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JOHN MCTAVISH

My Writing Process

 

I have been writing for New Zealand Classic Car Magazine as their Bay of Plenty correspondent for a number of years now, which means I am attending annual events for the umpteenth time. For me, a classic car aficionado, this is no hardship. It is a pleasurable pastime that provides contrast to my orcharding day job. But straight reportage of events that vary little from one year to the next would bore anyone silly, including me.
The challenge I set myself is to find and hang the articles I write from a hook that sometimes takes a bit of searching for. Interviewing the organiser(s) often reveals the hook. Failing that, if the angle just doesn’t want to be found on the day, studying the hundreds of photographs I take (thank goodness for digital) usually teases the hook into revealing itself.
Fiction is more challenging, as I found out when writing Closing the Gap and Other Stories, a collection of twenty-four short stories launched at a function held at Creative Tauranga in March 2014. I chose to publish this under the pen-name John Mack. My reasoning was that readers might see my archetypical surname, often the butt of ethnic jokes involving mean Scotsmen who are invariably named McTavish, and expect a book all about Scottish no-hopers. Also I thought adopting the anonymity of a pseudonym would liberate my writing. So far I have found that not to be the case; my name and who I am is the last thing I think about when writing.
Back to the challenge of writing fiction. Everything has to be made up; the premise, the scene, the characters, the plot, the hooks. Thought of in its entirety makes the prospect daunting. Taken one step at a time it isn’t quite so. I call it layering; an idea borrowed from artists.
I start with the premise which, for example, might be the desire to slag off some aspect of modern life. It could be some trivial irritant like the propensity for retail assistants to address customers in an overly familiarly way – ‘hey, mate.’
Next – composing the scene, which may be short and simple but which gives rise to the characters, at least two at this stage, and suddenly there is the beginning of a story. Kicking off this way generally triggers plot developments because there needs to be context to the original scene, such as where the scene takes place, who the protagonists and antagonists are, what they are doing, what happens next, what happened before, and so on.
If nothing is triggered I change the scene, hang onto the premise, dump the characters, invent better/worse/bad ones, examine cause and effect until things are shuffled around enough that sense emerges. Keep doing that and sense eventually will. If it doesn’t I consider another premise; maybe the irritant wasn’t vexing enough. Prompts are all around: tangible and spiritual, sometimes both in one for example a photograph of someone who means (or meant) a lot to you.
Most of the time I keep my false starts, because I never know when they are going to come in handy, often quite unexpectedly – in another story, unrecognisable from the original premise. My computer has hundreds of snippets, beginnings that seemed like good ideas at the time but proved dead ends. They remain as gold to be mined.
Obviously to produce written works I have to make time. This is not easy, especially as I was not given the resources and circumstances that would make it possible to write at the exclusion of the need to make a living. Some occupations do not lend themselves to setting a regular writing time. Mine is weather dependent, which is why melancholy permeates much that I write; it’s always raining when I do.
I write using an old secondhand IBM laptop as a dedicated word processor. It is not connected to the internet, thus removing that temptation with the benefit of protecting it from viral attack. I backup and transfer to our big desktop and eventually the world via memory stick. I make notes longhand as I go, amassing references and questions that require research later. My longhand notes also help with character names, time lines (although Excel is good for this, which is on my laptop) and irrelevant (to the current work) thoughts.
I keep two dictionaries handy: one big, the other bigger, which just about needs a forklift to move. I like how checking on a word in the dictionary requires searching and stumbling across other words that surely would have gone unviewed in the online frame.
Last but vital to me is music. It can be distracting if a particular piece demands attention. On the other hand, thought processes continue as I listen again. Having a five disc CD player helps. Music sets and sustains the mood. Which comes first, I wonder, the mood or the music. Now there’s a premise.

 

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