The Charged Image by John Ravenscroft – Fiction Columnist

OK. It’s 3.00 pm on Monday 17th June 2002, I’m a few days away from my deadline for this column, and it’s confession time. Forgive me, Reader, for I have sinned. Here’s my confession.

So far this month I’ve made little headway with my novel.

There are three reasons for this:

a) Real Life Stuff popped up, as it tends to, and got in the way.
b) Although I have been writing – blood, sweat and tears – the results have been a couple of short stories, not a couple of novel chapters. In mitigation I’d like to say that I’ve also submitted these shorts, and as of today I have twenty-two pieces out there – more than I’ve ever had circulating before.
c) However, let’s face facts. I’ve done once again what I’ve always done in the past when thinking novel-thoughts – allowed the sheer size of the task ahead to intimidate me into paragraph-paralysis. I’ve stopped putting one foot in front of the other.

A sad and sorry trinity, I know – and they’re not reasons: they’re excuses.

The good news is a couple of things have got me going again. Firstly, the fact that I have to write this column (I knew it was a sensible idea). Secondly, my reading of an article by Crawford Kilian on ‘Storyboarding’ – one of the many useful bits of writing advice I’ve discovered on the internet.

There’s an awful lot out there, if you take the time to look.

‘Take a stack of 3×5 cards and jot down an image or scene on each one,’ Crawford says, ‘just in the order the ideas occur to you… When you have five or ten or twenty such cards, lay them out in the sequence you envisage for the story. You certainly don’t have a card for each scene in the novel, but you have the scenes that your subconscious seems to want to deal with.’

Now, I know this is standard stuff and I’m sure you’ve often read similar advice in various how-to books. So have I. But the point is, although I’ve read this kind of thing before, I’ve never actually done it. Being a short story writer, a juggler of two or three scenes at most, I haven’t really needed to.

I need to now, because writing a novel entails the manipulation of so much more material: there are so many more balls to keep in the air.

So a couple of hours ago, I locked myself away in the garden shed with a handful of index-cards, a pencil, and a few spiders for company. I told myself I couldn’t come out again until I had at least twelve images or scenes outlined. The real McCoy. Lead-pencil marks on card. Solid, physical evidence of progress.

And you know what? It was easy. My head appears to have been working on the novel even if my fingers haven’t been – and simply doing that bit of writing got me through the blockage and generated ideas for further scenes.

The headings I wrote on the first four index-cards were (in no particular order): Peter Meets Fae – First Scene in the Classroom – Fae Reads Peter’s Starchart – and The Charged Image.

I mentioned The Charged Image last month. It’s something Laurie Henry talks about in her useful novel-writer’s companion, The Novelist’s Notebook. It’s a visualization technique. If you close your eyes and let your thoughts drift to your novel, what images come to you? How do those images relate to your work?

When I do such a visualization, the strongest image is one of a woman dancing in the gathering darkness – dancing as the sun dies. I know her. She’s my astrologer character Fae, and she’s dancing in a Cornish field a few minutes before the climax of the total eclipse that took place on August 11th 1999.

That image is grounded in reality. I was in Cornwall for the ’99 eclipse and saw someone dancing just before the main event. In truth, it wasn’t a woman – it was some guy dressed as an American Indian. His wife was with him (dressed as a squaw) and she looked painfully embarrassed. When I spoke to them later I discovered they were both from Yorkshire and had the accents to prove it. Hmmm…

Anyway, he was dancing around their tepee (yes, they had one) and whooping and beating a drum in an attempt to make the clouds part, and I was rooting for him. I’d been looking forward to this eclipse for months, and I wanted the genuine article: Baily’s Beads, the Diamond Ring – the whole show. I wanted to see the sun being eaten. But the dancing Indian’s Gods weren’t listening. It stayed overcast, and our views of the vanishing sun that day were restricted to a couple of brief moments snatched when the cloud thinned a little.

For some reason the Indian stayed in my head, and when I think of Stargazers he transforms into Fae, and she dances for me.

And, of course, for my main character, Peter.

‘Peter was standing on the dusty patch of ground outside his caravan, using a small spanner to bolt his telescope to its tripod, when the front of the tepee flapped open. A woman came out.

She emerged bent double, and the first thing he saw was the top of her head. In the grey light her straw-coloured hair was the brightest object in his field of view, and as she straightened he was struck by a fanciful notion: an image of the sun coming up.

She rose slowly, carefully, her rising reminding him a little of how his mother moved when her back was playing her up – but this woman didn’t appear to be in pain. Her movements were slow, but fluid. Easy, thought Peter. No, not just easy. Graceful. That was the word. Graceful.

When she was fully erect she looked across the field at him, and smiled.

Peter blinked. The sun, he thought. The sun.

He smiled back. It was impossible not to. And as he stood there smiling, his spanner slipped from his fingers and fell to the dust. He was hardly aware of the fact.

The woman glanced up at the grey sky and shook her head, then looked back at him, her eyes locking onto his. He felt he ought to look away – part of him actually wanted to – but he couldn’t.

With her eyes still locked onto his, the sun began to dance.’

Copyright John Ravenscroft – 2002

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