Saturday, 17 November 2018

Octopuses, mules and problem-solving by Tracy Darnton

I saw Markus Zusak speak recently at a Mr B’s event in Bath as part of his book tour with Bridge of Clay. What have I got in common with a hugely successful, award-winning Australian male novelist, you may ask? I assumed absolutely nothing BUT as he chatted on about the way he wrote and rewrote and crafted his new book, changing narrator, adding and removing characters, I began to feel better about my own methods. 

Markus Zusak said that he did not have a great imagination, just a lot of problems. He wanted a mule in the book, so therefore he needed a race track. 

My ears pricked up. Aha – I too have a lot of problems. What can happen to X on the raft to hospitalise him? Why’s the axe on the terrace? How can Y get out of that locked laboratory?
That week, I had felt like writing my next YA thriller was turning into an impossible task akin to trying to squash an octopus into a string bag. I had lists and lists of questions and problems that far from ticking off I was adding to every time I wrote some more. As soon as I squashed one octopus arm back into the bag, another popped out somewhere else.
But the other little trip I had that week was to an Escape Room. (For the uninitiated, you and your nearest and dearest are locked in a room for an hour and have to solve a number of puzzles and problems to get yourselves out of there). And here’s the thing that dawned on me as I thoroughly enjoyed my fourth Escape Room in as many months - I actually like solving problems.

I like coming up with clever little fixes. I love planting a tiny seed in one chapter to develop and use later on. Hide something insignificant in plain sight in chapter 23 which becomes crucial in chapter 32 and I’m really having fun. I get a buzz from writing a whole new scene to fix the problem in a way I’ve only just thought of.
When I wrote The Truth About Lies, I spent hours fiddling about with the epigraphs at the beginning of chapters, blending clues with memory exercises and apposite quotations. I found it very satisfying that Jess borrowing a scarf can make sense of a confrontation between two other characters in a pub car park chapters later. Sad I know, but I relished adding in little references that possibly (definitely) only I appreciate - the madeleine cake Jess dunks on page 71, for instance. These are the things that kept me at my desk, enjoying the process.
I’m new to this author way of life, and have a major dose of imposter syndrome, but I’d been feeling rather that my approach to putting a novel together couldn’t possibly be the proper way. This jigsaw-solving, tying-things-together method of writing a story must be inferior to the method of other authors whom I imagine sitting calmly at their tidy desks as the whole, perfect narrative pours out, agonising only over the occasional choice of adjective.
But now I feel reassured. We can only write in the way that works for us. Every time we solve a problem with our story, we have the potential to take it in a new direction, add a layer or an exciting setting, or explore a new theme. And yes, the potential to throw up even more problems in a complex web. But all with the hope that, at some stage, those answers and solutions will come together in a satisfying novel. Maybe one day, as I get more experienced, the story will just appear from the beginning to the end, with no problems to solve. But where would be the fun in that?



Maybe there was a clue on my bookshelf to the way my mind works 
In the meantime, I must get back to my work-in-progress. The octopus is escaping again. 

Tracy Darnton’s YA thriller The Truth About Lies was published in July by Stripes.  You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton           

3 comments:

Rowena House said...

As an ex-ardent plotter, now a serial abandoner of Books 2, I'm planning to let my Octopus escape entirely next time around, and meander the depths alone, and if I ever reach The End again retrofit the plot fixes. Should know how that goes in another 10 years or so. Good luck!

Rev Tony B said...

Very good! This is just what it's like.

Unknown said...


Yes, problems! Not problems - opportunities! Love this article. Shall now write some problems to solve. xx