Sunday, January 9, 2011

Coming to Life

Starting a new book, as Julie said recently over at her blog, can be a bit nerve-wracking. I tend to combat that "being-on-the-brink-of-a-precipice-that-could-end-anywhere feeling" she talks about by using the lifeline of ritual: clearing my desk off and dusting my office and buying a brand new ring binder with labelled dividers to keep all my research notes tidily sorted. And while I'm not an outliner, I do know my first sentence, and a few of my main characters, and what I think their problem is. My problem is, that even though I have the right components, for those first few chapters nothing ever feels exactly right.

As Dr Frankenstein discovered, you can put the parts in all the proper places, but creation still requires a bolt of lightning to ignite that spark of life. And lightning isn't something you can just command at will; you have to wait for it.

I'm not so good with waiting.

But I persevere. Eventually, I know, if I wait long enough, the lightning strikes. Those characters that I've been dragging round from scene to scene like puppets come to life and start to go off script, and suddenly they're saying things and doing things that catch me by surprise. They've made that magic leap from simple constructs to creations, and I know I've got a book.

My mother, who reads all my books in their first drafts, can spot when this moment occurs by the change in the flow of my writing, she says. It will (hopefully) vanish in second draft, when I go back to smooth over the rough spots and take out the parts that no longer make sense, because by then the characters have been alive for me for months and they will bring that vital spark into the rewrites.

But when I was writing yesterday, the hero of my story settled back into his seat and made a comment to my heroine, and just like that, the lightning struck. And suddenly I know I have a book.

I love this moment.

Does the lightning strike for you, if you're a writer? And can you tell, as a reader, when a writer hits her stride within a story?

(Don't forget to come back Thursday, for another post by Julie)


  1. I'm not quite sure it happens in the same way for me and in fact I'm not sure how it happens or at the moment if it does at all...(winter doubts maybe...)

    I know the beginning and up until the last book always know the end...the first draft is a discovery and then the hard work begins :-)


  2. No, it doesn't happen that way for me either. I usually start with a scene which has appeared in my mind for some reason or other. This can be anywhere in the book and I suppose it is a sort of lightning strike in that it starts the story off in my head. However, I then have to work backwards or forwards from that scene, and hope that I can make it come together into a cohesive whole. Hmm, doesn't sound very organised, does it??! Wish I could do it your way instead.

  3. I find it really interesting how every writer seems to work differently, at every stage of creating roughly the same product (that being a full-length novel). My characters and story come to life for me gradually, so I don't think I could pinpoint a particular spot where it all just suddenly clicked.

    I do find that at the start of the story I'll invent a character to fill a particular role, but as the writing progresses I might realize that's really not his/her place at all, and I've been trying to shoehorn him/her into a spot s/he doesn't fit. You could probably pick that moment out from my first draft, actually.

    I remember doing creative writing in school, we were supposed to draw up a character profile for all of our major characters (after drawing up the chapter-by-chapter outline, but prior to starting to write the story). I imagine there are writers who do actually do that, but the writers whose blogs, etc, I read seem to usually let them (and sometimes the story, too) develop more organically.