For the past five years or so, I’ve been working on the same story. Well, three chapters in the same story, but writing the Blood on the Motorway trilogy has been me playing in one sandbox for the whole time. Same characters, same world, same apocalypse. I love those characters now, and can’t wait to let people see the rest of the tale of Tom, Jen, and Burnett.
But, while books two and three still have a fair bit of work left to do (urgh, editing), the writing is done. Now, as November (and Nanowrimo) approach, I’m faced with the prospect of starting something completely new. It is, after five years of safety, a little bit scary.
Over the course of the trilogy, the way I write has changed dramatically. For the first book, I sat down and wrote it in a splurge, with no idea where it was going. You can imagine my relief when an ending presented itself, roughly 80,000 words in. If naturally took this to be a sign of my utter genius, and vowed to work the same way until the sun turns supernova and kills us all.
For the sequel, Sleepwalk City, I tried the same, but didn’t get quite the same result. Clearly not so much with the genius. It was sheer luck that had seen me through Blood on the Motorway. At the time I was devouring books on writing craft, and story structure, as well as listening to eleven million podcasts on writing. With a slightly broken first draft, I did a few plotting exercises, rejigged the story a touch, and I had something much better to work with on the second draft. My days of pantsing were over.
For the third book I had my characters, I had my world, and I had a few plotting exercises that I could use. I plotted the book as I was writing the first draft, and ended up with what I think is the strongest book in the trilogy, a tautly-paced thrill-ride of apocalyptic mayhem that hopefully delivers on the character arcs. I guess the proof will be when people get their hands on it, but it’s certainly the strongest story of the series.
Now, I have nothing. Just an idea, one that has been rattling around my brain for a few years. It’s a sci-fi horror, and while the central concept is something I’ve had for a while, I’ve really not had many of the details. So, for the past few weeks, I’ve gone into full on plotting mode.
It’s been weird. For years I insisted this was not something I’d do, preferring to think of myself as a Stephen King type maverick genius, from whom stories flow in some kind of curious alchemy. This is the myth of the genius author, right along with the borderline alcoholism and the whole dying alone thing. But it’s a nonsense. As a writer, you have to do whatever works for you, whatever strange brew of tics, targets, plotting, pantsing, deadlines, and coffee that gets you from the empty page to the completed manuscript.
Given that this is a sci-fi novel, it’s also a must-do. I’m rather lucky that I know at least two astrophysicists and a marine biologist, who will be able to tell me before I start the first draft whether I’m likely to be laughed out of the room by anyone with even a passing knowledge of that thing called science that the kids have now. I have an evernote folder stuffed with scientific papers, pop-science nonsense, and even stuff on Greek gods. My scrivener folder has timelines, character profiles, political backgrounds and even a full cast list for the characters. I really hope Viggo Mortensen will be available when it comes time to cast the film.
So, all told, I’ve gone from one extreme to another. Whether it’ll work for me or not is another matter. I still worry that I’m robbing myself of the spontaneity that pantsing allows the writer, that special frisson of discovering a path you didn’t know existed until it mysteriously unfurled itself. I guess I’ll find out over the course of November and December.
Welcome to Discovery Park – the chronicle of my increasingly frustrated attempt to listen to every album on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums of all-time list, is available now on Amazon Uk, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, and many more.