Selling Illusion

Saturday, May 07, 2005

[The 5,000 Piece Puzzle]

Six days from now, the date marked as the thirtieth day of the November month, will see the closing date of a competition. Sponsored by Time Warner Books, the ‘Real Writers: Short Story Awards 2004’ see the winning entry receiving a prize to the princely sum of two thousand and five hundred pounds, and a chance to submit a novel to the publisher for consideration. All and all, a competition not to be frowned at. And, for an aspiring writer, a chance not to be sniffed at. So it is of no surprise, especially for anyone who read last week’s article, that I am entering the competition, and, in a reversal of my previous modest aspirations to ‘do well, but not win’, I have changed gears and am presently thundering down the express freeway of success in a juggernaut labelled ‘Top Spot’ with my eyes on one of the top placements.

“Aha,” I hear new readers cry out. “Nab Gil’s hit upon a winning formula, a story so good that it’s inflamed his raging ego to rival Ziggy Stardust’s. It’s going to rock the socks of the Judges, and his bank balance will soon be ringing to the sound of some two thousand pounds.”

Friends’ reactions will be more subtle. With a single eyebrow raised, a simple statement will be echoed throughout the world. “Back again McAllister? Leaving it to the last minute?”

The answer lies, struggling fiercely, between the two.

I have indeed hit upon, what I consider in my humble opinion, a very good story. Something that has been brewing for some six months now: but has yet to become stale and tasteless. Initial premise, character archetypes, ending. All rest, bundled up behind my eyes, waiting to be delivered by hand to the smooth keys of my laptop. As is with anything I seek to write, some things are clear, others more ill defined. There is no constructed, completely defined reality in existence, no borders. Thinly built walls are easily washed aside, entire plots of this newly seeded land can be destroyed, reformed or erased from existence as my mind sees fit.

Thus when I come to write, there is a degree of fluidity around and within a few guaranteed events, a few pre-scripted scenes and conversations. I have never sought to clarify the reason for this form of writing, nor have I had such clarified to me, so the technique, if one was to call it that, is not one assimilated from another writer. It is simply how I do such things. The premise for particular plot threads have been stored up in my mind for some time, and sadly, most have become in danger of stagnating. It is in between these moments in time that I find freedom, spontaneous invention. What were two paragraphs of dialogue can grow into a ten page assault on the sensibilities of the characters in question. Later editing may return the state of play back to its original foundations, but for the most part, there is a great deal of enjoyment from forming many unexpected responses and thought processes. However, at times I draw a fine line between reader interest and writer’s masturbation.

There are many ways I look at the formulation of a story, but underlining all is the sketchy assumption that I am looking at a variety of puzzle pieces, having the components, but not the overall piece. Over time, I gradually build, small shards coming together and being placed with rough approximation to each other. It is only in the finishing stages that the dots are fully connected, and the near complete framework is able to be fully appreciated.

However, as Drifter has attested to on a few occasions, I have the unnerving ability to overshoot word margins to the sum of an extra thousand words. I would claim this to be the product of four years of writing University papers, all with an average word count limit of two thousand. For the most part, I managed to land close within the five hundred extra maximum borderlines. There was a comfortable margin of error. For most of the last five months, I’ve managed to hammer through the five hundred word limit here for a shockingly unsporting two thousand worder. But I would nurture the opinion that those extra words are never wasted on reiteration. Two thousand words seems a complete betrayal to the phrase ‘to the point’, but I would feel it an injustice to curb my writing when I knew I had something more to say. And luckily, it’s a great bunch of folk here that allow me the leeway.

So, upon reading that entries for the competition must not exceed a five thousand word count, I felt I was in safe territory. If two thousand was my norm, then five should see me clear to lavish the story with a sense of occasion and detail that would weigh it up close to the word limit, no editing needed. So, story in mind, I started transcribing the beginnings onto the page. Three paragraphs in, I decided to double check the figures against the ‘Epilogue’ short serialized on this site a few months ago. At around three thousand words, it would clarify in my mind how much space I had to manoeuvre on this new short. Could I go with the longer, more poignant of the two ideas? Or would space restrictions mean a slightly pacer narrative and resolutions that were steeped in blood rather than wordplay?

Open up the document. Select ‘Edit’, and then click on ‘Select All’. A brief slide over to the right saw a quick caress of the ‘Tools’ menu and a plunge into ‘Word Count’.

The numbers blinked back at me. They must be wrong, I reasoned. I’ve probably got a few articles wielded onto this one document, for archiving. I scrolled up and down the pages, looking for any erroneous documents. The three piece ‘Epilogue’ story stared back at me, alone in its confinement. I repeated the procedure, hypnotized by a growing horror.

Six thousand words. With being double my rough estimate, it managed to kill off two birds with one stone. My story was to revolve around one continuous conversation, which would delve far deeper and wider than the conversation that spawned within ‘Epilogue’. The core of the narrative would also seek to ground the reader fully in the reality of the situation that was being presented to them. Descriptive paragraphs were to be important to the development of the plot, and hold clues to the more observant of readers. I wanted to show off my present potential as a writer through a style of fiction that was of my own making, not a copy of a copy of a copy. This seemed to suddenly be very unlikely.

I slammed on the brakes. After some contemplation, I started reversing back the way I had come.

Not to turn round and head back, tail between my legs. No, I was simply getting a bigger run up. The transmission between the solid walls of this constructed reality and a fluid shifting phase of inspiration was completed. During the last few moments of slowing down and coming to a complete stop, a single thought ran through my head.

And this is where this story ends, for the moment. For past has merged with present. A plan was formulated a time ago, outlined in last week’s article. One project has been finished, and the next awaits its completion. The surprise offering of a new trade to work in has been accepted and assumed. Yet complications have arisen from its impact upon my life. Five months of inactivity has seen a surge of thinking creatively. The sudden plunge back into full days’ of work has left the brain jaded and tired, unable to generate the frenzied activity of thought on demand for the few hours left each night. This will be resolved as time goes on, as body takes on its new mantle with ever increasing fluidity and operational standards will return fully fledged to the higher areas of the mind. But time is not what I have. And so, with three evenings’ work lost to the resumption of working days, a challenge sees its way to the front. To rise above temporary mental weariness and reformat a story, write within word specifications, and still construct something that’ll blow the Judges’ minds, all within four days?

Sounds like a challenge for certain. And damn me if I’m not happy to be excepting it. I’m going to do it, because I’ve got something to prove. So it ends here on a cliff-hanger. Sitting silently looking at the horizon stretching out in front of me, a light gleams behind my eyes, and a small smile pulls at the corner of my mouth. That single thought fires across my brain.

Step on the gas.

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