Wash, Rinse, Repeat

With Vessel soon to be making its mark on the Amazon charts, it’s about time I started to think about my next endeavour. Truth be told, I’m way past the thinking stage: my next book is steamrolling ahead with about a third of the first draft complete. Once Vessel goes live, I’ll start posting chapters on here to see what you all think (and I value your contributions immensely), but in the meantime, I want to talk a little about how the book came to be.

With Noah’s Ark, I started at the beginning, set fingers to keyboard and typed. Of course, my writing skills were a little more crude back then—and it shows—but it’s the technique that’s of interest here. I simply had an idea about a man leaving a city devastated by an apocalyptic disaster and I ran with it from there.

For Vessel, I took a more formulaic approach. I documented the chapters one by one, building up a plan for the book. As I worked my way through chapter after chapter, I wrote more detailed notes for the oncoming story. To be honest—and this sounds odd—but I’m not sure it helped. As the book materialised, the story changed—and quite dramatically. The method felt a little stifled, and was ultimately unnecessary. The ongoing notes helped, reminding me of key facts and figures along the way, but forcing the story along a predetermined path had all the fluidity of tar.

My new, as yet untitled work took a step back again. I had an idea about an interplanetary geologist sent on a mission to survey a world deemed capable of supporting human life. I also had some further thoughts about where the story might go, but I kept them loose and hazy, concepts carried by a breeze rather than blueprints etched in diamond. And so far the book has been a much more dynamic writing experience, a journey that I, the writer, am discovering along with the protagonist. We’re in it together, so to speak, wondering what’s awaiting us around the corner. With any luck, whatever it is will be entertaining.

After I’d had this revaluation, I read Stephen King’s insightful On Writing. He clarified my findings, saying that he too likes to journey with his protagonist, that any time he tries to become the master of fate his story become flat and lifeless. And his reasoning was as follows: if you, the writer, knows what’s about to happen, chances are the reader will too. And further to that, if you know what’s going to happen, it’s harder to convince a reader that the protagonist didn’t expect it.

This isn’t to say it’s a technique that works for everyone. It probably isn’t. But it’s working for me. Right now, a third of the way into the book, things are starting to take a turn for the worse, and there’s a whole lot of journey to get through until the end. Will it all work out or will it not? Like the avid reader, I have some ideas of my own, but until I read the words there in black and white, I won’t know for sure. And that’s what makes the writing experience enjoyable for me, and with any luck, the reading experience for you.

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2 thoughts on “Wash, Rinse, Repeat

  1. It’s interesting to see how you tried a more formulaic approach with Vessel with the intention of adopting a plot strategy, only to find it seemed to stunt your creativity.

    After finishing The Range, which I’m planning to release on Amazon some time this year, I adopted the same approach as yourself with the follow up, The Holt, in that I mapped out each chapter, a sort of mini synopsis if you like, so I had a plot frame to build on.

    The weird thing is that as I started writing I also found the actual act of mapping out chapters quite stifling as if it had restricted the natural flow of how characters made decisions and reacted to events. I know I wanted structure, something to aim for so I wouldn’t get lost or bogged down along the way, but I wanted that creative “what-if” freedom that comes from being surprised by a characters choices in real time as I write.

    By taking this planned approach I’ve learned 2 things. First, whilst having a synopsis for each chapter isn’t a bad thing, it doesn’t mean I have to stick to it. I’ve found that characters do strange and surprising things which impact on the overall plot, and when I know it’s right to change direction I then adjust the remainder of those mapped chapters, adding extra ones or adjusting the POV etc.

    Secondly, although I found chapter mapping quite exciting as there’s a sort of buzz about seeing your entire book laid out, instead of having masses of detail I make a few loose notes – Character A starts at one point and I want them to arrive at this point at the end of the chapter, how they go about it is more or less up to them so long as they get there. That way I have the best of both worlds, a plan and the freedom to enjoy watching their actions along the way.

    After that I add in the details for that chapter, a sort of mini event diary, in case I need to recall specific information for later characters etc to refer to for continuity sake.

    So taking Stephen King’s approach I find that I know the overall arc of the story very well, and I know what events I want to write about, but I leave the how and why up to the characters so I can enjoy that element of surprise. It doesn’t always work though! At times characters do stuff that doesn’t make sense and they get reigned back in. But still, it’s fun watching them regardless!

    • Let me know when The Range is out, I’ll get myself a copy.

      Your method sounds similar to the compromise I’ve found myself at, having a general goal and seeing if the characters get there of their own accord. It’s much more revealing of a character, because it forces you as a writer to drive them forward by their personality–their fears, their motivations, their desires etc–rather than relying on pre-scripted plot devices and leaving the characterisation playing second fiddle.

      A favourite tv show of mine, Curb Your Enthusiasm, is shot in a similar way: the script specifies the beginning and end of the scene, and the actors need to drive their conversation to that preset conclusion. What results is a fascinating (and funny) dichotomy between characters rather than the bland bunch of carbon copies you see in most heavily scripted sitcoms.

      And, like you say, even when you have your notes it can be surprising how devious your characters can be, revealing their true selves as you open up the story. The most satisfying part of it for me is seeing how seemingly innocent behaviour earlier in a manuscript is affected by a truth revealed later, adding extra dimension to the character’s design. It’s very strange how these things reveal themselves, but when they do, it’s very rewarding.

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