Some Insights into the Magic of Writing… don’t overplan it!

While in all other aspects of my life I am a control freak for planning and preparation, when it comes to novels and short stories, while I of course plan and do my research, I don’t do it to death. And for good reason. I have talked of this before, but I do truly believe that the magic happens as you create and some of the best characters and  scenes and, in particular for me, nuances of character come spontaneously.

With the new novel Chutney, it certainly feels that way. For all the books and reading around the subject; from carrot growing to surviving Belsen, with some research on football, the royals and bipolar thrown in there, the detail and even one of the really important plot points came by magic. George said something at the end of a chapter that was so unexpected it changed what I thought about him. If it surprised me, it will sure surprise the reader!

I then had to look at how that would affect the reader sympathy since you should like George from the outset and this comes along and says: I am not who you think I am. We later come to learn why he did what he did and I think while it might reshape some of our thinking, it doesn’t change how we see him completely or feel about him. Or it shouldn’t. And it lead to some interesting ideas later explored, about love and how far we’d go.

In addition, some of the other aspects of personality came from characters just saying things or acting in an unexpected way that had me having to look at them more closely to work them out. To the readers out there this might sound crazy; after all we are the writers so how can characters do these things; but writers out there will know what I’m talking about. One of my favourite characters in Colourblind (the second novel I ever wrote and one that I have to rework with new insight as a writer) walked into a café scene I had so carefully set up, not quite knowing why I had. He walked in and sat down and I loved him the minute he opened his mouth; in spite of his creepiness and lingering sense of mystery. He became so important to plot how could I have not planned him? His name is Jake Washington and he is blacker than black with the whites of his eyes gleaming and his cheekbones like high-pitched tent poles. He has always been old. This retired preacher just walks into scenes when he’s needed and represents some kind of metaphor for spontaneity. So I now call those moments when the magic defines the plot, in a way I could never have planned, my Jake Washington moments.

It’s when you come to edit you need to go back and make sure the foregrounding is there if needed, although I quite like to try to keep the spontaneity of these moments with the philosophy if I didn’t see it coming, nor will the reader.

I kind of had a moment a little like this yesterday — a variation of a Jake Washington moment perhaps. The structure of the new novel is built in since it all takes place over a single year, 1999, and so the framework is there. I chose the dates for chapters with knowledge of world events etc, but other times I simply chose dates that fitted the plot; as I did with the latest chapter called… should I reveal?

Oh why not.

It might change anyway but at the moment it’s called: July 1 1999: Making Chutney (in East London on a wet Thursday afternoon). I know from word count (and plot events) this occurs about half way, but as I was looking at events on that date I realised something important about July 1st and it’s something that George later says; July 1st in half-way through the year. I had never thought about that. In fact if 1999 had been a leap year, 183 days have been and 183 days are left. This also has real significance to the story. 1999 is not a leap year so 182 days have passed and 183 are left which means they have almost reached the half-way point; the point as Billy says, of no return. It might seem a bit odd to the readers out there but this sense that the middle of the book also represents the middle of the year, and quite by accident, feels hugely important for me mentally. And it makes me think of what’s really behind this magic; the reason phones ring at the end of scenes you never planned to write and you have those Jake Washington moments. It’s something in you, something from all your years reading, watching, listening to stories. It’s something that intuitively tells you something needs to happen now. In fact you know about story shape even if you think you don’t you do. So it is magic or the subconscious at play?

I like to think of these Jake Washington moments as magic — (because they are!); as signs and so I’d advise: don’t ignore them.

Some of the best things happen when you give into the magic.

Do share any of your Jake Washington moments.

Have a wonderful day everyone!



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