The wall

The honeymoon period is over.  For a while I was driven to write and the story was almost telling itself but no more. Now I have hit the wall. Sorry, that’s probably not dramatic enough.

THE WALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Slightly better.

When I’m writing as part of NaNoWriMo we call it the week two wall because that’s when most people hit it. I don’t think it’s a function of time or of word count. I think it’s a kind of mental fatigue and I think it’s a function of story. When you’re deep in creation you’re using something up and that something runs out long before the story does.

It’s easy to stop at this point – to blame the story or decide that you’re not really a writer. I suppose it’s possible to stop and then come back later when the whatever-it-is is replenished but that’s a risky strategy. The thing that works for me is to keep going. To fake creativity until the real thing comes back.

This is the part of writing that is most definitely not fun. This feels like slogging through thigh-deep mud with lead boots on. This is two hours of writing, doing a word count, and discovering that you’ve typed 230 words. This is the part that drives writers to drink and ruin.

This is where I am now. I’m trying to fix the B plot, I feel like I don’t know the characters well enough, I don’t know the shape of the story, I’m not sure what the landscape looks like, and the whole thing links back into the A plot in time for a massive fight that I am looking forward to writing. But I can’t skip ahead to that yet because I don’t know who will survive the B plot long enough to get to that scene.

I’m trying to look on the bright side. At least today I can stop writing long enough to cook supper.

Things I hate about writing: Timelines

Why must my characters be limited by the bounds of time and space? Why? Why can’t they just teleport from A to B? Why do I need to find time for my villain to do his/her villainy? Why can’t they just nip away while the hero is in the loo? Why can’t a task take as long as it needs to take in order for it to finish just as my hero arrives?

Of course this is pure hypocrisy. I’m the first to shake my fist at the sky and scream, “My immersion!” whenever I see people riding from Dover to Nottingham in two hours or when the killer is someone who’s never been out of sight or when Jack Bauer fights a continuous running battle for 24 hours without ever stopping to urinate.

In real life stuff takes as long as it takes. It’s easy to miss that when you’re writing.  When you’re telling a story things have to happen in a certain order or there’s no story. That means some things are happening simultaneously but you can’t write them simultaneously. You can only write one scene at a time.

In my current work in progress that means:

  • The person who steals the mobile morgue (and all the red herring characters) had better not be in full view of other characters during the short time between the body being put in the freezer and the morgue being stolen.
  • The amount of time for my protagonist to drive to the hospital, visit the wounded and come back to confront his boss must be believably less than the time it takes for the experts summoned before he left to arrive.
  • Therefore the hospital now has to be inside the M25.
  • Therefore the Tower of London is now a less powerful magical beacon than I thought.

A better organised writer would have written the Timeline at the start of the process. But how can you do that if you don’t know what the story is yet? I can only write the way that I can write an that means that now, with the story three quarters plotted, and half the scenes written, I have to stop and work out exactly how many hours between a spy waking up next to a headless body and an epic battle for the soul of an ancient goddess.

Falling down the rabbit hole

If you’re a reader at all you’ll know the feeling. It’s when a story sucks you in. It’s when the world of the story seems more vibrant and convincing than the world around you. It’s when you need to know everything about the characters. It’s when you’re desperate to find out what happens next.

And it’s really weird when it happens when you’re re-reading your own work.

It’s happened to me twice this week and it frustrating as hell because they were both unfinished. I have two half-completed first drafts from the same year that I decided to take a look at.

The first one was unfinished because I got three chapters in and realised I had no idea what the rest of the plot was. I still don’t know. I know it’s out there somewhere and I’m determined to find it but I can’t finish this story yet.

The second story was unfinished because I was exhausted from the effort of trying to find the rest of the plot for the first one. I will finish this one. I’ve written over 8,000 words of it in the last three days. It is just possible that I might be slightly addicted to this story.

Of course none of this means that either story is any good. I wrote them so of course they’re both perfectly attuned to my personal pleasure buttons. But just right now I don’t really care if they’re good. I just want to know where they’re going.

A Question For My Readers

I know a quite a few of you write. Have you ever had the experience of falling down the rabbit hole of your own story? Have you been so lost in it that you couldn’t stop writing? Have you ever found an old notebook with half a story in it? Have you ever hurled one of your own notebooks across the room screaming, “BUT WHAT HAPPENED NEXT GODDAMMIT!”?

Tell me in the comments.

The Perils of Being a Writer – Part 2

That’s not how that story works.

One of the problems with being a writer is that you find yourself taking stories apart to see how they work. Sometimes while you’re watching/reading the story. Once you learn how particular kinds of stories work this can lead to irrational rages whenever you catch someone doing it wrong.

I shall now tell you a cautionary tale of completely spoiling a mindless SyFy movie-of-the-week for myself because the writers clearly did not understand how to tell a revenge ghost story. Seriously, 1 hour and 27 minutes of angst and rage because THAT’S NOW HOW THAT STORY WORKS.

Spoiler Warning: Beyond this point I’m going to be discussing the plots of The Fog (1980 version), Ringu (1998) and Ghost Shark (2013). This will probably also include spoilers for The Ring (2002, the American re-make). I don’t know if there will be spoilers for the re-make of The Fog. Yes I did just mention Ghost Shark in the same sentence as Ringu. It’s my blog and I’ll do what the fuck I want.

A couple of years ago I sat down to watch a very silly movie with my husband and one of my best friends and minutes into it I was apoplectic with rage. The movie was Ghost Shark and the problem hit at roughly the same time as the opening titles. Please excuse me if I get any of the details below wrong but I am never watching that fucking movie again.

Before the titles we are treated to the sight of unpleasant drunken red-necks mortally wounding a great white shark. The dead, or possibly dying, shark is washed into some voodoo/native american cave shrine and comes back as a powerful revenge ghost. It then hunts and kills all the people responsible for its death. Roll titles. Cue me blowing my top.

Why? Because, THAT’S NOT HOW THAT STORY WORKS.

The whole point of a revenge ghost is that it’s seeking revenge. If it gets it revenge before the opening titles then what is the point of the entire rest of the film? Some of you, who’ve watched too many horror films, are probably already pointing out that there are many different kinds of revenge ghosts and they all have different rules. Well, you’re not wrong. But you’re also not exactly right.

The Fog is one of the best known revenge ghost stories in western cinema. If you haven’t seen it already then you should stop reading this now, go and watch it, come back, thank me, then read on. It’s the story of vengeful zombie ghosts (technically revenants, I think) using a supernatural fog to wreak terrible vengeance on the town of Antonio Bay on the 100th anniversary of it’s founding.

At first the terrible deaths caused by the zombie ghosts make no sense but then it’s revealed that the town was founded using blood money stolen from a ship full of lepers who were deliberately wrecked on the headland. The revenge ghosts are the lepers and they are seeking vengeance by killing the descendants of the original conspirators.  One descendant for each conspirator.

Like a lot of great revenge ghost stories the current victims are mostly blameless. They’ve done nothing wrong, though they have benefited from the prosperity of the town, and once they know why there are killer ghosts in the fog they try to find a way to mollify the ghosts without having to sacrifice anyone. They discover that most of the gold was hidden by a penitent conspirator. The survivors uncover the gold, melted down and cast into a cross and hidden inside the walls of the church. As the ghosts breach the church the priest, a direct descendant of the penitent conspirator, takes the cross to the leader of the ghosts and begs forgiveness. This ends the vengeance, the fog rolls back, the survivors breath a sigh of relief all except the priest who has worked out that the ghosts are still short one kill. I’m sure you remember how that ends.

You’ll notice that the entire point of the story is that the ghosts have a kind of plan. When they get what they want they stop. This is not what happens in Ghost Shark. The shark kills its tormentors and then just starts killing everyone it can find in a series of actually fairly inventive ways.

“But,” I hear you say oh imaginary reader, “What about those revenge ghosts that just don’t stop?”

Ringu (or The Ring if you want to watch the American version) is one of those cultural phenomena where you’ll probably recognize parts of it even if you’ve never seen it. It starts with a cursed video. If you watch the video then you will die inexplicably unless you make a copy of the video and have someone else watch it before 7 days is up. Thus the only way to escape the curse is to pass it on.

The first half of the film is eerie but a little slow. It takes a while before it becomes clear that the video is full of clues pointing to a terrible crime. The innocent victim in this story is a journalist and single mother researching the mysterious death of her niece with the help of her ex-husband. She watched the film so she has 7 days to uncover the truth. Her ex watched it the next day against her objections. The urgency of her research increases when her young son finds the video and watches it. Now he has only 7 days to live if she can’t break the curse.

The journalist and her ex use clues in the video to uncover the story of Sadako, the unnerving psychic child of a traditional seer and the academic investigating her. The mother was accused of faking her powers and committed suicide leaving Sadako with her father who is so terrified by her that he kills her and throws her body down a well.

The two find the well and excavate it by hand, finding Sadako’s skeleton and at last revealing the terrible story of her death with just minutes to spare. The journalists time is up but she’s fine so they believe that the curse is broken. However the next day Sadako comes for the journalist’s ex. They hadn’t broken the curse at all. The journalist had merely passed it on. In the end, to save her son, the journalist has him make a copy of the tape and give it to her own father. The curse then presumably dies with him.

So what about Sadako? She keeps on killing long after she’s had her revenge. Everyone involved in her life and death are long gone by the start of the film. She continues to kill even after her story is told and her body has been properly laid to rest. Surely she’s on the same kind of blood thirsty mega-revenge as the Ghost Shark. Not exactly. Sadako’s revenge is that her story keeps circulating.  The point is not that people keep dying it’s that they keep making new videos and passing them on. Her behavior is entirely consistent throughout the movie.

Ghost Shark, on the other hand, just keeps making up new rules. It quickly becomes clear that the ghost doesn’t have to move between point A and point B it can just manifest anywhere in the sea. Then it abandons salt water entirely and starts turning up in fresh water. Then in swimming pools. Then in a bucket of soapy water at a bikini car wash. You will notice that you can’t actually fit a great white shark into a bucket but that does not stop the film makers. It manifests in the spray of water on a slip n slide.

In the most inventive, and ridiculous, scene of the film it manifests in a cup full of water after a guy has swallowed the water. No, there is no reason why the shark would be after that guy in particular. There’s no internal logic at all about why the shark would bisect a fat kid on a slip n slide but then only injure a hot girl in a soapy bath. The only logic is the logic of exploitative film making.

Eventually there’s some hand-waving about how the spooky cave shrine thing (remember that) is super cursed and the ghost’s hunger for vengeance will only increase but by then it’s too late. By then I was already making plans to torture the scriptwriters while showing them a selection of competent revenge ghost films.

Stories have rules. I’m not saying you should never break those rules. I’m saying that you should understand them and that If you’re going to break them then you need a good narrative reason and you shouldn’t make your audience wait an hour to find out what that reason is. Or you could ignore this advice and just hope that you’re never hunted down by an enraged writer demanding an hour and twenty seven minutes of their life back.

So what about you, oh constant reader? What story blunders make your blood boil? What makes you want to hunt a writer down and explain a narrative tradition using diagrams made out of their entrails?