I get ideas from lots of sources: anecdotes, encounters, memories, people or events I see, snippets of conversation, dreams, other people’s work, emotions, places, abstract ideas, phrases I like the sound of… Some of these shape pretty quickly into a story; or, rather, the sense that they could, with work, make a story. Others just stay ideas. I don’t like talking much about ideas at the start. I get worried I’ll talk the life out of them.
Sometimes I might muse on an idea for years without writing anything. A bit like a miser hoarding gold; he’ll stick it in the safe, take it out, give it a little rub, stick it back again. Then—suddenly—I’ll get moved to write down what’s going on in my head. Usually I start writing longhand, though later I’ll type it up on the PC. I try to write at the start without worrying too much about shape, structure or direction. I enjoy the freedom of this, and I love making stuff up, but as I’m a control freak I’m constantly battling with the part that wants to resolve everything straight away.
For me, it’s not a first draft until it’s got a clear beginning, middle and end. I finished a first draft of my second novel in December and I feel like I’ve spent years chasing it around the field, like a trainer trying to break a horse. For ages I felt something essential was missing from my main protagonist. I kept sliding off her, like she was made of glass—then I’d get fascinated by another character and dig into their background instead. The thing just kept growing. Last March I called a halt, tidied everything into separate files. Then I had a lightbulb moment, and it all began to make sense. I think I have quite a topsy-turvy approach to longer fiction. Something in my subconscious resists heading straight towards the finish. With shorter work, it’s different. I sprint through to the end. Then I go back and refine it.
Writing the first draft of a novel is horribly risky. There’s always the possibility it won’t work; that I’ll be left with a great beginning and a strongish middle but no end. Or that it’ll be really boring. All that time wasted… The relief when I finally get there is tremendous. And then the work starts all over again.
Right now I’m researching all the holes that I just bunged plaster over when I was doing my first draft. I’ve got to do some technical research, historical research, interview people to see if their experiences reflect my assumptions. I’ve also got to do logical research; start taking apart the woolly or ambiguous parts of the plot and seeing where/how I can make it clearer. Then I head back into the field with the horse—only this time I’m hoping I can get him to jump over some fences.