David Isaak of Smite the Waters (out this summer) has been blogging away and asking other writers about their “craft”, including me.
Without sounding too “Swiss-Tony”, writing a book is quite like playing golf. There are a myriad of techniques, a deluge of “How to…” books, and many people willing to sell their skills (sometimes for ridiculous prices) to help would-be writers/golfers to their first published book or PGA tour-card.
I’ll tell you now, I can’t play golf…
…but hopefully I can write well enough for the following to be at least of some interest to other writers out there…
Please note: due to time constraints, not to mention the risk of boring everyone with a 10,000 word blog entry, I’ll be dividing this whole thing into chunks – they’re more digestible that way.
How I do that thing that I do: Part 1 – “Arse about Face” or Four basic questions that changed my writing world.
During my visit to St Andrew’s School in Horsell, one of the pupils asked “how do you create your stories?” I thought at first it was pretty much the stock question “where do you get your ideas from?” - except that under further questioning I discovered it wasn’t (clever kids at St Andrew’s, you know?). What he was really asking was: “where do you start writing a book?”
Now there might be an obvious answer, especially from a writer whose stories are very much chronological. But I responded with a thoughtful shrug and replied “I start at the end, of course.”
TS Elliot once wrote that "In my beginning is my end". I'm the opposite of this, finding my end is somewhere hiding my beginning. You see, I’m a problem solver (I get that from my dad by the way). Whenever inspiration strikes with an image or a scene – which usually involves one main character - I ask four fundamental questions:
1) Who are they?
2) What are they doing there?
3) Where are they going?
And finally (and perhaps where this whole back-to-front plotting begins…)
4) ...Where have they come from?
For almost all my books thus far - including The Secret War - inspiration struck at what would be the final scenes of the story. With The Apprentice and the Stripper it was the unmaking of Ephernass, for The Prey and the Haunted it was the showdown with the Dane Woods. For The Secret War it was the denouement between friends and the sacrifice that one must take (apologies for being vague – just don’t want to include any spoilers here!). For those stories, the maxim that the journey is more interesting than the destination, followed the asking of those four questions - the final one being key to the journey itself.
This approach means I can begin planning the plot backwards, and usually any pitfalls are negotiated, noting that the hard part of ending the book has already been achieved and I just need a natural place to start the adventure.
The accusation that the writer knows too much to keep it fresh is not really valid – and I guess I can argue that if the writer knows nothing at all, how do you know where you’re going and for that matter, can the reader trust you that you’re going anywhere at all? I hate writing blind – I always want a destination in sight even if it isn’t the final destination – and most of the time, starting at the end does that for me.
And then sometimes it doesn’t.
Writing when your “Arse” won’t do
I’m not too stubborn or arrogant to realise starting at the end is not always the best approach to writing certain books. Sometimes you need to surprise yourself as well as your readership, and writing by the seat of your pants is a good way of doing that as long as you have some idea where it’s going. So for two stories, I started somewhere else.
The first is my children’s book, A World of Night, which started off with a villain and a city as inspiration (Feelix Toothcatcher and the City of Darcovik). There was no beginning, middle or end when I began writing this, until I happened upon the main character by chance and began asking the same four questions of him. Once this occurred, A World of Night formed itself from the protoplasm of my imagination with an ending that is not perhaps as rounded as my other books, but I’m still proud of it!
And last weekend I had a great idea for a book that would be called “Stranded Rooms”. Without divulging too many details, the idea came about from a simple passage of a man taking a bath after a hard day’s work. After relaxing for half an hour, he gets out, pulls on his dressing gown, opens the bathroom door…
…and is sucked into the vacuum of space.
After writing the passage (and a vividly surreal passage at that), I asked those four questions and realised this scene would occur reasonably early in the plot – so the third question became more important than the fourth, quickly realising that questions 1 and 2 were almost relegated completely, and that this poor recently-bathed-character only had a short lifespan in the book, not to mention in life generally. (You see, there’s not much you can do with a character once he’s sucked into space, is there?)
In these two cases, starting at the end would clearly not do.
A writer needs to be flexible, after all.
So which is it? Arse or Face?
Neither I guess. So I lied to the pupil at school, and I’ve lied to you (as David Isaak mentions in his blog, all writers are liars), because it doesn’t really matter at what point you start the story as long as those four questions are asked. If you know where the character is going then you have more to write, yet you cannot get there if you don’t know where they’ve been.
There are no right ways or wrong ways to start writing a book - there are just ways. So there will be exceptions to this method, as there are with every book, but this is how I start my plots…
…This is how I begin to do that thing that I do.
Coming soon…Part 2: Which might be about character building, though more likely about how I structure my stories and get lost reading my own maps