Falling Beams

By Tania Carver

Greetings from Deadline Hell!

Yes, that’s where I am at the moment and seemingly stuck here for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, as the new book is supposed to be handed in in a couple of weeks time. So if anyone asks, I’m not really here.

At this time of year (Deadline Hell, not approaching Christmas) my world shrivels down to just one thing: words. That’s all, just words. No pictures, apart from the ones in my head hopefully being explained, but no other distractions. Just words.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Obviously there are some things that have to be there. Because they’re part of the ritual.

I’ve never thought I was particularly superstitious. I’ve had some great Friday 13ths (admittedly not while watching the movies as they’re uniformly awful – and I say that as a connoisseur of tat), I walk under ladders (as long as I check to see nothing’s going to be dropped on my head), I leave shoes on the table (bad luck, apparently. Especially if you’re searching for your shoes and someone’s moved them off the table.), I leave knives crossed on the cutting board, I laugh at horoscopes, wondering how the movements of planets light years in the past can affect whether we’re going to have a falling out with a loved one or authority figure that Wednesday. Yes, what a rebel. A thoroughly rational, humanist rebel.

And then I think of the way I write.

Like I said before, there’s a ritual. I’m sure every writer has one and I’m sure they’re all different yet all have the same intended result – to make us write and write better. Some writers can only write at one desk in one room, anywhere else and it just doesn’t happen. Some writers (like Philip Roth used to – and I can say that in the past tense now) have to stand up to do it. Some writers can only work in coffee shops with noise, music, conversation and (if you’re in a British branch of Starbucks) tax-avoidance all around them. Some have to have music playing constantly, some can only work in silence. And some writers – if not all – have their little rituals before they can even start work.

I don’t think I’m as hidebound as others but then I probably am. I always say that I don’t subscribe to any particular method of work or approach. I always treat each new novel as a blank slate, an opportunity to try different things, see if new exercises will yield better results. Outline. Don’t outline. Plot thoroughly. Don’t plot at all. Think of three characteristics that sum up this character you haven’t even decided on a name for yet. If this character was an alcoholic drink what would they be? All that. Yeah, I always start that way. But it never lasts long. I’m sure I end up going back to the way I usually do it. And that’s fine I suppose, because that’s the working method that has evolved best for me.

And I think that’s something inherent in human nature. Ritual, routine. We try to get away from it but we’re always drawn back to it. We can’t help it.

There’s that famous section in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the so-called ‘Flitcraft Parable’. I’m sure you all know it. Flitcraft, a Tacoma businessman went out for lunch one day and never returned. He was wealthy, happy and he left behind a wife, two children and a very successful real estate business.

‘He went like that,’ Spade said, ‘like a fist when you open your hand.’     

And then his wife heard he had been spotted in Spokane so Spade was given the job of investigating. He tracked down Flitcraft – now called Pierce – and found him to have a new wife, a new son and a very successful business. Spade asked him what had happened, why he left. He said that when he had been on his way to lunch a beam had fallen from a building site, narrowly missing him. He wasn’t hurt but it made him realise just how random life is. He realised that ‘in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, not in step with life’. So he walked out. By the time Spade found him he had fallen back into exactly the same routine again. ‘He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling’.

Obviously I can’t say for definite, but I do wonder whether Hammett was talking about writing when he wrote that. Because that’s exactly how I – and I’m sure lots of other writers – work. I try to find a different way of doing something, saying something but it just ends up in the same routine.

So perhaps it’s time to stop trying to change things, to be different. Maybe it’s time to just accept that’s how one works, embrace it and get on with it.

For instance, my working day starts with coffee.  And it has to be served in one of my special Hammer films mugs.  Yes, honestly.  It may very occasionally be tea but the mug has to be the same. I’ve got two rooms tow work in, my office and the dining room. If it’s the office it’s at the desk (obviously) if it’s in the dining room it always has to be at the same end of the table. Then I open the computer and play freecell. Only five games, though. Then there’s the song. I have to have a song to start the day. Or the night, whatever. And each book seems to suggest its own song. For the last Tania Carver novel, CHOKED, it was Gerry Rafferty’s Night Owl. I don’t know why, I’ve never been a particular fan of his. But it came into my head one day like a persistent little earworm and wouldn’t leave. So it became my touchstone. I’d listen to it most days before and after work. And then when the book was finished, so was the song.

This time it’s Verdi Cries by 10,000 Maniacs that’s my daily listen. Or rather a solo performance of it by Natalie Merchant from a TV show in 1989. I don’t know what it is, the song, her phrasing, her playing . . . It’s just great. And it’s become the unofficial theme tune to the novel.

But that’s just one example, that’s just what works for me, my rituals. And I suppose that, as writers, we should always be trying to look beyond the rituals, get to the truth of what we’re writing without and mental clutter. Doing all of the above is like not walking under ladders or leaving shoes on the table. Things that, stripped of their totemic value are completely pointless. My rituals don’t make me a better writer or a worse writer. They don’t affect the writing at all, I don’t believe. We live in an indifferent universe, playing five games of freecell is not what will make me a better writer than Hemingway. Being a better writer than Hemingway will make me be a better writer than Hemingway.

I’m sure everyone had their rituals.  And please, feel free to share them. Because we all still cling to them. Why? Comfort, I suppose. Because, like Flitcraft, we do the same thing every day, sit down and work. Plough through it. We’ve adapted our lives to beams not falling.

However, if we want our writing to be even a bit more surprising and spontaneous, to live, to breathe, to excite, maybe the thing to do is to write like we’re standing there in the street, just waiting for the beam to drop, knowing our indifferent universe is about to remove us from it.  Write like that.

And see what happens.

2 thoughts on “Falling Beams

  1. Allison Davis

    Writing is like exercise, you need routine to get it right (writing every day, etc.) and like training for a marathon, you need the routine to work the muscles, train the memory, build up the stamina, prepare the mind and all that. Writing also requires routine (practice) to get good. Thus, we all have one. When I was doing journalism work and had short deadlines, I had a very specific routine of gathering the facts/viewing the art (I was an art reviewer/critic for a few years), taking notes, doing an interview, doing research, then doing the outline, letting it sit overnight if possible, then hashing out the draft, then rewriting. Then going over it with the editor and finally finalizing it. I had an office and set up, and a particular notebook, all part of it.

    With the longer works, god willing they ever get published, I need to write around the day job and quickly mentally move from one world to the other so I do it with a set of music that I play over and over. I recently added some wonderful Gregorian chants (Soul of Chant) with my standard Bill Evans and an interesting acoustic Pat Metheny. The same music puts me back into my writing head and after a while I'm not that conscious of it. I sit in the same place, write down the date, the time and start to write. I note the number of pages edited or the number of words written and the time to help me stay focused and keep track. Like timing a run I guess. Funny, but it helps me move forward. I end up with a long chart of dates and progress.

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  2. PD Martin

    I don't really have any rituals (beside bum on chair and 'just do it'). I do like going to cafes to write but only go once a week – which is 'forced' because I drop my daughter for a two-hour lesson and go to the nearest cafe to get some writing done. But I do enjoy those two hours! No special mugs though šŸ™‚

    PS I like the idea of choosing one song for each book as the book's 'theme song'. I might try that one!

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