You need tyrannical tendencies to be a writer.
I don’t mean for the dull, day-to-day business of getting the words down – which in my case is fitting in writing around the day job, and revising rejection coping strategies when the slips come back. (Every time you send work off it’s like releasing a pure white dove from the ark, only to have it come back three weeks later, partially carbonised, coughing soot, tail feathers gone… you get the picture).
NOTE TO SELF: Rejection coping strategies in urgent need of revision.
No. What I mean is, you need tyrannical tendencies to write a readable plot.
Here I am, coming to the end of yet another book (better than the last one – trust me on this).
SIDE NOTE: In the past all your early crappy work would end up composting creatively in a drawer somewhere; now, the internet has made that drawer infinitely wide and accessible to everyone, all hours of the day, so there’s no shortage of opportunity to embarrass yourself before you’ve really hit your stride.
SIDE QUESTION RELATING TO SIDE NOTE: So why put it out there?
ANSWER: Because writing’s communication, and it’s lovely to have an audience, even a hostile one.
But I digress – something I’m prone to in the blog, but be reassured, not something I allow in the books.
COROLLARY TO LAST SIDE NOTE: Hmm. Maybe I should he says, doing that disgusting, kissy-kissy thing with his dove, nose-to-beak.
Anyway, this next book is set in the 1850s. It’s a picaresque tale of two brothers separated and then reconciled (I know – you can totally see that sooty dove slamming beak-first into the deck). Well. I’m at the bit where they’ve found each other again – and something needs to happen. From the brothers point of view, they’ve been through a lot, okay? Parental death, fire, transportation, forced labour, kidnap by bushrangers and so on and so on – the Kindle gives you no idea of the extent – 50% of how much, exactly? – and I know they’d be more than happy to leave it there, and find a cute little cabin together, with rabbits and alfalfa (wait, what?) and have a little peace and quiet for one goddamn minute. But nope. Here I am at the joyful moment of reconciliation, and already I’m getting scratchy. Something has to happen. This is the climax of the book. I can’t have them sitting round a camp fire reminiscing and making happy plans. So I spent the dog walk this morning thinking over all the things that could go wrong for them. Maybe a baddy from earlier on could make a surprise return. One of them could be arrested, imprisoned. And then a daring rescue. Something and then something and then pow! Pay-off. As a concession, maybe a happy ending – of sorts. (This is the 21st century; I think there’s actually a law against happy endings).
And that’s when it struck me. What a tyrant! Worse, actually. A God-like tyrant. Someone with the power to create life and manipulate the world. If there was a storm, I could totally write a whale to surface and keep the boat afloat with his nose and then run them over to some delightfully cliche island ruled by giant comedy crabs who can talk and sing and do tap and who end up venerating the sailors as gods &c &c. (Writes this down for later – along with possible joke: ‘confuses venerate with venereal’). But no. I torture my characters with appalling runs of bad luck. And for what? A good read. (A good read! Yeah, right! Again with the sooty dove, wheezing on the foc’sle whilst I spoon feed it honey and warm water, cursing whatever it is that lurks so powerfully and malignantly beyond the horizon).
I promise I’ll revisit those coping strategies just as soon as I’ve finished this post.
But anyway. That’s what you’ve got to do as a writer. You’ve got to make believable characters, and then make life difficult for them. Because although I was lying about the law, and actually you are allowed happy endings, you’ve got to earn them first. Which is probably just like life, when you think about it.
So what am I getting so antsy about?
ANSWER: I’m waiting on some doves…