Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Word Hoards - Storytelling without writing

So the delightful Sarah Dahl asked me to jot something down about how I write, after I was happily typing to her while supposedly writing a novel at the same time... 

I like writing about what might nominally be called the Viking age and while I could write a second post on exactly what that means and the dates involved, broadly speaking I’m talking about bearded Norse pirates, Dane axes, Valhalla, and all of that.
The skalds and scops of that time knew what the hell they were doing, and as a consequence the great sagas became an art of exaggeration.  When one of them really, really got into their flow, when they really stretched themselves for fantastic new bullshit to describe heroism, villainy or violence they were said to have ‘unlocked their word hoard’.
I love tha
t. To have a hoard of words; a room or a cave somewhere where I keep all of the individual pieces of a story and then, when it’s time to pull out something special, to really go to town on a description and make it come alive in the mind of the reader, I go to that place, unlock the door and rummage around through the gold and the brass, the jewels and the dirt and somehow combine them to enchant and entertain (or at least, I try to…mostly it’s just swearing).
Now I love writing, or more specifically I love storytelling. My word hoard doesn’t stay locked in the dark, nope, I love to throw the door wide and chuck the contents out on the floor in front of everyone. I think that piece of many a writer’s psyche, that thing that makes people fearful of how their work will be perceived, is missing in me. I just love telling stories; I do it all the time, I’d do it every day if I could. Some of them are howlers, embarrassing as I read them back, but I don’t care. I’d rather produce 100 pieces and have one of them inspire the reader than spending a year polishing just one trinket from the hoard in the hope that it can inspire everyone.
Here's the secret bit: I hate writing.
I hate it, When I think about it the thought of bashing at keys drives me to tears. My mind moves faster than my fingers and all the practice, touch-typing courses, and sheer bloody-minded stubbornness in the world doesn’t help me. I find myself one-finger poking at the keys, looking down at them and not of the screen.
Worse: by the time I’ve got that one idea down a dozen more have come and gone and faded away into nothingness. Every minute I’m writing I’m losing other content because I’m just not fast enough.
Writing is tiring; looking up and down from screen to keys wares on me, grates on me and I quickly lose patience with it. I hate it

The controversial bit though: how I write has nothing to do with the act of writing. Tapping keys is no more part of the creative process than drinking coffee. It’s the thing that gets my story to you, the thing that replaced using a pen or pencil.
The kind of keyboards you use or the screen you write on is no more relevant to the finished article or what someone else experiences than whether you use blue ink or black, whether you join your letters up on not. Writing is not storytelling.
The painter’s paint becomes part of what your experience, the materials a tailor uses defines the experience you have of those clothes. Storytelling is different. The action takes place in someone else’s head, and all that matters is the story; nobody cares what plate you used to carry the gems from the word hoard, or what keys you used to unlock that door.
So I stopped using keys. I’ve left in the spelling errors and grammatical mistakes, so this blog will look somewhat less polished than my usual efforts (not that they are particularly polished). That’s because, as I sit here writing this I’m stuck in traffic pushing through Bristol on my way to my day-job churning out line after line by speaking into a microphone. I’m hoping it won’t be too scrappy, but there are bound to be some howlers; I normally pick these up when I edit on arriving home. Voice recognition technology has come on in leaps and bounds. Mine is relatively basic: appropriately, I have ‘Dragon’ to help with my word hoard.
I used to hate driving almost as much as I hated writing. Now happily I do both at once.
Think of all the times in your life that you sit waiting for things, think of the last time you sat there talking to yourself. Now I talk to my laptop, and as I do I smash out a couple of thousand words a day.
It needs a close edit when I get home, but the best part; anything I write, I feedback into the program and it learns about my word hoard: Dragon understands more about me every time I unlock the door to the vault.  It learns that if I finish a sentence in a certain way and the next time it doesn’t quite hear what I said, it will make the best guess based on my writing style. It digests your vocabulary. Mine knows words like bowstave and broadhead and whoreson, which at times feels like I’m teaching a child to swear.

The best part though, the thing that really defines the experience to me is that I needn’t write whole chapters of the time. Got an idea for a piece of dialogue? Stick the microphone on and act it out, role-play it. Allow the conversation to flow as you take on each character, saying what you (or rather they) would say and let the thing write itself. You want to stand in a shieldwall? Get out of your chair, stand as you would; knees bent in that half crouch, left arm forward as if carrying the shield and feel your weight shift as you imagine the men to your left and  right shuffling and bracing before the charge strikes home. Describe it as you do it and there’s your scene done. Fortunately, my house is stuffed full of the trappings of re-enactment (because everybody needs a hobby right?). I want to describe a dagger? I pick one up. I can talk of its weight, the bindings on the hilt, the edge of the blade or the balance as I turn it through my fingers.
I tend to take my laptop with me wherever I go, so if it’s back in my tent at a weekend away as a Viking, I can come sweating, and sometimes bloody from a hard fight and breathlessly describe what it felt like: consigning those words to a file on my desktop, knowing they’ll find a home when the time comes to take them out of the word hoard and mesh them into some violent little story later.
Method writing, I suppose you could call it. You want to write about a knife fight? Have one.
I also like the idea that this is somehow back to the old notion of storytelling as an oral tradition.

Couple of thousand words a day on your commute, another thousand on your lunch hour, and any time you can spare in the evenings to act and shout at your laptop, and suddenly all of the drudgery is gone out of writing. That’s 3% of a big novel, every day, written during time you would otherwise have wasted. Easy.

Like a Norseman fresh from a raid I get home laden down with riches for the word hoard, though be advised: you get some very odd looks on the train to London, though it does near-guarantee you your own seat.

The above was all rambled out in one sitting and has not been edited as a means of showing the extent to which the method does/doesn't cope with that old stream of consciousness.

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