Research, holiday, or confusing motion with activity?
On a kettuvalem in the backwaters of Kerala, India
A few years ago, more by accident than design - at least on my part, fortunately my agents were more focused - I found myself sitting on an 11-book deal. I think this is a first. Certainly it was for me.
They - my agents, who were then Pat Kavanagh and Rosemary Canter at PFD - had separately submitted two of my books to publishers. One was a work of historical fiction set during the French Revolution and called The Time of Terror. It was set mainly in Paris in 1793 and featured the English pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, her American lover Gilbert Imlay, who was basically a spy and a scoundrel but was a writer, too, so well, take him or leave him - unfortunately Mary took him - and the - oh, what am I going to call him - philosopher, revolutionary, writer, designer of bridges and corsets - Thomas Paine.
The other was a children's novel called Mermaids Can't Run, based on the back story of one of the characters in an adult novel of mine that Bloomsbury had just published called The Used Women's Book Club.
It featured an 11-year-old girl growing up without a mother but with a fairly eccentric fishing family in modern Hastings and her mystic relationship with an apparent mermaid.
Somewhat to my surprise, these books led to a 3-book deal with the Hachette imprint Headline - later extended to 6. And a 5-book deal with Hodder Children's Books.
So now - having spent almost £50,000 in advances mainly in travelling, which I called Research and my son called Holiday, and my wife called Sharpening Pencils, and in her less kindly moods, Confusing Motion with Activity - I had to write them.
Let me say, as this is in the section headlined Creative Writing, this is not the way to write a novel. To be critical, it's rather a slapdash approach. I don't recommend it. Also - the adult series was to be marketted as 'historical nautical fiction'. I think this was because I'd recently made a 90-minute film for Channel Four on Nelson, because Patrick O'Brian had just died, and because - well, two of the chapters of The Time of Terror were, in fact, set on a ship in the English Channel. Unfortunately the other 25 chapters were set in Paris. Which is not even close to the sea. To further complicate matters I'd just received a grant of £5,000 from the English Arts Council to research the book. In Paris. Mostly underground, exploring the labyrinth known as The Empire of the Dead - a catacomb under the city containing the mortal remains of 5 million of its former citizens including Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and at least two of the people responsible for sending them to the guillotine - Danton and Robespierre.
So - how to square the circle? I had no idea. I put it on hold while I started onthe children's books.
Here I had another problem. The book I'd actually written had also been put on hold while I wrote a trilogy called The Mysteries of the Septagram.
I had put this up to the publishers as an idea which they had promptly seized upon but which I had no idea of how to write. It was about an 11-year-old girl called Jade and her six siblings who were designed and produced in a laboratory by a mad scientist called Dr Kobal.
Just writing that makes me sit here for a moment in silent thought.
Anyway, I set off in a fairly - scientific - manner - one that certainly would have been approved by Dr Kobal - by setting up 7 focus groups with 7 children in each from 7 different London schools. I hope you're impressed. They told me what to write. Well, they told me what they liked to read, and then I set about writing it. Or at least researching it.
I decided I needed to visit 7 magic places around the world, starting in Lappland, travelling by ship, plane, car, reindeer and dog sled, to find the legendary gateway to Hell.
Anything to avoid the often painful process of writing.
DRACULA & FRIENDS - Dracula was my lead dog - actually a bitch - a cross between a husky and an English pointer - said to be the brightest of the bunch. I think it's fair to say we didn't get on.
Over the next two years, I went on to confuse motion with activity in 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 can help to get you started.
Riding the Rainbow
I used to start by drawing 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 teach people when I teach creative writing – to paint their own rainbow and to enjoy riding it. What happens next? Oh, I don't know. You pull it all down and put up the next one?
Paul Bryers has taught creative writing to MA level at Bath Spa, Southampton and Winchester Universities and has developed his own creative writing courses for children and adults based on the Rainbow Writing scheme which he has taught at a number of literary festivals.
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