In the first few minutes of the film Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, the narrative branches off in two directions. This creates two separate realities.
In one of these, Helen Quilley catches her underground train
and arrives home to find her partner cheating on her. In the other, she misses
the train, giving enough time for the mistress to leave before she arrives. The
rest of the film alternates between the two realities and explores how that
starting point leads to two different outcomes.
The Sliding Doors screenplay is a great example of how a character’s last-minute change of plan – intentional or otherwise – can play a pivotal role in the plot. However, it’s unusual that the audience can compare and contrast both outcomes.
Another film that relies on chance is Titanic, starring Kate Winslet as Rose Calvert and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson. In the story, Dawson wanted to return to America, and was only on board because he won tickets in a game of cards and managed to arrive in time.
As an audience, we’re left to assume that if he’d been
unable to board, he would have tried to find another way to travel, and that
Rose would be with her intended fiancé as the ship sank. Without them meeting,
the plot would be substantially less exciting.
Over the past week or so, I’ve had a lot of time to write while travelling on trains. In fact, I’m writing this from a hotel room in Birmingham that reminds me of an old-school Butlins chalet. That’s not a criticism; I think it’s marvellous.
Unfortunately, while writing, I haven’t had much time to write about writing. I only started this entry at 5:30pm and it’s due to be published at 6pm.
Douglas Adams is known for saying, ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’ I know he was trying to be funny, but I can’t get behind that mentality. To me, a deadline needs to be met, even if it’s a self-imposed one.
Last week, a friend needed a reference for a job application. I hadn’t read the e-mail properly and didn’t realise it needed to be done on the same night. I wrote it nonetheless on the grounds that the employer might be flexible. My friend agreed, so I submitted it the moment it was proof-read.
My top tip for meeting deadlines is to use a paper diary rather than a phone calendar; I favour a Moleskine. The pages are much larger than a mobile device allows, so you can see a week at a time, and you can refer to it while you’re speaking to someone on the phone.
One of my own pieces took around 15 years to write. When I was in high school, I had a fragment that was supposed to be set to music:
Have I known you too long?
Are we too far gone
as just friends?
But I could do nothing with the fragment. I hadn’t begun writing poetry or even short stories at that point, and I didn’t pursue my interest in playing music.
It wasn’t until 2013 that I revisited the fragment, just when I was beginning to feel confident to call myself a poet. With help from online friends, I shaped it into its current form and it appeared on The Purple Spotlights EP in 2016.
I didn’t mean to write a companion piece. Over the last few months, I’d thought of another fragment I’d initially been unable to use, though I knew it would make a good refrain:
Let’s shag each other senseless.
The catalyst for the companion piece was when I found out something surprising about a couple of friends, which put me into a strange mood and then became entangled with the fragment above. The next day, I was due to take a train journey of 5½ hours each way, and I’d have access to pencils and paper, so I had the means, the motive and the opportunity.
On the trip, I remembered that Tied Up was about platonic friendship, and that the poem I was writing would be about a couple who couldn’t go back to being that way. The first draft was completed in around 24 hours; I named it Tied Down.
Some pieces feel finished once they’re on paper. By contrast, I pulled out this one every day and simply looked at it, trying to make sense of my own words, perhaps because it isn’t a sentiment I normally express in my work. Sometimes I’d score something out; sometimes I’d shuffle around the words.
It currently sits at 67 lines, longer than what I usually write. I haven’t modified it for around a week now, but I’ll probably come back to it in a month and see what changes need to be made.
By the time you read this entry, I’ll be on a train between Edinburgh and Preston. It’s a long journey, so I’m going to use the time to read two borrowed books.
The first is ‘Hong Kong’ Full Circle 1939-45 by Alexander Kennedy. The author was a lieutenant commander who had 500 copies privately published to tell the story of his service. Although it’s not something I would pick myself, I’ve flipped through some of the pages, and it promises to be an engaging story.
The second is The Lighthouse Boy by Craig Mair, about the construction of the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the coast of Arbroath. I originally intended to read the book in the town, ideally on the cliffs overlooking the water, but my plan didn’t work out. Although the overall book is a work of fiction, its characters are based on real people and the plot is based on actual events.
There used to be a Silent Reading Party nearby, modelled upon an event in New York, where readers would sit together and read silently for an hour; attendees were allowed to converse beforehand and afterward. Unfortunately, the organiser hasn’t run the parties for some months now and I have too many commitments to revive it.
I enjoyed attending because the time was specifically set aside for reading. If I’d decided to do it myself at home or even in a cafe, I would probably have become distracted, but the presence of the other attendees kept me what your organiser has focused. So I hope I’m able to employ some self-discipline on this train journey.
This week, I’ve had a conglomeration of events, most of which weren’t related to writing. Unfortunately, these have left me no time to construct a full entry, but nor do I want to throw together a substandard post.
Instead, I’m going to encourage you to make use of the time you would have spent reading this entry. Perhaps edit a poem, perhaps plan your diary for the week, perhaps send that e-mail you’ve been drafting.
Whatever you do, make it productive, and I’ll catch you back here next week.
Once you’ve written a piece, it’s a good idea to lay it aside for a few days, perhaps a few weeks. But what happens when the days and weeks turn into months and years?
In 2013, I was given a homework task from a writing class. I had to pen a story containing the words sleeping, falling, and alchemy. I struggled to write something, so I used a fallback technique of creating a diary form. The draft of the story was about an 18-year-old woman who had just started university and was assigned a nasty flatmate. I titled it F in Hell, the F being short for the antagonist’s name.
I redrafted the story a couple of times over the next two years, tightening the language and enhancing the plot points. But I didn’t do anything else with it, other than giving readings at a couple of events.
In 2016, I was desperate to write a creative piece for my MLitt Writing Practice & Study dissertation. The problem was that there was no unifying theme to my pieces because I’d wanted to expand my horizons, so they were difficult to bring together into a cohesive collection. I’d printed off some of my best short stories and poems to show my supervisors. One of them picked up on F in Hell and suggested expanding it.
The tactic worked. The diary structure was ideal for demonstrating my prose skills yet flexible enough to allow interpolation of my poetry. Furthermore, as the story is told in an impromptu first-person narrative, I didn’t necessarily have to iron out every inconsistency before the relatively tight deadline. The title was changed to Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream.
Almost overnight, a short story that had lain forgotten in my archive became the piece that helped me to clinch my Masters degree.
And the tale doesn’t stop there. In August of last year, I was in the audience for a BBC radio recording when I realised the piece would work well on stage. I spoke again to one of my tutors, a playwright himself, and learnt the basics of script formatting and practical considerations for the props and scenery.
From then until last week, I’d been converting Jennifer Goldman’s Electric Scream into a script, and making the plot much darker, before entering it into a competition. Even if I don’t win, I know I have a finished product ready to be sent elsewhere.
There are many professional writers who have left work aside for one reason or another and reaped the benefits.
In the 1960s, Larry Cohen pitched an idea to Alfred Hitchcock for a film set entirely in a phone booth, but neither could find a compelling reason to keep the character there. When Cohen revisited the concept decades later, the world had changed: nearly everyone carried a mobile and had fears of terrorism on their minds. In 2002, with the idea well over 30 years old, Phone Booth finally opened in cinemas.
Sometimes the delay is beyond the control of the author. Jilly Cooper left a novel manuscript on a bus in around 1970. Disheartened, it took 14 years to begin again. In the intervening time, the plot and characters had time to mature, and her novel Riders was finally released in 1985. She considers it among her best work.
Moving away from writing, My Modern Met ran an article in April about the Draw This Again project, inviting artists to revisit and redraw their old pictures. Sometimes there’s a year between the two, sometimes there’s a decade. Be sure to click through to the Deviant Art page for many more examples, and see how each one has improved by being left aside for so long.