Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Seed of the Story

Last week, at long last, I made some progress with my novel Lucian (or The Shadows at Sunrise, whichever I decide to call it). It had been on standstill for almost two years, a combination of plot trouble and a writer's block caused largely by my father's death.
When I sat down to write, I realised that sinking back into that world, of cobblestones and clockwork, to be easier than I had anticipated. Sure, the writing is a little haphazard through lack of practice, and I feel like I'm floundering to find my footing once again, but the world was still there, like nothing had happened. My characters were still waiting for me, still willing to say 'okay, here is what happens next', and all I had to do was put my fingers to the keys and let myself write.
Part of this is silencing my inner critic, that constant nagging voice that everything I write is terrible and that nobody will ever want to read it. This is, however, a first draft, and as Hemingway once said 'the first draft of everything is shit'. So, I have to let myself be shit, don't I? I have to allow for bad writing, for less than fully three dimensional characters, and just focus on the story.
Some of it came easier than other bits. One of my characters, having left the story only a chapter previously and who I had not planned on returning for a while, decided she wanted a viewpoint scene. This was fine by me, to a degree - I realised half way through my current draft that I needed more scenes from her point of view and that I would need to work on that in the second draft. So, I gave her a scene. She contemplated the events of the chapter previous and, as is in her nature to be strong-willed and stubborn, she told me that she wouldn't be kept out of the loop. She wanted back, she said, she had a part to play in the coming events and she wouldn't sit and let the other characters have all the fun.
For those fellow novelists reading this, you'll know how this feels. Those of you who don't write, this will sound strange to you. 'Has Matt gone crazy?' you may ask. 'Does he think his characters are real?'
Well, yes and no. I went crazy a long time ago. It's strange when a character does something unexpected, something unplanned, but they really do take on a life of their own sometimes. Aurora's decision to come back has thrown the next few chapters into a dark place which I have not considered. It adds a certain degree of conflict to the plot which is, of course, always good - she left following a fight with my MMC, David, when he told her that she was slowing him down in an effort to protect her. But what part will she play in the events that follow? What effect will her presence have?
This is entirely unplanned, but while it is worrying it's also exciting. I want to see what she does. I want to see what she's made of. So, I'll let her have her moment. I'll let her confront David and see what she says to him.
While I didn't write at the weekend (due to being away on a small holiday and not wanting to pack my laptop), I hope to launch back into things now. I set myself a 1st of October deadline, during which I need to get from 66,000 words to roughly 100,000. This is an immensely doable task. Even if I only write 400 words a day, I will reach my deadline with time to spare. On average, on a good day, I can write upwards of 1500-2000 words, so I might even reach my deadline long before then.

I hadn't planned for this entry to be so long, so if you're still reading, thank you. I have a bit of a treat for you, so please, go a little further. Late last night, a friend of mine said she was clearing out an old hard drive and found something I might be interested in. This was, it transpired, the very first thing I wrote of my novel.
A few entries ago I talked about how the story came to me - how a character appeared in my mind's eye and, as all good characters do, began to tell me their story. I had to listen. From that I began to write, just a few hundred words, which over the next few years morphed into something entirely different to how it began. My writing style here is, at the very least, nowhere near as strong as my writing is now. But this is what I wrote.
The flame flickered over the end of the cigarette, illuminating the man’s face for just a second, before he was plunged into near-darkness once more. The smoke rose and swirled about his darkened features, causing him to appear like a mirage across the dank and grimy table. He stared down the stick into the embers, twirling the cigarette around his fingers in an absent minded way. Then he began to speak.
‘What I am about to tell you is the truth. You can choose to believe me, or walk back out of that door.’ he said, pointing through the crowds of the pub to the heavy door at its entrance. ‘I don’t care either way.’
The man waited for an answer, but the solitary figure before him did not speak. He merely watched inquisitively, wondering if this stranger could be trusted. It seemed he chose to believe him, for he did not speak a word, nor did he leave. He simply took a swig of the pint in his hand, and let him continue. Almost instinctively, the smoking man continued.

‘It is said that many worlds exist outside this one; that we cannot see the boundaries and doorways that lead between and cross into ours. From time to time, however, we catch a momentary glimpse - a spectre of something that resides where we may not wander.’

His voice was calm, as though talking about the ordinary and the mundane. As he folded his arms and savoured another drag, he closed his heavy eyes for a moment longer than a blink.

‘Most live their lives without ever glimpsing this world, while some…’ he said, pausing to choose the words, ‘…some have to live with it all their lives. I am one of those people - the ones lucky enough to have to fight.’

As the light changed in the bar, the listening man caught a glimpse of his storyteller’s features. He was in his mid thirties, with ragged short hair and an unshaven mask of stubble. He seemed like he had been through battle, he thought, as darkness closed in once more.

‘The world outside ours isn’t like the fairytales’ he continued, ‘isn’t so peaceful and idyllic. Things reside in the Otherworld more terrible than your most terrible nightmares.’

For the first time, the second man spoke. He was younger than the first - clean shaven and with ashy blonde hair. When he spoke, he sounded inquisitive - almost childlike in his simplicity.

‘So they exist then? Faeries?’

The smoking man laughed. ‘Not in the way you think.’ he answered plainly, ‘Not in your storybook world. The beings that reside in that world - some are peaceful. Most are not. Most would not hesitate in devouring you alive, taking everything you own and then taking your very soul.’

The younger man was taken aback. He did not expect such a straight and bitter answer. Admittedly, the thought of faeries and goblins still made him think of the Brothers Grimm, of Hansel and Gretel and those cautionary children’s tales of the nineteenth century. But the idea that they could all be real? He had always passed it off as childhood fancies. These things could not exist - not in the real world, not in the rational world. But as this man insisted, they lay outside the rational world.

And yet, it was something he had always been fascinated with - something that he had researched in his spare time. He devoured book after book on the subject - accounts of meetings with the fair folk, of baby snatches and banshees. But until now - until tonight - it had only been an interest. Now, when this man had come to him, he was being forced to admit it was all true.

His attention turned back to the speaker. He was taking another drag from his cigarette, and taking the chance to speak, asked him a question that was troubling him.

‘Why are you telling me this’, knowing full well why. He pulled his bag closer to his waist, as though protecting it.

‘Because I have come to this pub every night for the past two weeks, and I have seen you in the same seat; reading the same books. “History of Folklore”, “The Court of Unseelie”, “The Revolt of the Faeries and the Elves”. All books which I, too, own.”

The younger man was taken back again. Had this man been following him? Had he been stalking him every night for the past fortnight? He was right, though - they were books which he had in his bag even now. Every night, he would come into this bar, choose a private cubicle, and read for hours. Normally, he would be left alone, but not tonight. Tonight, he had been approached.

Trying not to show his surprise, he took another sip from his pint and asked another question. ‘So what can I call you?’

The smoking man smiled, knowing he had really captured his audience’s interest now. ‘You may call me Lucian’ he said, holding out his hand to invite the same question.

‘David. David Singer’ he replied, extending a handshake but being met only with air; Lucian had already retracted his hand and laid it back on the table. David took his hand away feeling rejected, and took another swig of his pint.

‘Well, Mister Singer’ Lucian said, ‘I have more to tell you, if you wish to listen. I realise this may all come new to you, but you strike me as…interesting. The question is, are you capable to stomaching the things I will tell you?’

David blinked, uncomfortable of being put on the spot. He had only met this man, who had sat down across from him so suddenly and started telling him that faeries were real. For all he knew, he could be a raving lunatic who would take him into a dark alleyway and kill him. But yet, in that momentary glimpse he caught of the man’s features, he saw a sincerity that would only come from heartache. Heartache, and trouble. If this man was indeed mad, he certainly believed his own delusions with enthusiasm. Choosing to throw caution to the wind, he nodded.

‘Good’ Lucian said, without a hint of emotion. David wondered if he was smiling through the darkness, and hoped that if he was, it was not delight that he had found a new victim. ‘But here is not safe. We can meet somewhere more private, where I may properly tell you what I know.’

David’s heart skipped a worried beat, but as though Lucian had read his mind, he continued to speak. ‘It will not be devoid of people - you are at no personal risk, Mister Singer. Meet me in Botanic Gardens tomorrow morning at eleven. At the entrance.’

Without so much as another glance, Lucian got to his feet and edged out of the private box. His long coat billowed behind him, caught in the wind from the open door. The pub was emptying now, but the patrons left were eyeing him suspiciously. As he began to walk towards the door, though, David called after him.

‘Why me, Lucian?’

Lucian stopped in his tracks, turned around just a little, and replied. David could not properly see him, still. Just the wild ragged dark hair, the heavy eyes, and billowing coat.

‘Like I said’, he answered, ‘you interest me. Do not be late, Mister Singer, as I will not wait for you.’

With that, Lucian left the pub, leaving David alone with his books and the remainder of his pint.
Here, David is more wholly me than he would eventually become, partly because it was I that Lucian was talking to in my mind's eye, not David. Lucian also changed - he no longer smokes, and his personality here is more akin to how he will be at the end of the story. At this point in my current draft he has not suffered, not experienced the heartache I saw when I met him. He came to me from a point after the story's conclusion, a point where all had been said and done.
When I wrote this, I had no idea that I was writing the seed that would, inevitably, lead to my first novel. I had not yet studied my Yeats module at university, not yet made the link between the story's seed and the Occult Renaissance of the Late 19th Century. The filename itself shows this - 'Two Guys in a Bar - A New Thing'. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Last but not least is the time stamp on the file. I wrote this on 2nd of October 2007. My current deadline of 1st October is, unknowingly, almost 5 years from the day I first met Lucian and David, the day I first peeked into the world of cobbles and clockwork. Perhaps I should celebrate that day by, finally, reaching the end of this road I set out on so long ago.
This might just be my longest blog entry to date, so if you've come this far then, as always, thank you for reading. I hope this has been interesting for you.
Tell me, how did your novel come to you? What was the first thing you wrote? Sound off in the comments below, and I look forward to reading whatever you have to say =)

Until next time, dear readers. Keep writing.



  1. Matt, THANK YOU for sharing this!! This is a wonderful, wonderful post - a lovely glimpse into the man you are, the burgeoning writer you were five years ago, and of course your current manuscript.

    I can see, even from the bursts of flash fiction you've posted here, that your writing style has definitely grown stronger (a good healthy does of Yeats will do that to a person, yes?), but I can also see at the back of it a strong internal understanding on how to weave stories, and not merely tell them.

    I can't WAIT to hear more about Lucian, David and Aurora. May I be so bold as to volunteer as a beta-reader? Please?

    As for your questions: my current manuscript came to me as I was driving home from an after-Christmas dinner with friends on December 30, 2010. It was like I pulled out of the neighborhood and -- there they were: a trio of brothers, all with red hair and stubborn spirits, and so real to me that I had to stop and turn about in my seat, to make sure no one was actually in the car with me.

    The first thing I wrote was the opening line to the book, which has survived all my edits mostly in tact:

    "Six years after the second ending of the world, cannibal trains still ran through the Underground."

    Thanks for sharing!!

  2. Fantastic blog, Matt. I really enjoyed this, as always, I might even say it is my favourite to date!

    Getting to read your very first draft has been great; I am ever so excited to read this novel. It really is a world I could get lost in, ever so interesting!!

    I giggled when I read your reference to 'Botantic Gardens' :-) What is most interesting, is the date of the file and the goal you have set yourself in October. How freaky! I really hope you do finish it in time! :-)

    Well done, friend! x

  3. Synchronicity my friend, don't underestimate its pull! (re the dates of completing the novel - a 5 years journey)

    I LOVED this piece, I was totally hooked, and as a piece on its own it stands! I think the smoking works well, adds such atmospheric! It flowed well too. I am totally intrigued by the story, I SO want to know more. Had a slight Weaveworld/Imagica (Clive Barker) theme to it with the idea of other worlds.

    So hurry, I want to read finished novel!