Storyteller is a tease. Storyteller whispers in the writer’s ear, makes promises, leads the writer on… and then goes silent.
There are basically two ways to approach a book. For some, Storyteller speaks in advance, clearly laying out the book’s logical sequence, opening hook to ending coda.
For others, like myself, a book is an ongoing conversation with Storyteller: if this, then that; if her, then him. Take the book I’m writing at the moment. I’m at about the three-quarter mark of the first draft—the stage at which the writer really ought to know what her story is all about. The stage at which the non-outlining writer like me begins to get nervous, in case Storyteller goes silent.
From the beginning, certain elements of this story have been given. First, it takes place in Japan and in Oxford. Second, it’s about—well, no, I don’t think I’ll drop a spoiler on you, but there’s a young woman involved. And as I was writing, certain elements crept in—the sorts of things that I allow free rein since I can always hand them their pink slip in the rewrite.
Basho poetry, sure—this is Japan. However, why is Shakespeare elbowing his way into a book about Japan? What do Henry IVa, IVb, and V have to do with spies? Not much, on the face of things—but there they are, attractive bits of prose by themselves but with little reason, and a puzzling lack of relationship to the rest of the story. I keep coming back to them, thinking about them, walking around to look at them from various perspectives. Wondering why Storyteller has decided to put them in.
Because unlike my Crime & Thriller Writing co-author Michelle Spring, what I write is based on the whispers from the back of my mind. I could say that after a score of books, I have learned to trust the voice, but this is the way I worked from the beginning.
That doesn’t make it any easier when I’m at the three quarter mark with many weeks of work behind me and a deadline pressing in—and only a vague idea of an ending that isn’t one I’ve used three times before.
Fortunately for this book, a day of enforced distance from writing intervened. Then a second. Said deadline was getting ever closer, while my 1500-a-day stint was lapsing once, then twice…
But sometimes, Storyteller needs a reboot to be heard. Late on that first day, as I am turning from one thing to another, a chunk of Eureka! drops down on me, rending my conversation a bit distracted while my brain scrambles after the realizations: So that’s why the Shakespeare—and this event, which means that’s where they’re all headed.
Inevitably, by the second morning, my mind having had a night to chew on it, the complaints begin: But why this? And really, that’s not terribly interesting…
So Storyteller whispers again, delivering a lightning bolt straight to my brain. I drop my toothbrush to stare in the mirror: if I just flip this to that…
And there it is: an ending that is both logical and emotionally satisfying. The kind of ending that leaves a smile on the face. What is more, as I begin to pick it over, I see for the first time how all these oddments have in fact been sitting and waiting for Storyteller’s unifying revelation. Shakespeare because of that; Oxford rather than Sussex or London because of this; the young woman’s father and her time in America and even her moment of inexplicable clumsiness because—yes. One minute I’m sitting at my workbench staring at an untidy heap of gears and springs and levers; the next, there’s a magnificent timepiece, ticking quietly away.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that one year, Storyteller will have the sulks. That I won’t have listened to the still, small voice in the back of my mind, but instead just shoveled in a variety of shiny and ultimately mismatched parts.
And of course, having the paradigm for Dreaming Spies doesn’t mean I don’t have a ton of work in front of me. I not only have to actually shape the words and acts of the last section of the book, I will then have to go back and nudge every preceding scene from what I thought was happening to what is in fact happening.
So you will excuse me if I go and get started on it.