Taking a hands-off approach to unruly writing
When I was commissioned to write a story for the forthcoming Burning Brightly anthology, I knew what this would be from the get-go: a sequel to a well-received story published in 2010. But despite knowing what I wanted to do, this was a very difficult journey. The reason? All the things I’ve learned about writing, and myself, over the past 30 years.
The story published in 2010 is called Songbirds. It’s about the impact of an alien invasion on an ordinary suburban British family. I wrote Songbirds with a nod towards contemporary British TV dramas, and the understated feel of 1950s science fiction authors such as John Wyndham. I love all that stuff. A lot of people liked Songbirds, and it was nominated for an award. A sequel set some time later was an interesting proposition. I decided to call it Bloodbirds.
I began to make notes, and re-read Songbirds to reacquaint myself with the characters and voice. There was a lot about the original story I’d forgotten. I considered featuring the same characters, and for a while wrote Bloodbirds along those lines. But this imposed limitations on what I could explore, so I decided to write about different people from the same setting. They would probably be friends or neighbours of the family in Songbirds. This meant some re-writing, but new characters gave me greater scope to create new lives and explore different issues. I felt I was heading in the right direction, but the story didn’t come easily. This was partly due to the kind of writing I’ve focused on in recent years.
For over a decade I’ve almost exclusively written audio drama scripts — without success, I might add. As a result, the first draft of anything fictional I write is now very much in audio script style: lines of dialogue with very little else. Audio drama is a very honest form of writing. There’s simply nowhere to hide. Dialogue has to move the story forward and convey character between the lines. There’s no room or need for descriptions of place or what people are doing, and you can’t distract your audience with gosh-wow imagery or spectacular effects. Every word has to earn its keep to a greater extent than any other form of creative writing.
My difficulties were underpinned by something a former agent once said to me
Having written the first draft like a script, when rewriting I had to fill in the gaps and flesh things out. Easy enough: I just had to describe the pictures in my head. You’re a writer – you know how it is. But I remained hesitant. This was due to much more than audio scriptwriting habits I’d developed. My difficulties were underpinned by something a former agent once said to me.
The agent and I parted company long ago, but he once gave me this piece of advice having read something I’d given him: “You can’t force it, Martin”.
This was a difficult pill to swallow at the time, but I took his words on board. Eventually I came to see now how right he was, and learned to follow the characters and story rather than trying to steer them. But this is difficult. When we as writers want the story to go a certain way, but the story wants to go another, it can be difficult to relinquish control.
there were points at which this story was nothing short of a brat having a tantrum
Part of the problem with Bloodbirds was that the story and characters were particularly lively. What do you do with such an unruly child? Grasp its shoulders and try to make it go where you want? Or remain hands-off and hope it finds its own way? I think we both know the answer, dear reader.
Even then, there were points at which this story was nothing short of a brat having a tantrum. If you’re a parent you’ll know how draining that can be, but a hands-off approach is usually best.
it’s better to keep your options open during the writing process rather than limit yourself to your first idea
How to Take Smart Notes…, by Sönke Ahrens
As I let go and simply followed the writing, morning pages and the evening check-in were key tools. When some aspect of the story was problematic, I’d write myself a question before going to sleep, then ponder it as I drifted into unconsciousness. Possibilities would often present themselves the next morning. When valuable material appeared in my handwritten notes, I’d type this up on my typewriter, then at some point either scan it into my Mac or simply rekey. I found I’d write a much more solid scene on my typewriter than when writing directly into my computer, but that’s something for a post of its own.
When the deadline came and the story had to be submitted, I honestly didn’t know whether it was any good. I’d spent two weeks solid on the final draft, agonising over every word – which is exactly how it should be. As I write this draft, I’m awaiting the editor’s reaction. I genuinely have no idea what that will be. Due to all the work I put in, and the new approaches I employed, what he does say is likely to influence my future direction: if he doesn’t like it, then even my hands-off approach has failed. But we shall see.
The point of this post is to highlight that writing doesn’t get any easier, regardless how long you’ve been doing it. And in a way, that’s only right. But if you’re writing something and find you’ve got a stroppy toddler on your hands, my advice is this: difficult as it may be, stay hands-off, let your subconscious do the writing, and whatever you do, don’t force it.
Listening Shelf has now released my first audio drama: ModRocker.
When he got back to me, editor Ian Whates described the story as “fabulous”! Bloodbirds will appear alongside stories by Iain M. Banks, Ian R. MacLeod, Stephen Baxter, Anne Nicholls, Justina Robson, and many others. I’m beyond thrilled that a story of mine will appear alongside work from so many authors I’ve admired for so long.
I’m a novelist and scriptwriter, Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow and Advisory Fellow, workshop lead and creative coach. Click here to get the lowdown on updates, insight into projects, and a look behind the scenes on creative stuff. You can also follow TFW on Twitter, or like the Facebook page.