Today I am very happy to welcome Helen Giltrow to talk about plot development. Her debut novel ‘The Distance’ is available as a paperback from the 26 February 2015.
Q&A on plot development
Where do you start? Detailed plotting, seat-of-pants writing, hours spent staring into space?
I don’t plot in advance. I’ve tried, but it never works out. And I’d love to say, ‘Seat of pants,’ but I’m never that gung-ho. I start with the vaguest idea for a story (it might be ‘hitman’ or ‘serial killer’) and then I do the writing equivalent of wandering around in the dark, waiting for the spark. At that stage I may produce quite a lot of material, but it doesn’t have a clear direction until I get that spark.
What part of the book do you get first? Characters, or plot?
Sometimes the ideas come slowly but often they come very, very fast. Then it’s like a download: there’s no conscious thought involved, you just grab a pen and try to keep up. I write down everything I get – backstory, dialogue, the lot. The ideas don’t come out in any sort of logical order, so I end up with a lot of scrawled notes on scraps of paper. If I’m working very fast, they build up in layers on my desk. I try to put numbers and symbols in the top right hand corner of each scrap to show how they connect together, when I remember. Which is not always.
During that process a plot might start to form but it’ll be very, very vague. If I squint hard maybe I can just make out its fuzzy outline, but that’s it.
And after that?
I organize my notes into semi-coherent piles. This is usually when I discover my cunning numbering-with-symbols technique hasn’t worked.
What about research?
Only the bare minimum. Just enough to know the plot holds water.
Okay. What next?
Start writing, using the piles of handwritten notes. By this stage I know the characters quite well, I know what situation I’m going to drop them into, and I know a bit about the story arc. The plot develops from there. The ideal would be to write straight through to the end, but often I’ll suddenly feel the need to go back and read what I’ve written. I’ve learned to listen to that feeling, as it’s usually a sign I’m starting to lose the thread of the story. But it’s better to write a bad ending than stop short. You learn so much more that way.
After that I try to forget about the manuscript for a couple of weeks. Then I read it through.
How do you approach that read-through?
I try to keep interruptions to a minimum. And I don’t write on the manuscript – notes must go onto a separate sheet of paper. If I allow myself to write directly on the manuscript, I’ll end up tweaking sentences, rather than focusing on the story as a whole.
At this stage I may discover that whole chunks of material don’t work, or don’t belong in this book, and have to be set aside. I’ll also find that some events are in the wrong order, the timescale doesn’t fit together, and parts of the book are missing completely. That’s perfectly normal.
After that I start building the next draft. I’ll carry forward the sections of the first draft that work, and I’ll scribble more notes for scenes I still need to write. Again, those notes are on scraps of paper, and they can be just fragments – a line or two of dialogue, or a question. I’ll clip the manuscript and notes together in sections, and I’ll keep working until I’ve filled as many gaps as possible. I’ll also do more research now I’ve got a better idea of what I need.
During this period I’ll probably discover what the book’s about, in terms of its themes.
After that I write the big, complete, beginning-to-end draft of the book. That’s the tough one, and it can take months.
How many drafts do you do in all?
It varies. Some sections need just one draft and a polish. Others I’ll need to re-draft several times. I don’t tend to spend time agonising over commas. It’s about getting the structure right.
Once I’m pretty sure the manuscript reflects my intentions, it goes off to my editor.
Might you change the plot after that point?
It’s possible, yes. By this stage I’ll be so close to the story, I can’t see the wood for the trees. I need my editor to flag up the weaknesses. Sometimes he’ll spot a major flaw in the plot, and the only way to solve it is with a rewrite. But if his job is to alert me to the problems, it’s my job to work out how to fix them. He’s very supportive and he’ll make suggestions, but the final call is mine.
About the Author
Helen Giltrow was born and brought up in Cheltenham and read Modern History at Christ Church, Oxford. She has worked extensively in publishing, including ten years as a commissioning editor for Oxford University Press. Helen’s writing has been shortlisted for the CRIME WRITERS’ ASSOCIATION DEBUT DAGGER AWARD and the TELEGRAPH ‘NOVEL IN A YEAR’ COMPETITION. She lives in Oxford.
My review of ‘The Distance’ https://northerncrime.wordpress.com/2015/02/05/the-distance-helen-giltrow/