Wednesday, 30 May 2012

How did *that* happen? - Anne Rooney

Some writers work out what's going to happen in a story before they write it. They plan, in more or less detail, and then follow the plan, near enough. I'm in awe of them - I can't do that. I have a general idea of the sort of thing that is going to happen, and a clear idea of when and where the story will happen. Then as I research the when/where, interesting things will pop up and in they go. This means the story is as much a surprise to me as to anyone. Of course, there's a lot of rewriting to do. The first time through - well, it's all a bit of a splurge.

The book I'm writing at the moment is even more of a splurge. For a good reason I won't bore you with, I decided to write the whole first draft in eleven days just before the London Book Fair. Consequently, it's a very rough draft. But on the third day, quite a big thing happened which I hadn't been expecting at all. A character walked into the very limited space (it's highly claustrophobic, most of the action taking place in one room) and committed a terrible act. Once he'd done it, the whole thing was a lot more complicated. For one thing, that act is going to present a real gatekeeper problem - but I can't unwrite it now. It came as a surprise to everyone - to me, the two main characters, and I think even the perpetrator himself. Good grief, you can't leave your characters alone for five minutes without them doing something awful. But it's absolutely what would happen. I don't know why I didn't see it coming.

Everything after that act is tainted now. Nothing can ever be the same again. Even if I threw away the scene and wrote something else, its stain would still be on the book. It would remain a ghost event - I would know it was once there, and there would be a hole in the book, a hole where every reader would (I think) be wondering why something awful didn't happen, given the vulnerability of the characters at that point. So it has to stay. It's none of my doing. Don't blame me for that act, I just wrote it down; I didn't want it to happen.

Before day 3, I had no idea how to get to the end of the book, or even quite what the end was going to be. But now this act leads to a death and some errors of judgment, and they lead to the greatest catastrophe possible. I knew the larger catastrophe was going to happen, but I didn't really know why. But now I do. It's rather like the rhyme in which the lack of a nail for a horseshoe costs the whole kingdom; and it's just how real life is. The biggest things start with the tiniest acts. Why did the First World War happen? Because Archduke Ferdinand's driver took a different route through Sarajevo. OK, that's a simplification - but things would have been different if...History is riveted together by these tiny incidents that have unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences.

It's as though I had been wandering up and down one bank of a river, looking across at the other side, knowing I had to get there but with no bridge or boat in sight. And there, a bit further on, was the bridge. But there was a troll under it. One big, fat, hairy, greedy, lethal troll. No matter - every bridge needs its troll. At least I now have a bridge.

Do others have examples of totally unexpected incidents writing themselves and turning out to be hingepins of the plot? How do you explain it? Is it your subconscious working overtime? Or is it more like seeding a cloud - it's all there waiting to fall out, but needs a tiny push to make it happen?


My most recent collection of unforeseen events is the Vampire Dawn series, published by Ransom Publishing in April 2012.
Stroppy Author's Guide to Publishing
Anne Rooney

13 comments:

Penny Dolan said...

But then you have the fact that the bridge may now be leading to a quite different road? And that while you had a plot hazily in your mind for two characters, a third marches in - although not a troll - who really messes up the two-some dynamics?

Interesting it is, certainly. Annoying, occasionally.

Joan Lennon said...

"The first time through - well, it's all a bit of a splurge."

That's the perfect way of putting it - fun yet chaotic and ever so slightly wasteful. And I share your respect for those who plan. I plan too, but it's after the splurging, not before.

Nick Green said...

This is really amusing to me. The awe that you express for those who plan, I feel for those who can just splurge. I plan obsessively, in minute detail, and even if the end product bears only passing resemblence to the plan, it's vital for me to have SOMETHING mapped out that looks like it works... then at least I have a fall-back if nothing better comes along in the writing process (though it usually does).

I can't even conceive of writing a book without a plan. Can't imagine it; and of course it is my job to imagine some pretty wild things. It just goes to show how differently peoples' minds work. I could no more write a book without a plan than I could get on a random plane and call it a holiday. But I know some people do (and they probably have more exciting holidays).

Stroppy Author said...

Yes, Nick, I'm happy to get on a random plane, too! Perhaps I am just lazy - planning is BORING; I would rather spend the time DOING.

Emma Barnes said...

I plan. Which can be boring and take forever. Then I write something completely different. Then I have to go back and try and make it work.

I think it's the least efficient method possible!

Katherine Langrish said...

Sounds excellent! And no, I don't plan very much - not in detail, although the current book is so complicated I had to do more planning than usual: but most of it is back story and background. I do find that if you're careful with all that, serendipitous events do happen.

I could never write a detective story. Or if I did, we might never discover who the murderer was. Which after all does happen in life... so it would become a novel with a murder in it, not a detective story after all.

Stroppy Author said...

Well, I guess it would be a detective story, Kath, just not one with any successful detecting.

Nick Green said...

That's a really good idea, Kath - the detective story with no resolution of the murder. I was going to say someone should do that, but then I realised that Donna Tartt already has, in The Little Friend. (That shouldn't actually spoil it for anyone).

Vanessa Harbour said...

Phew! It was wonderful to read this post. I have tried to plan but fail miserably. Like you I have a general idea what is going to happen and in what direction the story is going in with the odd incident in my notes. But I am often surprised by where my writing takes me. As you say a character can come in and change everything. I love your idea of walking up and down a river bank looking for a bridge. I find the bridge often appears when you least expect it. Thank you Anne you have made me feel so much better about my own writing process. You are a star!!

Savita Kalhan said...

I'm with you, Anne, I'm not a planner, which can lead me down all sorts of roads and forks, with a few pitfalls and trolls thrown in. You wrote the first draft in 3 days? I'm in awe!
Nick, I like my murder/detective stories to have a resolution - I can't bear not knowing. I loved Secret History, but far less so The Little Friend.

Katherine Langrish said...

Maybe I need to re-read 'The Little Friend'. I didn't quite get it. 'The Secret History' is a big favorite, though.

With 'The Little Friend', I seem to recall not being sure about the childishness of the narrator...? She was the way a child imagines she'll be (brave, adventurous etc) rather than the way a child is.

Stroppy Author said...

Savita, I wrote the first draft in 11 days - it was on day 3 that I wrote the totally unexpected event that came from nowhere. Writing a whole novel in three days *would* be impressive!

malrostan said...

Huh! Even with a plan, some characters just barge in and do whatever the hell they like...