Cliffhangers

Enough with the nostalgic Britpop posts and back to writing.

While I’ve been writing most days over the last ten years, the majority of it hasn’t been fiction. I can write a diary entry like a motherfucker, but fiction…? Practice is the key. People often believe artists have some innate talent, that they have been whispered an ancient secret. But it’s practice that makes a great artist. Fuck up. Learn. Start again.

Slowly, I’m finding the method that works for me. Strangely enough, my study of James Patterson helped more than anything. His ruthless rule of plot over characterisation might seem idiotic and devoid of artistic substance, but he pointed one glaringly obvious thing out: Novels are, above all, supposed to entertain. You can pour all the heartbreak, atmosphere and smart prose you want into your writing, if nothing happens, it’s still going to be really boring. Perfect example: Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow. Beautifully written but ultimately dull.

So my trick was this: I have an over-arching plot, which I’m pretty pleased with. I have also written a bio for all of my characters (no matter how small). What they wear, favourite bands, job, sexual orientation, ethnicity, education, accent, the car they drive. That sort of thing.

I’ve split the plot into 8 parts. Every Sunday, I plan the part I will work on that week. Target for the section is about 10k, but I don’t sweat it if it’s over or under. Rules annoy me, and while I’m sure hitting 1000 or 2000 words a day works for some people, it just pisses me off.

Anyway, on the Sunday I break down the part into chapters. Each day of the following week I’ll work on one or two chapters, depending on length. Every day, I end on a cliffhanger. I spend that night thinking Fuck, what happens next? I actually can’t wait to write about that tomorrow. That’s the James Patterson thing coming through. But, because I’ve got a handle on the cast already – I was meticulous with the bios – the characterisation doesn’t suffer because of the plot. At least, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. Objectivity and art don’t really go together. Perhaps that’s why it’s so wonderful – it’s open to any interpretation. Whether or not you like a book or a song or a painting is your prerogative. In our increasingly constrained world, willingly shackled to capitalism (Gap, Tesco Louboutin etc.), it’s refreshing to have such freedom.

Sorry, got all philosophical there for a moment. Where was I?

Every Saturday, I sit at my desk and go through what I’ve written that week. A very rough first edit of that part. People say “Just write the whole thing and edit it afterwards.” But when you’re dealing with 80k words plus, it’s pretty easy to lose your way. Worst case scenario here: I have wasted a week writing crap. Worst case scenario if I wait until the end: I lose months of work (been there – it was horrible).

The weekly revision also helps to keep my characters tied tightly to the plot. I might find that along the way, I can blend a couple of characters or I might find that one or two are superfluous.

Character-driven vs Plot-driven. Shouldn’t the best novels be both?

And it’s fun to play God. I have this character called Little Richard (as placeholder names go, I’ve had worse). He’s a drug dealer. I based him on a guy I once knew called Johnny. Johnny was not a very nice man. He used to ride around East London on his moped, selling whatever he had in a screw-top paracetamol jar stuffed down his stained y-fronts to the 24/7 party kids. The guy looked like a walking scab. Wore a fucking beret, too. Every now and then, I’d see him emerge from a bathroom with a groupie half his age. He’d have a nasty grin and she’d be wiping her mouth. Although I have been told he’s now in Wormwood Scrubs (getting ripped apart like a Pizza Hut garlic bread), it was very cathartic when, in chapter 8, I decided that Little Richard would die by being hung off Kingsland Viaduct.

With this new way of working, I feel rejuvenated. My mind’s alive again! Right, I’m off to write a chapter about a stripper called Candice. I’ll tell you the inspiration for that one someday…

28 comments

  1. Pizza Hut garlic bread. You do have a way of turning a phrase. But seriously, this is really interesting with the cliffhanger idea. Do you sometimes go back and edit those cliffhangers into non-cliffhangers or do you keep the pace throughout? Also very true about characterisation and plot being equally important / characters driving the plot. I guess it all comes back to them ‘wanting’ something and how that works within a narrative. I wonder what you’d make of Scarlett Thomas’ novel – Our Tragic Universe – part of the whole point of that book is pointless stories, stories that go no where. It’s a bit of a love/hate reaction from most readers as some kind it really compelling and others infinitely frustrating.

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  2. Cheers HA. So far I’m keeping the cliffhangers. Maybe I’ll edit them later, but right now, it feels right to keep them in. The narrative flows and I don’t get bogged down waffling about pointless shit and going on off on a tangent (much like I do on my blog!). Keeping it lean.
    Re: Scarlett Thomas. Not read her, but it sounds like Satre. And I didn’t get on with that guy.

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    1. Yus! Keep them. Keep them all. Also… feel like there’s a writer’s proverb in there somewhere – “Keep it lean, keep them keen.” … or sommatlikedat? Scarlett Thomas isn’t so Satrean though that particular novel is pretty loose and peculiar. It’s essentially a book about writing and a writers conflict between the genre fiction she ghostwrites for money and the literary novel she wants to write but hasn’t the money for. #storyofmylife

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  3. My name is Candice, I’ve always said it is a stripper name and everyone politely disagrees. I’ll be showing them this in future, ha! 😛 Great post, I’ve never really considered plot vs character driven writing and which is better. As you’ve pointed out here, I find the best stories are often both.

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    1. Thanks Candice. However, the real life stripper I based her on was actually called Paris (real name: Laura). But I was particularly annoyed with someone called Candice yesterday, so I named the stripper after her. She also shortens it to Candy. Sweet.

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  4. Aw, I’ll miss the Brit-pop! Just kidding, good for you getting down to business. It sounds like your book has a good balance between character and plot. I like the idea of writing up bios for all your characters. Even if you don’t include all that information in the story, it will determine the way you write them and ultimately, how they come across to me, the reader. So your book is a Patterson-esque mystery, then? 😉

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  5. The part about being God to your novel world…I toggle between being reader and author of my work, often forgetting I have total control until that “aha!” Moment when I realize I don’t have to see the heroine die this way or have the villain be pure evil. I am the Creator. Scary and fun at the same time.

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