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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Creating a Text – Yang-May Ooi

What phases are involved in the creation of a text?

The idea for a story usually starts as a startling image in my mind – something memorable or haunting, either inspired by an incident in real life or something I’ve read or seen. For my first novel, The Flame Tree, it was a conversation I had with my mother. I asked her why the flame tree in our garden had only bloomed so abundantly recently in my late twenties – was it me not noticing its flowers before? She said, no, she had planted the sapling when I was a child and it takes 20-25 years for a flame tree to fully mature and blossom in all its glory. I was struck by the faith in the future that that act of planting took – to know that you would only see the fruits of your labour after so many years. It was like having faith in the maturing of your children. That image evolved into The Flame Tree and the conversation that my heroine Jasmine has with her mother about the flame tree in their garden is almost word-for-word what my mother told me.

The next phase is planning and plotting. I spend ages staring into space, working out a plot that evolves from the initial image. I make notes and work out the driving force of the story, the characters and how it’s going to end. I try and work up a rough framework with major milestones leading from beginning to end.

Part of this planning stage involves working out the back story for the major characters. I like to know how my villain got to be such a bad piece of work – what influences in his early life drove him down a particular path. I want to know why my protagonists are attracted to each other. All this adds to the depth of the characters and gives texture to the story.

Then I plot everything out chapter by chapter. For The Flame Tree, I used a huge blank wall in my study and wrote key plot points on post-it notes to stick on the wall. This made it easy to move them around as I worked out the details of the plot – who needed to be where when and who knew what at which point. Then I translated all that from the wall to a detailed synopsis on the page – each chapter split into various sections. This meant that I could see at an overview level if I needed to bring in the sub-plot line soon to keep the pacing or if I had spent too many chapters at length on one aspect of the story.

Finally, time to actually write. By that stage, I could write any chapter you picked at random. But I like to write sequentially so I started at Chapter One and worked my way towards “The End”. In the early chapters I was getting to know my characters so after I finished the first draft, I had to go back and rework the first few chapters quite a number of times to get them right. Working sequentially is great because I like to feel that excitement as I near The End – I think that builds a natural emotional crescendo so that by the time I type the words “The End”, there is a sense of satisfaction in me as the writer which hopefully will translate to the reader.

I think that the detailed preparation for The Flame Tree was necessary for me as it was my first book. With Mindgame, I skipped the post-it notes on the wall stage and also the chapter-by-chapter overview. Instead, I worked from the 16 page synopsis I sent to my publisher. This meant I had a lot more hard work during the writing process working out some of the things that I hadn’t yet worked out in detail relating to motivation and character – it wasn’t a problem: it just meant I had to keep stopping the writing part to do the thinking part. Towards the end, I also found that I had placed several characters in two places at once and had to re-work the plotting to unravel that oversight.

Yang-May Ooi is the author of legal thrillers, The Flame Tree and MindGame, first published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton. You can find out more at her website.

One Response to “Creating a Text – Yang-May Ooi”

  1. Jack Payne says:

    So many writers start with the burden of having to push a plot into place. With me, it’s the other way around. I’ve always started by being pulled along by a plot idea that can’t be written down fast enough. Yes, through all of my non-ficiton books (they need plots, too) all the way up through my recent first novel, this has been the case