Rosamund Lupton. She is the author of the bestseller Sister. Her second novel, Afterwards, was released in the U.S. last week.
The Way I approach Writing a Novel
When I was a child, my father would play chess with me, encouraging me to think one then two moves ahead, progressing to about five or six moves when my brain would start to short-circuit. Fortunately he was a kind as well as brilliant chess player and didn’t take advantage of my brain explosion to checkmate me. Plotting the detective story part of my novels feels very similar. (If character A does this, then that action has a consequence on character B which in turn affects character C which a hundred pages later will have some meaning for character A.) And in this plotting game the other player is the reader. Am I leading the reader carefully away from the real perpetrator of the crime or would he or she guess – checkmate me – by chapter 7, if not before? And in this game, are the twists and turns engaging enough for the reader to keep reading/playing? Finally, when I reveal in the last chapters the real perpetrator, will the reader think ‘oh yes of course, why didn’t I see that?’ or feel cheated in some way. Because a detective story, like chess, can never involve cheating. It is this part of novel-writing that I find utterly draining and I’m sure I burn through more calories than if I’ve been on a treadmill all day. (I lost weight during the plotting part of each novel, even though I consumed huge quantities of chocolate biscuits and barely moved from my desk).
Playing a long difficult chess match wasn’t my idea of fun when I was twelve and I wouldn’t write novels if they were simply detective stories. The plotting - that hard brain-aching part, is simply the first stage. It’s a cerebral, intellectual thing that results solely in a map. Then comes the real writing of the book, driven and inspired by the characters. In ‘Afterwards’ a mother and daughter are terribly injured in a school fire. Their search for the truth of that arson attack is the plot part of the book, but the heart of the novel is their loves, fears, thoughts and beliefs and their relationship with one another. Characters are organic things, changing and developing throughout the novel. While plotting is hard work, characters are inspiring and create their own energy. They have voices demanding to be heard and recorded, they challenge me to understand them and to explore their imaginations and beliefs and make me challenge my own.
I’m always glad to have that plot map pinned up in front of me while I’m writing. Grateful, to know where I’m going. But a map cannot describe the journey.
So perhaps more importantly than my childhood chess matches, in terms of writing novels, is that almost every night my father would read – or invent – a story.
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