Before I begin, you must know this: I am a cleanskin. Not only is my body devoid of ink, but until recently I had an aversion to tattoos.
Years ago when I was young, tattoos were for old sailors and bikies. No-one else thought much about them, and certainly not most women. But all that changed around ten years ago, and now tattoos are pretty much mainstream. Some days I feel almost naked when I look around at my workmates and the people on the streets at lunchtime.
So, what started my interest in tattoos? I was writing a character inspired by a woman I’d seen at the local hardware store. She was around fifty and rather rotund. With hair that was grey at the roots and an overlarge nose, she was not a pretty woman by anyone’s standard. But what made her stand out from the crowd were the tattoos over all the exposed parts of her body. On her arms were two complete sleeves. Her legs were likewise inked. The tattoos were bright and colourful, obviously recently done.
One question played on my mind. Why?
That was the genesis of ‘The Scarlet Key’ which was published in October 2016.
To write convincingly about tattoos, I needed to do some research. Not prepared to be a guinea pig for my craft, I began with a search of the internet. That’s when I stumbled on the traditional Japanese art of full body suit tattoos, using beautiful old designs that you often see as woodcuts. I was hooked.
Take a look at Beneath the Wave of Kanagawa shown above, a famous woodcut by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), whose work has become a standard tattoo style for water. Beautiful, isn’t it?
In Sydney there is a tattoo studio called Authentink, which specialises in the traditional style of Japanese tattoos. Do watch the footage. If you are a skeptic like me, this will blow your mind.
The Tattoo Collectors: Film & Fiction
If you are interested in tattoo collections and the preservation of skins, go to Life & 6 Months. You’ll be amazed at what you see.
Genesis of ‘The Scarlet Key’
In October 2016, I indie-published ‘The Scarlet Key’ as a 71,000 word novel (ebook and paperback). The writing of this piece began in 2013. Originally it was to be a much shorter work and I planned to release it as an ebook only.
The following is an account of how the project started and developed over time. It gives an insight into how the creative writing process works, at least for this author.
1. The new writing project (15 January 2013)
On Saturday last (3 days ago) I started a new writing project, based on pairing a couple of wild ideas and drawing inspiration from – of all places – a trip to a hardware megastore in the outer suburbs of Brisbane. As yet the plot and characters are nebulous to say the least. I’m writing it for the eBook market, in particular aimed at workers on the long commute to work. 20,000 to 30,000 words is the target.
One of the two main characters is inspired by a middle-aged woman I saw at the hardware store. Her appearance was rather striking: every square centimetre of her exposed skin was covered in fresh tattoos.
There HAD to be a story there. I’m not a reporter. I didn’t want to know about her real life (and I’m too polite to ask), so I’m making it up.
When I got home, my brain went into overdrive and I jotted down a rough outline of the plot. It will be adult mystery fiction, with a touch of romance.
Yesterday morning I woke up with a good opening line, so I sat down at the computer and wrote the first 1,000 words. This took me about 3 hours. I’m not a fast writer, but I try to write something every day. When I’m working on a project I aim for 5,000 words a week. (I got that number from Stephen King, who says he writes 2,000 words a day. I figured if I could manage half that amount, I’d be happy.)
So, I’m on my way …
2. Writing progress (17 January 2013)
Now I’m four days and 2,430 words into my new novella project. Perhaps not as many words as I would have liked, after the initial enthusiasm of the first day. I’ve decided to free-wheel it for a bit, learn about my central character, who is a middle-aged man who leads a rather secretive and seedy lifestyle.
It’s fun developing his character quirks. I have a picture of him in my mind – I know some writers who trawl magazines or the internet and snip out physical images of people who’d be suitable models for their characters. I might yet do that so that he doesn’t morph into someone else as the story progresses.
The female character, who was inspired by my visit to the hardware store on the weekend, is introduced in the opening sentence … and she’s dead. I’m planning to do a slow-release of her story as the investigation into her death progresses.
Here are my word tallies so far:
Day 1 – 1,000 words
Day 2 – 378 words (done at night after a full day at work)
Day 3 – 452 words (work-day)
Day 4 – 450 words (another work-day).
I haven’t done the maths, but if that doesn’t add up to 2,430 it’s because I’ve changed a couple of sentences around after the event.
3. The characters’ voices (24 January 2013)
After a week and a half I’m up to 6,000 words (thereabouts). This is a first draft, so they are not all perfect and many will find their way into the cyber-bin when I come back to edit.
At the moment I am resisting the urge to edit-as-you-go, which is the writer’s equivalent of running very fast on a treadmill and wondering why you’re not going anywhere. Each time I come back to the manuscript I limit my reading to the last paragraph.
That is why developing a habit of writing every day is so important. You don’t have to read the entire last chapter because you can actually remember what you wrote the day before. Leave the thing for a week or two and every time you’ll have to go back over your work to pick up the thread.
Characters, you’ve got to love them. They have a way of doing and saying things that are totally unexpected. I’m writing this piece in the first person. The main character is a middle-aged man with an unusual occupation and a big heart. He drives a ute, drinks beer by the slab, and extends kindnesses to a harem of lonely women in the town. Out of the blue I’ve given him a French name, even though his mannerisms are pure Aussie. Somehow this helps me visualise the romantic person he is on the inside.
Later, he will be linked to a murder he didn’t do. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Each time he opens his mouth it’s like listening to a friend and I’m trying to write in his voice. What he says sometimes shocks me and sometimes makes me smile. Through him I’m learning about the love of his life, which he’s never admitted to anyone, least of all himself.
Tim Winton is a master at capturing voice. His collection of short stories, ‘The Turning’, is set in a fictitious town in coastal Western Australia. Each story is told by a different character in a unique voice. Makes wonderful and varied reading, and gives a budding writer great inspiration.
4. Mind-mapping the story (7 February 2013)
So, I’ve been puddling around exploring my characters and now I know them pretty well. It’s been like discovering new friends in the least likely of places.
My main character and the narrator of the story is Claude, an older man with an unusual occupation, a difficult past and a heart of gold.
Due to the untimely death of his favourite client, Isla, he becomes unintentionally mixed up in a murder investigation. Isla is a retired school teacher – middle-class, overweight and conventional – with a hidden secret. Over the three years of their ‘business relationship’, she has developed a fetish for tattoos. Every few weeks another appears. Yet no-one would know, for they are completely concealed beneath her clothing.
Is there a link between her obsession and her demise? Claude is determined to find out. In the process he discovers a means of redemption for himself.
The details of the story are still developing, but I have a clear idea of how it will play out. In the mix is a morsel of mystery, a ration of romance, a bit of the bizarre, and a splash of suspense.
At the half-way mark (15,000 words) I need to work out how to weave together the loose threads that are wafting about in the wind. It’s time to put all that luscious free-wheeling writing to one side and engage the left-side of my brain. To do this I will revert to pen and paper (the paper being sticky-notes that I can move about on the table).
But before I do that, I intend to use a free-form technique of identifying all the strands. It’s called mind mapping. It’s a technique I learnt about ten years ago and have used in a variety of situations. This is how you do it.
Start with a largish piece of paper and a set of coloured pens. In the centre of the page, draw a picture of the central thought or outcome you want to achieve. Starting with the centre, draw branches outwards, using a different colour for each. On each branch write an idea or action that will help you get to the centre. Then flesh out the twigs of each branch. Once you start, the associations will begin to flow. As you think of a new branch, simply grab a new colour and add it on until you have a complete picture of the entire project. Don’t slave over it or make it perfect. It’s meant to be a brainstorming technique to get all your thoughts out quickly.
For more information, here is a link to a mind mapping website.
When it’s all out there like a giant colourful cobweb, you can begin ordering those branches into scenes. This will give structure to your piece of writing and leave you confident that you have covered off everything.
5. The end of the first draft (27 February 2013)
The End, how satisfying it is to write those two little words after weeks, or months, or sometimes years of putting your soul into a manuscript.
My novella finished up at 26,690 words. I was aiming for between 25,000 and 30,000 words, so I’m happy with the length.
From go to whoa the writing took exactly 6 weeks. I was aiming to write 5,000 words per week. So I fell a little short. Who else but me (and you) would know? And no-one but me would care.
I’m pleased with the way I tied off all the loose ends and the sub-plots, and brought the story to a conclusion that I think is satisfying.
How did I do that? I used my mind map, which I stuck to the wall next to my computer. I’m a visual person, so being able to see a chart with all the coloured twigs and branches, and the links between them, I just knew where the story was going. I chose not to do a scene map after all because the piece was short enough to keep fluid and mostly in my head. As I wrote the last scene a twist to the plot sprang out of no-where, that I don’t believe would have happened if I’d been using the left side of my brain.
But wait, there’s more. I’d received some very encouraging feedback from a writers group I belong to. (We meet every month and swap about 5 pages of manuscript for mutual critiquing). I was asked if the story was set in the 1970s because it had that sort of feel. It isn’t. It’s supposed to be contemporary. Just for fun (and before I wrote The End), I drafted a frame story – set 25 years from now – around the main story. I think it works!
6. The editing process (25 March 2013)
Much as I’d like to lay claim to inventing these editing techniques, I cannot tell a lie. I’ve picked them up from various sources, including various authors on the subject and an editing course at the Queensland Writers Centre led by Dr Kim Wilkins.
As with most things, I attempt to learn from the masters and then adapt the methods to suit my preferred way of working and the subject matter of my project.
This is how I approached editing my novella.
Step 1 – On-screen mini-edit: I read through the entire manuscript on the screen, stopping to fix up any truly awful bits and tidy up story lines that vanished into a black hole instead of having a resolution. I called this a mini-edit, as it was not intended to produce a polished product.
Step 2 – Scene labelling and Table of Contents: After refreshing my memory of the entire piece, I went through each of my 14 chapters and gave them names, which I labelled using Headings in my Word program. In this case the chapter names reflect the character or event that is the central focus of the chapter.
Next I inserted a Table of Contents at the start of the manuscript and – presto – I had an instant chapter outline with page numbers. Using simple subtraction I checked that the chapters weren’t overly long or overly short and that the sequencing looked right.
Before I send off the manuscript I’ll definitely remove the Table of Contents, but may keep the chapter names (or perhaps I’ll remove them).
Step 3 – Print out and give feedback: I find that I read differently hard copy to on-line. In hard copy it’s easier to fool yourself into thinking the manuscript is someone else’s work. Giving constructive feedback to an imaginary friend is way easier than beating yourself up about your own work.
So I printed out the manuscript and read it through as if it weren’t mine. As I went, I made hand-written notes to the author. I didn’t actually correct anything. Instead I asked questions, or wrote reword or rewrite and ran a pen-line down the margin to show where the changes were needed. (I also gave a few ticks, but only where they were deserved.)
Step 4 – Getting feedback from peers: This was the scary part. I asked my writer friends if they’d like to be test readers, with the promise to return the favour, and sent my manuscript out into the world. Some feedback came as a phone call, some was written on the manuscript itself, some came back in an email. I’ve been waiting for all five to respond so I can collate it. I may or may not adopt their suggestions – it’s my work after all – but they’ve picked up on typos and repetition, plot holes and unintended character flaws that I will certainly take into account.
Step 5 – Final draft: This will be done when all the feedback is in. After that, I’m planning to have it indie published as an ebook.