My favourite analogy of the creative process likens it to a tide going out on a beach. The story exists – complete and intact – only it’s buried at sea when the tide is high. Gradually, as the tide recedes, more of the shore is revealed and so, too, with the ebb and flow of time, the story is revealed to the writer, who faithfully writes it down.
But sometimes you can wait ages for the tide to go out, can’t you? Sometimes, you have to force ideas to come.
It should be possible. We’re the masters of the story. Characters don’t take over the narrative, in spite of what some authors claim. I mean, how can they? They don’t exist outside the pages of fiction. They’re not real.
So how do you make stories happen? We’ve heard Anne Tyler speak of how she gets a story out of her index cards. Admittedly, it might take 20 years to gain purchase on a card but there will be newer entries which have enabled it to sparkle. And she’s away.
Sometimes we go looking for material. Jan Mark’s brother used to drive a lorry. She accompanied him on a journey knowing she would get a book out of it. When she saw three cotton mills with girls’ names stencilled on the side, she had the start and the end of Trouble Half-way. (Unfortunately, Jan had the kiss of death on subject matter: those mills were pulled down shortly after her visit. The friend who ran the motorcycle shop in Norfolk who was so helpful when Jan was plotting Handles went bankrupt by the time she’d won her second Carnegie Medal.)
A couple of months ago, I talked about the limitations we have (or think we have) – and how it seems that we fundamentally write the same book over and over again. Since then, in my bookbybook interviews we’ve seen authors dramatically change course for a variety of reasons. And it’s reinforced my belief in our power as engineers of stories.
My new book is in the same genre as Ready to Love but I want it to be different. How can I ensure that will happen? Over the past few months, I’ve formed a sort of mental shopping list of ingredients which has been helpful in building the world of the story.
I wrote about life in an office block. I don’t want to recreate that, so, because my characters need jobs, I’ve invented another work environment which has, in turn, influenced the plot.
Nobody strayed too strenuously far from Waterloo. This time, I’ve posted a posse to the north-west. Probably Liverpool. But it might be Manchester.
Neither of the core characters in Ready to Love has children. So I’ve given my male ‘hero’ a daughter. And she has steered the plot in another direction.
And so on and so on. These ingredients are shaping the story. Of course, I’m throwing in pinches and handfuls of other items to add spice and texture.
(But please don’t think I spend much time in an actual kitchen.)
I’m making it happen and it feels empowering. How about you? Are you cooking up a storm or calmly watching the beach, waiting for the tide to go out?