In 2006, more by accident than design - at least on my part, fortunately my agents were more focused - I found myself contracted to write eight novels. It's the kind of thing a writer dreams about. So the first thing I did was take myself off to Lapland in January and set off by reindeer and dog sled to find the legendary gateway to Hell.
I won’t go into why I did this – not now anyway. But I think it’s fair to say it comes under the heading of what my friend Sharon calls ‘Sharpening Pencils’. Sometimes, in less kindly mood, she calls it Confusing Motion With Activity. I call it Research. My son calls it Holiday. But whatever it’s called, it can go on for quite a while. Anything to avoid the often painful process of writing.
Over the next two years, I went on to confuse motion with activity in Lapland, India, Cuba, Panama, Transylvania, France, Italy and sometimes, Balham. But I did manage to do some writing. Sooner or later, if you're a writer you have to. The only way I find I can do this is to have a plan. The first thing I do is make a storyboard. Sometimes I draw the whole book and then paint it. I know, this isn't writing either, but it sometimes gets you started.
Riding the Rainbow
I used to start with the painting of a house. I got this idea from something Graham Green wrote in A Burned-Out Case - about a building being the framework for people to act out their lives. I thought, maybe this is how he writes his novels and maybe it would work for me.
Now a house is all very well, but the people I worked for – my agents, my commissioning editors and, if I was writing or directing for television, my executive producers – were forever asking me about the ‘arc of the story’. A house isn’t shaped like an arc. It doesn’t really go anywhere, except up and down and around and around – a bit like life. Novels and plays are expected to go somewhere – in an arc.
I particularly admire those who take no notice of this and make their stories more like life but most readers or viewers want stories to go somewhere, to have a conclusion of some sort. To have a framework.
So my basic framework became an arc. Or rather two arcs. One arc was what I knew – about what happens and where the story is going, and who the heroes and villains are, and why they do what they do and where it all ends... The other arc was what I wanted the reader to know.
To make the most obvious point, I might know how my book ends but I don’t want the reader to know. I have to know where I’m going; they just have to trust me to take them somewhere interesting and lead them out the other side.
So - I have to lead the reader on, leaving scraps of information for them to follow in my trail. I have to create characters they care about and with whom they can identify – characters they love and characters they hate, characters they want to win and characters they want to lose. I have to construct obstacles, incidents, dramas. … I have to lead them in and out of labyrinths… I have to take them through the forest.
All these factors have their place in the arc – arcs. And gradually my two arcs evolved into several. I had arcs for my individual characters so I could be sure that the things that motivated them, that drove them on, also drove the plot on, that were consistent with the plot and vice versa. I had back stories for each character that explained why they behaved the way they did. All of these were in the arcs – and many other things too - and so the arcs became a rainbow. The rainbow on my wall.
And that rainbow is what drives me to write. There it is, on my wall, waiting for me every morning – or in one of my many notebooks when I’m travelling. It has colour, conflict, character – and perhaps most of all – a satisfying form. It is what drives me on, step by step. And at the end of the rainbow – who knows. Maybe a pot of gold. But probably not. It’s riding the rainbow that counts.
This is what I want to teach people when I teach creative writing – to paint their own rainbow and to enjoy riding it.
Paul Bryers has taught creative writing to MA level at Bath Spa and Winchester Universities and has developed his own creative writing courses for children and adults based on the Rainbow Writing scheme.