Friday, 26 October 2007

Phases in Creating a Text

Hi all

Some weeks ago, crime writer John Baker invited a number of writers, including myself and fellow Irish crime novelist, Declan Burke, to jot down what each considered to be the phases involved in the actual creation of a novel. My contribution was as follows:

Each story begins for me with an initial premise; a body found on the border, a born again ex-con, a gold mine in the Donegal hills. The premise will float about in my head for a while, during which time I build the layers around it; the main crime, a connected crime and so on. Then I consider the characters involved, try to see links between them or interesting places for them to go. Sometimes, I tease out plot points, or lines of dialogue whilst cutting the grass or driving to work, which I’ll jot down on the back of envelopes, bills, receipts in my pocket. Before I start writing properly, I gather all these scraps together in a notebook and draw up a general plan, a few lines per chapter, for the first third to half of the book, with a summary of the second half and ending. As I write the first section of the book, I revise as necessary and re-plan a little. I tend to write about 1000 words per day, when I can. I seem to hit a natural pause around a third of the way through a book, where I stop for a week or two, take stock of what has happened so far, and get fired up for the next section. Often the story will have gone in an unexpected direction, which makes it all the more interesting for me to write, but which requires some reworking of plot points. I tend to revise slightly as I’m going along (especially the first few chapters), then read and revise several times after the first draft is finished.

I'm now about two thirds of the way through the third Devlin novel, Bleed a River Deep, and have noticed that, once again, the book had appeared in thirds. I got about 23,000 words in, then paused for a week or two, then got to around 47,000 words and paused again. I'm now heading on the home straight of the first draft, for completion by the end of November (hopefully).

I guess I'm wondering how other writers fit into this phase thing. Do you write from start to finish? Do you find yourself writing chunks at a time? How much planning do you do initially? James Lee Burke doesn't plan his novels at all, apparently - he just starts writing. Jeffrey Deaver plans right down to paragraph breaks. Whereabouts in between do the rest of us sit?
And what starts the novel in the first place? And how about the ending? Borderlands' ending developed during writing. Gallows Lane, the ending was there from the start. Bleed a River Deep, the ending's evolving as I write.

Now we're all gathering in one place, so to speak, it seems like the right time to talk about writing, it being the one thing we all have in common, after all.


David Isaak said...

Very interesting, Brian. But one question--at what point in the process for Borderlands did you come up with Devlin and flesh him out?

That is, did you come up with the murder and big backstory to the crime, and then set out ot invent your detective, or was Devlin already alive in your mind, searching for a crime?

Brian McGilloway said...

Hi David

Thanks for dropping by. Just to be contentious, I'm going to argue that every character we create is an extension or exaggeration of some part of ourselves, anyway, and so is probably fully formed somewhere in our minds before we ever start writing; an amalgam of our experiences and histories. Devlin is strangely the name I've given to the main protagonist of a lot of stuff I've written over the years. His voice, career, family etc. have changed though. Devlin, as he is now, simply developed alongside the plot and continues to develop in Book 3, where I have fun discovering his backstory for myself. The fleshing out process continues, which I guess is the nice thing with crime fiction; you have a single character who can develop over books and over years. Getting to know the character, both as a reader and a writer, is half the attraction of the genre. Ian Rankin recently described Rebus as his 'punchbag and pyschotherapist' - a way to deal with things in real life. I suspect that a lot of fiction is about control or a sense of control - as a writer you control the environment, the characters, the outcome. As readers, we can vicariously experience unusual or frightenening things in a safe and controlled environment. Are our main characters simply a way of letting some facet of ourselves deal with something we fear delaing with, in a safe way? Or are they just made up things with no connection to us beyond being useful to the plot? What do you think?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Brian

Interesting answer. And I understand what you mean by the character in some sense pre-existing inside us, because they do jump onto the page rather fully formed--when they come to life at all.

I find that if I can capture a character's voice/POV, I know everything I need to know--the history sort of fills itself in as required. You know what I mean?

Brian McGilloway said...

Yep - a much more succinct way of saying what I had been trying to say!