When the story writes itself it can be a better author than me!
The Netherlands is not a country known for cinematic epics, but a Dutch film production company headed by Toten Herzen collaborator Jens Gol is determined to bring the best-selling book Quarter Moon to the silver screen. Dutch novel, Dutch production, Dutch film. All he needs is someone to write the soundtrack.
His financial backers think he’s mad when he suggests Susan Bekker.
The words confidence and finance are often found in the same sentence. The irony of the fearless thrusting investment banker unable to make a decision unless every other investment banker is making the same decision at the same time is lost on the world of high finance. And it’s a problem Gol collides with early on in the story.
The theme of confidence is a common recurrence in literature and few protagonists get anywhere in narrative terms without overcoming challenges thrown up by doubt or a lack of self-confidence. How they overcome their weaknesses features in stories as diverse as Beowulf and Foucault’s Pendulum! In Behind the Wall, the fourth Toten Herzen novel, the discovery of four bodies in the bricked-up basement of a London house sends shockwaves through a number of individuals not expecting the past to be discovered quite like this.
Because this article is being written before the novel you’ll have to indulge me, but the theme of self-confidence is one that has infused the writing of all the novels so far. How so?
Authors tend to fall into one of two categories: ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers.’ The plotters know when they start writing where they’ll end up; the pantsers have no idea. (They’re flying by the seat of their pants.) With the TotenUniverse I chose to straddle the two positions, plotting the novels, but leaving the overall series open-ended with no idea how all this mayhem will conclude. (As of September 2016 I honestly don’t know who Toten Herzen are or what Rob Wallet is up to.)
My original intention was to write one Toten Herzen novel, but that soon ballooned to five. What I didn’t expect was how events in one novel would come back, full circle in the next novel, and the third and the fourth. It was this trail of fate that convinced me to be a pantser for the series, trusting fate to deliver conclusions.
One example was the relationship between Rob Wallet and Albert, the four year-old vampire in the lost valley village of Altengen. In both Toten novels Wallet pines for his youth, knowing that immortality doesn’t allow you to travel back in time. It was only after writing the village sequences that I realised Albert was the boy Wallet wanted to be: living an idyllic existence, forever a child. Of course, the truth is more sinister depending on your point of view: not knowing you’ll never grow old. . . . This turn of events in the story gave me an opportunity to head towards some conclusion for Wallet at the end of the TotenSeries, but what that conclusion is I’ll leave you to guess. There are a number of options.
Likewise, in the second novel Raven becomes increasingly frustrated with Susan Bekker’s refusal to ‘turn her’ (into a vampire). The question was always: why wouldn’t Susan turn Raven? She gave a number of excuses, but none of them related to the truth, which I hadn’t planned for, but came out in a scene in which we learn about Susan’s Big Lie. And in the third Toten novel There Will Be Blood, Interpol agent Bernadette Maldini discovers what the Big Lie is. At the beginning of book one I didn’t know where Susan Bekker’s story was heading, but Lena’s scene with Redwall and Bernadette’s investigation answered the question for me. As far as the story arc goes, I know now how Susan’s fate will conclude!
I often tell people that writing this series is almost like tuning in to some radio transmission; the story is already out there and I’m simply ‘receiving it.’ It sounds a bit airy-fairy and esoteric, but it’s the best way I can describe how this writing process mixes the known and the unknown, but what matters is that I have confidence the story will reveal itself. It’s not a case of making it up as I go along, every idea that comes to me is still tested, considered, analysed and plugged into the existing narrative to make sure it isn’t contrived. There’s nothing worse than a story that twists and turns until you don’t know what’s going on or who’s who.
Susan Bekker’s fate hung around in the ‘to be analysed’ ether for months until I was satisfied it made sense. Rob Wallet’s motivations, however, are a different matter. I know where he’ll be at the end of book five, and the end of the TotenUniverse, but why he’s there is still a mystery to me.
Equally mysterious, was the coming together of Wallet and Elaine Daley in Toten Herzen Malandanti. In the first book Wallet was terrified of Daley and Daley hated Wallet. I was as surprised as he was when she approached him in the village of Portinscale and left him on the ground with his manhood still intact. For three novels I wondered why Elaine had done that and how her new relationship with Wallet could exist, but again, confidence growing in the narrative working itself out, I found the answer by the time I wrote There Will Blood. The reason left me in tears (and I was in a cafe at the time with a total stranger sat in the chair opposite me.)
It’s an amazing feeling when it happens, when a plot strand resolves, when it all comes together and makes sense. Sometimes external forces intervene: without discovering Canadian band Au4 in an episode of Continuum, The One Rule of Magic might never have been written and from that a new exciting storyline involving Frieda Schoenhofer and Rob Wallet. Is all this some kind of cosmic confluence? Did I choose to call the final novel Revelation or was it chosen for me? I hope not, that sounds a bit too apocalyptic.
But sometimes I can see where the pantsers are coming from, leaving the story to drive itself, carrying the author on a mystery tour. I remember one bit of authorial advice that did make sense: if the story surprises the author it stands a good chance of surprising the reader. If I don’t know how the TotenUniverse concludes, how can the reader know unless they guess lucky? There are cleverer people than me out there and I’m sure I’ll never be able to outwit the lot of them, but at least this way I know if I don’t surprise anyone else I’ll at least surprise myself. And I like it that way.