Back to the drawing board

I've been having a lot of difficulty recently in starting my next novel.

At first I thought it was a focus problem. There's the dagger awards ceremony next week, Harrogate a couple of weeks later, and it's hard to see much beyond that at the moment. But I've been plugging away at the outline, trying to get a bit further than 'there's this book which steals your soul when you read it.'

Then I reckoned that my problem was that I didn't have an ending in mind. I used to think that this didn't bother me - I like to write seat of the pants style, setting up characters and seeing where they take me within a loose framework of possibilities. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that I need an ending to work towards. Natural Causes was always meant to be a novel, but I ended up writing the short story version - as seen in Spinetingler - because my agent wanted a short story in a hurry and I couldn't think of anything else to write. The exercise helped to thrash out the characters, and more crucially gave me the ending that is such an important pivotal moment for the hero protagonist, Inspector McLean.

My last SF epic was born out of a short story too, which you can read here. The novel will probably never see the light of day - at least not without a major rewrite - and it has the distinction of being the first (and only) book that I have planned, section by section, in advance of writing. That was a big mistake as I'd only got about four sections into the thing before I'd created a completely new, and very important character, who then had to be woven into the rest of the story.

But she didn't change the ending, and so I was able to carry on writing happy that I knew where I was going, even if I had only the vaguest idea of how to get there.

I've got the same problem with the Benfro books. The first three had milestone endings - key events that I knew had to happen. But the ending of the whole series is more nebulous. I had an idea for it that was just perfect until I read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series and realised that he'd beaten me to the punch. So now four years of work sits incomplete as I dither and worry about how it's all going to finish.

With this new book, I've not yet pinned down the ending either. Sure, I've a basic idea in as much as certain characters will still be alive, and certain events will have happened, but I've no sense of place or event to work towards. Or at least I didn't have until early this morning when I was woken from my slumbers by Chiswick barking at himself. The location for the denouement came to me in my addle-brained sleepiness, and everything else started to slot into place after that.

I've now fleshed out the idea and reckon it holds up to scrutiny. But in the process, I've had to re-examine the major sub-plot, and the scenes which open the book. And I've come to the conclusion that they are in fact a complete novel in themselves.

Hooray, you might think. That's another one for the ideas file, and something to impress any interested publishers with. Not only have I a completed manuscript, but two fully worked up ideas for sequels. Well, I guess that's the positive spin and I can go with that.

But the other side of the coin is that I now have no major sub-plot for book number two. There's a big empty space in the middle of my whiteboard and a large chunk of the 'thinking with my fingers' file has been cut and pasted to a new folder entirely. I need a new macabre case for Inspector McLean to be investigating as the book opens.

There's only one thing for it. Time for a stroll.


Sandra Ruttan said…
Sometimes the subplots emerge as you write... But then, sometimes, it's just hard work and we have to stop procrastinating.

Which is where I'm at these days.
JamesO said…
Which, the procrastination or the hard work?

And don't forget - why put off until tomorrow what you can possibly avoid doing altogether.

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