Mark Cantrell, Author

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BLOG: Owning The Goal

Posted by Mark Cantrell on March 11, 2014 at 3:35 PM

To the next novel and beyond

IT must sound a little odd for a published novelist to be saying this, but one of my prime goals for 2014 is to get back into the serious writing.


Over the last few years, it's kind of slipped away; there are times when it's felt almost like I've regressed back to becoming an aspiring writer, rather than being an active practitioner of the craft.


On the worst days, when the dark shakes have me in their grip, I fear the writer in me is gone forever.


That can't be true. After all, I'm still stressing about it. And I'm still scribbling out the raw words on notepads and scraps of paper, or rattling a keyboard to get them finessed onto the digital facsimile of the page.


There's a paper trail of works flurrying in the slipstream behind me. And, as a journalist, my day job keeps my writing 'muscles' flexed week in week out too, so it's not as if the writer in me is dead and buried.


But none of this feels quite like 'serious' writing.


Don't get me wrong; I take pride in my work, whether it's a 50 word news in brief, a throwaway blog post like this (well, let's be honest), some commentary on social or political affairs (okay, a rant), or a full-on novel, they're all my babies; bastards one and all, maybe, but still the product of my literary loins.


Having said that, I'd be a bare-faced liar if I claimed they all mattered to me in quite the same way. Some of my works are, by their nature, a matter of 'fire and forget'; short-lived and quickly written off as yesterday's news. And rightly so.


Others, though, are to be savoured for the long term, as permanent fixtures in my body of work. It's these that have kind of fallen by the wayside recently.


Over the years, as the writer in me has bedded in, moving on from enthusiastic amateur looking to try his hand at anything and everything to – dare I say it – a professional writer making a living out of his craft, the impact each individual piece of work has on my personal sense of achievement has diminished somewhat.


Time was when a finished article or essay would convey the same sense of pride and achievement as a short story. Well, it's still there – satisfaction in a job done well – but the longevity and depth of the feeling is no longer what it once was. A case of diminishing returns, maybe, but even poems (when I still write them now and again) fail to feel like a long-standing addition to my oeuvre, even these are creative outpourings, rather than the more sober assemblages of journalism that might be expected to have no more than a passing satisfaction.


Only short stories and novels retain any of that original 'buzz' I felt on completing a piece of writing – the hit the addict craves – and that's why I'm looking to re-ignite the old creative fires and return to the forges of storytelling. That's the serious writing, these days.


So, I'm still very much a writer; I've just strayed away from that place where the heart and soul of it resides, and it's to that place that I'm now looking to return.


I won't say it's fallen by the wayside because – ironically enough, perhaps – it was in the service of my fiction and creative writing that I rather steered off course. So, it was for the best of reasons, really, that I've found myself in this weird position of trying to rediscover the veins of my literary habit.


The origins of this diversion through the 'wilderness' began with every author's bane – the synopsis. Like many of my peers, I struggle to condense the essence of a novel into such a one-page 'hard sell' for publishers, but it’s something that every author has to master. And that's a process I embarked on a few years back, not for one novel – but for three of the damn things.


It's an endeavour that proved time consuming and quite hair raising (in the pulling it out sense); all told, it became a combined project as intense and involved as writing the novels themselves, if not more so in hindsight. But the end result, I'm happy to say was the production of three workable documents.


No, despite that, I can't say I've mastered the art of the synopsis; there's far too much conflicting advice and guidance for the form for me to ever claim that, but I did produce something that did the job. I know this because Silas Morlock secured itself a publishing deal, so there must have been something to the synopsis I created for it.


With the second, Citizen Zero, it became rather moot because I self-published the novel. While the third remains – as yet – untested in the publishing arena, since I have yet to get round to picking it up and sending it out. But I'll get there.


All told, it took about two to two-and-a-half years to generate these synopses – one page of about 400 words for each novel. Doesn't sound like much, I know, but word counts don't necessarily provide clues to the sheer blood, sweat and tears that went into their production.


As I said above, there are a lot of conflicting guidelines for the creation of a workable synopsis, and I ploughed through a lot of this stuff looking for some sense. In the end, I went through a number of different iterations of each synopsis – and a good slice of sanity – to generate each one; time, it hardly needs saying, that wasn't being devoted to new creative writing.


In the end, I created three versions for each novel: a 'full-length' synopsis, where I created a detailed 'hard sell' and précis of the novel, chapter by chapter, for my own reference; then I condensed this down to a two-pager; and finally I boiled this down to that essential one-pager. We got there in the end.


The way was clear, then, for me to turn my hand to my next project, only to find myself distracted further when I ventured into the realms of self-publishing with Citizen Zero (so much for all that hard work boiling it down to a synopsis); suddenly I found a host of new demands on my writing time.


Publishing a title yourself involves a lot of time-consuming activities. And when it doesn't gobble up your writing time, it can clutter up the headspace needed to create your next novel or short story.


So it was I found myself building websites, writing the content for it, chasing down reviews, cover designing, formatting, writing press material, tweeting, Facebooking, and all the rest.


All on top of an ever-more demanding day job, I might add. Well, I'm not the only author to face such conflicting demands; it's not something a trad published author can entirely avoid either.


The column inches dedicated to managing one's time to carve out those precious moments of hard writing could reach to the moon and back. At the end of the day, it all boils down to finding our own balance, the method that best suits our own idiosyncrasies, but it is a struggle. Hey, this is the author's life – struggle is part of the territory.


In my case, the personal quirks of how I work, I find that writing has a lot in common with doodling, at least in the earlier phases of a project. There's a lot of scribbling and half-hearted tinkering, before something begins to take shape, a hard reality crystallising into potential that sucks you into its raw birth.


That, for me, is when the hard disciplines required to take the thing to completion began to become a must. Indeed, at that stage they're pulled into existence by the demands of creating the novel or story.


I guess at this point, I should confess that I have never been a disciplined writer, more an obsessive compulsive one. I've never applied discipline to a project; always, the project applies discipline to me. It commands; I obey.


But it always begins in that casual, take it or leave it doodling phase. So that's where I'm at right now, scribbling sweet nothings in the margins, only to be pulled away by synopses, or the mind-fragmenting demands of the author-turned-publisher, or blown off course by the howling winds of a maddening day job and its mournful subject matter, but I'm making progress on steering myself back on course now.


There are some good doodles, there, within my scribbles. So that's my goal for 2014, to step aside from the distractions and let these ideas go to work on my head. I'm ready for their discipline and direction – to the next novel and beyond.


It's the writing life for me; time to step out of the margins – come what may.



Mark Cantrell,


2 March 2014


Copyright © March 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Categories: BLOG, PERSONAL

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