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The Writer Brain and how (if, why) it works

Writers frequently get asked by aspiring writers how we come up with stuff. Should you plot it all out first using those spreadsheets and index cards and lists of “beats” , or make it up as you go along? Do you know from the start who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen? Is the thing about “my characters take on a life of their own and they do what they want?” the pretentious tripe that it sounds? (Some thoughts at the end, if you care.)

The only real answer is: it depends. There is no one answer, no right way. Writer to writer, book to book, sometimes even page to page, it depends. Write the way that suits you, whether you plot according to a rulebook or start every day with no idea what will happen, and that will be the best way for you to do it.

However, a thing recently happened in my head that I found interesting, so I present it here.

I’m currently writing a book called Spectred Isle which will be the first of my new Green Men series. English-set alt-1920s historical paranormal romance, and I am having more fun than is probably legal. The basic concept for Green Men:

April 1923. The Great War is over, the Twenties are roaring, the Bright Young Things hold ever more extravagant parties. It seems as though the world has changed for good. But some far older forces are still at work, and some wars never end.

Unknown to most, an occult war was fought alongside the trenches, the fallout from which has done possibly permanent damage to the fabric of reality. Strange, chaotic forces are easier to summon now, and the protections against them are very fragile indeed.

The Green Men series follows a motley band of aristocratic arcanists, jobbing ghost-hunters, and walking military-occult experiments, as they try to protect the country, prevent a devastating attack on London, and find love while they’re at it.

So. I had my usual sort of synopsis for Spectred Isle, which is to say it follows this pattern:

1) Detailed introduction, characters, setup
2) Fully worked-out beginning of the romance
3) Introduce the Big Problem. Get the characters into a terrible mess
4) IMPORTANT PLOT STUFF OF SOME KIND KJ FILL IN LATER
5) Fully visualised dramatic ending that is apparently impossible to reach from Stage 3

I do Stage 4 pretty much every time, even when I think I haven’t. Stage 4 is the point where I run to my writer forum wailing about how useless I am, and usually end up stuck there for a week. When I was at Stage 4 on Flight of Magpies I ended up writing a complete 60K novel, Think of England, as displacement activity. I hate Stage 4.

The set-up of Spectred Isle is that posh arcanist Randolph and disgraced archaeologist Saul are stuck in a very tricky magical sort of trap (Stage 3). The next part I knew in detail was the ending sequence (Stage 5). But a massive section was missing: how they get out of the trap, how they get into and out of a subsequent situation that needs to happen, and how I could not only get them to the ending but give Saul any role in it whatsoever, let alone the pivotal role I had visualised for him. (It’s a magical showdown. He isn’t magic. Well done, KJ, useful as ever.)

Anyway, after a futile week mostly spent grumbling on Twitter I went to make a cup of tea and the answer came to me in a single, instant brain-dump. You know when Keanu says “I know kung fu!” in The Matrix? Like that, but with a full quarter of my book. I’m not in any way exaggerating this: I stood in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil and the entire missing plot section turned up in my head at once, as though I’d always known it and had just briefly forgotten. It was, I have to say, pretty cool.

Here’s the thing, though.

The solution–a pivotal event that gets them out of the trap, sets up the subsequent situation and gives Saul exactly the right role in the ending–was entirely based on stuff that was already in the MS. Not important plot-relevant stuff, either. Stuff that had no other purpose whatsoever. Stuff that I had written for no reason at all, just giving the characters things to talk about, which I had thought even while I wrote was padding and would probably need to be cut. A background problem to undermine a character’s apparent assurance. A minor character who was just there to give one of the MCs a bit of post-war survivor guilt. Fleshing-out text, grace notes, nothing I had a plan for, and all of which proved to be absolutely integral to the book’s structure.

I won’t have to rewrite or add anything in the earlier parts to make my just-thought-of solution to a full quarter of the plot work. It is all there, as if I had planned it from the start . But I didn’t.

So what I want to know is, did my subconscious pick up all the loose ends I was leaving, and play with them till they became something useful? Is that why I left all the loose ends, to give myself some rope? Or more scarily: did my subconscious put those specific details in there because on some level I already knew how the plot would go, even if I didn’t have a clue on a conscious level?

Answers on a postcard. I will say, I talked about this in my writer group and a lot of people reported experiencing similar jaw-slackening plot revelations. Maybe if you write enough stories, you train your writer brain to pick things up and use them. But don’t ask me how to do it, because if I could write Getting Your Subconscious To Do All The Hard Work On Your Plot, I’d price it at £9.99 and retire to the Seychelles on the proceeds.

All I know is, I’d like to thank my subconscious for its efforts. I couldn’t do it without you, scary unknown bit of my brain. Don’t even think about influencing how I spend the royalties.

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The questions above

Should you plot it all out first using those spreadsheets and index cards and lists of “beats” , or make it up as you go along?

Do exactly as suits you, which will probably change per book. I plot more than I did, but I have written a complete fully fleshed, even-knew-what-would-happen-at-stage-4 synopsis twice, and both times I couldn’t write the book. Dead on the page. I had to jettison the synopsis both times, recast, and start from scratch. (Both of these were contracted to publishers on the basis of the synopsis, and one was book 1 of a closely linked trilogy, so that was fun.) What I mean is, if you aren’t naturally inclined to work everything out from the start, don’t feel compelled to exhaust yourself trying.

Do you know from the start who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen?

I do, generally. Others don’t. Often you realise you need extra or different things as you go along. Sometimes bad characters turn good and vice versa, according to the needs of the story as it develops; I think that’s an excellent sign of a working story. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a kick. Raymond Chandler famously said “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand,” which is good advice (substitute woman, nb person, dragon, sword, soul-stealing magic pen etc to taste), and Lawrence Block has written multi-suspect locked-room-murder type books without knowing the culprit when he started. I think I would have an aneurysm if I tried that but YMMV.

Is the thing about “my characters take on a life of their own and they do what they want?” the pretentious tripe that it sounds?

Yes. What it means is, “my conception of the characters has developed and now is at odds with my original conception of the plot, and my writer brain is refusing to fit an apple into a banana-shaped hole”. This is surely amazing enough in itself without getting all twee about it.

Cottingley_Fairies_1

This is not, in fact, a picture of a writer and her characters.

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Watch this space for news on Spectred Isle. Next release is An Unnatural Vice, Book 2 of Sins of the Cities, publishing in June.

 

You’ll Never Believe This, But… Coincidence in life and fiction

I’m going through a coincidence phase. I can barely have a conversation these days without discovering that, eg, the other bored mum at a kid’s party used to live in Kenya and my aunt out there is her godmother. Or that, while our new lodger from Manchester only knows one person in London socially, that person used to be my landlady. Six degrees of separation? I’m running on a maximum of two.

This sort of thing is trivial, mildly amusing, perhaps a little freaky the fourth or fifth time it happens in a fortnight.

In a book, it would be rubbish. Once, OK. Twice, I’m tapping my fingers. Three times: there had better be an amazing plot thread to explain why it wasn’t coincidence at all. Otherwise I’m flinging the book away in disgust. Oh, you just happened to overhear a complete stranger talking revealingly about your brother’s girlfriend, including identifying details? Oh, you just happened to go into the toilet cubicle where some girl had written your husband’s phone number on the wall? Oh, you just happened to bump into the same guy at three huge events in a row, and then again in a completely different country, in the course of one summer? It won’t do. Cheap tricks. Lazy, poorly plotted rubbish.*

* All of these are actual coincidences that happened to me or people I know. (The toilet wall one was not me, thank you.)

The Victorians could get away with coincidence. More than that, they embraced it. When Jane Eyre leaves Mr Rochester and goes out into the night alone, she winds up, exhausted and starving, at the doorstep of some random house…which belongs to her long-lost relatives. Obviously. Of all the people in the entire country, she pitches up at the house of her hitherto-never-heard-of cousins, by sheer chance.  It’s not even like she has a big family. 

Is Bronte embarrassed about this? Has she seeded the text with references to Jane having family in the area to make it remotely plausible? Has she hell. This isn’t a plot device so clunky you can hear the gears scream, it’s meaningful fate

In Victorian literature, coincidence was the operation of Providence. If you swam out to save someone from a foundering ship, you’d better be braced to learn that they’re your long lost half brother, or that their father murdered your father, or that once the amnesia has passed they’ll turn out to know where the lost will has gone. In a Victorian novel, of course my lodger would know my ex-landlady. I’d probably have murdered the woman and buried her under the floorboards (don’t think I wasn’t tempted), and our new lodger would be the operation of Divine Justice hunting me down.

If you ask me, Victorian authors didn’t know how lucky they were. Fine, they had to do their quarter of a million words longhand, and if you wanted to change a character’s name the ‘search and replace’ process involved a day’s work, and their equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death was the maid chucking the manuscript on the fire, from which nobody’s IT genius nephew could save you. But at least if they wanted to join two plot strands, all they had to do was bang them together like a baby with a couple of plastic cups. These days most writers will spend ages trying to make these things look plausible, using backstory and judiciously seeding hints to show there’s a solid, evidence-based reason for it all.

I believe in evidence, not Providence. But it doesn’t make my writing life easier.

Do you think authors are entitled to play with coincidence, or does it ruin a book/show/film for you?

Cruel to be Kind: Don’t let your characters off too easily

‘If there isn’t any fighting, it’s not a proper story.’ – My four-year-old son.

During my romance-editing days, I read an MS that’s stuck with me for years, although not in a good way. The conflict-packed synopsis was much as follows. (I have removed/changed all identifying details, obviously, while reproducing the essence of the problem.)

Hero is a single dad with an important job. Someone is trying to sabotage his work / kill him. Heroine is a spy and dedicated career woman. Sparks fly, but she doesn’t want to settle down from her exciting life and he needs stability for his child. While she’s saving his life, can he change her mind about love?

Let’s take a look at the challenges facing our couple, and how they cope.

Is he the kind of alpha male who struggles with being protected by a woman?

No. He has no issues at all with this, being totally without gender politics issues, and a perfectly reasonable person who accepts her professional expertise.

He’s a single dad. He can’t have a relationship with someone who might get shot at any time, plus she has to win over his child.

She meets the child in ch 2. They love each other on sight. Heroine decides to abandon her career by ch 4, without difficulty. Turns out she didn’t like the job anyway.

Someone’s trying to kill the hero.

It was a hilarious misunderstanding. There was no threat to his life or safety.

Etc. The synopsis methodically set up a row of problems, which the narrative defused as soon as each came up. It was enragingly pointless. The author basically couldn’t bear to have bad things happen to the characters. Without which, there is no suspense at all, romantic or otherwise.

If there’s no stakes, there’s no story. If your characters are getting on fine, if the threat is ineffectual, if your characters’ problems fall away as soon as they appear, the reader can’t take any more than a passing mild enjoyment in their success. Your characters earn the readers’ commitment and support by what they have to face and overcome, or cope with, or even just survive. Every time you take away a character’s problem (rather than making them deal with it) you weaken your book.

And it is very easy to do, even when you don’t realise that’s what you’re doing. In my thriller Non-Stop Till Tokyo (coming out with Samhain next year), the heroine Kerry’s best friend Noriko has been attacked and left for dead by yakuza gangsters. She is in hospital with brain damage and can’t be moved, so the yakuza use threats to her as a lever against Kerry, thus forcing our heroine into an impossible position – a helpless lone young woman against a mob. (Although she’s not entirely helpless, of course…)

About 2/3 of the way through the first draft – and I am embarrassed to type this – you know what I did?

I killed Noriko. I went for the big dramatic scene of Kerry’s grief and swearing steely revenge etc, not noticing that I had just taken away one of the main pillars of the plot and there was now no reason for Kerry not to run away from the yakuza and the rest of her troubles. Unsurprisingly, my story’s tension and credibility melted like ice cream in a toddler’s hand. Once this was pointed out by a wiser head than mine, I resurrected Noriko, Kerry’s problems increased exponentially, and the tensions and rhythms of the story, and consequent reader involvement, fell right back into place.

Don’t take away your characters’ problems. They might thank you, but your reader won’t.

Giving purpose to your novel (Don’t shoot yourself with Chekhov’s gun)

“One must not put a loaded gun on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Anton Chekhov

Or, don’t introduce elements that serve no purpose in your story.  Purpose doesn’t necessarily mean serving the progress of the plot, or being involved in the dramatic climax. It means that what you put in must enhance the reader’s experience in some way – by developing the plot, directing the action, deepening character, creating powerful atmosphere.

This principle doesn’t just apply to a dramatic object like a gun (the heroine’s karate skills / the rickety bridge over the chasm / the serious contagious illness in the village). It applies to pretty much anything you choose to put in a prominent position.

Let’s take a practical example that’s less obviously plot-directing than a gun. Say you’ve decided your hero keeps tropical fish. Why is that?

Just because. (It sets the scene. Fish are pretty.)

Bad. Go to your room and don’t come out till you can play nicely. I do not want to read five pages of fish-related scene-setting if you then forget all about it and the rest of the book might as well be set in a shed.

 Basic character. (It shows my hero is kind of a geek.)

A bit better, though probably a slur against the fishkeeping population. You can use the fishkeeping to show us that he’s meticulous etc etc. Or you could have shown us that in a myriad of other ways and we wouldn’t have had to drag fish into it. I don’t sound excited yet, do I?

Basic plot set-up. (The love interest owns the cat shop next door to the hero’s fish shop. They meet after an unfortunate incident.)

Still not enough. If the only purpose of the fish shop is to introduce the protagonists, it’s a gimmick. You’re using the fish to start action, but not further it. You can do more!

Plot device/character in action.  (The hero is supposed to be flying out for a weekend in Paris with his new lover, but his fish-sitter has pulled out at the last minute. Does he go, knowing he’ll come back to tanks of dead fish, or stay, causing a ‘You care more about those fish than about me!’ scene?)

Here we go. Bring in the fish, use them. The fish might be a practical problem – the demands of fishkeeping impact on the hero’s time for his new relationship. It might be a way to reveal backstory/character – why does the hero prefer fish to people? The hero’s changing responses to the fish might show his character development throughout the book. Or it might operate on a more metaphorical level, so that we observe the hero trapped in a small world, going round in circles, just keeping on swimming without going anywhere. (I don’t know, it was your idea to make him a fishkeeper.)

Whichever way, the fishkeeping element should interact with plot and character to move the story on, or tell us more about the people, or ideally both.  If it doesn’t do any of those things, it’s just wallpaper: pretty but two-dimensional.

The Scene. (I wanted the hero and his lover talking on either side of a fishtank, looking at each other through the rippling water and shoals of fish, not quite seeing each other clearly.)

Chekhov’s gun doesn’t have to be part of an active developing plot strand. If the purpose of the tropical fish is to create a brilliant, memorable, well visualized scene, or if the aquarium setting broadens and deepens the reader’s feel for the characters and the characters’ understanding of each other, that’s the gun fired. The fish have achieved their point.

Chekhov’s AK-47. (Dead bodies are turning up with still-flapping tropical fish stuffed in their mouths. A brusque yet handsome cop must work with a reserved yet sexy fishkeeper to track down the Tropical Fish Killer before he strikes again.)

I swear to God I’ve read this.

As William Morris almost said, you should have nothing in your novel that you do not know to be useful. If you have an element in your story and don’t know what its purpose is, go back, find out what it’s for, and revise to work it in. If it doesn’t have any purpose, what’s the point?