Lifting the Lid: Road to Nowhere

Well, I promised you a new Lifting the Lid, so here it is.

Today I want to spend some time going over my actual process of writing; that is, the nuts and bolts of what happens when I sit down with my laptop or iPad and just write.

So I’m assuming at this point that I’ve done my planning and I pretty much know what’s going to happen in any given chapter. In fact, let’s take chapter nine of Coals of Fire as an example.

Here’s what I jotted down as my chapter plan:

Having settled down into life with Rachel, the events of Colin’s timeline catch up with them. Mum makes and receives the calls about kidnappings etc.

Not much, is it? This is how I’ll usually start — famously, my plan for The Endless Circle consisted of three blocks of three chapters, each with a one line note summarising the chapter.

When I have my plan I’ll do one of two things:

1. Draft. This is quite rare, as I prefer to get down to the nitty-gritty of the writing process as quickly as possible (because it’s more fun). But occasionally I will draft. This is usually because I don’t have a firm handle on what’s going to happen in the chapter, and I want to throw ideas around without having to worry about form. I always draft in longhand, usually on the train or between whiles somewhere. I find it helps to not have to concentrate too much.

2. Write. The second option is to get right into the writing process. This is more common. I’ll sit down with whichever machine I have to hand (never with pen and paper), and start to write the chapter.

This process is a little more convoluted than quick drafting, for me. I know (more or less) where I’m going, but exactly how I get there is unknown at this stage.

Take chapter nine, for example. I had my summary, and I started to write. While I was writing, I knew a few things I wanted to achieve:

1. The completion of an emotional arc.

This started with Jason’s fear and mistrust of Rachel, and concludes with a protective instinct (a surrogate sister, perhaps?), and is summarised as, “Having settled down to life with Rachel.” I knew I had to tie up this emotional arc. This informed the first sentence (from Jason’s P.O.V., which, initially, was

The next two weeks are the best and strangest of my life.

You’ll notice that in the editing stage the ‘best’ got dropped. This was because as the chapter panned out I realised I was hitting too positive a note straight out. Also, the juxtaposition of ‘best’ and ‘strangest’ was too wacky, and didn’t hold together.

Working on the emotional arc, I wrote a few paragraphs giving Jason’s thoughts on mum, Rachael and dad. When it came to dad, it seemed best to segue into a scene with him, showing his relaxation rather than telling the reader about it. I had dad take Jason in to London, bringing jason back to his solitary haunts and giving him (and us) a chance to see how far he had come.

Then I stopped. I wrote the first part of the chapter back in, say, July. Then summer came along, work stopped, and I didn’t have a chance to get back to it. I did a bit of tweaking, edited earlier sections, wrote the beginning of Kindling, but didn’t carry on with the chapter itself.

When I got back to work I felt a bit writer’s block-y, so I decided to dive in and write something. I think I’d got up to

An idea comes to him, and he gets me up

What exactly they were getting up for, I didn’t know. But I think I had the idea of dad reminiscing about his past, and happier times, and his ever-changing relationship with Jason’s mum, and so I decided they’d both been to LSE in their youth (so how did dad end up as a job-hopping nobody? Ah …), and I had dad take Jason down and open up a bit about his and mum’s relationship.

Emotional arc achieved (more or less).

2. Practicalities.

I had plot points I needed to include. These were:

1. Some kind of revelation about Rachel’s past.
2. The phone calls tying this timeline with Colin’s.

I also had an image I wanted to get into this chapter, that of Jason going into Rachel’s room, seeing pictures that disturbed him, and the mix-up when mum comes home and he realises Rachel was there all along (or somehow popped into existence there, as she is wont to do).

This would (hopefully) drop some tension into the happy scene.

I also initially wanted to end the chapter with Jason meeting Colin at jason’s dad’s place, but as I wrote the chapter it arrived at an appropriate length and seemed to have achieved its purpose, emotionally, so I left all that for the next chapter.

So I wrote the scene with Jason coming home and finding no-one there. Initially he assumed they were both out, served up some dinner in front of the TV, and started to think about peeking in Rachel’s room. But this seemed out of character, and a bit too underhand for Jason, so I deleted those pages and had him assume Rachel was home and go up to give her dinner. This required less of a “Hmm, I think I’ll do this” moment, which is never good for your characters, and seemed more natural to me.

From there I kind of ran away. I had fun describing the pictures, picking details I thought would be good ‘fish hooks’ to reel in points from other books and link the whole ‘mythology’ of the series together. I hit on the bright idea of using my Biblical quote about coals of fire as some kind of motto relating to Rachel’s past, and (of course) plastered the Shannen logo everywhere I could.

This led naturally to the argument with mum, and a good way for Jason to overhear the necessary phone calls (I originally had them out at dinner or something, which was far too contrived), and the conclusion of the chapter. (Yes, I end a lot of chapters at bed-time. I think this is laziness on my part.)

So in the next chapter I know I want to start with Jason’s suddenly emotionally unbalanced state, I want to write the other side of his meeting with Colin, and I want to end with the words

Then an explosion outside blows the windows in, and all hell breaks loose.

So let’s see how it goes, shall we?

Happy reading,



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