Tuesday, 4 February 2014

It Started As A Sketch In My Notebook

Another funky radical bombtrack
Started as a sketch in my notebook -
“Bombtrack” - Rage Against The Machine

“I can't write long stories!”

That's something I've heard a lot. People get the core image they want to use but can't expand on it. They want to write something long but find themselves stuck after a couple of chapters. Or write a single scene story rotating around that kernel of an idea.

Do you want to know what I started with?

The body was laid out on the hard wooden floor, naked, limbs and torso delicately curling as they tried to reach each other in some far off dreamland. Fingers, splayed and broken, spread over the varnished floor, bloody trails left in their wake as the body's occupant tried to pull itself into a different, less awkward position. Across one hand swirled the unmistakable image of a mouse crouched in a claw.

But that would not happen. Never would the lithe creature on the floor walk tall and proud again. Never would its face twist into the smile that had dazzled a million people. Never would its eyes gleam with the innocent charm of the forever young. And never would its childlike laughter fill a room. Instead, it would remain the discarded toy, only picked up when its owner needed something to shake and break.

The fingers slowly inched through the pooled blood, making grotesque curls and swirls as they spidered closer to the leather bound book. What was written upon its crisp, white pages had once been a secret between it and the person on the floor.

But no longer. Once the snarling menace that ruled the secluded house had found it, the special bond between writer and written had been snapped like a twig. Pages, as pale and as bloodstained as the whimpering human's skin, were scattered about the empty room. Some lay in piles while others, jagged tears separating words from their partners, had been thrown to the wind, escaping through the room's one broken window. The window that now hid its healing light behind heavy, bolted shutters.

A tiny, kitten-like whimper left the child-man's mouth as his fingers swept over the supple leather, imprinting and marking it with his fingerprints. It was the only thing which linked him to a life long forgotten.

That's the prologue from “Mars on the Rise” and that's what I started with. That was written on a train and was intended as an inspiration piece for a friend to illustrate. That's the tiny seed which has so far spawned three books.

What happened next is what I call the “Particle Collider Method”. One tiny idea breeds another. Which breeds another, and so on. After I'd written that short piece, I was sitting at Crewe train station. The station has a number of bricked up arches. I wanted to know what happened behind the arches so I began making notes as I sat on the next train.

And then?

My destination that day was Brighton (a city I love dearly). I was already writing short pieces of gay fiction and it had been an age since I'd attempted anything over a couple of thousand words. But as I was walking around this beautiful seaside city, I found myself wondering what would happen if the arches of that city were bricked up. And what was going on behind them. So that night I started sketching more ideas, which slowly built in to the first novel (very slowly! It took nearly two years before I had anything resembling a finished story. I also didn't know what I was working on was called “Steampunk”. I called it “Science fiction from another era”.).

Building a story doesn't happen overnight which, in this world of cheap entertainment and instant gratification, can be frustrating. I know it's frustrating for any kind of artist whose fans want the new thing RIGHT NOW!

There's one idea I've been working on since 2007. It started as a scene in my mind, set at Heathrow airport, and I couldn't do anything with it. So I made a bunch of notes and put it to one side.

Then, in 2010, I had another idea which was completely different. It was set in a snowy, sleepy little town in America. Again, it was a scene I couldn't do anything with so I made a bunch of notes and put it to one side.

In 2012, after listening to a radio show, those two ideas came together and have become the basis of another novel. But that's still not without it's problems. There's still a lot of other little ideas which need to be put into place to make it work. There's still a lot of “colliding” to be done yet.

If you want to write something longer, make notes. Obsess on an idea (although my kind of obsessing right now is playing with flight simulators and staring at the London Underground map). Do things which are related to your idea.

One thing I do is keep “style books”. These are blank notebooks filled with ideas, photos, quotes, postcards, snippets of scenes. Whatever comes to your mind. Flicking through them is fascinating and, slowly but surely, those tiny little seeds of ideas begin to grow into great trees.

Never give up!


  1. Thank you <3 - You are right poetry is writing and I am glad to see I am not the only one with random words scribbled everywhere, little uninteligable drawings and boxes, envelopes, draws every little space I have filled with cuttings, pictures, articles, book quotes and inspiring little objects. You are right about time I often leave things, I have become accustomed to instant gratification and I shall now make a resolution to write more things down, its funny I've actually recently started carrying a notebook for lists and it seems to be a good place to jot down those urgent ideas. I already have a few poems in there lets see how it goes. Thanks for the advice, a window into your world. I honestly don't know how you write these all the time and yet I am drawn to article writing how peculiar I am.

    1. As long as you're scribbling something, you're creating. Just because it's not a novel or a short story, or whatever doesn't invalidate it in any way. It takes time to create that perfect piece. I always recommend carrying a notebook around. I'd go mad if I didn't!