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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Creating a Text – Declan Burke

What phases are involved in the creation of a text?

In terms of my experience of creating a story, the framed Beckett quote ripped from a magazine that hangs over my desk offers a rough guide: ‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’

As to how that translates into the phases of creating a text, I’m almost embarrassed to say. That’s because my experience to date has been of an initial inspiration that comes not from an interesting character, a plot-line glimpsed in a newspaper headline or a snatch of dialogue heard on the bus, which is how most writers seem to operate.

For me, bizarrely enough, it almost always begins with a sense of place. I find myself somewhere thinking, ‘Y’know, this ruined Venetian castle would be a fabulous setting for a Mexican stand-off’, or ‘Wouldn’t the alleyways of that Greek village be brilliant for a chase-scene on mopeds?’ or ‘That little bay is just crying out for a smuggler’s boat to hove in some time after midnight, with the moonlight angling down just so’.

Just last week I started a new story, a thriller based on a Greek island. I spent a month there a couple of years ago, and I already know – even though the story is barely sketched in, and only two of the main characters have appeared – where the main events of the story will take place.

That may sound perverse, but it works for me: deciding on a setting before introducing your characters means that the characters will be informed by a reality already experienced, and therefore – in theory, at least – they will be authentic to their backdrop. The setting also shapes the story, setting its natural boundaries and limits which I then have to push to their extremes. For example, by setting a thriller on a small island which is accessed only by sea, I’m immediately cutting down on the number of escape routes my protagonist has open to him, a fact that immediately ratchets up the tension whenever danger threatens.

Once the setting is established, the protagonist emerges. Generally speaking, the protagonist of a crime fiction novel explores his or her culture while telling the story of a specific crime and its consequences. In the case of the current story, I thought it might be interesting to have a character who was familiar with the Greek islands as a tourist, but finds himself utterly incapable of penetrating Greek culture when his brother dies in unusual circumstances. Chaos ensues. An ordinary man is forced to perform extraordinary deeds.

Plot and characters are still only vague outlines at this point, and that’s how I like it. I much prefer to write with only a rough idea of how I would like the story to end, and I love it when the characters begin to react to the story, and vice versa, rather than knowing in advance what they will do on page 96, or how they will behave when confronted with what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle.

If that sounds unfocused, it is meant to be: the first draft is the most enjoyable element of writing for me. Once that is written, the second draft becomes a more meticulous operation, in which detail is all-important. Writing at a rate of roughly 1,000 words a day (I work full-time, and grab a few hours per day where I can), it generally takes me about nine months to a year to write the first draft; the second, third and fourth drafts generally take as long as they need, and often involve extensive rewriting. Once I’m relatively happy with the finished story, I’ll put it away and go work on something new.

The next draft is a streamlining process – an evisceration, sometimes. Again, that takes in the region of three to four months, and generally involves typing out the entire m/s again, which I find useful in that by then you’re getting sick of the sight of the story, so you’ll leave out anything that’s not absolutely essential. I generally send that draft to my agent, who will then make suggestions about changes. Once we’re both happy with the way the story reads, it goes off to the publishing houses. And by then, hopefully, I’ll have found myself standing somewhere unusual, thinking, ‘Hmmmm, wouldn’t that deserted quay make a great spot to dump a body?’

Declan Burke is the author of Eightball Boogie and The Big O. He blogs at Crime Always Pays:

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