Writing: Clothed In Conversation, Or Improvised, Then Revised

March 15, 2019

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I have been asked how I set about writing a novel, and there is no easy answer.  I have to write. It is a compulsion, sometimes a joy, and when it goes well it’s a relief to have a means to express my secret deepest thoughts. When it doesn’t, it’s damned hard work!

Each book is different and depends on how the characters emerge and spark against each other. I write period romance. For my last novel, I started from a fascination with La Belle Époque and the pace of invention over the last decade of the Victorian period. So the the story took shape against the back-drop of the earliest automobiles, assisted by Queen Victoria, Bertie and the Empire, aristocratic extravagance stunning clothes and beautiful women.

The next step was to spin up a plot within the period, although for me the plot is merely a necessary hook upon which to hang the characters. It only comes to life when these proto-individuals step onto the stage. They are what inspire me, and I fall in love with most of my actors. I usually start with the heroine, because I adore romance, and too often have been disappointed when she proves to be insipid or meekly compliant, or a colourless low achiever who should be drowned early on. What drives me is a childish desire to write about exciting complex women with fire, equal or more to any man, with sufficient depth to be the raison d’etre of the book.

Once the skeleton plot is in place and the protagonists sketched out to the point I watch them breathe and get angry, they will need to grow. I sit back in my favourite chair with a glass of wine and my eyes closed, and conversations emerge from that wonderful secret space at the back of the author’s head. It might be a witty exchange, an argument or a scene involving hero/heroine conflict. Verbal fighting can represent passion and it brings out emotions, like despair or regret; contempt or forgiveness, and allows subtle contradictions. These conversational ‘seeds’ suddenly clothe one part of the character in wonderful colour, which can be built up into something more complex.

At some point, the characters take on independent life. They are no longer mine, and I become a reader, eager to see what happens. Often, they surprise me or go in a direction that is unwanted or unexpected. They can be surprisingly stubborn. I have to watch closely to see the direction they lead. I am their author but also a reader who is curious to understand the actors and all their little secrets, and whether they succeed. Of course they do, and for a while I am as intrigued as any reader.

I haven’t mention hard work, the constant revision, and the need to learn from one’s mistakes. Early on, I became my own most brutal critic and cut out everything that was not totally essential. Sometimes there was nothing left! I have been appalled how bad that first draft can be. I will never cease learning, and can write a perfectly crafted paragraph that is lifeless, or a sentence that is technically awful but mesmerising, and I don’t know why. Good writing contains endless hard work, but the best writing also contains an inexplicable magic.

No, I’m lying. I love revision! I usually screw up and have to rewrite several times before that effortless paragraph emerges that speaks to the reader. Each character will grow and must be made consistent throughout the book. I wonder if authors are innate perfectionists? I can revise a dozen times, to make my characters grow exactly as I want. I am no genius, although I secretly still hope it will come, in the evening, after the second glass of wine…

Occasionally, I hear that the novel is dead. I don’t believe that. The written word is more important than ever. We will always need the ability to retreat into a more exciting world to find optimism and hope. We will always need to be inspired but the methods will probably never stop changing – and thank goodness. The novel in some form is here to stay. I love being part of it.


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