Getting to know you

My final argument for not overdoing the planning is this: writing is more fun when you’ve still got things to learn. Every novel I’ve written has begun not when I know every twist and turn but when I’ve got the shape – both of the plot and of the characters. But characters change and grow and mutate, and that’s when the act of creation is truly thrilling and almost visceral.

I began Oneiromancer when two new characters sprang almost fully-formed into my vision, immediately dominating the cast that I’d been building for years. After writing with them for a few weeks I realised there’s still space to fill in my cast-list. My original idea was to have one of the estate’s ‘bad kids’ as a point-of-view character, and maybe to have a female PCSO as the old ‘innocent in the enemy’s camp’ meme. Somehow they spun together and Jazz Kinney is now one of the most important characters in the novel.

Similarly, a cop that I’d set up as one of the story’s villains has somehow grown sympathetic and curious and embittered. Cartwright is now set to be one of the main characters – along with Jazz – and almost overshadow the blokes around whom the story was originally wound.

This is beautiful, and glorious, and even if this novel never comes close to publication and remains only as an abandoned draft on an abandoned hard-drive – well, it’s given me hours of joy to see these people take me in directions I never thought I’d go. You read of the character’s ‘journey’, their story-arc through which they must grow and develop and change – well I’m living that right now as the author.

Which is not to say that I should be happy with the changes, the things they’re telling me to do. I’m having fun but I’m not just doing this for my own jollies. I want it to work as a story. I want other people to read this and share with me these characters. So this can only be the start. I’ve got to nail their dialogue. I’ve got to make these people convincing and realistic. And that means going back to the beginning, when I only had the faintest inkling of what Jazz and Cartwright – and the others, the minor characters who’ve pulled themselves into a constant orbit – and use my later knowledge to inform their earlier appearances.

At the moment I’m still getting to know my cast. They’re still revealing to me their real fears and dreams and the horrors that lie deep, deep within the skin. It might seem like a paradox to say that you have to finish a novel to know how it should begin, and that you can’t end a novel without starting. But it’s not. It’s what editing is all about. This first pass is all about getting to know them. Getting the story down and finding out who really lives within your character’s skins. It’s only when you’ve done this that you can go back and see all the things that your cast would never do in a million years – the boyfriend they’d never actually have, the unrealness of that particular action.

The first draft is the hardest. All those times you felt yourself beating against the floodgates and struggling to walk against the torrent, just treading water and desperately screaming for a life-raft.

But it’s also the most invigorating, the most awesome adventure. The moments where you find you’ve been holding the map upside down, when everything clicks into place. It’s a feeling like no other. Like falling in love every day.

And it’s all about the people – the weak, fallible humanoids you’ve thrust into the fire again and again and again. They’re the ones who really make your story sing.

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2 thoughts on “Getting to know you

  1. You have to finish a novel to know where it should begin and you can’t end a novel without starting. So true. I’m going through this too, holding my breath and watching my story evolve. Kind of scary but fun. Good luck!

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