In 1990, a consortium of companies from both France and the United Kingdom completed the Channel Tunnel, a 31 mile undersea rail link between the two countries. It was a major engineering feat (regarded by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World) and despite its ultimate success was not without its fair share of problems.
Although not on the same scale, completing a novel is also a feat of (prose) construction. The writer starts at A and ends at B, encountering barriers and problems along the way. Before I started each of the novels I’ve written, I’ve known where I’m starting from (Karen has her bag stolen, Celandine’s master is murdered, John returns to his childhood home) and I know where I’m going to (Karen and Clarke resolve their personal problems, Celandine finds her mother’s buried treasure, John uncovers the murderer in the town). This strikes me as only natural.
Years ago, I read that the legal thriller author, John Grisham, writes novels by starting with an idea and seeing where it takes him. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. I’m sure it’s true for more than a few published novelists. Whatever the case, it sounds like utter madness to me. It’s like standing on a clifftop in Kent and digging a tunnel in some random direction in the hope of eventually surfacing in France.
I’m not suggesting that the author has to know every tiniest detail of the plot before starting and has to rigidly stick to that. There is always room for a change in plan. However, even those changes should be part of a planning and editing process. One could figuratively imagine digging half the proposed tunnel, inspecting and evaluating it and then deciding that you’d rather take it to Belgium. What one really doesn’t want to do is dig and dig and dig and then surface in Norway and think “Is this what I really wanted?”
It’s for these reasons (the need for planning and the need for flexibility) that I am a big believer in editing as I go along. I don’t mean proof-reading and editing at the paragraph and sentence level but editing for plot and structure. If I find myself going in one direction and can see that it’s not the direction I want to go in, I wouldn’t say “I’ll keep on going, finish this draft and go back and change things later.” If the tunnel is heading for Norway, I need to back up down the line and head off towards France (or Belgium) right now.
This has huge implications for a collaborative novel. Heide and I are like the builders of the channel tunnel. Why? Because, like us, the tunnel builders didn’t start from one point together and end at another point together. The English engineers started in Kent and the French engineers starts in pas-de-Calais. They drove their boring machines at one another, through wibbly-wobbly chalk strata and – and this is the bloody amazing bit in my opinion – met in middle!
If the Brits had veered off towards Norway and the French towards Belgium then there wouldn’t be a Channel Tunnel at all. Heide and I, like those engineers, like entrants in a three-legged race, have had to co-ordinate our efforts and align our ideas so that in the end the thing we construct meets in the middle.
When, through the natural writing process, we introduce new characters, plot turns and character shifts, we’ve needed to evaluate these and adjust our planning accordingly. Things we’ve added that we never realised we would in the initial planning include the death of a major (if silent) character, the addition of some heavenly residents and, perhaps biggest of all, the introduction of Herbert, a character who started life as a mould in a Singapore Sling and is now integral to the final act of the book.
Through constant discussions – phone, face-to-face and Dropbox docs – we’ve kept our tunnel on track and (does a little dance!) we can now see the light at the end of it.