Friday, 26 September 2008

Fuzzy Starts - Catherine Johnson

How do you start a story? How do you get the story, the one that sort of floats around and coalesces in your head, down on paper? I sort of imagine it’s a bit like the way they used to make candyfloss at fairs. You know what I mean, there’s a big drum of pink sugary stuff - my brain - and you get a long stick and make a gentle stirring motion, collecting the pink sugar into a just about solid, frothy, mass – a story.

Whatever it is I’m not so professional that I can sit myself down and say ‘I’m going to write about x’ and get up from my desk 40 or 50 thousand words later job done.

At the moment I’m at that funny, fuzzy, phase when the characters for something new are just pushing themselves into my head. Which is a big relief, it’s a hundred times better than the stage which says I’ll never have any good ideas again and go around writing ridiculous one liners on the computer or in notebooks about vague things I’d like to write about. These include ‘ Channelling The Shangri-Las,’ which I never have. ‘At the White Raven Inn’ which actually did somehow metamorphose into A Nest of Vipers’. And ‘Jewish Commandos and Jazz’ which has become next years’ (fingers crossed) book The Munro Inheritance.

So after the cryptic one-liners there’s the thinking stage. If I try and do this in a rational way, sit down with notebook, turn on computer, it never works. I have to do something else, pretend I don’t care, and then the characters start doing their things. I try out scenarios and family settings; think about what it is my character does, and how she lives.

Yesterday I managed to actually write something down, even though they’ve been stewing in my head for the past month or so. I’ve been too scared to in case it comes out wrong or bad. Or at least not half as good as the swimmy, slightly ecstatic feeling I get when I think about some scene or other that’s really good – in my head.

I find myself thinking about my protagonist best when I am walking, swimming is rubbish; I spend too long looking at the sky. I go to the Lido in London Fields Hackney it is heated and it’s quite Lancelot du Lac to swim up and down through fogs of steam. Knitting is good because you end up with a jumper and a story. But walking is best.

The only downside is that of course it’s still only all in my head and writing any of it down changes it, makes it into something else and in a way I lose control of it, the story grows into itself.

All those really interesting things you were going to stick in never make it, and that great scene when your heroine quotes Shakespeare on a soapbox in the market wearing a ball gown gets the chop. But hopefully, you come away with a great whoomph of almost solid story that, like candy floss, defies air.
Catherine Johnson


Nicky said...

That is so different from the way I work! I don't ever have an idea until I start writing and nothing I do in my head ever makes it to the page.

Susan Price said...

But it's so much the way I write! Especially the bit about being scared to start putting anything down on paper.

Linda said...

Love the candy-floss image - that is just how I feel, and now I can imagine it! Thanks!