Thursday, January 16, 2020

Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Done

When it comes to your writing, what is the most important element to you: plot, theme or something else?

By Catriona

What a great question. (Do the readers of this blog know that behind the scenes we Minds take turns to come up with a month's questions at a time?) Well done to whoever dreamed up this one.

For me, it's definitely not "theme". I know that for sure. I don't think I need to know if there's a theme or not, or what it might be. Sometimes I stumble over it in the course of writing but most often I find out what I've been exploring by reading the reviews. When a critic I admire states with great confidence "This is a novel about the corrosive nature of secrets", I'm not going to argue.

And I know it's not "plot" that drives me. But unlike "theme" I also know that I need to deliver a plot to the reader - one that I'm in charge of; one that works. So when I'm writing a first draft, I find myself scribbling notes like "What's going to happen?" and sometimes even "Blah blah blah yeah but what's going to happen?"

I just made myself laugh out loud because I looked at the notebook open on my desk and saw this: 

(The rest of the notes on this page - Anchorage guy / Bran's slips resolved / Diego! Tin ships. Cropper - are to help me believe I won't forget what clues I'm sowing before I get around to harvesting them later on. Safe to say, I'm a bit less of a planner than Cathy.)

I did wonder if "character" is the most important element in my writing. But that doesn't capture how I feel about it. To make that claim would seem like saying my hobby is respiration. What I mean is that character is so absolutely elemental, so taken for granted, that I can't imagine what a book would feel like if characters were (somehow) kicked down the ladder a bit so something else could take over. 

Wait though: I know what happens to a film franchise when character goes from everything to basically nothing. Consider Die Hard (1988). Everyone in that film had a believable character, from John and Gruber, through Argyle the driver and Sgt Powell, all the way to the most minor parts like the slimy reporter and the coked-up executive. Now consider A Good Day to Die Hard (2013). There's John and one bad guy eats a lot of carrots. That's it.  

"Setting" might be the answer I'd go for if this was the short round. In the Dandy Giver series, the setting comes first. I work out where in Scotland I'm going to send her and then what institution or other milieu within that setting she's going to have to grapple with. In the standalones, which are more psychological, it's still very important to me to have a solid sense of where exactly the story takes place and how the setting works: what do the people do for fun in the evening; how many of the neighbours get their shopping delivered; are there buses?; what's the weather like?. 

There are different treats and challenges depending on whether the protagonist belongs in this setting - I love to write about someone's connection to a landscape and society - or has arrived here like a fish out of water to find out about it along with the reader. Some of the most fun I have with my current work is to conjure California in the eyes of a Scottish immigrant so that both US and UK readers will find things to recognise and (I hope) laugh about.

Aha! I've just thought of my final answer. The most important element to me in writing is . . . "voice". That's the thing that makes my writing mine, the thing I get most fierce about when the copy-editors come in. I don't know if it's of tremendous importance to all readers. Maybe they put up with my annoying fictional voice in some book or other to get to the plot, or immerse themselves in the setting, or reacquaint themselves with a character.

I do know it matters to some. People who've met me say they can hear me speak when they read my books and they're usually framing that as a positive thing. I've never heard someone say they can't come to my panel because they'll never get my voice out of their head and it'll ruin their reading. 

Yep, voice it is. 

What an informative blog this has been to write - thank you! Cx


Dietrich Kalteis said...

I think you nailed it, Catriona; all those other elements are vital, but first off, an author has to have a voice.

Dana King said...

What Dieter just said. When I look at the authors I keep going back to it';s always those with a distinctive voice.