Night-black; void-black; black as December-seas – crows can be encountered like silhouette cut-outs on a sunny day; you can’t expect them to move, to soar, to have life. They sit sentinel and watching. Maybe that is why this effusive bird has garnered such a dire reputation through the ages, from being the harbinger of death and the herald of war to even having the title ‘carrion’ appended to its name.
Standing amidst the vegetabilia of a Welsh supermarket the other day, I found myself talking to a good friend and fellow writer, Carol Lovekin. I wonder if this is a common way for writers to meet, distractedly, whilst scavenging for more supplies. As a general rule our profession makes us a stay-at-home sort (although the perambulations of Warren Ellis, and Cory Doctorow might beg to differ) so it is always a pleasure and a welcome surprise to see a fellow rare bird out in the wilds.
Carol is the author of two enchanting novels about life, memory, and magic from Honno Press, Ghostbird and Snow Sisters. We talked as we always do, about writing and psychopomps.
Her process involves drafts: Draft 0, is in Sir Terry Pratchett’s fine words “telling yourself the story” with Draft 1, 2, 3, and onwards ever refining towards your goal. That makes me consider The Novel of Great (and shiny) Worth. How many incomplete drafts is that beast on [I say that lovingly, of course], Draft 10? 12?
Stephen King’s Gentle Archaeology
Mr King writes famously about writing being like archaeology, first you see a toe, then you gently brush away a suggestion of a foot, an ankle. What I took from that is that the thing in front of you suggests the shape of what is to come. I like that, because it has always felt to me like stories do have a shape or, to put it in vaguely hoity terms “dramatic form” – the hero must be cast down to find their inner worth, and come back, changed. Greek tragedies are perfect distillations of dramatic form: the tragic hero/ine is faced with weaknesses which they come to terms with in order to be protagonists, whilst the anti-heroes/antagonists fail to.
I have come to the disappointing conclusion that I am not Euripides, nor Stephen King. Or even Shakespeare for that matter. At best, I am a third-rate hack – but that’s okay, because Euripedes is dead, Shakespeare probably never existed, and Stephen King has to live under a Trump administration [sorry, dude].
I marvel at my friend’s ability to write complete drafts, as for me, I seem to be a pantser at heart. [Is that something one should admit to in public?] The Novel of Great (and shiny) Worth is less like gentle archaeology, and more like waking up in an underground complex with a flashlight and a ball of string. Find yer own way out, dude… Along the exploration I discover more and more about the setting I am lost in, what the shape of it is, which direction the good air is coming from (Gandalf had some excellent advice), what the hell am I even doing down here, and where is that sodding Minotaur.
But what about Dramatic Form?
I know, right? This for me, is where the drafting comes in (as well as the hours of swearing, crying, and drinking wine). I have gotten so far down the labyrinth and then I realize that I took the wrong turn way back there at page forty-two. I’ll still end up here at page a-hundred-and-squat, but the route that I needed to take would be SO much more interesting. So off we go, following the thread back, snipping it, adding bits, finding out that the characters had to go off and do that thing over there anyway.
Compost & Mycorrhizal Writing
[A hint: Everyone has their own writing-process metaphor, it’s because us writers are possessed by the nature of the form*]
I like the whole writing-as-compost analogy quoted somewhere. I don’t know who came up with it, but I know that I’ve certainly written a whole lot of crap…
Compost-writing then, is the laying down of feels into an idea – sometimes for yeeears before they start to come together, subconsciously, into form and shape. The Novel of Great (and shiny) Worth first appeared somewhen 2-3yrs ago (although, arguably it turned up at the same time as I got those feather tattoos, 7+ yrs ago). It was a Harry Potterish po’-boy-did-gud story. Then it was an alternative-history fantasy. A modern horror. A graphic novel. It tried on a lot of different hats, before all of that rich story-nutrition started to take shape.
Mycorrhiza isn’t exactly composting, but it’s connected. Mycorrhiza are the symbiant fungies that live on plant root systems, forming a network of trading-relationships between plants and dirt. To be precise, I think my writing is Ectomycorrhizal, meaning that there are multiple organisms working alongside the plant, all working together to form something else, something collaborative. Different parts of my subconsious firing together, and eventually, with enough rich story-compost dumped on it, fusing into something new.