieve as one single, amorphous mass of WRITING.  Capitals intended.

The thing about WRITING is that it involves sitting down, in stately silence, after a reverent approach to the appointed desk or table, and a quick prayer to Qwerty, God of the Laptop, to keep keys from sticking and batteries from running flat at crucial moments, and to #Hshtg, God of Twitter, that he may keep his temptations at bay.

Preparing for a stint of WRITING generally requires a lengthy period of mental limbering up, including several long-winded announcements to the rest of the household that Right, I’m off to do some WRITING.  If anyone wants me, I’ll be at my WRITING desk, you know WRITING.

Generally, by the time I’ve got all that out of the way, I’ve got just about enough time to type three words.  Which I usually delete again. 

Sometimes they’re profound words, mind.  But really, there’s only so much profundity that you can fit into three words.

Fortunately, there are all sorts of things that go into the writing mix, and some of them can be squeezed into a snatched moment.  I can’t produce any substantial chunks of work against the backdrop of the usual chuntering and clattering, but I’ve found that I can edit existing work, no matter what defcon-level of apocalypse is going on around me.  Creating words needs peace and quiet – removing them seems to be a whole lot easier.

Even CBeebies doesn’t scupper the editing process.  And if you something can survive the best efforts of Mr Tumble and Iggle-Piggle, it can survive anything.

Then there’s plotting.

No, not the “I have a cunning plan, mwah ha ha ha” hand-rubbing sort of plotting.  The “Let me take this perfectly happy hero who is currently minding his own business, tilling his turnips and contemplating proposing to the nice young lady in the next village, and make his life thoroughly miserable until he gives in and sets out in search of some trials and tribulations” type of plotting.

I’m not very good at it. 

Not at planning it, anyway. 

I’ve tried.  But my characters never seem to want to follow my carefully –laid plans.  They want to go off and snog in corners, or pick fights with unsuitable sorts, no matter how much I try to herd them towards major life-changing moments which have a vacancy for a speech about destiny and the nobility of mankind.

So, given that I find plotting difficult, there’s probably not much point wasting perfectly good writing time on it. 

I usually do it in the bath. 

There’s something about bubbles which is strangely conducive to solving difficult plot issues.  And bath crayons are great for making notes about lightning-bolt ideas – although this does then involved hanging over the side of the bath the next morning, trying to read upside-down, bright purple scrawls about that really vital brainwave concerning a minor character and a goat.

Better note-taking techniques are probably available.

But back to the music. 

I find music good for composing dialogue.

There’s a lot of creative snobbery about what is and isn’t literature.  Many written works draw upon the vast body of story-telling and poetry that has gone before – particularly when it comes to certain recurring strands – love, destiny, the end being nigh/well-past nigh/hopefully not nigh – and many writers reference other works, directly or obliquely.

If I was to say that there is a character in my first novel with his roots in The Wasteland or that a fairly substantial strand of the same novel came from a passing reference in a James Elroy Flecker poem, no doubt this would be acceptable and entirely in keeping with people’s idea of what WRITING should be about.  If, however, I was to mention that there’s an idea in the same novel that came from a misheard line from a Coldplay song, eyebrows might well be raised.

But there are several popular songs that wouldn’t look out of place on the pages of a poetry anthology, and there are many more individual lines which hold their own amongst some of the great literary quotations.

If my first novel ever gets published, I may run a “Spot the really obscure song reference” competition.  I find that listening to certain songs is a great way to kick off a bit of crucial dialogue.  One of my character gets the song-lyric in question, and then the others get let loose on it. 

Two of my main characters once had a very dramatic stand-off over something Christina Aguilera said.  Character one did not agree with character two’s take on it.  Character two thought character one was an idealistic idiot who should spend less time worrying about Christina Aguilera and more time figuring out what he wanted to do with his life.

Sort of. 

Only without either of them actually uttering the words ‘Christina’ or ‘Aguilera’, obviously.

Another character once set someone off on a hopeless quest, based on a passing reference to the song in a Hovis advert.

Of course, these bits of dialogue don’t make it into the completed project in anything remotely recognisable as the song that suggested them – and I would suggest that, if you find your main character exhorting the love-interest to not go chasing waterfalls, just stick to the rivers and the lakes like she used to, or your hero receiving a dire battlefield warning that there’s a man in the shadows with a gun in his eye and a blade shining oh so bright, you have a bit of a re-think about your use of this technique.

But I owe several passages to passing ideas, thrown up by song-lyrics.

And no, the characters in question weren’t calling last night from Tesco.

But to get back to the point, driving is one of those short stretches of time that I’ve found that I can utilise.  I quite often do dialogue in the car, while listening to music. 

Hence my reluctance to replace my usual soundtrack with something that might better serve Thomas and Ben in terms of street-cred.

Of course, the main problem with this practice is that I can’t do dialogue without at least moving my lips.  I don’t always need to speak it out loud, but lip-moving is pretty non-negotiable. 

As is the face-pulling.

So if you ever pass me in the car, and I appear to be mouthing at you, while grimacing violently, please don’t take it personally.  I’m just having a heated argument with an imaginary character who just misquoted “We built this city on rock and roll” at me.

I am not coming out of this blogpost at all well, am I?

Oh well, altogether now.

Tell us you need us, ‘cos we’re just chips and foooooools……


1 comment:

  1. Loved reading this - I use the moments of chaos to escape in my head and find that creative purpose results - a bit like losing focus looking at those pattern pictures before you see the 3d image clearly. I wouldn't always say I come out of it with the same clarity as the 3d image but sometimes havign the noise and chaos, the in car entertainment, lets my mind drift to other things. And if they are singing along (albeit with the wrong lyrics) they aren't bickering with each other, are they?

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