About a year ago this week, I first put ‘fingers to keyboard’ and started writing my novel. The ‘pen to paper’ part happened about six months earlier, in a delightful notebook I’d gotten for my birthday six months before that and was saving for “a purpose”.
I can’t even pinpoint when I first started thinking about the story arc and the character archetypes, although I certainly had the skeleton of the plot settled by the time I dared to open the notebook. I wasn’t ready to start actually typing yet; I didn’t know if I had enough or if what I did have was good enough. I decided to just keep scribbling down all my thoughts and ideas until I felt it was time to take the huge step of opening Word and typing that terrifying line – Chapter One!
Last night I leafed through my notebook again – over a year since it was last opened. It was absolutely fascinating to see what had changed and what had literally stayed word-for-word from my original scene blocking.
The first page reads (pretentiously, and in terrible handwriting – how was I to know that I’d ever share this??): our story begins, eight people, kids really, four boys and four girls, are opening envelopes.
My original opening scene was designed to whip round and introduce our eight protagonists (yes, eight! I was very optimistic about how many POVs I could convincingly juggle) as they are opening their A Level results. Four boys and four girls (I couldn’t help the symmetry) who are just about to head off to the same University and into one another’s lives. In my current version, one of the male characters got bumped entirely and another demoted down to ‘secondary’ status so that we don’t get any sections in his POV (until perhaps the very end, if things end up how they are planned at the moment).
Three of my four girl characters know each other from school, and therefore I ended up cutting the boys and the fourth girl from the opening chapter entirely and just having these three featuring in vague, third person narrative (flicking through my notebook though I can see there were times when all four girls were school-friends, and briefly at one point, only two of them). So my “introductions” feature in Chapter Two – and this is one of the best examples of my scene blocking being pretty much identical to the ‘finished product’.
The most interesting thing to me though was how the characters change – in name and personality – although the archetypes still stay relatively true to my original ideas. Perhaps it’s not ‘change’ per se, more ‘evolution’ into more rounded and believable people.
Originally my undisputed protagonist, Harriet-of-the-notebook was much sassier and had a few more sarcastic lines that have ended up coming out of Sukie’s mouth. She’s also at this point the undisputed “leader of the pack”, whereas now she’s a definite ‘sidekick’ (to Leigha) in the girls’ social group.
Harriet was originally called Georgina – for no other reason than that I’ve always liked the name and I came to really like the fact she had a masculine nickname (George). However, this combined with the character’s short hair started to make the whole thing feel a little “Famous Five” – so in honour of Harry Potter (2011 being the year of the Pottermore beta and the final two films being released!) Georgina became Harriet.
Harriet is now a much softer character; she’s become bookish and studious, obsessed with getting a First Class degree. For this reason, her degree swapped over from Drama & Theatre Studies to English, which was my own, so I could more convincingly write about her working!
Her ‘fatal character flaw’ has remained exactly the same. 18 months ago, in the initial section of ‘Georgina’s’ character, I wrote in underlined letters: you can’t make everyone happy all of the time. How true!
The only character actively inspired by a real person (my housemate at University), so it’s not surprising she hasn’t changed that much. Nicky’s degree was the only one that didn’t alter throughout the course of the notebook – she was always going to be doing French (this is a major plot point, as she gives up her dream of teaching English (TEFL) abroad in order to stay with her boyfriend, Miles). A shameful amount of time later, the actual writing well underway, it suddenly dawned on me that if Nicky was studying a language, then she should be spending the academic year 2006/07 on her year abroad. Erk!! So she very hurriedly got edited to studying for a Joint Honours in Politics & French.
In scenes in the notebook, Nicky has perhaps quite ‘European tendencies’; she’s a little airy and floaty and peppers her sentences with French phrases (je ne sais quoi!). She’s much more sensible and grounded now, the mother of the group and the only party absolutely neutral to everyone.
It took me a while to find the notebook’s initial character thesis for Sukie, as it wasn’t headed with a name, but rather with the ambiguous “BB?” Big Brother? What!? Eventually I remembered that this stood for “British Born (Something)” – the one thing that was always set about this character was that she was stuck between the British culture that she was born into and lives in, and the culture of her family as her parents are immigrants.
A Muslim family was considered, very briefly, but I thought it was a little too “Daily Mail”. Interestingly, Filipino appears (would have been fun to research Filipino culture!) before being scratched out and replaced quite quickly with Japanese, a culture with which I’m much more familiar. The name was instantaneous after that – I needed something that could have an ‘English’ nickname – so I chose Mitsuki (after the protagonist of Full Moon wo Sagashite, one of my favourite manga/anime). It wasn’t until much, much later that I started reading Charlaine Harris’ True Blood or Southern Vampire Mysteries series and was introduced to Sookie Stackhouse – too late to change my Sukie’s name..! Different pronunciations anyway: Sookie (Suh-key) and Sukie (Sue-key).
Original Sukie is meek and deferential – a bit of a nag or control freak, and a fastidious cleaner. She studies English and wants to be a writer. She was like this for ages, until one day she strutted into my head with knee high boots on, smoking and effing and blinding all over the place; I loved the new Sukie. She did a little personality swap with Original Harriet at this point – and as I was moving the English degree over to Harriet, it happily made perfect sense that the ‘new Sukie’ would study Drama.
She’s still a control freak and gets in everyone’s face about the washing up, though.
It’s difficult to approach ‘old’ versus ‘new’ Leigha. From one angle, she doesn’t seem any different, and from another they are worlds apart. Her name hasn’t changed, it’s just jumped around a bit. She appears as Leah and Leigh in the notebook until being finalised as Leigha. Back when there was a ‘bad guy’, Leigha was it – the sidekick friend who grows jealous and vengeful of Harriet and Ruins Everything (capital letters for emphasis). In 2012 she’s a PR bitch (how funny that I myself now work for a PR company..!) with a drinking problem as she desperately tries to blunt feelings of guilt and devastatingly low self-esteem.
Now Leigha is much more complex. She’s a beautiful girl who’s led a beautiful life with everyone telling her how beautiful she is, but never seems to be able to get what she really wants – namely her first love, who chose another girl over her, and Adam, who blows hot and cold with her. She’s quite dramatic and as she’s not used to criticism, she takes offense at small things and subconsciously enjoys being powerful and in control when she can (especially with Johnny), in order to negate her feelings of general powerlessness.
She’s not the villain of the piece – there isn’t one anymore. Leigha’s just as much a victim of circumstance as everyone else. She’s hard to write, as she has the most complicated motives of anyone else, but the day I had a feedback reader tell me Leigha was their favourite character, I was so gratified. Her fundamentals remain the same, but Leigha has really come the furthest out of all of my cast.
Oh, Adam! My star. How he has surprised me. The most common person for chapters to be in the POV of, my unanticipated protagonist!
Original Adam was called Seth and was an academic and a bit of a dreamer. He didn’t feature much at the start, being pushed to the sidelines by the more brash boy characters, Johnny and Mark (Mark being the poor guy who was cut and assimilated into both ‘Seth’ and Johnny before writing properly commenced). He was meant to come into his own when the Leigha/Seth/Harriet love triangle came to the fore. Then one day I realised something: I wouldn’t fancy Seth as I was imagining him – why would Leigha and Harriet be so interested? So I caved and ‘Gary Stu-ed’ him up, making him gorgeous and charming and the ‘leader’ of the boys. After Mark went, Seth inherited his relaxed attitude to studying and his habit of calling Harriet ‘trouble’.
Eventually, the character was so far removed from his origins that the name Seth just no longer suited. Without much deliberation, I settled on Adam – the first and archetypal male and all that! The original Seth lives on, however, with his name and softer personality cannibalised into an ‘off-stage’ character, the unrequired love of Leigha’s teenaged years.
Adam is the easiest person to write POV from. He is the guy that things are revolving around – Leigha pursues him, he falls in love with Harriet, etc. He’s probably the second most popular character – although one of my feedback readers hates his guts and is constantly lobbying me to kill him off, or at least “give him the clap”…
Poor Miles, he’s almost universally hated, and I don’t even let him have any sections in his own POV.
Miles is – and has always been – an extension of Nicky. The most significant character change he’s gone through is to make him a few years older than everyone else and therefore a bit more serious and settled. He’s always had the name Miles, literally from page one – meaning ‘soldier’ in Latin – which seemed to suit his steadiness and interest in military history.
An interesting point to note here is that there once was the outline sketches of a sub-plot where Miles and Sukie had had a ‘fling’ they were keeping secret from Nicky; in one version it was before Miles and Nicky even met, in another it was in the early weeks of their relationship. I decided though that this was rather over-egging the pudding, and chose not to include it.
Johnny wins the popularity polls hands down. He’s also the most fun to write! A genuinely good-hearted Northern lad, Johnny is brash and can be a bit of a clown. He falls hard and fast for the impossibly beautiful and unobtainable Leigha and becomes a bit of a wet blanket. Even in 2012 his defining feature seems to be just how much Leigha messed him up. He was always “John”, but briefly he was a ‘Jack’ rather than ‘Johnny’ (shades of Jack-the-lad there, I think!).
Current Johnny is an amalgamation of Original Johnny and Mark, the fourth housemate of the boys’ house who was cut out during the last minute stream-line before I started to type (subsequently demoting said house to a flat). From Mark, Johnny inherited football playing and Northerness, but the fundamentals of the character have remained constant from the start. After the exclusion of Mark, he moved up from being a secondary character – with no planned POVs (a la Miles) – to being much more in the thick of things. Johnny is every body’s best friend – but he’s a Judas too, blinkered and hopeless when it comes to Leigha, character rudiments that have always been there.
I guess considering I have thought about these characters for 18 months now, it’s not surprising that they’ve come a long way. It seems so bizarre that it’s been so long since I sat scribbling away in my notebook and mentally trying different character names on for size, and now I sit here typing thousands of words at a time and getting into arguments with myself over whether Adam would call it a couch, a settee or a sofa.
On the one hand, perhaps that it’s taken me a year to only get two-thirds of the way through the first draft is a little embarrassing; however I can only snatch writing time alongside my full time job, the time I spend promoting and pushing The Last Train Home & Other Stories and general day to day living. Also, I know it’s all downhill from here – from the start I always had more of the final third sorted and blocked out, and I even have some of the scenes drafted entirely. The struggle was always going to be this middle third, but once I had my ducks in a row with the first third, I daringly trusted that by this point the characters would feel natural enough to me that the middle third would just happen; I’m absolutely elated that it has.
So this blog post is a mini celebration as I enter my second official year with Adam, Harriet and co, people who are scarily real to me by now. It’s also a blog post to thank my little army of feedback readers, who both motivate me and shape the story as it develops more than they’ll ever know. I hope these little ‘backstage secrets’ are interesting! I promise I’ll write you the best damn ending I can.
So here’s to the homerun. I’ve had total character swaps; moments of paralysing writers’ block; I’ve ripped out and scrapped hundreds upon hundreds of words; been standing outside a WHSmiths in actual tears when I saw a new book release with my working title but at least, one year on, I can be proud of what I’ve created thus far.
Who knows where we’ll be come August 2013?