How’s it going?

Every few months, I have a few people ask me in quick succession “how’s the book coming on?” Here is today’s answer.

I have tried just starting somewhere and seeing where I get to. The answer is a lot of different places, none of which bore much of a resemblance to the others.

So I tried being really planned and plotting out each scene. It was sort of helpful. It meant I knew at least where the end was. And I did manage to follow it for a while but I could feel things starting to veer off when characters stopped doing what I wanted them to. Let me pause on that for a second.

Right, it’s not some writers’ conceit, it’s very real. Try having a conversation with a real person. You are – or think you are – in control for the first sentence you utter. Actually, maybe the first word. Then the other person has a reaction. It might not be obvious externally, maybe they are not even listening properly, which is a reaction in itself. But by the time you get to the end of the first sentence, all control has been lost. Because you don’t know what the other person is going to say, what they are thinking, what they are feeling. You might think you do based on knowing them well, being able to finish their sentences, being their parent. But nobody is consistent all the time. Good days, bad days, long days, worries we know nothing about, the weather, our breakfast, how we slept – our reaction to the same words said by the same person can be radically different from one day to the next. Just think how the words “your mother called” can elicit an entirely different response depending on whether you were trying to get hold of her to take her out to lunch or thought she had died when you were a child. Two extreme ends of a scale, but you get the point.

And characters are no different. They have good days and bad days. They react badly to something that should be good and well to what should be a disaster. Or not. Half the fun is putting them into a situation and then seeing what happens. And you have a sense of whether their reaction is “real”, in the sense of what a real human being might do. Sometimes I stop and say, that would never happen. I’m sure we’ve all had that feeling when reading something and a character says or does something and we think “eh? Where did that come from?” Hopefully there’s something to come that will explain it. Other times it’s just not quite right.

So my current approach is to try to  be a few scenes ahead of where I am in the story, with an idea of how we might get to the very end. Where everybody dies. Well you didn’t expect me to give the real ending away, did you? Sometimes – like right now – I know where we will be in a few scenes, but not how we get there. And all I can do is try to work it out as I go along. Yesterday I wrote part of a scene and then stopped because I was just confusing myself with what was going on. I picked it up today thinking I would just cut my losses and go back to where I was before, then I skimmed through it and thought, I can work with this. Everything can be edited. So I kept going, got to a “good bit” and realised that it hadn’t been a total waste of time. It needs about two thirds hacked out, but that can come later. And tomorrow I will find out how this particular scene plays out. It could end well or it could end badly – for the characters as well as for me. We will see.

So the answer to the question is really as simple as “keeping going.” And that’s all right.

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