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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.

***

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.

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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.

 

2 replies
  1. Barbara Elsborg
    Barbara Elsborg says:

    I’ve experienced that same – OMG – revelation too. Usually when I’m lying in bed thinking things through and I frantically write notes – not always legible the next day. I’d like to think my brain is being very sensible and sorting out stuff I’d subconsciously plotted but I suspect it’s not. Not for me anyway. Even more frightening, when I reread my stories, as I’ve currently HAD to do to republish, I don’t even remember thinking things out at all. It’s a miracle it all works. Well, I think it works.
    I barely plot. I have rough ideas and make notes as I work on a story or before I start it, but it just flows once I begin and I follow whatever path feels right. I can’t write pages of ‘what will happen’. I do sometimes have a vision of the end but not always. Just as I sometimes don’t fix the title until the book is done. Such is this writer’s world. We’re all different and you’re right – whatever works is the way to go.

    Reply
  2. Michael LaRocca
    Michael LaRocca says:

    Yes, absolutely your subconscious mind did that. Agatha Christie noted that the best time to work out her intricate plots was while she was washing the dishes. I wrote about half of one of my novels on bike rides, constantly stopping to scribble plot points into my ever-present notepad in the pocket.

    Here’s how I do the writing thing. Read on. You ain’t got nothing better to do. You’re going to go outside and find your car’s been towed away. (That was a Richard Pryor quote.)

    I have outlined, and it can be a beautiful thing, but normally, no way. I spend weeks or months on characters, conflict, and chapter one. Then they do that voodoo thing where they take over and tell me what to write.

    I’m constantly stunned and amazed at how I just start pulling random notes, scribblings, true stories, and abandoned scraps seemingly out of thin air at the very moment I need them. Writing rocks.

    Reply

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