Posted March 6, 2011on:
I’ve never written a story where it goes the way I expected it to go when I started out. While pantsers generally don’t have their courses plotted out beforehand, like most people they do have some general idea of where a story is supposed to go, and even when a story swerves from that path it generally ends up at or near the same place. Only upside-down, or sideways. Occasionally a story comes along that is even less under control than that.
In a recent review of my latest novel, St. Martin’s Moon, the reviewer used the word ‘evolution’ with regard to my werewolves, and to ‘supes’, or supernatural creatures in general, as one of the more unusual features of the book. This evolution parallels the evolution of the book itself.
When I first started writing the book it was intended to be a mystery/horror story, rapacious monster, closed environment, sort of like Alien, only bloodier, and, you know, scary. The initial sentence of the story, ‘Joseph Marquand hated turnover’, was supposed to start the reader off in this general direction. But then I completely forgot this line of thought and changed it to ‘Joseph Marquand loved to fly’, which was a much happier and lighter-toned opening, completely at odds with the original idea.
So to get back to that I tell the reader why he likes to fly, because flying requires an atmosphere, i.e., space sucks. It was this sense of gloom and doom that the reviewer latched onto when she felt that that “no one was safe in space. That just be being in space one was in mortal danger.” The inhabitants of Coventry Base are no friendlier, barely tolerating the hero’s presence and suspicious of his every action, even though they called for his help.
Then along came Candace. Flaming red hair. Witty banter. Competence and authority. The book, like Marquand, was totally smit. Exit mystery/horror, enter paranormal romance.
Evolution doesn’t need design. Evolution can happen using simple chance, a very long time to operate in, and a very high failure rate. Design simply makes the evolutionary process faster, with fewer victims along the way. Gasoline-powered cars out-competed alcohol-powered cars in the short run, but in the long run perhaps not. Computer programs are under a continuous state of revision. We fail to see that what is evolving is not the thing, but the design. Virtual evolution, so to speak.
Paranormal romances have a different structure than mystery/horror stories, most important being the need for a happy ending, or HEA. The ending of the story…ceased to be. I had no idea where to go, how to give these people the happy ending they needed. My design, my plot, no longer existed. I was going to have to go the evolutionary route, trust my characters to find a way through and show me what it was. Characters that I had introduced simply because they had to be there took on a whole new significance in the pursuit of this new goal. Marquand was no longer looking for a mere solution, but for a cure, science fiction taking on the supernatural. How did that happen?
As the story progressed the characters changed, revealing facets of their personalities that I had not envisioned when I put them on the page. Some characters rose to their challenges, others…did not. It saddened me when that happened, but that’s how evolution works. High failure rate.
As the characters progressed the story changed. What had been the story of one man trying to achieve one goal became an ensemble story of many people trying to achieve their sometimes incompatible goals, their actions catalyzed by the presence of the hero on their base, and by the absence of any overriding plot on the part of the author.
I have to tell you right now that evolution sucks as a way to write a novel. I think it’s a way to a great novel, just as real evolution is a way to greater things than virtual evolution can give us. Designing a thing to suit a purpose usually means closing off a lot of other purposes. Evolution doesn’t favor brains over strength, it favors adaptability over non-adaptability, i.e., other purposes not being closed off. Writing a novel based on an outline would probably have been a lot easier, but the novel would probably have been a lot weaker.