Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)?

How do you know when a relationship is The Big Thing? When that initial attraction, viewed through a haze of testosterone*, is built on something more enduring? There comes a time when flirtation or casual dalliance is met with a demand for commitment - which is often the time to head for the hills. But sometimes, just sometimes, that commitment is one you're willing to make.

Don't worry. ::Acquired Taste is not going into the relationship-counselling business (which is probably for the best). The whole question of commitment, and being able to tell infatuation from the real thing, is one the novelist has to grapple with every time they come to start a new work. Starting a novel is a big investment: of time, of emotional energy, of hope. It pays to take the time to be sure your idea is one you can live with, possibly for a period of years.

So what do you need to be certain that commitment is worth making? The initial rush of excitment is essential, but it won't sustain you for very long. Here's what I think I need to have in place before committing to starting a novel, although I suspect all writers are different.

1. 'Concept'
This will be very simple: 'poisons at the court of Louis XIV' or 'another Mondia novel'

2. A protagonist
Seems obvious, but unless I know whose story I'm telling, I can't start to tell it. (Your protagonist may become one of several viewpoint characters later on. That's fine).

3. Half-a-dozen other characters
I don't need to know much about what they're like - I'm more interested in what they do, and how that affects the protagonist. More than six or so, and most will wither on the vine; fewer, and I don't have enough sense of the story's dynamic. In The Dog of the North, I had originally envisaged Darrien and Ierwen as major characters. Their roles became so atrophied that most readers will not even remember who they are. On the other hand, Lady Cosetta, Isola's companion, and Davanzato, the scheming Under-Chamberlain, did not exist until I created them as placeholders when writing the first draft. The point is, you never know - so I don't waste time fleshing out characters I may never need.

4. The Big Story
See earlier posts. What are the events that everyone in my imaginary world would know about?

5. The Little Story
How the protagonist's life intersects with the Big Story.

6. An opening scene
It may not end up as the opening scene (it may not end up in the novel at all), but a sense of how the story starts is important.

7. The end
Not necessarily in any detail. It's more about: does the hero get the girl? does he reach his goals? (And in the kind of stories I write, it's important that the answer to both questions is not necessarily "yes").

8. Some way stations
I don't outline in detail, but I need to know the rough flow of the story. This is the hardest part for me. It takes not just effort but a certain cast of thought which isn't amenable to command. From long experience I know that long walks are the best way to pull this off.

9. Milieu
Easy to forget this one; I've spent so much time mapping my imaginary landscape of Mondia that it's hard to see it as a separate task. But if I contemplate writing about something else, it rapidly becomes apparent that this is a major undertaking.

Some writers may need more than this to kick off a novel. Jeffrey Deaver famously storyboards every scene before he starts. If you like to write your way into a story, maybe you don't need as much as I do - although I wouldn't like to take the risk myself.

The perceptive reader will notice that there's nothing about commercial prospects in here. This may betray an amateurish attitude, but it simply isn't a decision factor for me in deciding whether an idea's worth committing to. However saleable the concept, if a story doesn't push my buttons, it won't work. And if the idea's promising enough, the motivation is just to write the story; any subsequent reward is a bonus.

Where that leaves me, at the moment, is in Mondia. Because the commercial dimension is not part of the decision, I'm very closely bound to my emerging story: of Duke Varrel of the Five Cantrefs, and the ruin that his reckless ambition causes. (And some swordfights). Am I ready to make the commitment? Not quite yet: criterion No.8 is not complete. There is real momentum here, though.

My essential criteria do not include having a working title. I like to have one, but I can start without. I can tell you, therefore, that another Mondia novel title is on the cards; but I can't tell you what it's called yet.

*or oestrogen, of course
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Unknown said...

Yay! But how can you write without a title? Even if it's the wrong title? What do you call it in your head?

Tim Stretton said...

In my head it's "the Mondia story". It did have a proper title at one stage but I rapidly decided it didn't work (or, more accurately, worked better for a Mondia story yet to be written).

Normally I do have a working title, but it doesn't bother me not to this time. One will occur in due course.

Frances Garrood said...

To carry on with the falling in love analogy, maybe we have to be careful to avoid the "falling out of love" scenario. I've had so many couples who have come for counselling saying they've fallen out of love, when in fact what's happened is that they've come down from that euphoric high which kicks it all off, and are faced with reality. I think the same thing can happen with writing. You get an idea, love it, can't wait to write it down, and then it begins to get to the mucky socks and arguments stage. Which doesn't men that it isn't right, and that you don't still love it, but that yo have to work at it. I think I'm getting to that stage...

Len Tyler said...

I'm with Aliya on this one. I usually start with the title - both The Herring in the Library and (the current w.i.p.) Herring on the Nile acquired their titles before I had typed the words "Chapter One". I have a couple of good titles at the moment and only need minor details like characters, plot, place etc to turn them into novels.

Tim Stretton said...

Frances, I think that's exactly why the falling in love analogy is such a good one. It's vital that you establish whether there's enough real substance to the idea to sustain you once that initial euphoria has worn off.

Len, I have loads of titles too, but none of them seem to match the stories I have in mind. A shame, really: War of the Midget Trolls sounds like a rollicking good read...

Frances Garrood said...

War of the Midget Trolls - wonderful! You have to write it now, Tim.

David Isaak said...

I'll comment on this bby posting on my blog.

Admittedly it's not a big topic, but, hey, it's about time for a post.

mattfwcurran.com Web Admin said...

Hi Tim

I need a title whenever I write a book.  As Ryan states on David's blog, there's that whole thing about wanting to feed a project but only when you feel personally responsible.  If it's a stray, I think it's someone else's problem.  If I name it, then heck, this is my baby and I have to deal with it.  The fact I might change it's name and even gender and confuse the hell out of it, as in the case of the first two Secret War novels, is by the by.  In the case of Black Hours, it's always had that title, and always will do.  Some titles work, some titles are a fucking nightmare but for me there needs to be a name.
And "War of the midget trolls" is genius!