When I started writing stories, I always set off flying into the mist. Well, I was very young. Often – no make that always, at least to begin with – I ran out of steam. Can’t tell you how many snippets of unwritten novels I have in my filing system.
One of the things I have been doing during lockdown is reading my way through them.
It was part of my general de-cluttering objective. And no, that hasn’t got very far at all, if you’re wondering. To be honest, I have binned very little yet.
Partly, this is because of how long it has taken me.
Stories Flying Into the Mist
I got back into the stories pretty quickly, to my surprise. Even more surprisingly, I remembered pretty nearly every one.
Often, I remembered where I was when I had the idea that lit the flame. How hot or cold it was, whether or not I was alone. At least twice I left a party of friends early because I needed to get home to Write It Down before it dissolved.
Characters In the Mist
In some cases I could hear the voices on the page. (At least one was Ian Holm in his Richard, Duke of York incarnation. Much, much later, a certain Sheriff of Nottingham intruded into my imagined world and made a complete horlicks of my intended plot.)
With others, though, I felt as if I was meeting these people after a long interval, like relatives who’d been abroad for years, and seeing them afresh from my new perspective. There was, for instance, an adventure story set in Greece of the 1970s where the main character was a naive idiot who was definitely going to get shot unless she pulled her socks up.
By the time I did, I was sitting up an Irish hillside, toiling away every day, trying to remember hot and dusty Athens with the Atlantic pounding away below our cliff and real mist closing in on our one-track road at the slightest excuse.
Looking back, I realise that there was a real story in there, but I hadn’t been able to see round my daft main character to recognise it.
Flying into the Mist a Bad Thing?
Absolutely not. Some of the stuff I’ve been reading was just wonderful. Full of energy and possibilities. OK, it lacked just about everything in the closure department. But by golly it was fun to write and, I have to admit, after a number of years in the bottom drawer, it was still fun to read. It was going somewhere. It just wasn’t clear where. And it certainly hadn’t got there yet.
When I set off to write into the mist, I knew that. I didn’t think about it but, my goodness, I enjoyed it. And, as this lockdown reappraisal has made me realise, it shows.
The Plotter’s Way
The whole damn movie was designed to showcase that last 20 minutes. And he proved it by highlighting all the things throughout the movie that were picked up in the last reel. It was impressive.
… there are very few movies where the best bits are in the last 20 minutes. Even Some Like it Hot, and that’s got one of the best endings ever, rising from “I’m not a natural blonde,” through “The last three years I’ve been living with a saxophone player” to “I’m a MAN.” To which our libidinous but rather sweet playboy millionaire says, “Nobody’s perfect.” Happy sigh.
But is that the best bit? Nah. Not even close. (“Daphne, you’re leading again.”)
Basically do you know the end before you start? Or do you scramble to come to a conclusion, any conclusion, when you begin to run out of your contracted wordage?
This was the age of The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell. Story analysis drilled right down to the sub atomic level. I admitted I didn’t plot naturally. Astonishingly, neither did some of my favourite writers.
Even so, if I didn’t quite buy into the Hero’s Journey whole-heartedly, I certainly thought that the way I wrote my stories was not quite – well – professional.
My publisher would ask me for a synopsis. I’d labour over it for hours. Hating it. Hating myself. Sending it off at the last possible moment.
The story would go off course. And there I was, failing again.
Virtues of Flying Into the Mist
I took several long walks and tried to work out why.
There are probably a lot of reasons. But the one that struck me most forcibly was this: when you’re writing into the mist, the reader finds out about stuff at the same rate as the writer does. All the dimensions, all the possibilities are still there. The unknowns are still there. Just as they are in real life.
So What Next?
The book I am writing at the moment is one where I know an awful lot. I was beginning to think I knew everything, and all I was doing was a short-back-and-sides sort of edit.
But reading those old pieces has shown me that I can’t do that, not without short-changing my characters. I know a lot about a characters at some major turning point in the story? Well, change viewpoint and look through the eyes of someone who knows less. Heck, what about someone who’s coming to the whole thing new and knows nothing?
And suddenly the excitement is back and the book is untidy and unstructured and alive again.
Wish me luck!