Writing Gideon – update 1

The situation with the Gideon Smith series of books is this:

Book one, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, is finished, with Tor and in production. I understand galley proofs will be out in January for reviewers etc, and the book is scheduled for production on May 1.

Book two, Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, has been submitted via my agent, John Jarrold. This is in the schedule for my editor Claire Eddy – Tor produce a huge number of books a year and the editors have a schedule. As much as I’d like them all to run around shrieking “Oh my God the new David Barnett manuscript has just dropped! CANCEL EVERYTHING!” I don’t really think that’s going to happen. Claire is working on what she’s working on; I believe that Gideon#2 is in the “queue” and will reach its turn in a couple of weeks. As it’s not slated for publication until January 2014, there’s time for the revisions.

I’m currently working on Gideon#3, which doesn’t yet have a title. Well, it has a working title but I’m not sure I like it much. Currently I’ve just popped over the 30,000 word mark, with an estimated target of 100,000 for the finished draft to be submitted. That means I’ll probably go somewhat over on the first sweep and cut down on subsequent revision runs.

Someone asked me how I write recently. I know some writers meticulously plot every cough, spit and fart, while others take a more organic approach and tighten up in the edits. I think I fall somewhere in between.

When I’m thinking up a book, the first thing to come is the plot. A plot isn’t a story. It’s a procession of events and occurrences. A plot only becomes a story when you add the people, and think about why those things are happening, what it means to the people who make them happen or they happen to, and what happens to those people during and after those occurrences.

So, after a long time thinking, I have a plot. I’ll write this down on no more than one side of A4, in bullet points. This happens, then this happens, then this happens, then that happens. The end. I think some more before I start writing, and by the time I open up a new file I know pretty well how the book starts and how it ends. The middle, though, that’s always a bit of a mystery. Like that ball of string up there. Tease out both ends of the string and flatten them down. That’s my linear narrative, the beginning and the end. That big mess of string in the middle? That’s the story that’s going to unfold.

I start writing, getting all the characters to where they need to be for the first act. I keep thinking about the end, and how what the characters are doing now, in these early chapters, impacts on the kind of people that they’ll be in the final chapters. Slowly, as I write, the middle bit of the ball of string starts to unravel. And something else arrives, something that ties the plot and characters together to make that story, themes. The theme of Gideon#1 is heroism. The theme of Gideon#2 is freedom. It’s looking like the theme of Gideon#3 is identity. Themes are not for hitting people over the head with, for having characters staring mournfully out to sea and having clunky discourses on the nature of heroism. They’re little pointers that direct the characters, inform their actions, make sense of the whole story.

Because this is fiction. It has to make sense. It has to be logical. It has to be true. It’s fiction, not real life.

So I get to about 15,000 words, and all the pieces are on the board. And I have to sit down and start plotting that middle bit a little more sensibly. So I make more notes – maybe two or three pages of A4 this time – and I do chapter breakdowns, and timelines.

And then I throw them all out of the window. Because, right now, I’m writing a chapter in which one of the characters wants to be off and doing something on a Sunday. The thing is, my little timeline says they can’t do this thing until Monday. But the character is standing there with her hands on her hips, one eyebrow raised. What, she’s supposed to sit down and do nothing for 24 hours? Especially over a situation as serious as I’ve written her into? She wouldn’t do that, she’s telling me. She would be off and doing on a Sunday what I don’t want her to do until Monday.

Of course, I don’t really have conversations with my characters. All this comes out in the form of really difficult writing, like constipation. I’m trying to hammer the story into the plot but it isn’t working. Because the plot is only one part of the story, and the themes and the characters and the whole truth of the fiction is telling me I can’t have it my way.

So that’s how I write. Glad you asked?



  1. Thanks for that. Not saying it’s the right way, obviously, but it sort of works for me. Wish I could be more structured, in many ways.

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