Books written by Ray Sullivan

Monday, 5 December 2011

How to Write a Novel - A Personal View Part 1

A colleague asked me about writing a while back.  His interest was more than idle curiosity; although he isn't a writer himself, his brother writes professionally for television.  Specifically he wanted to know if I had a clear idea of how the book would pan out when I sat down to write the start of the book.  Apparently his brother doesn't write a single word unless he knows how the script ends up and every twist and turn on the way.

Me, well I have a rough idea about how a story will end once I've written about twenty thousand words, that is, typically between 20% and 25% of the book, but only the vaguest idea how it will get there.  And of course I don't know what percentage of the book I'm up to at twenty thousand words, but that does seem to be the point where I have established enough of the story to understand what is happening.  Perhaps the way my colleague's brother works is representative of the TV world, and I'm certainly aware that TV series have a defined story arc that has to be shared by the various writers so that the stories and characters act consistently, but I think I'd find it difficult to work that way myself.

So how do I go about writing a book in the first place?  I guess there isn't a sure fire way that works for everyone, but this short series is how it works for me.

Often I start with a short story - I ran a series of blog entries earlier in the year describing the background to my books so there will be some repetition here.  Parallel Lives started with such a short story written on my work PC over my lunch hour, sometime around 2000.  I didn't do much with the story until the year I left the Royal Air Force in 2002, when I kind of got the writing bug.  The book started to develop in 2003 as I mulled over the concept of parallel universes being in some sort of contact with each other through individuals who were more sensitive to the link than most of us.  If you've read Parallel Lives there's a very subtle twist about three quarters through that should have made you wonder about which universe it was set in, if you were paying attention.  That twist came to me in the summer of 2003 while mowing the lawn, brain in free-wheel and suddenly I found myself wanting to stop the mowing and booting up the home PC.

The Journeymen also started as a short story, written one sleepless night while on a resettlement course in 2002.  I didn't touch that again until after I'd put Parallel Lives to bed in early 2004, but by then I'd realised that I could write a book form start to finish.  I was into a bit of a writing routine by then as well, so the cornerstone of my writing was in place.  As a confidence booster, actually finishing a book has to be near the top of the league.  What eventually became The Journeymen bore no relationship to the story it started off as.  In fact, the only part that story played initially was to act as a catalyst in my thought processes.  I'd written the short story that was clearly about a human-like race on a planet that clearly wasn't Earth, and it followed the travels of a group of four men who were breaking planetary rules to observe bipeds they believed to be proto-humans, but who it turned out had been brought to the planet by earlier travellers.

That's when my brain went into a spin.  The bit that I got thinking about was how such a journey could be made and I came up with a crazy notion of hitching a lift on a comet that passed by two specific planets.  Then I came up with this whole conspiracy theory where the humanoids had had to travel back to Earth, from where their ancestors had brought the bipeds from, and were stranded on a planet that didn't have the technology to return them.  I thought about what we humans would do in that situation and decided that there was a high probability that we'd manipulate the planet we were on to develop the technology we needed.  I clearly remember all of that dropping into place in my head in a few short seconds - I didn't know how it would work, who would be in it and I guess at that point I actually thought that the people who were to become The Journeymen were going to be the good guys.

That's the point I sat down and started writing, and the principle character, Tom Roberts, appeared on my screen within minutes of starting the book.  I had no idea that the book would shuttle between two stories, I had no concept of how complex a relationship I would develop and I have to be honest here, by the time I was three quarters of the way through the book I was so immersed in the story that I started to identify Journeymen, Sons, Colonists and IBs as I went about my day.  I doubt many readers would become as immersed but you have to realise that I lived with this story for about a year as I wrote the two interleaved stories.  I'm probably nearly normal now, but to be fair, I still broadly partition people into one of those four groups, not because I believe them to exist, but because I can see the four competing groups in modern society under other names.

In the next instalment I'll discuss my routine.


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