It’s a useful exercise for writers to stop now and then to think about how they practise the various skills of the trade. A few years ago, Richard Sutton, a writer friend, asked me to contribute a blog on writing the first draft of a novel. My answer then still applies to how I work.
|Prelude to romance or murder? And who's the victim?|
For me, first drafts are voyages of discovery. When I’ve done all the obvious research, I have a general idea of the destination and know the main events I’ll need to include as I go along. But it’s always possible that, on the way, an alternative route will present itself (or force itself upon me) and I’ll find myself going in an unexpected direction. So I hardly ever sketch out a detailed itinerary. For me, the important thing is to let the characters bubble away and develop until they’re ready to start interacting. Once I know vaguely who the main characters will be, I start thinking about them and ask the obvious questions. What would she/he do in specific situations? What if I put them into such and such a context? How would they behave? In other words, I get to know them better before I let them loose in the situations which will produce the necessary drama, suspense, atmosphere, laughs or whatever else I’m trying to provoke in the reader. And once they start making their entrances, I give them the space they need to be themselves.
I know it sounds slapdash, haphazard, but if nothing happens, if they won't commit to the scene, I know they aren’t real. They invariably surprise me and take me to places I’d never have conceived without the driving factor of their personalities. That doesn’t mean I don’t intervene and nudge them in particular directions – obviously I do, but it’s how they respond to my nudges that’s important. I’ve no idea how it happens, but I just find them deciding to do something or other which has consequences and makes the other characters react, and so it goes on.
It’s a technique I use in workshops. The class starts with no idea of what we plan to write, so I encourage them to put together things that don’t belong. I might, for example, suggest a “typical” scene – let’s say an old lady in an “ordinary” living room, lace curtains, slightly shabby furniture, no electronic equipment except an aging TV set, porcelain ornaments of animals, etc. She pulls back the edge of the curtains and sees … what?
I let the class suggest the sort of things she might see and almost every suggestion leads to possible plots, each of which you can change in turn by adding a detail:
- They say she sees the postman coming up the path. I add that he’s not wearing his usual uniform, but a very smart suit, with tie, shiny shoes, etc. Why?
- They say she sees a group of kids fooling around. I add that one of them isn’t fooling around, but just sitting on her garden wall, his back turned to the others, looking straight at the house. Why? Who is he?
- They say she sees her cat ambling up the garden path. I add that it’s leaving a trail of something on the ground behind it. What? Why?
- Or else I suggest she sees soldiers, or zebras, or a strange darkness even though it’s midday.
|The real Fitzwilliam Darcy|
And so it goes on. As I've said in previous blogs, it’s all about answering questions, especially the one that never fails to produce drama or conflict – “Why?”
But that first draft is, of course, just that – a beginning. When I have it, I can move to the editing phase and start focusing on structural aspects, moving scenes around, optimizing effects, ironing out inconsistencies, eliminating side alleys, polishing the prose or sharpening dialogues to make the most of where I’ve been taken. Frequently, when I return to a book I wrote a while ago, I have no idea how it came to have the shape it does. So I accept that, as writers, we’re in control of our material, but how it all works is a beautiful mystery.