Writing is a democracy embracing the great and the lesser, the starting line for all being that first blank page.
A short story sometimes emerges from a single but vivid image in a dream—occasionally two or three. The secret then is to give them time to ferment (but not too long) prod them a bit, and then begin writing. Often the subconscious has done the heavy work and a story emerges with just a little help from: Who, What, Where, Why, and the shit-stirrer, What if? The five darker dwarves Snow White left in the forest. One short story came from a single lit window in a house I’d thought empty—again employing those dwarves that sculpt words into stories.
The novel is an entirely different kettle of fish and there is no one-entry point. The great divide is between the so-called ‘Plotters’ and ‘Pantsers’ ie those who plot everything, key moments, turning points etc etc. This is something I could never do, possibly because I lack the mental discipline, possibly because if I’d written the plot out in such detail I’d likely lose any further interest in it. If you know what’s coming next, why bother? Bit like painting by numbers. And yet people I know and respect swear by it, though I suspect they’ll readily bend the framework when characters suddenly develop a life of their own.
The ‘Pantser’ ie writing by the seat of your pants and not fully knowing what’s coming next, has its own dangers. You may lose yourself in the forest and never come out.
I suppose my method, like many writers, is a bit of both. The first chapter is the kindling, its purpose to start a small fire; if all you get is flicker and smoke, you might decide to start again or just give up on it. Usually though, the instinct is right. You find yourself with a nice, warming blaze you’re invested in— you want to know what’s going to happen next. If you’re lucky, you may get another two or three chapters from that initial blaze, but then you’ll stop, look for patterns, probabilities and the characters that have suddenly sprung to life. Then you’ll begin plotting – a few chapters at a time until a general theme becomes apparent, even perhaps a conclusion.
This was how it worked with The Gift and the two other books in the trilogy (January and Spring next year) In retrospect the books almost wrote themselves, though that was not how it seemed at the time.
This latest book has no title, just a strong instinct it will work but as yet no very strong sense of direction—a feeble tug of a fish or two, but no Moby Dick.
At the moment it’s akin to staring at the lines on your palm, trying to work out a pattern, seeing where and how they might join up. I’m 18K in and it’s more of a patchwork quilt than a novel; a patchwork quilt with several large and promising patterns.
And that’s the beauty of a ‘Work in Progress’. You’re under no obligation to start at the beginning and end at the end. There is a beginning, though it’s not set in stone; there are several well developed characters with aims and antagonists. Some are singing loudly in their invisible cages surrounded by airless voids, not yet in contact with anyone else but themselves. Some are more fortunate, singing to each other from interlinked cages. Others are less canaries than embryos waiting to be born—names and rudimentary functions but little if anything else.
If it comes to life, it will be a dystopian Trollope, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of Vanities set in a world falling apart.
Ambition is everything when you have a blank page.