Novels, and me

Posted on February 6, 2012


Following this morning’s reading post, I had a nice twitter conversation with Juliet McKenna about how one of the greatest skills a novelist can learn is to hide their Grand Plan sufficiently to make the characters’ actions seem naturalistic throughout the book. You’re saying: “of course it is, that’s obvious!” I know you are. And you’re right, it is obvious. But it’s also very difficult to do successfully. When you write a novel you have a plan (yes you do, even if you’re one of the instinctive kind of writers who never outlines before they start, you still have an idea about where the book’s going to go), and like a puppeteer you manipulate your cast of characters so that all of the story elements combine within that plan to make a satisfying story. The skill is in hiding that framework behind those characters, their personalities, whims and needs. To make it seem to the reader that they are following the lives of people.

Why am I writing about this here? Just voicing out that this is something I find difficult. I assume other authors do too. Yes, I try to create my characters as realistically as I can. I steer them clear of cliche, I give the quirks and affectations and turns of phrase. But *I* can still see the strings, and I’m never convinced that they’ll work as real people for real readers. I think the trick is to  give the characters their head every now and again. To get to a point where they *won’t* obey the plan as you originally conceived it, to make the writer find a way to make a new plan around the character’s headstrong behaviour. I’ve often heard other writers  say, “oh I had NO idea such and such was going to do THAT”, and to be honest found it a bit silly. Because you’re the writer, right? You’re in charge, dammit. Aren’t you? Now, I actually believe that state of affairs is desirable. You want to get to a stage where the characters are well enough rounded that there’s at least a negotiation between them and their creator as to what happens next. So what if it screws with your precious arc?

As Juliet says: “it makes for harder writing, but better stories”.

But hey, as a novelist nearing the completion of only my second book, I’m still learning. After honing my short story skills for years, I knew that switching to writing a novel would involve learning new skills. What I didn’t know is that it would involve learning a whole new skillset. I suppose for my first one I could have done it the (relatively) easy way: found a popular novel plot template, filed off the serial numbers and given it a spray job. Just to get a feel for how it was done, how it was paced, how long to spend on each character. All sorts of stuff like that. But no. For The Moon King, I tried to work everything out from first principles. It took a long time, but I ended up with a decent first attempt containing, I hope, a neat form that fits the theme and some genuinely original fantasy elements. And of course, not to be daunted by that experience, I’ve done EXACTLY the same with Queen Of Clouds. It’s taken longer than it should have, but again the result should be something intriguing and satisfyingly fantastical. The relevant point of interest about that book though is that one of the two lead characters has been bossing me around from the start, telling me what SHE’s going to do and when SHE’s willing to do it, while the other has been letting me lead him by the nose. I think if I can get him up to the same level of depth as the other one we might have a complete novel on our hands.

What will I do after that? Is it time to take the easy road? I doubt it. I’m planning to pitch a sort-of THE Fantasy series, with each volume focusing on a very small tight knit group of nevertheless fully realised characters, but that can be told in not much over 100,000 words. To refer back to this morning’s post, something that has the pace and limit of scope of a classic pulp, but with the character development of modern THE work (it just might take a fair few  volumes to get that development done.) I’ve got a gem of a central idea, and the characters are all lined up, waiting in the wings. Whether I can pull it off or not, time will tell.

As Juliet says again: “in the words of Ben Grimm, aka the everlovin’ thing, ‘if it was easy, any bozo could do it'”.

Nothing like testing yourself, is there?

Posted in: Novels, Writing