The establishing chapters of the book are now done. All the main protagonists are in place, the jeopardy is at least partially in place and the reader can see some of the traps that lie in wait for Leila Reid as she tries to navigate her way out of the situation into which I have thrown her.
This is only a first draft, and I know what I’ve written will be pretty rough.
There is a temptation at this stage to go back and reread these first half dozen chapters. But it’s one that should be resisted. This is only a first draft, and I know what I’ve written will be pretty rough. It’s probably full of typos, clumsy constructions and bits where detail needs to be either trimmed out or added in to get the rhythm right.
The reason I never go back to reread anything at this stage is because it’s the surest way to destroy the momentum of writing. It is vital to keep pushing on – with only seven thousand words written I’m less than ten per cent of the way through, and worrying about typos and inconsistencies now is going to nothing to chip away at the remaining ninety per cent still to do. The second draft is the place to smooth things out and start to turn these bare bones into something worth reading.
So far all I’ve done is to cause the problem my protagonist faces. But in doing so, the reader knows what the most desirable outcome is to be. Boiled down to its bare bones it’s a case of Reid is trapped and we want to see how she escapes. Note that this is where the thriller genre parts company from the mystery genre. While the two are very close, and sometimes overlap, in a mystery the reader is supposed to pick up clues and ‘solve’ the mystery in parallel with the book’s main protagonist. In pure thrillers, this is not the case. While a mystery novel is an ‘inner’ journey (intellect used to solve a puzzle), the thriller is an external one (guise, strength and cunning is used to solve the problem). Jerusalem Blind certainly has intellectual puzzles, some of which the reader may be able to solve, but doing so is not necessary for the enjoyment of the book. The point is to watch how our heroine solves them.
‘Reid is trapped and we want to see how she escapes‘ is the superstructure of the book. But that escape consists of major events (in the case of Jerusalem Blind, three in number) and each of those consists of further, smaller events. Each of these ‘events’ takes the form of problem-and-solution (or trial-and-redemption). The problems must be big enough that the reader sees the danger, but not so bit that the solutions would cast our heroine as some kind of super-hero (think James Bond – for the sake of drama his problems would be impossible to solve by any normal human being!).
In other words, the novel – and most novels – consists of:
- Superstructure: the main story arc from initial impetus to final resolution
- Main pillars: the major steps that support the superstructure and act as ‘episodes’ within the narrative. This division gives the story its internal shape and allows for periods of ‘relaxation’ in the narrative drive
- Narrative: the small challenges and solutions that propel the main character from one episode to the next, and ultimately to the final resolution
I’ve pointed my heroine along a narrow, dark and dangerous path. Now it’s time to get her walking…
So, even 10% into the book, the superstructure is implied and the reader is in no doubt about two things: Leila Reid needs to find a way out of Israel, and she has several major organisations trying to stop her. I’ve pointed her along a narrow, dark and dangerous path. Now it’s time to get her walking…
Although neither Reid nor the reader knows it, she has three major movements to perform to escape.
So, without giving anything away, lets call these three main pillars Negev, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Reid has to navigate her way through these three locations and perform a number of tasks in each. To me, three is a good number: it means that the build-up of the story arc can be roughly two-thirds of the book and the final showdown the final third. (There are also echoes here of the Golden Section divisions of classical literature, but that’s another story…)
For roughly the first third of the book, her path must continue to get worse. At every turn she in confronted with another problem. Some she solves; some she is able to live with; some foreshadow yet darker things to come. The point of all this is two-fold. Firstly, we see Reid as a capable and resourceful woman. This casts her character as one which has at least a fighting chance of making it to the final page alive. Secondly it propels the superstructure of the story in a plausible way. That is, if Reid had only one problem to solve, and she thought of a solution early on, the book would be both boring and pointless. Think of the ‘insta-love’ found in so many second-rate romance novels: the heroine is not a character, she’s a puppet of the author, performing unrealistic wish-fulfillment in a story that ultimately tells us nothing about the human condition. And remember, above all else what readers are interested in is people: what they do and why they do it.
For the middle third we must see her up the creek without a paddle, but beginning to form a plan to find one. The final third will be Reid beating her opponents over the head with that paddle and (hopefully) making it out of Israel alive… and with something to show for her troubles (this is a side-issue I will deal with later, but suffice to say that merely achieving her escape is not enough for a satisfying story. She has to win a prize too. That way we see her not only triumph over adversity, but turn it to her advantage).
Within these three subdivisions are a series of smaller tasks. Plans are made; plans fail. She calls on those she believes can help her and they betray her. She neutralises one foe only to find the hydra’s head regrow and her situation get even worse.
Readers have expectations of particular genres, and trying to stray too far from convention is dangerous
This is the only point in any novel where I might make plotting notes because a sense of progression – and a believable logic – must inform the order of events. The biggest problems must be the later ones. No point having her solve 90% of her problems too early! It is about creating a satisfying rhythm to the story. While I hope my books are never predictable, readers have expectations of particular genres, and trying to stray too far from convention is dangerous. Remember, we are taking our readers on a journey. We can shock them now and then (especially in that final third of the book), but they’ve got experience of the type of journey they’re on, and we rely on them playing along for the whole experience to work. Work with your reader, not against him!
What my plotting note don’t do, however, is tell me the details of each of these mini-scenes. I might note ‘Reid needs to contact X’ at this point. How she does it will depend on how she arrived at that point and where I need her to go from it. Often the exact details of how she performs this task only work themselves out as I write – this is because the characters are developing all the time through a series of superficial action-and-consequence events. If, for example (and this is only an example), Reid discovers her phones are bugged, she wouldn’t use the phone to make her contact. And at this early stage of the book, I don’t necessarily know whether her phones are bugged or not. That detail will depend too on what comes before it, and what I need to have come after it. This first draft is a process of evolution.
The disadvantage of an evolving plot is that occasionally I run up a blind alley. I’ll make something happen that makes something else either impossible or implausible. A little backtracking is required. And once you start picking at the weave of a plot, it can rapidly unravel. Fortunately, a lot of this is down to experience. The less I plot, and the more I trust that I know what I’m doing at some subconscious level, the less this happens. I trust my instincts and I trust my characters.
So, the next phase of writing is to push through the remaining first third of the book, then on to the climactic junction between the middle and final thirds. I need to bring all the players into alignment and to a point of maximum peril and maximum power struggle. By the time I next check in with progress, I’ll be at a point where I have laid everything out for the reader. We will stand on a precipice looking into a fog. I will know what lies in the gloom, but the reader won’t have a clue…
Join me again in a few weeks when I will discuss how I ‘interact’ with my readers (without them being aware of it). I’ll try to show how I lay clues along the path, how I set up expectations and play with the results, and the importance of pacing.