Sunday, 28 October 2007

How I Write

Hi chaps,

A fascinating post from Brian, and of course I can't resist throwing in my own two-pennyworth...

Unlike some of us, I am not very fecund with ideas: it takes me a long time to arrive at a situation I'm willing to spend the next six months living and breathing, and before I start I need to know that it has the legs to get to reach a conclusion. As a minimum, before I start writing a story I know the beginning and the end, sometimes with not a great deal more. I'll also have a protagonist and some, but not all, of the supporting cast.

For my first novel-length story, The Zael Inheritance, I had established my all the main characters and the plot structure in some detail. It changed very little although I added two chapters before the original starting point. Dragonchaser, my next effort, was less planned, with only the beginning, the end and the three main characters in my head. I knew this was to be a novel of political intrigue and I wanted to let those intrigues play out without being constrained by too much advance thinking.

The Dog of the North was somewhere in the middle. The book is structured around two interlocking plot strands and I needed to understand how they fitted together (and chart the somewhat complex chronology) before I began. I also prepared a lot of background material:
  1. a spreadsheet with timelines for all the main characters
  2. a thousand word essay on "The Way of Harmony", the religion which underpins the entire book
  3. a piece of similar length on the Knights of Emmen, who feature nowhere in the book
  4. a summary of events taking place between The Dog of the North and Dragonchaser, in which King Enguerran, an off-stage figure in the former, is a central character.
These background materials had only a peripheral direct impact on the novel: a significant number of characters were not on the spreadsheet No.1 at all. Instead, they were introduced as plot functions but became much more interesting. No.2 was very important, but the only time the precepts of the religion are set out in any detail is a short scene in which youthful characters are drilled in a catechism. No.3 gave me the idea for one of the twin protagonists, although in The Dog of the North his story stops long before his involvement in the essay begins. No.4 is important in providing a broader story arc (and a potential outline for the sequel) and allowed me to sow some seeds, so that if I do write the sequel it will partly reinterpret The Dog of the North.

Fantasy writers have to do all this world-building stuff to create a convincing fictional reality. Unlike, say, crime novels, there is very little shared background between writer and reader (and what is shared is usually a store of cliches the author may want to deconstruct), so a big part of my job as a writer is to convey my world in a way that's efficient but unobtrusive. When I was plotting The Dog of the North I had long walks to and from work each day, and this was where I did the best of my thinking. By the time I started writing I had most of the main characters fleshed out and a detailed understanding of life in Croad and Mettingloom, the two locales of the book, as well as a sense of the bigger "story behind the story".

Once I am in the drafting stage, I reckon to write 1,000 to 1,300 a day, usually in the evening. For The Dog of the North I took a week off work when I managed to write 20,000 words which was invaluable in generating a powerful momentum. Writing two plots was a challenge: originally I wrote them in the order they would be read, but I found switching between them every two or three days disruptive, so for the last third of the book I wrote one storyline to its conclusion before finishing the other. As a result of this, when I came to edit the book I put the strands together in bigger chunks, so that the reader has to switch between stories less frequently.

What about the rest of you? How do you write? And for those of you working in genre, are there are any special considerations which affect the way you work?



David Isaak said...

Yep, you fantasy types have a whole different set of problems from everyone else!

I never intend to write a genre novel. I just kind of stumble into a genre by accident--and often find myself intending to write just "a novel" and it ends up stuck in the cracks between two genres. This probably explains many of my problems...

Tim Stretton said...

Although sometimes I wonder how big the distinction is. *All* writers are creating an artificial construct, a kind of controlled experiment.

Clearly I'm creating an "imaginary" world in The Dog of the North, while Len Tyler sets his story a few miles from where I live in the "real world". But Len's West Sussex is a construct every bit as much as my Mondia. By calling his protagonist "Ethelred Tressider" he's saying (to me at least) "this isn't quite your everyday world"; and by using many of the trappings of pre-industrial Europe, I'm saying "there's a way of life here you will recognise".

It's a question of emphasis.

Brian McGilloway said...

A great post, Tim. I'd never really considered the difficulties facing someone setting a book in a completely different world, even if it is one which, in parts, references the real one. With crime (as seperate from comic crime) there is an expectation to use place, a real place, to draw out elements of the characters, I think. But doing that allows you to develop your characters using people's repsonses to a world they already know. eg. how people respond to the Irish borderlands or even any 'border' will direct them to an extent on their response to Devlin. Of course, they also bring with them a knowledge of the form and a technical expertise garnered from CSI and Morse reruns, which means that in the details you have to be accurate - I had a pathologist corner me over some of the details in Borderlands at an event. That's where I've found most of my research has had to focus. You seem to have to do a massive amount of background preparation before writing, which is understandable given the genre. With crime fiction, you can check it out as and after you write and correct the details that way. Makes me kind of glad I've gone with crime, mind you...


Tim Stretton said...

In some ways I think fantasy novelists have it easier: I know when I create my world that as long as I can pull off internal consistency, no-one can say I've got it wrong. In crime fiction, there'll always be someone who knows more than you. And of course in crime fiction, detail matters far more than in any other room of the literary mansion.

Someone who shall remain nameless disparaged my writing of fantasy because "it's all made up". Er, yes... but there is a sound underlying point that the fantasist has more latitude than a writer pegged more closely to real world situations. But that latitude can be dangerous if it isn't used with restraint and discipline.

David Isaak said...

Tim, you're absolutely right that all of these are constructs. Some of them, indeed, are such powerful constructs that, when you visit a place, the construct colors your vision. I've traveled a lot, but I've never been to Ireland (though I plan to go once I get an excuse). I know for a fact, though, that the ghost of Joyce would hover over Dublin for me, and now Brian's book would powerfully affect how I would see things up towards the border.

The fantasy thing is almost a mirror image of this problem--a wholly created place being filtered through our experience of real places. This has made me think (ouch...I hate that). I may even work up a post on it.