Explain what you meant by...
I got a question the other day, after I posted Ideas...from where?
Can you explain what you meant by the character driving the story?
(Firstly can I say to the reader - thank you subscribing, and for the question.)
In that post I talked about planning. When I'm working on the junior series then I plan everything, but the novel manuscripts - no plan, just an name and an idea and it starts.
So this post is about when the first draft of a novel is being written - when I'm writing, without a plan and when it's the character or characters in control of the story.
Maybe this will explain it - not that I really understand it myself.
In 2017 I was working on the first draft of what would become Unpacking Harper Holt. I was several chapters in and things were getting a bit tense. At this stage I believed Harper's story was going to focus on the issue of bullying - afterall she had just started a new school, in a new city, and that was the direction she was taking the story in.
I'd come to the end of a chapter and had a really odd feeling that something was going to happen but I had no idea what. The chapter I had just written was about deciding which school to go to - nothing out of the ordinary there.
Later that day, I was driving across a series of small bridges on my way to do some errands, and Harper came into my head. I could see her standing at the front window of the house looking out into the dark; it was raining - the type of rain you get after a winter storm has just passed.
She was all alone - which was also odd, because so far she had always been with one or both of her parents. That picture just hovered there and stayed for the rest of the day - along with a feeling of dread.
That evening, my son asked me how my writing was going. I said I had a feeling that something was about to happen, something big, devastating, but I wasn't sure what, or to which character. He looked at me and said, 'That doesn't make sense - you're the one writing it!'
The next morning - at exactly 5 am - I woke up, made a coffee, turned on my computer, and started writing (this is my usual writing routine). I read the last few paragraphs of what I had written and then started the next chapter.
The events started to unfold.
If you've read this part of my book then you know what happens, and that it's an emotional time. I can guarantee you, that it took me as much by surprise as it may have done you. I had an emotional reaction to what was happening to Harper and her family because I had no idea that it was coming. When the headlights appeared, I didn't know who was going to step out until the car door opened.
Here's another example.
There's a part in Everything You Keep (coming, fingers crossed, in 2021) when the main character is travelling on a train. I knew where she was going because she was returning to somewhere she had been in an earlier chapter. What I didn't know was what going to happen after she got there - I had no idea.
Then someone stepped onto the train. Who are you? There hadn't been any sign of this character before, I hadn't thought about this character, there wasn't a single note in my notebook about her - but there she was! I could see her step into the carriage - I could see what she looked like, what she was wearing, and she even had a name!
This new character became pivotal to the rest of the story - not that I knew it at the time because later, in that same chapter, she stepped off the train and left.
In my head, it's like I'm watching a movie for the first time. I write what I see. When a new character shows up, then I just go with that.
Remember - this is the first draft.
Later, during the editing process things get changed around, more characters arrive, some have left. I have more control over who says what and stuff like that, but not always.
And there's one more thing I need to tell you about this part of my writing process and why I trust it now.
I have tried to develop and plan out a novel length story - I have tried a few times. I have tried to think of characters and give them a background and write a description. I have tried to think of plots with twists and turns.
And the outcome of all that trying is that I have half a dozen manuscripts on my computer that haven't gone anywhere. The more I think about what could happen in a story, the more likely is that it will go nowhere.
If a character pops into my head tomorrow, I won't be rushing to my notebook to begin making a plan. No. If a character turns up tomorrow and there's an opening line, or a picture forming of where they are, I am just going to watch it unfold and write their story, wherever it goes. And if someone else turns up along the way- well then okay. Welcome.
Afterall, it's their story - they're in control.