The third dimension: when a book comes to life

A cardboard cut-out character from a toy theatre in front of a backdrop from same

I love the moment when it turns out that the book I’m working on is, in fact, going to turn out to be a book.

The first time this happened to me was with Speak Its Name. That was my first book and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had the backdrop (student politics) and I had the characters (students) moving in front of it, occasionally affected by it, but never affecting it. It was flat. Boring.

Then I realised that what I needed to do was to get my most political character involved in the politics.

It sounds so simple. Perhaps it was. All I can say is, it took me a very long time to realise, and it changed the whole book for the better. It turned it from two dimensions into three, like inflating a bouncy castle, or sewing a pair of trousers together. It wasn’t just that my characters were now joined to the background at the point where one of them decided to involve the Students’ Union. It joined all sorts of other bits together, and it made the whole thing neater, more coherent. More interesting. It made the whole book work.

A Spoke in the Wheel and The Real World were, so far as I can remember, better behaved. Oh, getting The Real World nailed down was rather like wrestling an octopus that was also Tam Lin, but it always felt like something, well, real, if I could only get a handle on it. And with A Spoke In The Wheel both characters and plot landed more or less fully formed, bar a giant hole in the middle that I had to work out how to fill.

This time it happened at about the 50,000 word mark. No, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, but I decided to take advantage of the general #AmWriting mood to make some progress on the Ruritanian thing. This is the project that I’ve been working on, off and on, for the last three years if not more. It seems to prefer being a side project. It modestly shuffled out of the way to let me concentrate on The Real World. It refused to be written at all earlier this year, and only started cooperating when I got swept off my feet by the historical thing. Nine months further on – nine months in which I’ve been trying to add a sentence to each project each day – it’s suddenly taking itself seriously.

Now this, being a Ruritanian thing, requires plot. It requires plot on a level that I’ve never contemplated before. There are double-crosses and Chekhov’s guns and timetables. The action of the last book happens over the course of a year. The action of this book takes place over the course of five days. I discovered the other day that I had my main character drinking five coffees between midnight on Saturday and Sunday lunchtime. I’m counting the espresso martini here, but still.

Of course, that’s easily fixable. I’ve already turned one of those coffees into a slice of cake. The real challenge has been getting the characters to do the things that are needed for the plot to happen in ways that make sense for them. Because if the characters don’t work, then the plot doesn’t work.

When I’m stuck on a book, one thing that helps me is writing down why I’m stuck. Sometimes I like to make an occasion of this. This time, I was just on the train. (Not that taking the train isn’t an exciting novelty these days.) I wrote down the things I needed to invent or research. Then I wrote down the thing that was bothering me, the thing I knew I’d have to fix sooner or later:

George shouldn’t be involving his untrained relations and he knows that.

Or, as paraphrased for Twitter,

Bringing Milly back makes George looks like a callous dimwit.

And yet Milly has to come back (she’s the narrator!) and George has to be both decent and competent. That’s the whole point of his being in this book at all.

So I kept writing.

He doesn’t have a choice with Amelia. But he needs a damn good reason for Milly to come back… There’s got to be more to it than ‘it might come in useful’.

I went down a couple of dead ends. Something that Amelia tells George that Milly doesn’t know about? Something that brings in a couple of other characters? My brain was working faster than I could write, so it wasn’t coming out as great prose.

Milly is the only person who has seen several key players by sight, so it makes sense to keep her on the spot. But that’s what’s putting her in danger. Sending her home is for her own safety.

I kept writing. Half a page later, it hit me.

Hang on. What if they do get Milly to share – and then don’t act on that? Yes. Milly spills the beans and thinks it’s all cleared up. George arrives, wants to find out more. Milly is the obvious candidate to find out more.

Bingo.

That adjusts the stakes just enough to make everyone’s actions plausible. It makes sense for Milly to come back. It makes sense for George to let her.

A (really encouraging) bonus: I now have a much better idea of at least one of the villains. And the [plot goes here] bit in the antepenultimate (there’s a good word) chapter.

Of course it’s going to demand a whole lot more changes – because most of the 54,000 words I had down were written on the assumption that Milly didn’t share – but I don’t care about that. It makes the whole thing work.

I love that moment.