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It Started With A Hiss

March 22, 2011


In the essay Notes on an Unfinished Novel, John Fowles described how he was inspired to write The French Lieutenant’s Woman. He said:

It started four or five months ago as a visual image. A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea. That was all. This image rose in my mind one morning when I was still in bed half asleep. It corresponded to no actual incident in my life (or in art) that I can recall, though I have for many years collected obscure books and forgotten prints, all sorts of flotsam and jetsam from the last two or three centuries, relics of past lives – and I suppose this leaves me with a sort of dense hinterland from which images percolate down to the coast of consciousness.

This quote stuck in my mind when I first read it because it captures so well the origins of Sweet Smell of Decay.

I am not a historian, nor do I recall ever studying the 17th century at school. I only remember the Vikings, the Romans and the Greeks. I knew that the Fire of London took place in 1666 and the Great Plague preceded it. I also had a kind of Hogarthian perspective of the city: hissing leering wretches living in squalor inside tall city walls, lying drunk in the street in the shadows of tall gibbets from which swung the bodies of the newly executed. Hogarth was 18th century as it turned out, but it was the general goriness that attracted.

I could psychoanalyse myself in an attempt to discover why I like writing about murder, execution and torture (my mother refuses to read my books). I think it may be a sense of wanting to explore the unfettered aspects of man’s dark side, at a time when people were starting to live in much bigger communities than they had ever lived in before. Or maybe I’m a bit twisted. What does it matter? Here was something I felt compelled to write about.

Plague of Sinners, the second book in the Harry Lytle series, was inspired by the Plague and Bedlam. I deliberately set Sweet Smell of Decay in 1664 before the Plague took place; the Plague was a sweet delicacy I was saving up for later. Bedlam was just lying there waiting for me in all its filth and depravity, beckoning me forwards with an evil come-hither look.

So my books so far have started with a setting, not with a character and not with a plot. Both character and plot emerged only slowly. Harry Lytle started off life as Henry Cooling. I don’t remember much about Henry Cooling other than I didn’t find him very interesting. Davy Dowling started off life as a rather morose man with thick black beard and dark eyes; a purposeful version of Captain Haddock perhaps. He had a wife, two children and was quite domesticated. He didn’t last long either.

Robert McKee (in Story) writes of the difference between characterization and character. Characterization is something you can decide upon one afternoon with a piece of paper and a pen. What’s your character’s name? Where was he (or she) born? Where did he go to school? What was life-like at home? Who was his first love? etc…  All good fun, but true character emerges from what your protagonist actually does in any given situation, how he responds to the perils and obstacles laid in his path.

When I start writing, I write in the certain knowledge at least 75% of what I write is going to end up in the recycle bin. I genuinely have no idea how many drafts of Sweet Smell I wrote. With the third book in the series (yet to be published), I thought I’d try and be more efficient. I worked two weeks solid, plotting and replotting, writing chapter synopses, discarding some, inventing new ones, until I thought I had a plot that worked.

By the time I had written the third chapter the book began to move inexorably in a different direction and my preparation time was wasted. There was nothing I could do about it. As events unfolded I thought of new detail and new twists, inspired by my background readings. And as the plot developed, so my characters responded in the only way they could–the way in which they would if they were real people; true to character. Their actions took the plot in new and unexpected directions, and so on.

For me writing a book is a creative process. I just don’t get how some people seem to be able to construct a whole plot and structure and then fill in the dots as they write. That’s just not my creative process. My process consists of writing and rewriting and rewriting until one day I know I’ve cracked it–the plot works and the characters are happy. A creative process and a wasteful process.

I don’t advocate it my creative process–it just is. There may be 101 other processes out there for all I know. I have read about authors who buy big piles of A5 size postcards, one for every scene, and keep writing new scenes and switching them around until they have the plot right. All I can say is–doesn’t work for me.

I sometimes wonder at this commitment to write efficiently. I have participated in critique groups where authors seem determined not to be deflected from a process whereby they write one chapter, then another, then another, and when they get to the end–finished. It as if they somehow want to write as little as possible in their quest to be published.

Or maybe I’m just jealous.

  1. Jim Bronyaur permalink
    March 23, 2011 4:56 am

    I like your comment about writing being a creative process… that’s what it is. It’s a long process. And sometimes ideas start at Point A and end at Point Z before you can blink. I think that’s okay – sometimes you have to let the story run.

    Usually what I do is just write it as it comes… even if the details don’t match… BUT I keep a notebook or tape recorder handy and mark down what problems there are.

    For example, in my WIP, I have a scene where a cop tries to find someone and ends up running into a group of kids who just shot someone (but that someone didn’t get hurt by the bullets…) – all sounds good, right? Well, no. Two chapters before I have the cop home, getting drunk. So a major problem there… did I rewrite it yet? No. I took a note and moved on. The goal is to get that first draft done.


  2. March 23, 2011 7:47 am

    I write by the seat of my pants. Really — I never know what’s coming next. It keeps it exciting and surprising for me, but it may or may not be very efficient. I don’t think I’ve ever really plotted or outlined ahead of time; in fact, when I had to write essays or research papers in school and they required the outline ahead of time, I’d write the essay or paper and then make an outline from the real thing! The benefit of this method was that I had my essays and papers done weeks in advance; the drawback was, possibly, that I was miserable whenever I had an outline due (and no one really could understand why!).

    There are times when I wish I could plan out what I was going to write. But whenever I have tried I always get stuck on the “okay, but WHY did that happen?” question. In a real example, I am currently co-writing a script for a play we hope to have performed later this year. We’ve spent weeks planning and plotting and we always get to the point where it’s “yeah, that’s great, but why would that polar bear have suddenly appeared in the middle of a shopping mall?” And when that question creeps into my mind, it essentially derails the whole creative process for me.

    I think this seat-of-the-pants approach is great in terms of getting that first draft done. I think it makes editing tougher, though… especially considering that my approach to editing is also a seat-of-the-pants approach. Not sure if there’s a way to make it work better for me, but I’m keeping at it in hopes that, eventually, I’ll figure it out!

  3. March 23, 2011 7:53 am

    I love hearing other writers talk about their own writing process. It’s interesting to hear how everyone approaches writing so differently. As long as your process works for you, there is no need to change it or fret over it.

    However, if someone’s process is not producing the best results, I think it can be helpful to try something new, as well.

    I hope others will share more about how they write! Thanks for a great article.

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