Monday, 12 May 2014

Things I've learnt: Keep your fragments

To celebrate the release of Rope of Words, I'm writing a series of blog posts about its writing process and the various illuminations that came from sailing straight into the rocks at every turn. At least I have the advantage of hindsight, to know the story did work out in the end. The artist shared her process from the outset, with no such reassurance!

When I was growing up, my mother had a treasure chest. It was a pine box about a foot and a half high, a foot and a half deep, and three feet wide. It was full of jewel-colours - the kind of colour-names I now excise from my writing - crimson, jade, azure, ruby, sapphire... Its textures were equally indulgent: lace, satin, silk, brocade. Some of them could even have been described, perfectly legitimately, as "diaphanous". Dip your hand into that and you could swim back in imagination to any luxurious fantastical medieval setting you wished. Until you were told off for getting your sticky hands all over the fabric, obviously.


That was my mother's offcuts box. She's an excellent sewer and over the years had built up this fabulous collection of bits and pieces, for dipping into. For one dance, when I was 12, she made me a skirt with every panel a different gorgeous fabric. (This was the eighties. It was cool.) For a school-leaver's dance, a heavy lace became the edging around the off-the-shoulder neck of my dress. When I left home, I made cushion covers from some of those off-cuts: red silk with a gold lace in-set, jade with purple lace over silver, and so on.

Years later, when I started looking for ways to sort out my bulging hard drive of writing, so that I wasn't constantly digging through folder and opening mysterious documents, I indulged my geeky inclinations and built myself a database. I couldn't quite figure out how to categorise some of the scraps, though, then I remembered that treasure chest. So I added a category which I designated "Fragments, scraps, and off-cuts".

In June 2007, I wrote about 500 words of a something or other (you could hardly call it a story), saved the file as "Ropes of words", and added it to the database as a "fragment". It began, "The golden valley only opened once a year and when shut, only the tiniest chink remained. She had to leave to travel the maze, but feared to lose him, so she knitted a rope of words – all their favourites, linked together..." After that it rapidly deterioriated - well, not all of it, but it included the phrases "dessicated husk" and "living irridescence", both of which now make me wince. I loved the start and had no idea where it was going. I puzzled at it for a while, then gave up.

In November 2010, I was struggling to get back into writing after a very long illness. Launching straight back into my work in progress, which I hadn't touched for over two years, terrified me.
"Just write something else," said my partner.
Pfft. Easy for you to say. I hadn't been writing my own work for so long; I was so scared of touching anything important; my notebook was barren of ideas... Ha! The fragments! So I dug through them, pulled out "Ropes of words", decided I still liked it and I still didn't know where it was going, but I may as well write some more and find out.

(In the story, as it happens, the main character also ends up keeping and using some of her fragments: "She had rather more zs than she needed. She could have made razzmatazz, pizzazz, or razzledazzle, but she lacked the heart for it. Eventually, she bashed them together into zenzizenzizenzic and put it on permanent display, framed in a square inside a square inside a square.")

Making a pine chest for your offcuts, scraps, and fragments

Unless you're also a geek and making databases is your hobby, a database is probably the most time-consuming, writing-avoidance-behaviour way imaginable to keep track of all your bits. (The programmer's creed: "Why waste five minutes doing something that you can automate in just five hours?") It's worth finding a useful, easy way to organise your writing, though. Storing fragments and ideas isn't the same as being able to find them. (Anyone who's flipped through several years' worth of notebooks can attest to that.) Here are some of the other ways I've used, for various things, which might suit you:
  • a master Word document with headings for different categories and links to other documents (adding links in Word is very easy)
  • an Excel document of the same
  • a little file or box of cards - the kind you'd use for recipes
  • an Ideas notebook, so you can copy ideas across from other notebooks (my favourite notebooks, Paperblanks, have an envelope at the back for loose sheets of paper which is very handy)
  • a box of wonders, into which you can shove all half-written bits and bobs (those enormous gift boxes of toiletries are rather handy for that and tend to feature heavily in charity shops, or you could have a creative painting and decorating a Box of Wonders)
  • coloured post-it strips to mark bits of your notebooks
Whatever way works for you, having a collection of fragments and ideas is hugely useful. If you have any other cunning methods for gathering and curating them, I'd love to hear them.

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