Characters’ names tend to crop up out of the blue, too. Characters’ names are so important, probably more to the writer that the reader. I found with my last novel that I couldn’t really get going until I was happy with the name of my central character, an anti-heroine who drowns her husband (or does she?).
She started out in my mind as Jeanette, then Claire, then May… all wrong. All completely wrong. I couldn’t think of beginning writing until I ‘found’ her. And then, filming in Australia last November, I met her. Well, not a woman who actually does her husband to death, but the name. The right name. I knew it straight away when she introduced herself on set. She was an executive producer on the ITV show I was working on.
‘Hello, Richard… I’m Meriel.’
Meriel! Lights flashed, bells rang. Meriel!! Why was this the perfect moniker for my character? I have no idea. I just knew on the spot that it was and that night, in my hotel room, I started writing. I had my name, and I was off.
I’ve just completed what is my third novel. I write one every two years and am seemingly condemned to re-learn the hard lessons that I always forget soon after finishing the last one.
Firstly; however impoverished of ideas you may be for the next sequence of your story, there is only one way to discover what comes next.
Write. Sit down at your desk or kitchen table or coffee shop corner and write. Just write. Bang out the first thing that comes into your head, however vaguely connected it may be to your plotline. Trust me, after a few minutes, and a couple of hundred words or so, you’ll start to get focus, traction, velocity. Think of it as starting up your car on a cold morning. Ignition. First gear, pull away from the kerb, yawning. Second gear. Speed picking up. Third gear. Now you’re motoring. Fourth, and you’re really off now, settled in behind the wheel and on your way.
Secondly; listen to your characters. Don’t tell them what to say. Let them decide. The best example I can give of this strategy comes from Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and, later, A Thousand Splendid Suns (which for my money is the best thing he’s ever written).
Judy and I interviewed Khaled when we picked the latter novel for the Richard and Judy Book Club. For some reason I asked him how many drafts he’d made of Suns.
‘Six,’ he replied. ‘Maybe seven.’
‘Seven?!?’ (I usually do two.) ‘Good God. Why so many?’
‘I couldn’t get the dialogue right between the three main characters,’ he told me. (These are a grandmother, mother, and daughter, all living in Afghanistan in the 1980’s during the reign of the fearsome Taliban).
‘I did draft after draft and still wasn’t happy,’ he continued. ‘And then, as I was about to start what would be the final draft and published work, something really weird happened. The grandmother spoke to me, in my head.’
Hosseini adopted the tones of an old Afghan woman, accent and all.
‘”Khaled, Khaled,” she said to me. “Don’t tell us what to say – let us speak for ourselves. LISTEN to our voices, child!”’
Hosseini went on to explain that the three imaginary women almost dictated their lines to him as he penned the final draft. But the result was authentic, and at long last his wonderful book went to press.
I suppose it’s really all about having confidence: confidence in your characters and confidence in their voices. Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in just a few weeks. As usual he had huge and pressing debts to settle and that was a big incentive to getting it finished on deadline.
But the tight timing meant something else: he only had time to write one draft. That original manuscript is now in a library in New York. And here’s the fascinating thing about it: the only changes Dickens made to what he’d written – the only changes – were deletions. He didn’t add a single word, full stop or comma to that first draft. He just cut lines and paragraphs, ruthlessly, like the journalist he was. That’s confidence.
Finally: if you’re thinking about writing your first novel, stop. Thinking about it, that is.
Just DO it.
And good luck.