Unless I’m being more than averagely obtuse, a good friend has been angling for me to say something about the development of satisfyingly complex characters. I hope it goes without saying that I am extraordinarily flattered by the idea that he might think I have anything noteworthy to say on this subject. I’m not sure that I have, but I’ve been blogging somewhat erratically lately, so I might as well give it a try. The main stumbling block to this is that if my characters do have depth, I’m not sure that it’s something that happens under my conscious control, which is part of the reason that I write so slowly.
I wouldn’t say that I suffer from writers’ block, but there are certainly long periods when I don’t write at all, not even on the back of envelopes and receipts, not even the occasional flash challenge. Yes, this is extremely indolent. I’m perfectly well aware of what Stephen King* and Terry Pratchett† have said on the subject, but the thing is, I’m not a professional writer. I pay the mortgage by other means, and as long as that’s the case I’m damned if I’m going to let writing turn into a chore. That doesn’t mean that I don’t release the most professional product that I can; it does mean that I do it at a fairly leisurely pace, and never write just because I have a word target to make today.
If there aren’t any ideas flowing, then there’s plenty of other jobs that need doing. And if I’m day dreaming whilst I do them, well, that’s just what I do. I don’t count that as writing, though maybe I should. Sometimes there’s a specific situation that I want to think about, and I’ll muse on that, but more often, although I can steer it, I’m not in control of what the scenario is going to be. There’s one or two that I can predict, that come with particular jobs. Weeding between the paving slabs is gradually pulling together the bones of a fantasy, line by line. Weeding carefully amongst seedlings brings to mind another figure, someone slightly different every time, but usually an older version of Kate, retired from the fray. That must have started a dozen different stories. Two or three I remember. One I’ve tried to write. Maybe one day you’ll read it, and know where it began.
Most often, though, when I’m waiting for a train, when I’m not quite ready to sleep, when I’m polishing the brass or doing any other pleasantly mindless chore, I find that I’ve stepped into what I call the K&P soap opera. (I mean no disrespect to soap opera, but it’s not what Kathryn Blake and Pavel Tomeckova were made for.) Sometimes it’s directly useful, spinning off into a usable short story or an idea that slots into one of the gaping holes in their future narrative arc. Sometimes I manage to edge them out of it and set the essence of the situation aside for other characters to populate. Another time it might be useful background, something that will have happened between written tales, and might be alluded to. Very often it’s entirely out of line – a persistent episode involves them being marooned together in a tropical paradise, which is very Swiss Family Robinson and extremely unlikely to ever find its way into the canon. I’m realising more and more, however, that it’s always useful.
Some scenarios entertain me and fizzle out and take their place in the mulch at the back of my mind. Some scenarios present themselves again and again, and play out in subtly different ways. Very often, a scenario that has never worked properly before will pop into my head fully formed, and I can only assume that my subconscious has been working on it when I thought that my attention was fully occupied elsewhere. That, I think, is how I learn what works and what doesn’t work, so that when I sit down with my shiny, new, carefully constructed, plot and a blank screen I know what they will and won’t do, how they may and may not react.
It makes me nervous on two fronts. The first is in breaking away from Kate and her associates. I’ve got several ideas brewing, but none of them have been kicking around for as long, or come so immediately to hand when boredom threatens. It might be a very long time before they’re fit for public consumption; you might be terribly disappointed in me when they finally make their appearances. The other is an odd thought about what will happen if I do ever become a full time professional writer. It would be kind of ironic, wouldn’t it, if having all the time in the world to write meant not being able to write as well?
* “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
† On a the advantage of a grounding in journalism “ . . . any tendency to writers’ block is burned out of you within a few weeks of starting work by unsympathetic news editors.”