Chapter Eleven - Plotting24 August 2010
Following on from my previous post is the thorny topic of plotting. Here are some of my thoughts on how to go about putting your ideas into order once you have enough figured out to want to start writing.
I received the following email a couple of days ago: There is one question about your books that keeps coming to my mind; the way in which you create and develop your characters is quite unique, for example the ‘Saga’ vampires being different from people’s stereotypical views. Is the way you do this by taking traditional items and then making small changes, or do these ideas come as a whole? In my writing, I find that whenever I get an idea, I instinctively find ways to change it to make it different and more interesting. I’m not sure whether that’s just me.
Each writer is different. Each develops his or her own way of working—it’s a process of experimentation, finding what works best for YOU. There’s no one over-riding “right” way to write—every writer must develop in their own unique way, in order to write stories that are unique. But for me, the process generally works a bit like this. I’ll get an idea and decide I’m going to do a certain type of story, e.g. with Cirque Du Freak I realised early on that I wanted to mix vampires in with a circus. I’ll usually have a rough idea of what I want my story to achieve, but I don’t often know more than that. As I go along, the story reveals more to me, and I play around with ideas and characters and plot lines. For instance, originally Mr Crepsley was going to be travelling with a regular circus, which had only a tent of “freaks”, like the side-shows of olden days. But as I started to write the story, I realised he needed a more fantastical backdrop, that his character would seem more natural if I placed him in a self-contained world of similarly mystical performers. That led me to ditch the regular circus and develop the freak show aspect. It ended up becoming an integral part of the story, but that wasn’t planned in the beginning.
I knew from almost the start that I didn’t want to do a traditional type of vampire. I wanted to play around with ideas of vampirism, and explore what it would actually be like if you lived that long, had to drink blood, but weren’t evil. I had a vague idea that I wanted my vampire to be a bit like the samurai I’d seen in films by Akira Kurosawa (one of my favourite directors of all time), but I didn’t have much of an idea of what the vampires in the series were going to be like when i was writing the first draft of the first book—I wasn’t even sure if I’d bring other vamps into it, or if we’d only ever see Mr Crepsley. It was only when I came to write the second book that I started to really tackle the issue, and began to develop my view of how exactly my vampires would live and behave. Because of the way I write (juggling several books around at the same time), I was then able to go back and re-write the first book, to make sure it tied in with book 2 and the others. Indeed, if I remember correctly, I was still developing my ideas of how my vampires would be all the way up to the Vampire Mountain trilogy!!
In short, no, I don’t think you DO need to have everything clear in your head when you begin a story. Part of the fun of writing for me is finding out things as I write, of letting my stories lead me off in directions I hadn’t thought about before, to explore new ideas. I like to be flexible when I’m doing a first draft. The most important thing about a book (in my opinion) isn’t the attention to detail, but the rhythm and pull of the story. If you’re writing a fantasy book, nobody’s going to care if you develop a long genealogy for every character, and describe all the fantastical creatures in exquisite detail, unless you can find a good, involving story for them. The pace of the story should be your first priority. The details will come later, maybe in the second or third draft. You should be prepared to experiment first time round, to take the story in different directions, to try different things. Some will work, some won’t. The stuff that does work, you can explore even more fully in subsequent drafts. The stuff that doesn’t work, you can dump—but it’s better to make a mistake and dump it, than not make a mistake at all. Sometimes you can learn more by doing something wrong than you can just by taking the safe route and doing the “right” thing all the time.
Explore. Experiment. Have fun.
In my view they’re three of the prime rules if you want to lead an interesting, satisfying life, and I think they’re just as important if you want to write something interesting and satisfying.
I got an email from a would-be writer called Samantha: I just want to say first of all, that I am a big fan of your books. I have enjoyed them so much. I have two sets of the vampire saga and I have convinced my mum to read them after a few months of nagging. She also really enjoys your books and has hardly put them down since I introduced them to her. But that isn’t why I’m writing to you. I know that you have answered some of this on the questions page, but I have something a little extra to add. The question I want to ask is not just how to write a good story, but how to develop my ideas. I have been writing stories for as long as I can remember. My mum even made me a game to encourage it. My main goal in life is to write a good book. It has always been a dream of mine. I can get a few ideas, and most of the time I remember them until I can write them down, but I can never seem to develop them. It is like I have permanent writers block. I love to write, I could write for hours, but when I can’t develop my ideas I’m stuck. I know that you may not reply to this email due to your work, but if you can I look forward to your reply.
Ah yes—the development of ideas!!! The timing of this email couldn’t have been neater, since Hell’s Horizon was one of the most troublesome books I ever had when it came to developing the central ideas! The first draft was virtually nothing like the book which will be released next March. It was a straightforward detective novel, a pastiche of Raymond Chandler that just didn’t work. The second draft was better, but it didn’t work either. It was only on the third or fourth go that I began to really develop the ideas and take it in a new, exciting, fresh direction.
There’s no simple answer to Samantha’s question, except the one I offer up to so many queries of this nature—practice. You just have to get in the trench and start digging. Ideas are like quicksilver—they flash all over the place and are hard to pin down. Sometimes a story will come together neatly inside your head, but usually it’s not that easy. The best way to develop is to start jotting ideas down on paper. I’ve always found that when I write something down, it helps me focus on the idea. I then start questioning what I’ve written, playing around with it, bouncing other ideas off of it. That usually helps me take the ideas a bit further. And then I start writing, and in the writing process more ideas come to me. If at the end of all that, the story hasn’t worked quite the way I want, I either move on to something new, or go back, examine it, pick at it, and try again. You have to prepared to get messy when you write. Writing is often about discovering answers as you go along, not just coming up with them at the beginning and then committing them to paper. You have to believe that a story will come together as you work on it, and if it doesn’t, you just have to work even harder!