Sunday, 8 January 2012

How I write a chapter

People ask me how I write, when I find the time, how I come up with ideas and produce page-turners, etc. Well, here goes… Rudyard Kipling wasn’t only an author, he was principally a journalist, which meant he had to be economical with words, to the point, and interesting. He once famously wrote the following: “Whenever I pick up my pen, I consult my six tried and trusty men: why, what, how, who, where, when.” Good advice for any kind of writing. Let me start with when.

I don’t start a chapter until I have the first line, and it has to be solid, because it’s the launching point. I also don’t begin until the starting scene is clear in my head. I once tried the ‘write five hundred words a day’ rule, but some days I would write uninspired crap, and I didn’t want to get used to writing rubbish and either thinking it was okay, or accepting that writing it was somehow useful. Writing isn’t like drawing or painting – there, you can compare what you draw or paint with the genuine article, say a bowl of fruit, and see if what you did looks good or terrible. There is an external reference, whereas with writing there is none, you only have an internal reference, an internal referee. Why risk confusing this internal judge? I only write when I feel I have something to 'say' – if it doesn’t get me enthused, how on earth will it motivate a reader?

So, some days I write, some days I don’t. Once I feel I have the scene, I wait a bit longer, building up tension in my head, a sense of urgency, of drive, because that is what I want the readers to pick up. I aim to write page-turners. Sometimes when I finally sit down to write, I can’t type fast enough.

The second aspect of when, is when I actually write, and for how long. My favourite time is morning. Since I sometimes get insomnia, this can be anything from 4am onwards. This is without doubt my most lucid time, perfect for creativity, e.g. ‘world-building’ or alien development in science fiction. I never write around lunchtime. Mid-late afternoon works better for dialogue, late evening rarely works for me – I often try and write sex scenes which I invariably cut later (I’ve not learned the art of writing good/credible sex scenes). However, evenings are good for editing.

I write for anything between two and four hours straight. Less than two hours and I’m not going to get through a first draft, and picking it up later will lead to an incoherent chapter, one that will feel like the style shifted somewhere in the middle, because it did. More than four hours and I’m fatigued. During this time I’ll produce between ten and twenty pages of 12 point Times New Roman double-spaced text. This translates to 7-12 book pages, for the first draft. Second drafts will probably expand it, and later drafts will cut it back. I write short ‘bite-sized’ chapters, except toward the end of the book, when they tend to double in size as all the plot strands come together. Usually for the last three chapters I’m into six hour sessions per chapter to get the first draft out. During this time I’m not online, I don’t make phone calls, don’t watch TV or listen to music, and I don’t eat. I drink tea (not coffee), and have been known to grunt occasionally. When I kill off main characters, I usually cry. If I don't, I haven't written it right.

The third aspect of when relates to when the events and scenes in the chapter happen in the book. That’s for another blog, however, also because I sometimes move chapters around later, to have the most dramatic effect.

Every chapter has to earn its place in a book: it needs a reason to be there, to drive both plot and character forward. In theory it can do either, but it won’t be really satisfying unless it does both. I’ll do another blog soon on how I write a book, but in brief, I have the overall structure of the book in my head – at the least the beginning and the endgame, and ideally two other waypoints (I write using the ‘classic’ three-part book structure). The over-riding emphasis in the first draft is on plot – what happens, but even then there must be some character development – seeing the characters struggle, whether with a physical challenge or an emotional one, so we see their ‘mettle’, what they are made of. Since I write science fiction thrillers, there must also be intrigue, a hint at the larger picture, even when this chapter’s characters are dealing with more ‘tactical’ events.
Some chapters will also give information (without using ‘info-dumps’) on the ‘universe’ the characters are in, the worlds, modes of transport, and alien cultures. I don’t write ‘hard’ or ‘heavy’ science fiction, which means you don’t have to have taken ‘Astrophysics 101’ in order to read it, nor be intimate with Einstein’s theory of relativity. But as an avid SF reader, I know that people want to be given at least an occasional sense of wonder, of how things might work differently, or what might be in store for us one day (or our great grandchildren). If Kipling had written science fiction, he might have added a seventh question, namely “what if?”
Henry James wrote “character is plot”, and it took me a long time to ‘get’ this. In my first book I would think plot, and then try to decide who it should happen to, to give it most tension, to bring it alive. Now I’m on my third book, I can no longer divorce the two. I write multi-protagonist novels, which means as a reader you get to see through more than one pair of eyes, and wander around in more than one head (so-called Point of View, or POV). But there are main characters, and I tend to use an alternating structure of ‘whose’ chapter it is, whether Micah or Blake or Kat or Pierre, for example. If a character is not key to the plot, I don’t write with them at the centre of a chapter. There are rare exceptions: I had one character in Eden’s Trial who I gave POV to for about a page, early on in the book, and then never again, although the character is sometimes referred to by other characters. Some readers were probably wondering why. Near the end of the book, the character is killed – the shock is palpable, and this ‘walk-on’ character is actually all the more memorable for it, although he only actually appears for a single page in the book. In general, however, each chapter is about the character who has most to lose by the events happening in that chapter.

As I said earlier, I usually have the first few pages in mind when I start. As I write, and as the characters get to grips with the situation I’ve put them in, I let the events unfold. Maybe some writers won’t believe me, but when I sit down I often don’t have a clear idea of how the chapter ends; this is simply great fun as a writer. Yesterday I wrote chapter 5 of my third book, and placed a character in a life-threatening situation. He’s just recovering from extensive surgery and wakes to be asked “Do you think you can run? Can you run now.” Before he can answer, there is an explosive decompression in the medical ship he is on, and he is clawing his way to the safety of another compartment, whose shield door is automatically closing. This happens on page three of the chapter. By page ten, he has managed to escape. But that’s not nearly enough, plot-wise or character-wise, is it?

So, first, character: when he thinks he isn’t going to make it, and is about to be sucked into open space, he feels guilty that he won’t be there to help his friends back on his planet that is going to be attacked. Most of us would be thinking something else... Similarly, when, in order to survive, he gives his word to an alien that he won’t harm the creatures who have just destroyed his ship killing countless defenceless passengers, he keeps his word, even when the alien departs and the creatures are at his mercy. Of course there are other characters in the book who would have broken such a promise in a second (including one who would have killed the alien, too), but not this one.

Then, plot: here is where the plot must not be clichĂ©’d, i.e. there must be credible ‘surprises’ or twists. I often try to use a twist on a twist (which I think of as a tourniquet, since the plot twists and tightens at the same time). This usually happens towards the end of the chapter, because it is there that there must be the need to continue, to turn the page. So, in chapter 5, in order to escape, the protagonist enlists the help of an alien medic, who will never harm another being, under any circumstances, even personal survival. The character’s homeworld is about to be attacked (actually, the space around it is going to be ‘poisoned’ – this is relatively novel, and may resonate with our current world-focus on environmentalism) by another species, and the protagonist cannot stop them alone, needing his alien friend to help. But as he sets the ship for maximum speed to the planet, the alien deserts him, because it knows it will be asked to do harm. This sets up intrigue – the hero has escaped, and although he has personally survived (a ‘tactical victory’), in terms of the overall plot of the book, things are actually worse off than when the chapter began. Then I add one more twist right at the end of the chapter. I move out of his POV, and using a section break and a single paragraph, show the hostile alien species heading toward the planet. They perceive the protagonist’s ship overtake them, and increase their speed to match his velocity, so that they will arrive at exactly the same time he does. And he can’t see them. That’s where the chapter ends.

Incidentally, Chapter six will switch to another character on the planet in question, where people are unaware of the impending attack, and are dealing with local issues, so the tension for chapter 5 will sit there unresolved and gathering momentum (a bit like an extended version of old-style films where the audience used to shout “Look behind you!”), until chapter seven or eight.

By the way, if this sounds a tad too ‘manipulative’, it isn’t (well, maybe a little - writing is after all meant to be entertaining). In my ‘day job’ I sometimes study large-scale accidents, and they are almost always ‘multi-protagonist’ (involving multiple parties) who often aren’t particularly aware of each other or what is developing until right near the end. Some of these accidents have a long ‘latency’ or build-up period lasting months or years before the final trigger events unfold and everything accelerates toward the final outcome, as everything ‘comes together’. That’s how I write my books. No complaints received so far... (except having to wait for book 3 :-)

I don’t use a pen, except to make a few notes while the story is brewing in my head – key points or events or bits of dialogue I want to insert. I use a laptop, a Sony Vaio most of the time, as I travel with it (I travel a lot for work, pretty much each week internationally), and when I have some spare time or insomnia, out it comes. It takes fifteen minutes to warm up – outrageous compared to my Mac, and really infuriating, but useful – it makes me stop and think one last time before I plunge in.
How I actually get the ideas in the first place is something of a mystery to me. I dream a lot, and sometimes wake up with a vivid scene in mind, a few times a complete short story or chapter – which means I will leap out of bed, hoping it’s a Sunday, and be antisocial for four hours while I get it typed. I read plenty of other science fiction, but don’t believe in stealing others’ ideas – not out of morality (because pretty much anything any writer writes is ultimately to an extent ‘derivative’), just that ‘second-hand ideas’ read that way. But other writers might give me a new idea, a twist on an idea or concept they had. I watch news, I watch people, and when I can, I dive; quite a few of my ‘aliens’ are based on sea creatures and underwater behaviour and hierarchies. Other than that, I set up a premise, and then wait. It can take hours, days, weeks, before suddenly I know how the scene will work, usually just the first few pages. Then I start typing. The character is in place, he or she has a sticky problem to deal with. They deal with it based on who they really are, what they would say and do and think (sometimes these conflict, because we’re like that). I have to move inside their head and consider what they would do. If it’s too straightforward, I’ll make it more difficult for them. Writers love their characters, but it’s not necessarily a reciprocal relationship :-)

When I write a first draft of a chapter I know where it is happening, but I’m more obsessed with who/what (character/plot) is happening. In later drafts I add ‘texture’ – details of colour, materials, touch, smell, sound. Some say that place has a massive effect on behaviour, but it’s not my strong point, and I’m not so sure it’s so true with science fiction. So, I add it in, in later drafts. I focus mainly on visual details – readers tell me my books read like films, and I work hard to make every scene ‘see-able’. There are some really good SF writers I admire, but sometimes I just cannot see a scene they’re describing, no matter how many times I read it, and that’s very frustrating as a reader.
In the larger scale of where, I also have in my head a rough map of the galaxy, where different species are, how different alien cultures interact, etc. This is known as ‘world-building’ (or universe-building) and is complicated to manage at the ‘book’ level. I usually pay for professional readers to check the final manuscript, to identify any ‘holes’ in the world-building.

A little more on How
From first to final draft is usually about six drafts, with each chapter being evaluated once or twice by the writer’s group I belong to in Paris, sometimes three times if it’s not working. Only one person in this group is a science fiction writer and reader, which means I have to write ‘accessible’ science fiction, one that has a broader appeal. That’s a good thing. I’ll then get the whole manuscript reviewed professionally at least once, maybe twice (the first book had three complete editorial reviews).

Back to the internal judge I mentioned earlier. If a chapter in its finished form doesn’t move me, it means it isn’t finished, no matter how many times I’ve edited it (maybe too many times). In that case I will carry out surgery and remove the chapter. This is very tough, and can also happen with a good chapter which doesn’t connect enough with the rest of the book. These are like the ‘deleted scenes’ you get on DVDs of TV series or films. Sometimes such deleted scenes look interesting, but usually, on reflection, the producers/directors were right to delete them. One of my favourite scenes from my first book has never seen the light of day. I’ll put it on my website one day. Maybe.
My first book, The Eden Paradox, took me two years to write and three years to edit. The sequel, Eden’s Trial, took one year to write and one year to edit. I’m on a timetable for the finale, Eden’s Revenge, of one year, editing included. I feel like one of my characters, up against the clock. I'm not sure I could write any other way.

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook on Amazon, and in ebook from Barnes and Noble, Omnilit and

Eden's Trial is available on Amazon in ebook (paperback due summer 2012)

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