Momentum is everything.
It’s a long time since I posted anything about my own writing. It’s definitely taken a back seat since I started this blog, but this year I’ve written two short stories and most of a novella. How has it gone?
Firstly, the two short stories. I grew up in a small town on the banks of the River Tay. Upstream and downstream of the town, the riverside is thick with reeds. The island in the centre of the firth – Mugdrum – is entirely sheathed in them. And the north bank, covering much of the foreshore between Perth and Dundee, is the longest uninterrupted reedbed in Britain.
These reeds are a good three metres high in places, and spring from a mud that you know wouldn’t take your weight. I find them pretty spooky, the same way I find estuarial mudflats spooky: neither land nor water. About ten years ago I wrote a story set among them. It had its moments but fell apart towards the end, and didn’t address their fundamental otherness.
This year I decided to write two stories – one set on either shore – which would use the atmosphere of the reedbeds to chilling effect. The first story was quite deliberately written like an MR James tale and was set on the south bank: my “home” shore. The second would be set on the north bank, among the very different landscape of the Carse of Gowrie’s berry fields.
James’s protagonists have little internal psychology. We know nothing about their lives other than that they are academics or antiquarians, but that’s all that matters, because it’s their interest in these subjects which drives them to the places they go, and to thus encounter things from the buried past.
That type of character is difficult to write in 2019. I resisted giving any backstory to my character – Ranald – other than distant childhood memories which gave vague but plausible reasons for his being in an area he wouldn’t otherwise be, and which contains few tourist traps.
Immediately, then, there’s a problem. There’s no drive, and the character isn’t even a character – just someone that things happen to. A trap I fall into – and did so again here – is to have the scenario drive the story, rather than the character’s decisions. Short fiction can allow this if you keep the pacing up. But a Jamesian tale isn’t about pacing.
Although the concept is what spurs me to write a story, it’s the characters’ reactions that should then determine where the story goes. And that – largely from laziness, I confess – is where I often go wrong. Generally, stories that I’ve had accepted for publication are ones where character-driven action develops the concept. With hindsight, this story has a character do things purely to allow me to build a sense of atmosphere and weave in motifs. I didn’t see it at the time – I was too busy evoking atmosphere – but mild curiosity and boredom on the part of a protagonist are rarely enough to drive a story forward. And motifs need to connect with the character (even if obliquely) or they’re just window-dressing. Things happen because they need to happen in order to have Ranald at a certain point in order that something else may happen. And that isn’t enough in genre fiction.
The story isn’t without merit, I believe, but would need a fundamental re-think.
The second story I’m much happier with. Inspired by a few sentences in a history book, it allowed me to write a ghost story specifically for my son, who’s eleven. I’ve only ever written a few things for him – and nothing for years – which I felt bad about. So I determined to write this for him.
This story works far better. There’s an element of Folk Horror in it, in that the inspiration was an actual piece of Cornish folklore: two distinct pieces, in fact, which I blended. The main characters are siblings around my son’s age, and their widower father. The ending took three or four attempts to get right: in the past I might have been lazy enough to give up after the second attempt and call it finished, but feedback from friends whose critical judgement I trust forced me to re-think several times. I’m deeply grateful to them¹ and it shows how important discipline is when you aren’t in (for example) a writer’s group.
I’ve submitted it to a magazine, so we’ll see what happens.
Finally, the novella was never intended to be a novella, and as it isn’t finished yet it may not end up as one. This is the “north bank” story, and I hope I’ve learned from the mistakes of the “south bank” one. As it’s still in progress I don’t want to say too much. I’m not superstitious but talking about a work that’s still in the first draft risks letting all the air out of it. It’s very easy to talk a good story until there’s nothing left to write.
This story, like its counterpart, is heavily indebted to the idea of locality and – I freely admit – uses some familiar Folk Horror tropes. But given how unprolific a fiction writer I’ve become, I’m happy to use any scaffolding in order to produce something that works.
I began it in the spring and, as always happens, wrote nothing over the summer. I’ve only written a page or so since July. As I said at the beginning, momentum is everything. When you stop, doubts creep in.
This is especially likely if, like me, you rarely plan your stories beforehand. I never write blind – I always know roughly where a story will end up going – but I don’t build a maquette and then assemble the words around it. It’s a fine line: without the structure to support your confidence, you think “it should go this way”, “I should write it like this”, “it needs that”. Each new idea may have merit, and there are times when a change of direction is needed. But not when the only problem is that it’s gathered some dust. I need to silence the voices and accept – as ever – that a first draft will not be perfect.
¹ hello Jon and Cinzia!