The best piece of advice I was given (or, at least, took) at school was offered by our History teacher. ‘When you’re writing an essay, and set down a fact, ask yourself why?’ Why is it important? Where did it lead? That’s how you keep your argument – your narrative – moving forward.
Why is such a wonderful question, isn’t it? For Ruth Rendell, it was the best question. In her novels she despatched dozens of bodies but she wasn’t much interested in whether the murderer used a revolver or a rifle or a knife or a bomb. It was the motivation that compelled her to explore the reason why.
It’s a particular gift the novel offers. Anne Fine has adapted many of her books for the stage, and has had TV series and films made of her novels (including Goggle-Eyes and Madame Doutbtfire). When she is asked if she likes the adaptations of her books, she answers by way of explaining the differences:
‘What interests me is why people act the way they do: what’s deep inside them, pushing them. Film can’t show that. It can show brilliantly what happens. But only the book can explain the complex emotions and (sometimes self-deceiving) thought processes behind those actions. So, though I’ve quite enjoyed watching most of them, the films people make of my books are, for me, a bit like the fancy icing shell without the cake inside.’
Not all writers are the same, of course, and so the motivation to put pen to paper varies. Sometimes, we write to explore an issue that affects us. In fact, Ruth Rendell changed direction with her Inspector Wexfords when she decided to use them to explore political issues.) Sometimes, we write to unravel a very personal problem or emotion that affects us, or to understand behaviour in other people that we find inexplicable. Sometimes we write to evade reality and live an alternative life with alternative rules. (I’m not really thinking fantasy, because so much of that has an allegorical component.)
The really interesting thing about the motivation to write is that it’s often invisible to our reading public. Or, if they know, it’s what excites them least about the book. They just want the story. An editor is on the side of both the author and the reader so we get to talk about both. Of course, the story has to overtake the motivation, which is in any case often lost in its fabric.
But I think asking the reason why is a fantastic cure for writers’ block. When you’re bogged down in a story, not knowing where to go next (several paths may lay ahead, all tempting), tangled, befuddled, lost, it’s always helpful to reach deep into the world of the work and locate the original spark. Ask yourself, ‘Why did I want to pursue the idea in the first place?’ Then you can reread your work and highlight anything that doesn’t belong to that story. You never know – it might belong to its own story, to be written at another time.
That happened to Colm Toibin who, when rereading the opening pages of what would become his novel Nora Webster, identified what became the plot of Brooklyn. In that instance, he wrote Brooklyn first.
Reminding yourself of ‘the reason why’ really helps sustain momentum in a piece of fiction that’s in danger of going off the boil. And, let’s face it, in the long, often lonely periods of quiet writing, often before anyone has shown an iota of interest in your book, momentum is what writers need most of all.