And the word was good

Increasingly posts here are going to be more about writing (and at some point about e-books as that’s where writing meets my long-standing technical interests, obviously), and we’ll start with this one about a couple of writing days this week which have been remarkably … what’s the word? Oh yeah: good.

I know that writing is meant to be a painful, horrible, torturous process involving suffering at every step of the way. I’ve never been quite that authentic as a writer, but certainly there are days when you labour over something and it feels like a drudge. And the work that comes out just reads (to yourself, at least) appropriately like sludge. But just occasionally there are some bright, happy, shining days where it all goes right despite your best attempts to foul it up.

Last week I started writing a new long-form fiction project for the first time this year (a shameful admission) as of late I’ve been mostly distracted by keeping up with motor sports writing. At times this has taken over whole weekends, or even long weekends such as the one just past in which every motor sports series in the world suddenly seemed to hold events at the same time.

The most exciting of them was the F1 Grand Prix at Spa, Belgium – which was a terrific race. Unfortunately it wasn’t one of the ones that I was slated to write-up for and instead I was covering the IndyCar race from Sonoma, California later that evening. Whereas the problem with the Spa race was packing all the incidents into a single coherent post shorter than War and Peace, the Somona race presented an entirely different problem: that quite literally, nothing happened.

Honestly, I could write up the whole race in a short paragraph: “Top five cars finished in the same order they started after 75 laps of following each other around. A couple of minor crashes toward the end failed to affect the crucial results and affected only midfielders.” Trouble is, if you’re a writer who is supposed to be turning in a lovingly crafted 1000-word race report on an event, then handing in a 36-word stand-first instead isn’t going to really cut it.

I’ve often had this sort of ‘stage fright’ before where I’ve wondered, just before a motor race starts, whether I would find anything to write about afterwards. Invariably the race delivers and there’s a load of stuff to cover, so much so that trying to condense it becomes the overwhelming problem (and one I always struggled to satisfactorily overcome and have always ended up with reports that are too long, I confess.) But this IndyCar race at Sonoma is the first time I’ve got to the end of a race and suddenly thought: “F*** me, I have absolutely nothing to write about.”

Actually it’s a two-fold problem, because while it’s always possible to just pad it out with some witless prose at the end of the day, if you do that you’re doing a disservice to the readers: if a race was dull and boring and non-eventful than that’s what the story should say. It shouldn’t make it artificially hyped up or you’re lying and deceiving your readers.

Given this starting point, I was very happy therefore at how the final piece turned out that you can read on if you care to. It’s over 2000 words long, but up to a half of that is sourced driver quotes and hence don’t count for my purposes here. The rest of it tells the story of the non-event, making the most of the two mid-field incidents near the end, but also not hiding the fact that this was a deeply dull race in which everyone was just playing team loyalties and holding position. In fact it says so, repeatedly – in I hope a dryly humorous fashion that ends up making it a more fun and interesting piece than many of the incident-packed race reports that I’ve diligently put together from the race synopsis in the past.

I’ve rarely felt quite so smugly self-satisfied as when I finally published that piece. I’d gone from literally not having a clue what to write, to delivering a piece that was both accurate and didn’t flinch from properly reporting the dull nature of the event, but which in itself was still hopefully a good and entertaining read. In fact I was a little jealous about all those people who would (I sincerely hope) enjoy reading the piece in its own right and in doing so would be forever spared the two hours of having to watch the original race that it represented, as I’d had to do.

I think perhaps it’s weekends like this that are having a massively improving effect on my longform fiction writing as well. For one thing, after a frenzied weekend of motorsports to cover on a deadline, sitting down on Tuesday and rolling out 3500 words of fiction from my carefree imagination seemed like a holiday compared with having to research every little detail and put it together coherently in a short space of time.

With the fiction, my mind goes to work overnight and the next morning I have some idea what I want to write. I can sit down at the keyboard, my fingers get busy, and before I know it I’ve somehow got to the word count and it’s not been a strain at all. It’s rather miraculous, in fact. Whereas with the motor sports writing, you can’t start until the race is underway; and once it’s finished, the piece has to be written and up as soon as possible. No time for long walks along the riverbank to find one’s muse, it just has to get done.

It’s fine training for writing in general and seems to be doing wonders for my creative writing, although at the same time the motor sports work does eat up almost all of the Friday, Saturday and Sunday time which means the creative writing had to be condensed into four days of the week, which is exactly not what the writing self-help books tell you to do. They will all insist that you should write continuously, every day, at the same time each day, and that to pause or hesitate or take a day off is probably fatal to the cause.

That was certainly my fear when I returned to the creative endeavours on Tuesday: would I be able to pick it up after several days ‘off’ for the other writing? Would there be a noticeable join in the text? Would it flow, or would I just sit there unable to think of what happened next? Even after Tuesday went well (so well I even merrily skipped away and did three reviews for Take The Short View while I was at it as a sort of literary dessert or cheese board) I was still thinking: maybe that was just a one-off, a sort of “this is everything that was stored up from before your hiatus, but don’t expect anything more once this has gone.” So I was a full of trepidation on Wednesday as I sat down, wondering if this time the well would be dry.

Nope. Actually, better even than the day before. I massively overran my word count and practically had to drag myself away from the keyboard mid-scene to finally bring the writing day to a halt.

Not that all days will be like this. God knows, I’ve had days where it’s been a real effort to write anything; where the words will not flow; where the result on paper is truly execrable and you just want to give it all up and never write another word ever again in your life. Any writer who tells you otherwise is almost certainly deceiving you – or themselves. And we hear a lot about such days from writers who love to martyr themselves and romanticise their periods of writer’s block so that we all know how much suffering and effort they’ve put into the final product, as if that will somehow make us like their book more.

I’ll have days like that too. Maybe today will be one of them. Or tomorrow, or next week – it’ll come, as the inevitable by-product of the act of putting letters on paper in the first place. And I’ll whine about those days, I can assure you – you will suffer, dear reader, mark my words, just so that you will duly appreciate the miracle of there being any end result whatsoever, and are perhaps more forgiving of its faults as a result!

But fair’s fair. If I expect you to share the copious bad days and the cliched long dark nights of the soul, at the very least I should also share with you the good days when things go really rather well. The days when it’s even possible to read back through some of the product without flinching, and instead to find yourself thinking: “Hmm, not bad. Heh, that bit’s funny. Maybe it’s not terrible after all.”

Such days are good days. Really, really good days.


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