Yesterday I was thinking about different ways of writing – particularly longer stories or novels; I’d come across a question posed by another writer on social media about whether others plan their work or whether they make it up as they go along – actually he didn’t say that, he said he goes with the flow – “page by page, so readers cannot guess the ending, because I have no idea what will happen. I give my characters free rein, and hope they know what they’re doing.” That pretty much sums up my way of writing, however it doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard, you do, you have to iron out inconsistencies, make random things believable even though actually they could never happen etc. I guess some writers like to put the work in before they actually start on their story, whereas others, like me find the work load is more at the end, with lots of editing.
It was a really interesting discussion, and others who are not writers but readers also joined in. I was very taken by one comment, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since: “I’m not a writer but when I read that some authors let their characters decide how a book will end, I quite don’t understand it. The writer creates the characters, therefore, they should be the ones who decide what happens to these characters as they are only real in the writer’s imagination.” I have been puzzling over how to answer this because I don’t feel as if my characters decide what to do as if it’s a sort of automatic writing and my fingers just tap away on the keyboard without any input from me. Many of my characters just sort of form themselves somehow – usually through me observing someone and imagining what sort of person they might be. An example of this is the character David Sullivan in the book I have just published as a paperback, Flipside.
Over twenty years ago I was picking up my car from its service at the garage and while I was waiting noticed the man behind the counter. He looked so sad, and preoccupied, not depressed exactly, just sort of lost and adrift. I’m sure he was actually a perfectly happy bloke and probably just planning what he was going to do after work, or what he’d have for dinner, or where he’d take his wife for their anniversary. In my imagination he grew and developed into an ex-serviceman who was almost disabled by PTSD having served in the Balkan wars. My character worked in a garage, but he was a mechanic, not the man behind the counter. Sometimes make-weight characters take on a different role from what I planned – Rudi Makepeace in ‘The Stalking of Rosa Czekov’ was only supposed to be a dinner guest, but ended up a major player!
When I’m actually writing, I become so involved in the different episodes which make up the plot, it’s almost as if I’m in a film watching and hearing everything that’s happening. Sometimes there’s a pause as if it has stopped and I need to think about what might happen next, what actions or decisions the characters might make. Things might develop in a certain direction – which I might then abandon and rewrite, or go back and develop in a different way. I’m not always sure what the ending might be, but when I get there, I have to be very careful and check and recheck that what has happened previously leads up to the climax. It has to be believable (within the context of the fiction) and the reader has to feel satisfied, surprised I hope by a plot twists but not annoyed because it’s unfeasible in the context of what has already happened. I have to be flexible, I have to be strong enough to abandon certain characters or themes, even if I really like them, but delete them (or save them for another story) so that the plot hangs together. There has to be conflict and challenges, there has to be upset and things going wrong because otherwise it would e a very boring read. A character might ‘want’ to do something or behave in a certain way, but I am the writer, I’m in charge, and ultimately, the characters do as they’re told – or should I say, do as they’re written!
If you want to find out what happens to David Sullivan and Rudi Makepeace, here’s a link to the paperback versions (also available as eBook):