The best time to plant a tree…
My new thriller Spylark opens with 13 year old Tom Hopkins flying his homemade drone over the iconic “Swallows and Amazons” landscape he calls home. He stumbles across a criminal plot which catapults him into the world of global terrorism, and the beautiful Lake District hills and lakes suddenly become a more threatening backdrop for a struggle to overcome the terrorists, his own physical disability and his worst fears and phobias.
Every good story has barriers to overcome and obstacles that must be removed in order for the character to navigate his or her journey and for the story to end with a satisfying resolution. Without these barriers, there would be no story to tell. In Tom’s case he overcomes the barriers presented by the physical disability he was left with after an accident by creating UAV’s (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, otherwise known as drones). These “eyes in the sky” enable him to be in two places at once, to switch his point of view between locations instantly, and to view another character’s actions without them knowing he is watching. Tom’s emotional scars – including a phobia of enclosed spaces – are even bigger barriers to deal with, and he will need more than machines to face up to his greatest fears before the story can come to an end.
However, as anyone who has ever tried to write also knows, there are also some serious barriers to the writing process itself. As I look back on the process of writing Spylark over several years, from conception to publication, three particular barriers come to mind, and I know I am not alone in facing these hurdles. But – just like barriers and obstacles in the story itself – these can be turned to your creative advantage, as I will seek to explain.
I first decided I wanted to write a novel when I was ten years old. I put pen to paper to begin Spylark when I was over forty. What had I spent the thirty intervening years doing? Honing my writing skills through constant practice so I could create sharply defined characters with a few brilliant strokes of the pen? No! Engaging in exhaustive research to enable me to create settings so real you can smell coming off the page? No! Having all kinds of thrilling adventures in the Amazon rain forest, so I would have something to write about? Sadly, no! What I was doing in that intervening thirty years of non-novel writing was: procrastinating.
Like many people I was often thinking about writing, but not actually writing. And like many, many people I was living under the delusion that one day in some fuzzy distant realm over the horizon, I would wake up and find myself in the grip of an irresistible inspiration and the words would flow effortlessly from my fingertips.
If you wait for that experience – what previous generations called “the muse” – you will simply never write. It might seem strange to say, but writing – or at least writing that is worth reading – always hurts. It involves incredible discipline, mental energy, even a kind of agony. This is why we put it off until we feel like it’s going to be easy. But you may as well wait until fluorescent unicorns arrive at your bedside and sprinkle you with fairy dust.
There is only one way to overcome the barrier of procrastination. And that is to actually write. This is what I did several years ago. I found an hour that was free of distractions, a desk that was free of clutter, a new A4 Pukka pad and actually wrote something. It wasn’t very good, but that’s OK, as I’ll explain as we tackle the next barrier to overcome.
The second barrier to writing is one that some will struggle with more than others, depending on your personality type. Perfectionism in the writing process is the desire to have every problem solved, every word in the right place, every plot point mapped out, every loose end tied up, before you progress to the next line or stage or scene. It can be paralyzing.
I like to keep a proverb from the Bible in mind to help with this. “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean.” In other words if you want everything neat and tidy and perfect and sterile you won’t actually produce anything worth having. Productivity – whether keeping oxen, or creating stories – is messy. There will be waste products to clear up!
There are two particular ways I try to overcome my natural tendencies towards perfectionism when writing.
First, I apply a tip that was given to me, not by a fiction writer, but by a computer programmer! When you hit a problem, (for example an inconsistency in a plot point), don’t stop writing to solve the problem. Keep going, and most of the time, eventually, the problem will resolve itself. It’s true, it works, but it’s a hard thing for perfectionist types to master!
The second tip is to keep in mind the difference between the first and the second draft. Half the effort of writing a story ought to go into re-writing, and for me this is the most enjoyable part. I picture the first draft as the block of wood a wood carver roughly cuts from a tree with an axe or chain saw. It’s got a general rough shape that you can see but it needs a lot of work. The second draft is the careful carving of the block into something beautiful. Keeping this in mind helps me to remember that no one is going to read the first draft but me, and so I needn’t strive for perfection this time round.
- Personal experience
The third barrier to writing is the question of what to write about. We’ve all heard the advice that to get started you have to write about what you know. But this fuels writing paralysis because it suggests that you have to live an exciting and unusual life in order to write something interesting. Imagine a painter who could only ever paint people or landscapes they already knew?
The fact is this common piece of advice is only half true. It is true that what you know will influence your writing. This can be used to great advantage. A number of influences and experiences found their way into Spylark. Because I grew up in the Lake District and spent much of my spare time in and around the lake, (which itself plays a ‘character’ role in the novel), I have been able to use my knowledge of the setting to build what I hope is a convincing sense of place. In addition I was privileged to gain first-hand knowledge of flying aeroplanes through my time with the RAF.
But there is plenty in the book that I had no direct knowledge of. Before I started I knew nothing at all about drones, and I do not have any first-hand experience of coping with a physical disability as the main character does.
But rather than see these as barriers, they are opportunities to actively research, explore and imagine the world from someone else’s point of view. I often say that writers are nosey-parkers! They learn to listen in on other people’s conversations on the bus; they observe the world around them in fine detail, and tune into the stories of other people’s lives. If you can do this, the aspects of your writing that come from what you don’t already know, will be even more vivid and fresh than those that come from your experience.
So, in conclusion, here is my very simple writing starter. Stop waiting for the muse. Start writing!
As another ancient proverb, this time a Chinese one, says: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” At some point you have to stop thinking about writing and actually do it.
Spylark by Danny Rurlander was published 1st August 2019 by Chicken House Books.