Thursday 16th April 2020
One of the ‘aims’ of The Climb is to provide a bit of a “making of” documentary for my books. I’ve always been fascinated by what caused writers to do certain things in their novels, what their inspirations were, which bits came easy and which bits came hard. My hope is that if my books ever find an audience, readers can dig into all this back material and get to see how various ideas or scenes came about.
Obviously I have to be a bit cryptic so not to give away too much by the way of spoilers but I hope I phrase things such that, having read the completed book one day, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
I’m currently looking at the second Shade Knight novel, and when I say “looking” what I really mean is thinking about it. I’m not looking at the manuscript of the first draft other than a quick read of the outline. Instead, I’m thinking about it as a whole. What do I feel works, what – given I’ve stepped away from it and then come back – do I feel doesn’t?
It’s all gut instinct at this time. What excites me? How well does one concept feed into the other? Then I spend a lot of time thinking about the problems and how to solve them. There’s no writing going on. I even make a point of distracting myself so that rather than actively thinking about them, it’s mulling over in the back of my brain.
It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. I have hundreds of pieces, not all of them belonging to the same puzzle. Sometimes I’ll spend a lot of time looking at specific pieces based on shape or the colours on them and trying to get X to connect to Y. Other times, I might mindlessly be trying random pieces together to see if they fit.
It’s when things connect I know I’m onto something. One idea connects to another. I’ll then test it against something else (either an idea for a scene I already have, or random ideas that currently have no place in the novel).
What I find happens is the occasional eureka moment. I’ll be mulling over a certain problem. It could be a character motivation or a specific scene, and have an idea. Like a new jigsaw piece, I find it connects to the pieces I have currently, and then it’s suddenly like 50 other pieces now all connect. It’s how I instinctively know something is right. It becomes effortless.
Of course, sometimes as a writer you have to force pieces together to make a book work, but the aim is always that the puzzle comes together as effortlessly as possible. I’m pretty sure that’s a utopia but it doesn’t stop me striving for it.
Coming back to the second Shade Knight book, I can see several things wrong with the initial draft. It’s a dark book, but overly so. I had family that were very ill at the time I wrote it and coming back to it now, I can see that reflected in the pages. If there’s any formula to Shade Knight then it should be that the there are two story threads – which being slightly cryptic I’d explain as Batman and Bruce Wayne. It’s an analogy referring to the superhero model rather than actual Batman or Bruce Wayne. Yes they mix and cross and therein lies the storytelling art, but generally, the lighter moments should come in the Bruce Wayne parts.
This problem is easily fixable. I can dial back some of the fraught interactions, turning them back up in key scenes when needed. That will make it far more effective – the dark works best when it’s compared to the light. The plan is to inject a little more fun into those lighter sections.
The other issue – and it’s a major issue for me – is that the Batman part of the story is played by Bruce Wayne. Should that matter? After all, Bruce Wayne is Batman. Yet, why is it cooler when Batman does something than when Bruce Wayne does something?
I recognised this was a profoundly psychological question, and I asked amongst friends on Facebook as I grappled with it. Their responses were extremely good and helpful, and became jigsaw puzzles milling around my head.
I also watched a ton of video essays on Christopher Nolan’s the Dark Knight.
I love that film, and whilst the Shade Knight is a vastly different character to Batman, they share a lot of things thematically.
I’ve become interested in theme a lot recently, particularly after watching that video on antagonists I shared a couple of weeks back.
Now, the villain in this book is very, very different to The Joker in the Dark Knight (in fact, if you likened them to any Batman villain they’d be completely different – I won’t say which one) but I was very interested in pulling apart what Nolan had done to create his version of The Joker and why it works.
I’ve always said that good Batman villains are mirror images of Batman. Batman is about order, The Joker is about chaos. The Riddler creates puzzles, Batman is a detective. And so on. Nolan takes this a little further and makes Batman and The Joker very similar characters with one fundamental difference on world view – in this case order vs chaos. By doing that, it makes the conflict tighter, and has the characters work closer with the theme.
Nolan also does some interesting things with escalation of power. My tactic in this novel has been to do it through expressions of violence. There is nuance there, but it does mean that some scenes went incredibly dark and graphic. Some I want to keep, but to make them effective I think I need some lighter moments that convey the same thing to stop it being too monotonally dark.
So the idea I’ve been exploring is the concept that a story asks a question. The protagonist will encounter various antagonists who attempt to answer this question, and through conflict against those antagonists, the protagonist arrives at the answer that the author wishes to convey. That question is the theme of the story.
I’ll admit that theme is something that usually comes to me afterwards. I never set out to write a theme, but will usually discover it when it gets close to the end of the book or I come to revision.
I’ll say now that I think the theme of this book is heroism. I might be wrong.
I do something unusual at the end of the book. An impossible choice has to be made, and I think the one that gets chosen is interesting. It’s fairly minor in the big scheme of the plot, totally character driven, it’s the right decision, says what I want to say about heroism but feels “weird”. Even though I knew from the planning stage that decision would happen, it stuck with me after I finished the book. I think it elevates the book as I don’t think it would have been the choice I would have had the character make several years ago.
I’ve never been sure whether that decision was right. I like it, but there’s something jarring about it that doesn’t seem to quite fit with the rest of the story. And I’m never sure if it being jarring was kinda the point or if there was some mismatch with the earlier story. And if there is a mismatch I think it comes back to Bruce Wayne vs Batman.
On a simplified level, Bruce Wayne starring in the Batman parts makes sense, because if it were Batman, it causes me character problems.
Firstly, I think it come dangerously close to a superhero trope. If I were to play with this trope then I’d want to do it much further down the line when the hero is better established. It feels too soon to be doing it.
Secondly, character motivation. Why would Batman be in those scenes? I can explain why Bruce Wayne would. After a lot of questions, I understand this is because Bruce Wayne is a person, whilst there’s some projection involved with Batman.
Finally, there’s a key scene that breaks.
It turned out the missing jigsaw puzzle piece that solves all this was there all along. It’s that decision at the end. It jars a little because it pulls the story in a different direction to where it currently is.
What if – I asked myself – I embraced that ending, have Batman in the Batman parts and drive towards that ending (not so much foreshadowing but thematically)? It takes the story in a very interesting direction, and whilst the story in terms of plot doesn’t really change much, thematically everything falls into place.
Fallout from this is that a fairly major antagonist changes. Their character completely changes. It flips their power on its head to something lighter, broadens the story and stops the Bruce Wayne vs Batman arc of the story falling into a trope.
Suddenly, a load of jigsaw puzzle pieces have connected and I’m excited.
I think all this makes for a better book. Whilst there’s still a few minor plot arcs that need to change as a result of this, it currently feels very solid. By working with theme, I feel I’ve given the book some clarity and it’s a much stronger book as a result.
Second books are always difficult and I think they are often a sign of whether an idea has legs or not. The great series I’ve read, build on a first book and go in new directions. The bad ones try and write bad fan fiction of their own first book.
I like where this second book is at now, and feel ready to start diving in.
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