Part 2: Hitting the wall… And getting round it
The first 10K words of Blood Will Be Born, and I’d wager any first novel, were fuelled by a sweet cocktail of incredulity and joy.
Nothing’s perfect mind you. Like many new born babies, first drafts can be ugly looking critters.
I’d got as far as Fryer waiting to be busted out of the Heights, Christopher visiting his Granny (he did not take her chocolates, even back then) and an overlong series of back and forth scenes that introduced us to Owen Sheen arriving in Belfast and Aoife McCusker waking up late. There was a flabby dream sequence in which Aoife had a premonition of Fryer’s shenanigans and the Prologue set in 1976 was nowhere in sight. I was not absolutely sure what Sheen was up to and Christopher was a cardboard cut-out whom I did not fully trust to come to life. But I was packed and excited ready for the journey.
Passengers are advised to check the departure board for updates.
I waited and watched, but no destination appeared on that board. Not even a gate number. I squeezed my conscious mind (probably the single worst starting point for novel writing) for ‘the story’, but found nothing.
I’d hit a wall.
In hindsight, this was perfectly understandable, because the story had not been written yet. You can see the nature of the problem. My way round the wall appeared when I stopped racking my brain for answers. I really did not know how the story would evolve, because, of course, it was not my story. It was Christopher Moore’s, Fryer’s, Sheen’s and Aoife McCusker’s world, and their story.
So I asked them. And that’s when things got back on course once more.
I knew what Christopher wanted to achieve, and when I started to think as he would think, however warped and unpleasant that was, I found an answer to the question of what happened next.
I wrote a chapter about a Northern Ireland Electricity employee nicknamed ‘The Cat’ O’Reilly who gets called to a substation on the outskirts of west Belfast I named the ‘Plug’. The scene was eventually edited out, but the substation explosion stayed, and formed a pretty integral part of what would later come to look like a plot. But in fairness, it never was. Christopher told me what would happen when I asked him the right questions, and for me, the best of them usually started with ‘How?’ or ‘What if?’
I was about half way through the novel when dissident Irish republicans detonated a bomb at an electricity substation on the outskirts of west Belfast (I thought I’d invented this Belfast ‘Plug’ but apparently not). Unlike in Blood Will Be Born, no-one was killed thankfully, and they failed in their attempt to black out the city and cause chaos.
Life imitating art, imitating life; that event gave me a shiver. But I’d be lying if I did not admit that I felt some excitement too. You see, it was evident that I’d got it right, that the novel would have the gritty authenticity that might just draw a reader in and leave them wondering, how much of this is true, or could be.
It’s a well-used maxim that you should write what you know, but when it comes to deep mine excavation on Mars or how one might demolish a fragile Irish Peace Process, that’s not always possible. But if your back’s against a cold brick wall and you can’t find a way through, my best advice is to ask your characters the right questions and follow their words.
It’s their story after all.