Sunday, 20 March 2011

How to Spot a Really Bad Idea

Ask yourself this – is it a writing project with a strict two week deadline that involves you and a mate trying to write a novel together whilst staying in a cavernous barn-conversion in the south of France with eight other friends and lake of rose wine? It is? Right – well it’s a really bad idea.
The pal in question – let’s call him ‘Argyle’ for the purposes of this post, though his real name was ‘Jim’ – drove the length of France with a typewriter and a harebrained scheme. When I rolled up a few days later, he pitched his plan to me. He had the opening paragraph of a cracking tale for teenagers, Argyle said, and he wanted to finish it as a team. It opened with a car chase to a crematorium. I liked it a lot.
I’d recently read an article about an emerging crime writer, Nicci French who was in fact a husband and wife team. (Go to their website today, and in a neat little video they offer this advice: “What we never ever do is sit together in the same room writing.” In my defence, the website didn’t exist back then.)
Argyle set the typewriter up under a tree. The day was clear and the sky was blue. The air was like a bright block of heat. The builders hadn’t finished the pool yet – there was a half-acre of churned earth with a concrete hole in it – and as compensation, the owners had refunded us a good deal of money. Argyle suggested it provide all the food and drink needed for the duration of our stay, and a team went out to buy provisions. They returned with crisps, wine and a football with Buzz Lightyear on it.
For the rest of the week, we wrote in the mornings before it got too hot. Argyle would type feverishly for half an hour, then read what he’d written aloud. We’d swap places and I’d do the same. We never thought to discuss plot or characterisation – we just went for it. We called the book ‘The Funeral Parlour’ because that’s where the opening scene was. After a couple of days, it became clear that our protagonist Sam Theaker was an old man who was, for some reason as yet unexplored, getting younger. I’d read my share of Scott Fitzgerald, but my awareness of his short stories didn’t extend to Benjamin Button and neither did Argyle’s, so as far as we were concerned we’d hit upon completely virgin territory.
In the afternoons, we played football and drank beer. By the last few days of the holiday, the pool was ready and we picked our way carefully across the rutted, baking soil in bare feet to the concrete edge, and jumped in. By the end of the afternoon there was so much mud in the pool it was like bathing in chocolate milk.
Two years later, we were still working on The Funeral Parlour. Argyle’d Skype me and we’d discuss where it was all going wrong. We’d taken a pair of characters off to Eastern Europe while another pair searched for them. That way we could each take a strand. We weren’t writing together anymore, we were working on our own thin little sub-stories, and I was pretty sure I’d drawn the short straw.
Argyle quit his job, bought a camper van and decided to drive round the world. He announced he and his partner would be having babies when they returned. On his epic journey, he said, he’d be devoting his time to travel writing.
Just so’s you know, he returned a year later with no travel writing, but did start a family. If I was forced to put my finger on where it all went wrong? Well, I'd have to blame the Buzz Lightyear football. Without that, we could have been something, etc etc.

Anyway - we made these mistakes so you don't have to...

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