Saturday, January 29, 2011


When people ask me how to write a book, I usually tell them to start at the begining and keep writing until you reach the end. It sounds a little snarky, I know, but it's genuine advice born out of hard experience.  It's easy to start a book; hard to reach the end.  Either because you find something else to do that seems a lot more fun and life-enhancing than sitting at a notebook or a computer day after day, or because you've started in the wrong place and can't get past the opening scenes.  The latter happens to me a lot.  Not every time, but fairly frequently, so that by now I no longer panic when I realise that the 10,000 words I've set down aren't going anywhere because I can't get to where I want to go from the place where I began.

That's what's just happened with the new book, and it's okay.  It's part of the process.  As usual, I've been finding my way into my character's world, and most of what I've set down is backstory and scene-setting that doesn't really advance the plot.  I may use some of it elsewhere; the rest is useful mulch.  Stuff I need to know to tell the story, even if it isn't in the narrative.  It happened with The Quiet War - I was 30,000 words in that time.  Too much background; too much hesitation before plunging in.  It didn't happen with Gardens of the Sun because it picked up The Quiet War's story, and I knew enough about the fictional framework to work out exactly where I needed to start up again.  All good.  But then I had the same problem with one story strand of In The Mouth Of The Whale, and I didn't get that fixed until I realised that the character was a librarian, not a cop.  A small change that made all the difference.

I was diverted from the new novel, in fact, because I had to deal with some useful comments my agent made about In The Mouth Of The Whale.  Fixed those, sent the MSS back to my agent, who's about to send it off to my editor.  Went back to the new book, saw it wasn't right, and inside a day had rebooted with a new beginning.  Starting where the narrative really starts, as far as the character is concerned.  And now that he's in a lot more trouble than he was before, I feel a lot better.


Blogger PeteY said...

So, if I'm following right, In the Mouth of the Whale is part 3 of the Quiet War trilogy. What's the new one?

January 30, 2011 3:38 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Part 4. As is traditional with trilogies.

January 30, 2011 7:00 am  
Blogger Wm. Luke Everest said...

Funny, I was just feeling bad about wittling a story down to a single narrative thing, so I must thank you for the advice, by coincidence right when I needed it.

If I may ask, do you ever find your favorite ideas harder to write than the simple ones? Or is that something I can look forward to growing out of?

January 30, 2011 3:40 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Don't know if you ever grow out of some 'bad habits'. You can certainly develop basic writing techniques from practice and reading other people's work. But as far as I'm concerned, glitches like not being able to figure out the right place to start until after starting are part of the creative process. Experience helps you know when it's happened, and what to do about it; so far, it hasn't helped me avoid it.

Stories that 'ride on their own melting' are gifts. Most of the rest is down to hard work. You don't become a magic lightning rod for inspiration.

January 31, 2011 9:47 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts