Loud QUIET loud

I’ve hit a high-point in my work-in-progress. A fight-scene, a climax (although not the climax). But I’m not going to talk about that today. Climaxes run on breathless instinct. It’s the bits in between that take the thought, the effort – and that ultimately decide whether a novel works.

People need to be able to breathe. No successful novel runs from action to action without the occasional pause for reflection; even non-stop thrillers take time for the odd cup of tea, often sprinkled with cake and light exposition. These are the bits where the story happens; as well as moving the plot they also deepen the reader’s knowledge of the characters and builds a bond between them. Sure, the reader may enjoy the exploits of your gun-totin’, wise-crackin’ bad-ass superspy. But she’ll be just another disposable hero unless you show her in the aftermath of an exploit – we need to share her fears, joys and depths if we’re gonna care if she lives or dies.

But quiet scenes are hard. It’s hard to know how much to give away, how long to wallow in remorse or mindless chatter or in her strange fascination with morris-dancing. Even scenes where people are just talking need to have a point. They need to deliver, they need to move the plot along: action scenes are a release of tension; the quiet ones are about slowly cranking the handle, about tightening the noose.

They’re hard, yes, but I also really enjoy writing them. They’re a challenge. They give a novel its shape and rhythm, keep coherence amidst all the noise and chaos. They’re what a novel is. For every high must come a low. Every held breath must be exhaled. Roller-coasters go up as well as down.

But writing manuals always seems to focus on the big moments: climax, mid-novel crisis, inciting incident, defeating the gatekeeper – whatever the author chooses to call them. All the literature is about where they go and their significance to the Story. They all seem to overlook the bits that glue everything together and give the big moments their weight.

I love writing action, probably because I spent my teenage years soaking up the thrills of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. It’s the bits In Between that I find difficult.

But maybe they’re not so different after all, the quiet scenes and the loud. After all, both are all about knowing your characters, knowing precisely why you’re writing a particular scene – what is the point of showing it in your novel? Both are about moving story forwards: it’s only in the way those things are depicted that differs.

Tension. It’s all about tension. Whatever genre you’re writing, the quiet scenes are where you crank the handle, where you stretch the reader on the rack and make it impossible for them to escape. The loud ones are when all that stress explodes.

Learning to write

Learning to write. That’s what I’m doing. End of game, reboot, start over. I’ve gone as far as I can by just toying with words. Now I’ve got to learn how the game’s played for real.

I can write. I can string words together in a way that feels good, that contains both truth and – yes, and beauty. But I’ve not written the perfect novel yet. It’s all part of the process, I guess; you learn enough in one area to show you how little you know in another. Me? I’m learning that I don’t know enough about pace and structure, about character and about consistency, to achieve what I want to achieve: to get that book out there on the shelves.

So instead of sitting before my keyboard, conjuring with conjugates and stirring the synonyms, I’m pulling my work apart. Going through each scene in turn – ignoring the things I could easily improve – and summing up what happens, to whom, with what; what implications the scene may carry and why it’s there. This is the first step – my first step – to breaking the pieces apart like chunks of honeycomb, trimming and nibbling at the edges until it can fit into a new symmetry, a new network of juicy fibres, sticky and rich and oozing…

I am, in other words, planning. Searching for flaws, for incongruities, for gaps in the plot. Preparation for rebuilding better, faster, stronger. To tighten the wires, to stitch a beautiful new Frankenstein’s monster.

Some of you out there may be mocking me for not doing this sooner. Some of you will be saying that I should have started out with a proper plan – then I wouldn’t have to be going through this slow, painful task. Fair enough. You’d have a point. But I don’t regret the way I’ve worked. I’m not the same person I was when I starting writing Night Shift – two years ago it was, give or take. I’ve developed and learnt and I’ve learnt through doing. Now? Yes, now I’d do things differently. I’m still not sure if I’d start a new project with a full plan, but I think I’d at least keep a chart of scenes as I went along. If nothing else it’s always worth asking yourself ‘why am I writing this scene?’ as you go into a section. Always worth keeping the end-point in mind.

So I’m going back to the start because I’m still learning how to write. At the end of the day, words are easy. Words can always be changed, be bent to the will. I’ve got that now, I know how to beat them into shape. Structure? Deeper issues? That’s heavy industry right there, and a tour around the foundry ain’t enough to make you a master craftsman.

So how do you learn how to plot? Is this what’s taught on MA courses in creative writing across the land? Once you’ve started using rhetorical questions how the hell do you stop? If anyone has any answers I’d be interested to hear them. But in the meanwhile I’m again learning by doing; seizing the mammoth by the horns and attempting to wrestle it into submission.

I said I was learning. I didn’t say I was learning quickly.