I’ve been asked, as a change of pace from slaying modern politics and having nothing interesting to say about footballers, to explain just how it is that I transpose random, chaotic thoughts inside this ol’ noggin into slightly smoother, kinda involving story-shaped things. Some have asked if there is in fact a method to my literary madness, whether it’s all carefully planned or whether I mix together the whale-sperm-and-marmalade glue, slather it onto horrible metaphors like that one, and throw them all at a roulette wheel to see what sticks.
Truth be told, I don’t even know the full extent of how I manage this stuff. The entire process is rather free-form, with ideas sticking in the cranium like flies on a hot bloke’s back and getting thrown against paper before they fade into the mental ether. If I had to pin down a few specific ways I cognitively write my stuff, they could be sorted into the following three groups of fictional progression.
For the purposes of this entry I’ll be focusing on fiction-writing – the reviews and the Mind’s Eye pieces themselves are borne from either reading a comic or having an opinion, respectively. I might do something on the horrible metaphors I seem to churn out like an octopus with bulimia, but for now we’ll stick to stories:
1 – CRUD
The way in which I write CRUD is very much a “writing by the seat of my pants” kind of deal – almost like a NaNoWriMo, in that way. I started with overarching ideas about the characters I was adapting from reality into the fictional setting, and thought of ways I could try exaggerating parts of them into a joke or a character trait. For instance, the real Damian does a great British impression which I then expanded into becoming the fictional Damian’s real accent. Things like that form the basic building blocks around it all.
Then, I need a story. In this case I wanted to juxtapose the comedy element with a serious setting that’d be taken as dramatic in any other genre, like working at a funeral home (which came off a little too Six Feet Under when I thought about it) or being a police force (which was like The Shield with dick jokes). I’ve always been a big fan of 24, so I took the counter-terrorist setting and inserted the comedic characters to create that juxtaposition.
After that, it all became a bit of a random-inspiration-type deal. I wrote the first few episodes almost like stream-of-consciousness pieces, coming up with ideas and writing them on the fly. That’s why there are plenty of hooks and plot mentions in the first block of episodes that never come back again – I either forgot about them or decided they didn’t fit with the tone as the story evolved. You may see a few little references pop up here and there towards the end next year, but a lot of that early stuff was written a bit differently to how the current stuff was.
This is a plot that works itself around bits I specifically put in there for my own edification, as opposed to elements which serve the plot; for example, Inception felt like it was written about the characters, and the marvelous set pieces and CGI all enhance that experience to continue the characters’ journeys. CRUD works a bit differently, since if I think of a cool set piece or plot point I want to add, I make the story work around it. This can be to the detriment of the narrative sometimes (because, seriously, who can believe a helicopter lifting up a tent from a chunk of building?) but my thought is that CRUD is a mostly experimental work for me, rather than an incredibly planned-out story that I’ve spent years drafting.
I started this out as a bit of fun for my friends and as a way of keeping my writing muscles limber by putting something out each week, since beforehand I was in a bit of a slump in terms of writing. It’s grown into its own thing, a story I’m quite keen to finish off, and almost a year on I’ve now got notes and a solid plan for where everything’s headed as opposed to a random smattering of keys that somehow make an episode every week. Long story short: writing CRUD is like trying out a new food, realising it’s gonna be a favourite, and then bulk-ordering several kilograms of it from overseas since imports cost less than wholesale.
2 – NOVEL-LENGTH STORIES (Intersections, Fluke Street, the Andrew Thorne stories)
When I get an idea for a narrative, one which I’m sure I can write into a full-length story, I sit down with Microsoft Word open and just write. Not the story, mind – usually it’s copious reams of notes about what the characters will do, where they go here and there, what the main antagonist’s plan is, things like that. The thing is that when a really good idea hits me the way the apple hit Newton’s head, my head burns with ideas. In those instances, a fire extinguisher is invaluable.
I can’t really entirely explain how that works, but it’s kind of like a key unlocking a really big door, and inside is Willy Wonka’s chocolate room (the Gene Wilder version, not that Tim Burton washcloth). All these ideas, characters, plot elements, story progression points, even some literary set pieces all come flooding at me like a brainwave tsunami. I frantically scribe it all down before it washes away on the shores of my cerebellum, and I’d better stop with that analogy before it gets any older and more drawn-out.
After that initial moment of idea-pouring, I get to work writing cliff notes. Most of the novel-length stories I write end up having complex plots (or, at least, more complex than anything Rob Liefeld came up with) so I try to write the story’s summary down to circumvent forgetting important elements later. This is especially handy in time-travel pieces, in order to keep stable loops and whatnot, but it works on all the others too. It also means I can work on elements like foreshadowing early on, since I already know most of how the story’s going to end.
This does compound issues where I can lose a bit of interest in a story since I effectively know how it all ties up, and part of the joy of being a fiction writer is discovering random plot elements and twists as you write them, almost like you’re one of the readers you’re trying to shock. This is something NaNoWriMo taught me very well, and it’s meant that I’ve tried to make my cliff notes a bit less stringent in terms of what plot happens where. If there’s no wiggle room, there’s no surprise. If there’s no surprise, there’s less reason to keep writing. If I stop writing, I sink hours into Skyrim and the world falls into disrepair.
As for the actual ideas themselves that trigger the stories I write, they come to me from a variety of places. My original (and horrible plot-hole-riddled) novel-length story The Fall of Man was directly (some might say too much) inspired by Battlestar Galactica, meaning it turned into a story where humanity’s home planet blows up and the fight Machines with guns in their arms. Keeping in mind I was 14 when I started and 17 when I finished it, I think it fulfills the dictum of “the first novel you write is utter crap” that writers keep bandying about.
Other, less ripped-off ideas like Intersections and some of the short stories I’m writing for the Multiverse next year come from almost anywhere. Fluke Street came from a combination of listening to a little-known radio play called Blue Peach (which I highly recommend to anyone who can find it online) and seeing how the community of a shopping center works, almost like its own little town. The Andrew Thorne stories, about a cyberpunk hitman, came from trying to envision Lee Harvey Oswald if he worked for the good guys (and may or may not have some Richard Morgan sprinkled throughout as well). One of the Multiverse stories tentatively titled Fingers, written about an autistic piano player in the style of a fairy-tale, is drawn in parts directly from my own life as well as a few people I know to create a portrait of living with someone who has a learning disability. Intersections, the work I’ve been writing, editing and redrafting since 2008, came from the notion of people working towards a goal without even knowing they’re working together.
Almost anything can trigger my mind into storywriting mode – in fact, just recently I came up with an idea for a narrative based on the Anonymous collective, with maybe a bit of 1984 peppered throughout. If I think something in particular is awesome or noteworthy, or if I just stare out into space long enough, inspiration strikes like a Saturday hangover.
3 – NANOWRIMO (Mindcrash)
I just write. The ideas flow onto the page as they come into my head, however chaotic and disjointed they might be, and I slap them on the page with that whale marmalade. I deliberately don’t write reams of notes, other than one or two significant points I have to keep in mind while writing (which, in this year’s story, was doubly necessary since time-travel was involved), and otherwise I just put it all to paper. If that means the character suddenly stops in an alleyway and coughs up a golfball he didn’t even know was in his stomach, so much the better.
Well, that’s broadly how I write my stories. I’m sorry I can’t put more of it into words, it just kind of happens. I could go on for hours about particular ideas and the way they stick in my head like they were double-coated in that bloody marmalade, but on the whole this is how it all works out. I get an idea, I write it down, then I open that door and see all of Wonka’s colours and imagery. Or, in most cases, how many main characters are going to get killed off.
The Writer’s Multiverse for next year has given me the opportunity to branch out into genres and styles I wouldn’t normally write for, so it’s possible that by this time next year I’ll have some new ways of putting ideas onto the page. Who knows, maybe I’ll have upgraded from whale marmalade into actual superglue.
And please, if you know what’s good for you, tell me not to use that metaphor from now on, otherwise it’ll become a running theme that’ll put me off whale sperm forever.