Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Three, two, one... er...



I have no idea, really no idea, what to say. How to begin.

I'm not sure I've ever actually had writer's block before. OK, that's probably an exaggeration. Obviously I've had moments when I've sat at my my desk for half an hour, deleted everything immediately after I'd typed it, and finally given up in disgust. Everyone has those. (I hope.) But when I get stuck I have strategies for dealing with it, and they mostly consist of saying sternly to myself, well, what needs to happen? And then I go for a run, or have a nap, or wander down to the library, and by the time I come home (or fairly soon, anyway) I realise that not only do I know what's going to happen, I always knew it. I just didn't know I knew.

This, however, is not the case in real life. (I mistyped that as "real lie". How Freudian.) So no building narrative tension, no ominous foreshadowing... No plot-bait - which is how I think of those bits I often put in at the beginning of my books, to say, look, sorry, I have to set this up so you understand what's going on, but I promise that after this something will happen. It's an easy tactic, and not necessarily the most graceful, but it works. For me, anyway. 'Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island...' Oh yes. He's going to start from the beginning, fair enough, but they've asked him to write it down - so it must be worth writing, and (more to the point) worth reading. Not to mention the enticing title... Or, three pages into The Secret History: '...And if love is a thing held in common, I suppose we had that in common, too, though I realize that might sound odd in the light of the story I am about to tell.' It's a tease, a tiny flash, a hint of the treasure to come, reassuring us that it's there, and we'll get it in the end. And it happens because the narrator knows what's going to happen. That's the whole point. We can trust him (or her, naturally, but in these cases they're male), because he knows the story already, and he can spin it out for us, leading us unhesitatingly towards something that we know - because he does - is going to be terrible, wonderful, world-shattering... It's like the prophecy at the beginning of Oedipus Rex, the prologue at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. Narrative tension is, paradoxically, about knowing already what's going to happen. What keeps you reading is wanting to know how and who and why. Surprise, by and large, isn't as interesting.

But this isn't fiction. So surprise it will have to be. But maybe that's OK. After all, who reads a blog for narrative suspense, anyway?

Jug jug jug, by the way, is what nightingales are supposed to say.