The path from hazy idea to page is long and rocky and filled with cliché. Ideas can tumble into my brain anywhere and at any time, but they usually sidle up and cough quietly while I’m doing something else, like showering or sitting in a coffee shop staring through the crowds at the Superdrug opposite.
Sometimes the idea is a plot point, or a snippet of dialogue. Occasionally it’s a full-on story idea, a neat concept, an ending, or a what if? question.
Till Undeath Do Us Part sprang from the title: a scribbled line in my notebook, written in my favourite bar. From that I sketched a bare-bones opening paragraph — not too far from the final text. Here’s what I originally wrote:
“I love you.” And he was gone, lost behind me in the pack, and I ran, I ran, not looking back, tears, grief, fear, please be dead.
I had no idea who either character was, or how they got there, or what happened next. I just loved the idea and knew I had to write the story.
With The Pink and the Grey (coming very soon!) the catalyst was the concept of St Paul’s College. Combined with two characters I’d been playing with in other settings, Spencer and Conor, everything began, slowly, to slot together.
I’m not one of those writers who can start with a concept and a blank page and then batter the keyboard until done. I’ve tried it. It never feels right. I can write an opening scene and some character ideas, maybe even a couple of thousand words of scene setting and unsupervised playtime, but then I ask myself: “what’s the plot?”
I’m an outliner. I like to write knowing how the story ends, where the plot points are, and the broad ins and outs of each scene. What’s the scene for? Why does it exist?
Once I have an outline — which means I have a bunch of characters and their backgrounds — then I can write. (That’s often when the procrastination strikes. Damn the internet and all the things!)
But eventually the engine roars and it’s A to B to C to Z, and we’re done.
Except that never happens. Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, whom neither of us has heard of, said it best: paraphrased, no plan survives contact with the enemy. An outline gives you a rough scramble through an unfamiliar mountain pass. Bringing in the hard hats and bulldozers and trying to lay down the tarmac uncovers ancient Indian burial grounds, rich seams of gold, and a sewage outflow. There are always surprises and difficulties, and new, more interesting choices are revealed.
The arty-farty explanation is “my characters refuse to do what I tell them”. If it helps, read that out loud while fanning yourself on a chaise longue and listening to whale song.
The truth is, sometimes as you’re writing a better idea pops up — because you’re not mechanically transforming an outline into grammatical sentences, you’re a person with an imagination that loves to creep up behind you and dig you in the kidneys. And suddenly the character who was going to die an exciting and violent death in one scene… doesn’t (true story!).
The fun is then rippling that change through the outline: replanning what’s left of the book (and sometimes tweaking what you’ve already written). I say fun… I call these plot crises, and they tend to happen on Mondays. Such is my brain.
If I have a strong ending in mind, it can be tricky wrenching the new plan to fit. But hey, you can kill off that character there instead and you’re back on the rails (true story!). Or maybe this leads to an even better ending. (The original ending outlined for Till Undeath was subtly different, and the published ending is stronger, I believe.)
The key is to keep your mind open. Your plot is not set in stone: not before you write it, not during, and not afterwards either. Accept new ideas. Recognise when something needs to change.
One downside of this flexibility is the impossibility of an objective definition of “done”. Like software, there’s always another bug to fix. You can fill your remaining days finessing that description, roughening up that dialogue, sharpening that plot point, and never, ever finishing.
I keep Steve Jobs’ phrase in mind: Real artists ship. At some point you just have to say OK: I’m done.
There’s no such thing as perfect: only not started, work-in-progress, and published.
Talking of which: <click>