While I’m editing Turtle Reef (out with Penguin April 2015) writing mentor extraordinaire Sydney Smith has been guest blogging for me. Here is her second last post, an insight into her creative process and why I call her the Story Whisperer. Her mind is always choc-a-block with plots!
The Writing Devil
Every time I finish a writing project I go through a period of anxiety where I’m waiting for the next project to materialise. That sounds banal, like waiting at a train station for the 6.15 to pull up. That is far from the case. My life feels pointless and empty. I tell myself this is how my life will be when I’m too old to write anymore. (Jennifer – Don’t worry Sydney I don’t think you ever get too old to write!)
So I play plot games with myself.
I’m a plot geek. I can work up a rough plot―protagonist, antagonist, premise, setting―in a matter of minutes. I can develop it over a few days. By the end of the week I’ll have what looks to outsiders like a workable story. While I’m doing this I believe in it utterly. I believe it’s real, believe it’s ready to write. All it needs is that final step, that teeny tiny step into commitment.
I will talk to my friends about this plot, that plot, like an Old Testament prophet possessed by a vision. They are as convinced as I am that the novel is poised to flame from my mind onto the computer screen. They ask me about these novels. ‘Have you started writing yet?’ My answer is always a dismal, ‘No.’
Every night I go to bed hoping to wake the next morning with the writing devil in me, the one that propels me to my computer and dictates to me words of fire. And each morning, I wake un-possessed.
I go for coffee with a writing friend, I get an email from a friend about her novel-in-progress, I have a session with a student, and every time, they ask me if I’ve started writing yet. Some of them understand why I haven’t. Some are baffled. There are novelists for whom writing is a matter of will. (Jennifer – Yep) For me, writing is always an act of demonic possession. If the devil hasn’t crowded into my mind, raving in tongues, there is no way I can write. Writing a novel is a huge undertaking, demanding hundreds of hours of screen time, and many hundreds of hours of thinking. I can’t do it without the writing devil.
In the last three months, since I finished The Architecture of Narrative, I have worked on the following plot ideas:
- Dusk – a supernatural creature who enters a family and destroys it one member at a time.
- The Bridge – crime novel about a man who was wrongly convicted of murder.
- Rosings – a sequel to Pride and Prejudice.
- Atthis – a fantasy novel about a girl who trains as a monster-slayer.
- Leila – a woman who works as an assassin.
- The Water Serpent – a fantasy novel about a young woman who can manipulate Time.
I’m not a religious person―despite all the religious imagery I’ve used―but as week followed week and none of these plot games turned into something more, I went to bed praying to the god of my imagination to bring me a story to write. I got to the stage where I was frightened I would never write again.
Then a week ago, I woke one morning with the writing devil prodding me with his red-hot pitchfork. The novel was a plot game I had briefly played with back in 2013, while I was visiting the Blue Mountains. It hadn’t even whispered to me while I was playing with the plots I listed above. Yet it must have been growing in a corner, because here it is and I’ve written over 30,000 words.
Well done Sydney. Hope the devil won’t desert you!
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She will soon be releasing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her website.