Why I Love Writing # 5; Sometimes It’s Pure Magic

Actually, it’s pretty magical most of the time. Of course, there are days when it feels like anything but. When you’re revising the hundredth draft of something, when you feel like it’s a complete waste of time that no one will ever want to read. There are days when you don’t want to do it, days when you feel rejected and uninspired and full of self-doubt.

But the magical days for me, outweigh the negative ones. They can happen at any time during the creation of a finished novel. I often find the writing of a first draft a magical thing. That first line, first paragraph, first chapter is so daunting, so impossible, yet suddenly you’ve done it. It’s there. And then strange things start to happen. Magical things.

Characters you had a loose idea of start to come alive. They flesh out and invade your mind. They start talking to you and you talk back. That’s magic. The magic of make-believe. And then there’s the plot itself. I often have a good idea of what’s going to happen in a book before I start writing, and I would have made lots of notes before starting the first draft, but at some point, something else seems to take over. Unexpected things happen. The plot takes another direction, or parts of the story start to weave together in ways that are genius, but like something out of my control. Sometimes it feels like there is something else at play, controlling the whole thing.

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Often I know where I am going, but not how I will get there. I never worry too much about the finer points because I have learned to sit back and let the magic happen. And it always does. Out of the blue, never when I expect it to, it will all just come together. This happened to me recently with the six book series I am working on. Books 1-4 are written, and book 5 has had one very rough draft. I knew roughly what I wanted to happen in book 6, what storylines would be continued, but I didn’t know how I would end the book, or indeed, the whole series. I didn’t stress about it because I still had work to do editing books 3 and 4, and book 5 to write a second draft of.

But one day, out walking, it just suddenly came to me. My mind pieced it all together without me even trying, without me even consciously deciding to think about it. I suddenly just had it. How to end the book and the entire series, and it was perfect.

How does that work? How does that even happen? I have no idea, but like I’ve already said, sometimes I really feel like it’s not me in my head, working things out. Moments like that are so satisfying, and magical, they make all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile.

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Life Is Story and Stories Are Everywhere

Just recently I penned a guest post for another blog, the topic of which was the reason I write. I know people write for many, many complex reasons, and I think there is more than one reason that compels me to make up stories, but certainly one of the biggest reasons is simply to live more lives. To become other people, to step into their shoes, to create them and control them, to live with them and die with them. It’s the same reason I read, I guess. So that I’m not just me, living this one life.

What I also notice, as I go through my one, short life, punctuated by the lives of the people and worlds I have lovingly created, is how stories are everywhere. How they make up our lives and our worlds, and our day to day existence. Maybe you don’t always notice them, but if you look, stories are everywhere. Everything is, in fact, a story. Or at least, the potential for one. The inspiration for one.

When you get an idea for a story, it’s because you asked a question. You asked, what if? You asked, why? You asked, what is going on here? And you wanted to know the answers to those questions, so you made some up.

Children are wonderful at doing this. Natural play in childhood is nothing but stories and make-believe. I find this utterly enchanting. How they lose themselves completely in made-up worlds. These worlds and stories might make no sense at all to us, the adults, but to them they do. They set them up and let them roll. They start them out of nothing, out of the thin blue air. And they carry them on, for weeks, sometimes years.

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Look at this Playmobil set up. My 3-year-old got given a box of the stuff this week but it was his 10-year-old brother and 13-year-old sister who set it all up like this. I walked past it while tidying up and found myself wondering what was going on. There is one fellow, an outlaw, tied to the roof of a wagon, for instance, and I wanted to know why. There are a lot of rifles placed on a table in the sheriff’s office, and this was also obviously part of the story. The kids had dinner and went back to the Playmobil. I had to do other things, but I would have loved to know what happened next to all these people! This might look like play, and it is, but it’s also a story in action, one that I am sure will develop over the next few days.

A few days ago my youngest sat down to do some drawings on his chalkboard. I wasn’t allowed to join in, I was only allowed to watch. He started drawing big circles and little circles with lines joining them, up. He chatted to himself and when I asked about it, he gave the circles all names like Hop and Plop and Poop and said they were all holding hands because they were friends. They didn’t have faces, but some did have bananas! He then drew a square around them all and said they had gone into a house. This went on for a while, with my son adding further layers to the story. It was a lovely moment, art and storytelling interlinked quite naturally!

Children are just natural storytellers, and we should notice and cherish and encourage this as much as possible. Tonight, one of my older sons early creations, came back to visit us, and I was once again reminded how naturally children construct stories and carry them on through their lives.

When he was almost three, my older son used to get scared at night and get into our bed. We would ask him about this and he would talk about odd little creatures he called the Muckoos. In the day, his sisters would question him, and he would describe them in ever greater detail. (They were small and spiky and multi-coloured and liked to steal biscuits) They also kept him awake at night with their noise and they did lots of naughty things around the house. As the story grew among us all, my son started blaming the Muckoos when things went wrong. I wrote a story about it at the time, which I still have, and may one day do something with!

I’ve never forgotten the Muckoos, and I quite often call my littlest son a Muckoo, as in my mind it sums up a small child, mucky and messy and troublesome and cheeky! I sometimes call him Muckoo Madness, and he will retort; I am not Muckoo Madness!

Anyway, sometimes we have trouble getting the littlest one to bed, and my older son has been helping out the last few nights, by pretending to be a creature called Gavin, who loves stories. This in itself, is just gorgeous. He insists on sitting on a pillow on one side of me, while his little brother sits on the other side. They both get toys to cuddle and we all choose one book to read. Then ‘Gavin’ has to go back to his cave, and my little son happily goes to bed. What a way to use storytelling to encourage a young child to sit still and listen to stories! Tonight, my older son remembered the Muckoos, and ‘Gavin’ told us he was a Muckoo, in fact, the last of his kind. Quite a poignant moment, I felt! It was magical to witness this ‘story’ resurfacing after so many years and I am quite convinced it will continue to develop further layers and complexities…

And for anyone wondering what the last Muckoo looks like, my oldest son agreed to draw one for you!

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Short Story Problems!

Short stories have always proved problematic for me. The clue is in the word ‘short’. I’m not too good at ‘short’. But I am learning, and I am also learning how vital it is to master short stories.

Recently, an old friend was sorting out her attic and found something I had once given her. It was a short story I’d written when I was about fifteen. She brought it over and gave it to me and for a moment or two I was utterly flummoxed. Not only could I not recall writing it, but I couldn’t work out how I’d done it either. I mean, I struggle with short stories, I really do.

For a while, I gave up on them completely. I was too busy writing rather long novels, and didn’t see the point in pursuing something I didn’t think came naturally to me. Then one day someone suggested writing short stories related to my novels and releasing them as a kind of marketing tool. I have to admit, as cynical as it sounds, I liked the idea immediately. Not so much the marketing bit, but the writing short stories related to my novels bit. You see I am rather over attached to my novels, the current ones, the ones in progress, and the ones that are still just in my head. I rather see the characters as real people and it’s extremely hard to switch off from them. They kind of exist forever. They are always starting new stories, diving into new dramas and conflicts. So writing some short stories suddenly seemed like an extremely enticing and fun idea. And it was. And Bird People and Other Stories was born.

Now, I have to admit to being rather proud of this little book. I can’t say I have mastered the art of the short story, far from it. Many of the shorts in this book are character snapshots, or scenes from a different point of view than the one shown in the novel. But they were easy and fun to write, which was a massive revelation to me as a writer who had turned away from short stories for so long.

I’m now kind of addicted to them. In fact I write one once a month to be included in my author newsletter (click here if you want to sign up!)

My friend’s discovery reminded me that I had once embraced short stories before novels. Like a lot of young writers, I cut my teeth on short stories and little ‘books’ before I worked up the skills and patience to write an actual novel.

I’d just forgotten!

Reading through this particular story, I’m both embarrassed and impressed. Embarrassed by the younger me’s habit of repeating myself, a lot. I used to say the same thing in about three different ways, as if afraid of being misunderstood! But I’m impressed by my fearlessness, and that’s what young writers have in abundance. I didn’t fear the short story then, I just thought of one and got on with it. There was no ‘I can’t do this’, or ‘I’m not as good at shorts, so I won’t bother.’

If I am honest, I still find them a challenge. Some work instantly. Like magic. Others don’t. For as many finished shorts, I have unfinished, festering, niggling ones. I know what I want to say, but just can’t seem to say it.

I mean, what is the perfect short story anyway? The one that says something big in the shortest, sharpest way possible? Or is it really down to personal taste, as with novels?

The other problem I have with shorts is their annoying tendency to start developing into full blown novels! Give them an inch and they take a mile! I now have one epic novel, if not an entire series of books planned due to inspiration taken from the last two short stories I attached to my newsletter. Unexpected and brilliant, but you know, I don’t want this happening too often! There is already a backlog of books waiting to be written. (See Upcoming Books!)

So, what’s your opinion on short stories? Do you enjoy reading them? What makes the perfect short story in your opinion? And if you write them, how does the process work for you?