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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Creating a Text – Robert Wilson

What phases are involved in the creation of a text?

Before the creation of a text can begin I have to do a fair amount of work on research. This may involve visiting places to see what they look like, get a feeling for atmosphere, to see how people use their streets and squares, to see people interacting. In some cases I will conduct interviews. For instance, I wanted a range of views on terrorism so I found a factory director in Morocco who allowed me to interview her workforce from financial director down to night watchman. On other occasions I’ve just conducted vox pops – asked people in the street in Seville what it’s like, say, to live in an area with a lot of Moroccans. I will also do some library work: reading books both general and specific and ranging over all points of view.
Throughout this process I am thinking about my story and the characters who will people it. Occasionally I make notes about possible plot developments. I rarely write anything down about characters. This is something that always comes out in the writing.
By the time I get down to developing the text I will have in mind several major scenes which will occur in my story. These are big ‘plot direction-changing’ moments or major ‘character development’ moments. I have no plan to adhere to. I tend to write from beginning to end, although if I have a chapter that is central to the idea of the whole book I might start with that and then go back to it again and again during the writing process. In The Hidden Assassins Chapter 20 took about 50 drafts, during the year it took to write the book. The task was to consolidate and update the issues surrounding terrorism, whilst delivering a crucial element of the story.
When it comes to writing a text what I am trying to do is to move everything forward at the same time. That is plot, setting and character have to evolve together, not one after the other. This is especially important at the beginning of a book where you are trying to draw a reader into your world. The writer must give them as little excuse (or time) to slip away as possible. If a reader feels they are putting in too much time on stormy weather, baroque architecture or rocky escarpments their mind can wander. If you go into dense characterization or, worse, heavy back story, you will hear the thunder of readers hooves moving off to new pastures. I reckon you have a maximum of ten pages in which to position your central character in his/her life with friends, family and relationships, in an atmospheric setting with a plot up and running. You can (partially) fail on the first two counts but you must not fail with plot.
Luckily, because we are in the business of writing crime stories, we don’t have to think too hard about where a plot is going to begin. It could be with a dead body, a bit of violence, a robbery, whatever. But that is not enough to engage the reader. You have to intrigue them sufficiently to get them to read on. There must be something odd about the dead body, or weird about the bit of violence, or the robbery has to go badly wrong. Whatever it is….something must happen. This is the most difficult thing about creating a text. Something must happen all the time and what’s more it has to happen believably. You’re only allowed to cheat once you’re loved and even then you’ve got to be careful or you’ll get dumped.
These first ten pages will probably need a lot of work to get it right.
So, writing a text: how am I going to tell it? In the first person or the third person? Whose point of view? Reliable or unreliable narrator? Is it going to be a fast action sequence? Should this all come out in dialogue? How important is the setting? Would this be better told with a completely different technique – journals, letters, undiscovered manuscript, screenplay left in a typewriter, message in a bottle?
A friend of mine once said that writing (in his case poetry) was like trying to play three dimensional chess. He meant that the decisions that have to be made are incalculable. So what do you do? You have to have a sounding board. Something that tells you the answer to the questions – is this going to work, does this work and has this worked? Everything my brain comes up with has to pass through my stomach and my stomach tells me whether it’s right or not. When I get that special tension and excitement in my stomach I know it’s working. My stomach makes all the important decisions. If I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t be able to start. Sometimes I have to coax it into telling me things. I write something and it says nothing. I write something more, still nothing. I write a whole chapter and it finally says, that’s crap, start again. This is an important part of writing a text: reading it. I read everything I’ve written over and over again. Does it stand up a minute after I’ve finished it, two minutes, half an hour, an hour, a day, a week, six months later?
What am I trying to do with a text? As I said earlier, I start writing a book with a beginning and some major scenes. So most texts are attempting to link those major scenes in the most interesting way possible. I am trying to make small things happen so that when the big things happen they are not only gripping but believable as well. Of the six hours a day I spend writing about 100 minutes is spent actually putting words down on paper. The rest is spent thinking of believable sequences of events which deliver to the reader: atmosphere, setting, character and the next step towards the big scene. When I’m not writing or thinking, I’m reading and re-reading. The interesting thing is that big scenes have a way of writing themselves. I’ve been thinking about them in such detail for so long that when I get there I write them in one sitting. So what writing is all about is linkage. At the risk of sounding like E M Forster – I’m just trying to get things to connect.
When it comes to the detail of a text I always remind myself that the point of a crime novel is to permanently engage the reader and I apply that to every paragraph, sentence and word. The reader must have as little reason as possible to put the book down. So I try not to induce subconscious boredom. I try to start paragraphs with a different word. If you’re not careful you can find that every paragraph starts with the name of your protagonist. This can induce subconscious irritation in the reader. I also change the construction of sentences so that the reader isn’t constantly getting subject, verb, object. I also look for the right word. I’ve been known to spend half an hour digging out the right word for the circumstances. I only stop when it occurs to me that I’m insane to be spending such time on one out of 150,000 words.
Having created the text I move on but I will go back to it three or four times over the next few days to check it out. Six months later I will transfer it from longhand to the computer. The longhand text looks like the diary of an axe murderer with notes all over, circles, stuff up the margins. Deciphering it is not easy and a major edit takes place at this point. I strip out as much as I can. It’s never enough, but it’s all I can manage at the time.
The text then goes to my wife who makes her observations. Another edit takes place. Characters and scenes are reworked.
My editor finally gets her hands on it. She makes her observations. It usually takes a month or more. I am thinking about the book constantly. I know all the changes that have to be made. They come to me as I distance myself from the text and they almost all coincide with my editors notes. What she doesn’t tell me to do is to cut everything that is not strictly necessary. In the final edit I go through every chapter, paragraph, sentence and word and ask myself whether it should be allowed to remain.
So, from the moment I’ve created a text, it becomes an exercise in survival. Can it make the cut?

Robert Wilson won the CWA Gold Dagger for A Small Death in Lisbon; he is the author of the novels, The Company of Strangers, The Blind Man of Seville, The Vanished Hands and The Hidden Asssassins, among others. He has no website as his location in the middle of nowhere is not well-served with speedy internet connection.

2 Responses to “Creating a Text – Robert Wilson”

  1. As a reader of Robert Wilson’s Javier Falcón series (I’m still to get around to reading the rest of his backlist, although I’ve managed a couple of standalones), may I say that what he seeks to achieve and the methodology he employs for his text does achieve his aim, in my book. The novels are gripping; the characters are intriguing and beguiling; the settings have a life and vibrancy that leaps off the page and the plots keep the reader guessing.

    It’s interesting to me to read how seriously he takes his work; how many times he seeks to revise his writing and the extent of his research.

    One thing Robert Wilson can’t comment on in this article is the quality of his prose. It’s one of the best in the business as far as I’m concerned and I’m yet to employ the fingers of my second hand in that count of “one of the best in the business”. The quality of his novels is not just measurable at the top end, it hits you between the eyes.

    As for Falcón, I’m aware that many women readers are drawn to him and his life. A perfect combo for the crime fiction market and I can’t recommend the Falcón series highly enough, ditto for Wilson the author too, given what I’ve read in his standalones. Superb quality and enthralling reading!

  2. […] debate, it’s not. Robert Wilson, gifted novelist and a friend of mine, has described how he goes about writing a novel to John Baker as part of his “Creating a Text” series. Knowing how good a writer Wilson […]