Whose storyline is it anyway?

I had such a good writing session the other day that I tweeted jokingly that my ‘muse’ had turned up and written a whole chapter for me. Perhaps my writing had gone well because I had originally planned to take the day off, so I was relaxed, not putting pressure on myself. But also, I let go and wrote without thinking too hard. Before I knew it, I had a chapter I was really happy with.

I’ve heard other authors say time and again that when writing a novel, they ‘let the plot evolve out of the characters, rather than the other way round’. Having written two novels where the characters inspired the plot, and written another novel where I tried to plot the whole story before I’d even started writing it, I find the above statement to be true.

Package Deal and Hot Property, my two novels available on Amazon, were the ones I wrote ‘organically’ and also won me the attention of a literary agent. A while later, when my agent asked me to write another novel, but to plot the whole thing before I got started, I struggled to do as she asked. But I gave it a go – a different approach would be a good exercise.

However, I found I was forcing the story out before it was ready to come. I’d had a clear picture of the beginning in my head for some time, and I also had a strong visual of the climax. But there were large blind spots that just weren’t coming into focus. Nevertheless, I sketched out a plot and polished it up into a synopsis. My agent gave it the green light, but not before suggesting I make one of the main characters ten years younger. My heart sank. This would change so much about this character. It would mean she came from a whole different era, and not the one she had been born with.

By the time I’d finished writing the novel, I didn’t have the satisfied feeling I’d had with the previous two. There were parts of it I liked, loved even. But there were parts that didn’t feel right, that felt weak, fabricated. So it wasn’t a great surprise when my agent turned it down and, as she was leaving the agency, we went our separate ways.

Disappointing though that experience was, I learned a lot from it: I write better when I let my characters tell me where the story is going. Plot is important, of course, but when I forced it out like an essay that needed to be handed in to a teacher, I came unstuck. To me, there is a strange, almost mystical process to writing. You’re not always in control, and that’s a good thing. 

In his book On Writing, Stephen King sums it up well: ‘The situation comes first,’ he says. ‘The characters…come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualised. In most, however, it’s something I never expected.’

I am now 28,000 words into a new novel, and I’m taking it slowly. When I started writing it, I had a firm beginning in my head and a hazy image of the ending. As I’ve been writing, developments I had not foreseen have emerged. For the first time in a long time, I’m relishing just seeing where the writing will take me.

For more on the creative process of writing, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on Ted is fascinating. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA