One of my very favourite songs of all time – GETTING AWAY WITH IT by Electronic, the late 80s side project of NewOrder’s Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr, then late of the Smiths, featuring Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys – features the line “I’ve been talking to myself just to suggest that I’m selfish.”
What a curious way to start a blog post, you might think. Well, I might or might not be selfish, but I have been talking to myself. On purpose.
One of the best writing craft books I read last year was by David Morrell, author of FIRST BLOOD, the low-key novel that kicked off the Rambo mega-franchise (God, I hate that phrase). It’s pretty and very insightful, particularly if you ever sell your books to the Film industry (I’m not calling them movies). [No – I’ve not sold anything to Film/TV, so don’t ask.]
One of the techniques he uses in the book is to have a written conversation with yourself about a book, sort of like “Good morning, David. How are you today?” / “I’m good, David, though I’m struggling with my new book.” / “Tell me about it.” / “Well, I forgot to put a story in.” Something like that. The idea is you talk to yourself about the book, refining the questioning and the idea as you go but leaving an ‘audit trail’ (Argh) of what you’ve discussed, which could be minor fragments of things you can pick up on the way, or if you get into a dead end you can go back.
Anyway, I thought it was madness and forgot about it. Until I wrote FUTURE SHOCK, a sci-fi thriller I’ve been working on for a good number of years – I wrote it as a short story in 2009, I think, then dusted it off in September with a view to turning it into a novella. It turned into a novel. But I forgot to include a story. Good bits happened in the opening act, then the hero got a job and got bored and quit it and went on holiday (which meant I could show the world 150 years from now) then all the story was wedged into the last third. I tried unpicking it on Monday, having turned in a first draft of CRASH INTO MY ARMS, and came into a cold sweat and a grumpy mood. I couldn’t get it to work.
I had a look at maybe redrafting SHOT THROUGH THE HEART (which meant re-outlining the story from the start) then went to the gym in the evening and beasted the weights. Sitting in the hot tub after (at the gym, not in my house – I’m not like some authors), I started to think about the problem. Turned out I was having a conversation with myself about it in my head. I showered and got changed then sat with my phone and typed into Evernote while my girlfriend dried her hair.
And it worked. Over the next day, I had a conversation with myself where I’d ask questions and respond then chip away at the answer until I’d made things simpler and more elegant. I took a few goes at it, refining my questioning until I got to something resembling a story. But it’s all sorted now, I hope. I’ve got a very solid story now in place of the black hole at the centre of a lot of writing. A very weird experiment but it really worked and it’s something I’ll do again.
How does it work? I think one of the things that have worked for me in the past has been talking to people about problems I’ve got with my books, which gets me to a good place having talked about it. This is talking about it in a way you can review after the fact. Mr Morrell finds himself starting writing the book – that’s not my style, daddio, but it’s a good way of working, certainly to get the central idea concrete and go all Occam’s razor on it; usually plots fall apart because they’re too complex – good plots are simple ideas executed in a complex way. Everyone’s actions and motivations have to be clear. The other thing is I’m a professional writer now and writing dialogue is what I do most days, so it’s something I’m good at. It’s practise for that and it’s a good way of problem solving.