Gone, but not forgotten: test writing.

Well, I’ve been absent, but not idle. In the one arena I’ve been enjoying this thing called “paid employment”, where people give me money in exchange for me coming and doing untaxing things for a few hours a day and taking the occasional break to write. In the other, I’ve been using those occasional breaks to generate some tests for a book I’m hoping to write (pending a large amount of frightening research, and me turning the plot from a series of vague handwaves and “key scenes” into “outlines for each day of writing”).

Test writing has always proven useful in the past, as a way of taking the characters for a spin in the world without being committed to the plot yet; it frees up the brain from the panicky sense that this absolutely must go somewhere and that all dialogue must further the plot or characterisation, leaving it free to explore character voices, imagery and idiom in the world, and the starting or finishing relationships between characters.

Writing about one to two thousand words a day for a week (it must be nearer two a day because after five days I have ten thousand words in disconnected set pieces), I’ve acquired a few locations in my head, settled some descriptions, picked up some additional cast members, and gained a better understanding of the character who is probably going to be my PoV for the book.

At first glance, through the lens of a camera, Buddy Peace was nerve-wrackingly attractive: he had a strong brow, a strong chin, huge brown eyes, black hair plastered into place with industrial quantities of hair cream, and the ability to turn a very affecting look of wounded innocence on at will. Deprived of the spotlight, he was a slender man in his middle twenties with slightly bandy legs and a little less height than leading men were expected to pull, extending his adolescence with the usual powders and grease to conceal some deepening eye circles and an apparently trenchant inability to shave thoroughly.

All the same, he was magnetic when he chose to be, and his teeth, though discoloured by heavy smoking, shone out like tiny stars in an arresting smile.

Joe said, “Miss Byrne told me you have free cigarettes.” He disliked asking for things on a profound level, preferring to make a statement and wait for his interlocutor to make the necessary connection. He thought that perhaps he had not always been so oblique, but the neediness of addiction shamed him into circumspection just now.

Buddy Peace cast a dark look at his supposed sweetheart. “Does she think I’m a fucking vending machine?” he asked without bitterness. He pointed a carton of Lucky Strike – the favoured brand of the GIs, Joe noticed without much interest – and jiggled it. “Take as many as you like.”

Joe took one.

Buddy brandished a box of matches, and made a show of lighting Joe’s smoke for him: badly. He shook the match out and shoved it back into the box, and said with a heavy sigh, “I gotta keep the matchsticks or Set get up in fucking arms. ‘Continuity’. Assholes. Who looks at the floor in movies unless someone’s lying on it?”

There’s many a slip between the test writing and the finished, edited, proof-read novel, but at this stage it’s usually possible to see some of the final form visible in areas like characterisation or scenery, and it definitely feels like a worthwhile point in the process. Happily, it’s also a stage that most people seem to gravitate to instinctively, which is probably why it doesn’t turn up much in “How to Write A Book” books (including mine).

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