Thursday 18 September 2014

Yes, No, Maybe? Decisions are the stuff of life.

Today, the 18th of September 2014, is the day Scotland goes to the polls to decide whether to become and independent country or to stay within the United Kingdom and much of the world is looking on.
Living and working in Scotland it would be difficult to ignore what is going on all around me and it is too important.  But this is not a blog about the Referendum, because votes are being cast as you read this, the decision is already being made and the outcome will be something we will all have to live, with whatever our own thoughts are.

Decisions are sometimes easy and at other times much more difficult so I wanted to look at the decisions we make as we write.

As I have said before, I am not a planner, so when I am starting to write a new book an idea pops into my head and I start to write about it, often with no idea what the story is or where it is going.
I need to try it out, run with it and see where it takes me.  It is a very exciting stage.

When I started writing Dead Boy Talking I was on a train coming back from visiting a school and with a notebook open in front of me I was thinking about what my next YA novel would be.

The title DEAD BOY TALKING was the first thing I wrote down, followed by the first line...

                       'In 25 minutes I will be dead.'

I had a picture in my head of a boy sitting on a pavement bleeding from a knife wound and it was cold, but most of all he was alone.
I was wondering how desperate that would be, how scared I would be if it was me. I started to write but it was his voice I could hear.

The first page of the book hardly changed from the words I scribbled in my notebook that day...

  'The knife slipped into my body a bright, sharp edge of death, a thief.  It sliced easily through leather, skin and flesh. Hot, red blood coating it's blade, warming the icy metal with a precious searing heat....  '

I was imagining how it might feel to be stabbed, scared and all alone.  But then I started wondering if the reader would be thinking that this was another book where the main character is dead before it starts. Almost without making a conscious decision,  the boy's voice intruded on my thoughts again. I feel it is instinctive at this stage and I try not to over-think it.

  'No, this is not some  dead person talking from the grave. It's just me, Josh, You know me.
  I'm not scared.
  I'm not!
  Who am I kidding?
  It can't really be happening to me, can it?'

There - I knew his name now!
But I still knew very little about Josh or why he was in that situation and what had happened to him that led to this.  Also one of the crucial things I didn't know was whether his statement about having 25 minutes to live was right or not. Would I have him alive or dead at the end of the book?

Many of the decisions are made as the story progresses and I get to know the characters better.  If I know them well enough I know how they would act in any situation and as long as I am true to their character the reader will find it credible.  But sometimes the decision is about whether the character will do something completely at odds with their normal behaviour.
That is a decision that often shows how multifaceted the character is. We are all complex human beings so if I decide he has to act contrary to his nature there has to be a strong driving force that leads him to do that, otherwise it will not be believable.

How often have you seen someone act in a way that surprises you? It just shows that we can never fully know another person but if they do act out of character there will be a reason behind it.

The decision about whether he would survive or not was a difficult one, it could go either way.  Much the same as in ordinary life, we cannot know if someone will survive a knife wound. In the end I went with my gut feeling about what was right for the story but somewhere in the back of my mind is always the reader, so whatever the outcome there has to be, in my  opinion, a sense of hope. They need to know that whatever happens, life will go on.

There were also other things to find out about Josh. What was his family like, who are his friends, what was the pivotal thing in his life that changed everything. In this case it was his older brother running away from home, and never coming back.  Josh's life changed that day because everyone around him was focussed on his brother, and he felt lost and betrayed but there was nothing he could do about any of it.

 A writer has to make many decisions as a story progresses but perhaps the most important are how it begins and how it ends.
If the beginning does not draw the reader in they might not bother reading on.  I always feel that when you get to the end of a book you should feel satisfied, like having had a good meal, not too much or too little but a sense that you have come to the end of a journey.

What decisions are you most aware of when you start writing?

Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing For Children  

She has written 10 Hamish McHaggis books illustrated by Sally J. Collins who also illustrated Linda's retelling of Greyfriars Bobby

Linda's latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me  

Linda  is  Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh 

blog:  Bookwords 


Emma Barnes said...

Maybe the biggest writing decisions and political decisions are basically down to instinct?

Linda Strachan said...

You are probably right, Emma.

We are emotional beings and our instincts are often repressed by the thought that we should be logical and make decisions only with our heads. But then our instinct and our emotions work away in the background to sabotage us, often in the best way, at least in our writing!