Embryology of a story #3

The Egg Hatches

Welcome to part 3 of our journey through the turbulent waters of writing the latest story in this Abyssal Black series. Before I go any further, it’s possible there may be one or two mild spoilers in this segment, although nothing that would make a vast difference to your enjoyment of the final story — assuming, that is, that you’re going to read it (which I hope you do.) Of course, there’s always the possibility I might edit out certain parts described here — you never know.

As I embarked on this week’s scenes, I went through the usual veil of expectation where I anticipate the possibility of what I call ‘inspirational moments.’ In other words, those periods of serendipity where le mot juste or, more accurately, ‘the right phrase’(what is that in french?) might pop into my mind. These could be particularly crisp descriptions, a theme statement or a philosophical insight explained in simple language, perhaps even an original metaphor. I sometimes wonder how one maximises the appearance of these seductive paragraphs. I imagine how the muse of my favourite writers must allow them to drift along mystical corridors of inspiration where the voices of angels, or the dead, whisper their secrets. I suppose this aptitude is, to a certain extent, written into a writer’s DNA, somehow programmed into that ‘right brain’ function from birth. However, I refuse to accept this is the whole picture. I find creatives who espouse the ‘either you’re born with it or you ain‘t’ philosophy are wont to state this with a certain degree of smugness, looking down on any who would possibly aspire to writing greatness (whatever that means.) I believe inspiration is as much a muscle as it is a mystical fountain. This muscle gets exercised at an early age through imaginative play, an insight that I had dismissed until having it highlighted in Jeff VandermMeer’s Wonder Book. Another factor, I believe, is observation. Taking the time to absorb situations, listen to conversations, ‘bank’ certain phrases (as Dave Lee Roth puts it.) I think it was John le Carre who said that authors can learn a lot from the world of espionage by eavesdropping on conversations. On top of this is the constant reading of books over a lifetime, watching films, TV programs and the like. All the time, filing away the anecdotes, the turns of phrase, the metaphors. Eventually, this fluid library rubs off like carbon paper on a writer’s psyche or, to use the original metaphor, the muscle memory kicks in and an invisible hand takes hold of the writer’s, moving the pen across the page.

This is all well and good, but sometimes the well runs dry, and I needed a spark to start the fire this week. I don’t mind admitting that occasionally I make use of phrase dictionaries. Some authors frown upon this because, after all, these represent someone else’s hard work, their talent, their own voice to a certain extent. In the musical world, you could probably level the same accusations against Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, The Sweet, Kiss, to name but a few. In each of these cases I’ve read how composers within the bands lifted riffs, chord sequences and lyrics from other artists to inspire their own work. Ritchie Blackmore is on record for saying he used to take Jimi Hendrix riffs and play them backwards to come up with new tunes. Deep Purple’s hit, Black Night was influenced by Ricky Nelson’s version of ‘Summer Time.’ So, when it comes to other writer’s descriptions, I have no problem using them as springboards to move me forward. One such publication I use  is Sybrina’s Phrase Dictionary, another is the online resource, Descriptionari. What’s important, is that these are used as starting points to create something new. Applying these resources judiciously helps to kick start the imagination. Better to employ this technique than to stare at the blank page for an hour, hoping that something might just drop into your lap. A word of warning — make them your own, don’t just blindly copy.

The reason for this lengthy preamble is to segue into the problem I encountered half way through scene 6 of The Egg. I wanted to dig deep into the relationship troubles Woody and Jenna were having. Theres’ is a marriage lasting seventeen years or so, and in addition to the usual ‘drifting apart’ such long term relationships can have, there’s the additional strain of childlessness — the longing each of them have for a youngster of their own flesh and blood, so to speak. They have both dealt with the frustration and pain in their own equally ineffectual and unhelpful ways. But how to encapsulate this in words that convey truth? I found a phrase online which included the words ‘bad wiring’ and thought this might be the kind of thing Woody would say as he grasped for words to describe how his anger regarding their predicament overflowed too often, over spilling into arguments he had with His wife. Jenna, on the other hand, might express herself in more genteel, if not poetic, turns of phrase. So I took a paragraph where her view of Woody’s temper, and the damage it has done, was described as ‘cinders in the wind.’ I ran with this metaphor a little, grounding it in Jenna’s more basic vocabulary. I’ll look at it during the edit and see whether it survives the test of time and sounds as authentic as I hope it does.

So much for inspiration. But last time, I did promise to talk about the ‘Swampy Middle,’ a phrase coined by Jim Butcher. This isn’t so big a problem with short stories. The difficulty here is knowing how to cut down the story to its most essential elements, rather than add additional components to make a more meaty tale. Thankfully, I have a sketchy outline to fall back on, and even constrain the storyline; so I don’t find myself having to think and imagine on the fly. That part of the work has largely been done. However, I’ve had to adjust the timeline of events since first creating my outline. I initially thought the hatching of the egg would be my inciting incident but, as the story unfolded, it is probably Woody’s discovery of the egg that counts as the pivotal point. The actual hatching comes about halfway through the story.

So, I’ve used the outline to keep me on course, but allow the character’s reactions in these central scenes to extend and (to a certain extent) determine the plot. In this manner, I can ‘pants’ away in these scenes and do enough with the character development to make the story believable. The premise is a human baby being hatched from an egg after all! One such tangent that came ‘on the fly’ was when Woody tries to make money from the egg. This allows for (hopefully) a touch of humour to creep in to the story — albeit dark humour. You’ll have to read the final story to see how this particular aspect plays out.

The final element I’d like to talk about this week is how contemporary political and/or social issues might feature in a story. Here is where a writer treads on quicksand. There is significant peril involved in  introducing such elements, especially if they are handled in a manner which comes across as preaching. The writer intrudes too much through the voice of the characters. Some authors would say one should steer clear of this territory altogether, but I feel that’s a bit of a cop-out, especially as I do think about these things a lot. What’s important, to my mind, is to engender empathy. Rather than have one character ‘win the argument,’ better to try and get inside the head(s) of the characters and attempt to touch on the reasons why people think like they do.

With this in mind, two issues have continued to raise their heads here in the UK during the last few years. That of Brexit and the Black Lives Matter movements. I wanted to touch on these to highlight how they polarise people and drive a wedge between communities. So, I wrote a scene this week set in a pub. I won’t give too much detail (spoilers again,) but I deliberately greyed the boundaries between the antagonists, and introduced sympathetic and asympathetic character traits on both sides. By putting myself in both ‘sides’ heads, I hopefully begin to break down the walls. Again, time will tell if I have achieved this or not.

Once again, I’m conscious I’ve rambled on a bit, so I’ll stop here. Next entry will probably be the final one as I try to wrap up the story.

You can check out my Abyssal Black series here

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