A lot of talking about writing ponders and circles around the mysteries of inspiration: the genie, the zone, the muse, the cloud of unknowing, the necessity for darkness or music, the fetishism about notebooks or mascots, the alcohol, the drugs, the digging in the garden, the long country walks, the endless games of patience (Heyer's preferred method, along with 'a little gin and benzedrine'). Some of the best-selling - and best - how-to books, including Brande's Becoming a Writer and Cameron's The Artist's Way, are all about such things, and the hands-down winner in the Most Often Asked Festival Question stakes is 'Where do you get your ideas from?' It's the great, and therefore fascinating, mystery.
Since it's easy to believe (not helped by the publisher's need/desire for high-concept, elevator-pitch promotions) that all writing a novel takes is a brilliant idea, writers then spend much of the school visit/festival session talking about how hard they work to cut and shape and re-cut and polish the idea. Or they talk about how we let characters walk in and misbehave, or find the ending was quite different from what we expected. (Dodie Smith said this of I Capture the Castle. How I'd love to know what she did expect!) Good writing courses, such as the Open University one I'm teaching, start by exploring how you find the material for your work - freewriting, clustering, keeping a notebook and what to note - and then tackle the cutting and shaping. In other words, even if there's lots of toing and froing between them, everything tends to assume that, fundamentally, inspiration comes first, and technique later.
It's undeniably true, at the fundamental level: you can't shape an idea till you've had it. But, just as I was arguing that you could ask your talent what it wants to work on, rather than expecting it to do its best with whatever you want to write about, maybe we should stand this idea, too, on its head occasionally. Maybe it's not always a matter of inspiration first, then technique.
Well, to be honest, there's no 'maybe' about it, at least not as far as I'm concerned, because I know that I've done things in my writing which began as cold-blooded, technical decisions, but became part of how the cloud of unknowing condensed into a whole world for the reader. For example:
1) One of the comments on The Mathematics of Love which was made, in passing, by one of the Glamorgan tutors was that all the sex in it is good sex, which she felt was a bit unreaslitic. At the time I probably just looked smug, but the comment must have stuck, perhaps even stung, because I was about a third of the way through what wasn't yet A Secret Alchemy when it occurred to me that so far this, too, had only had good sex. Time for not, I hope, a bad sex scene, but rather a scene of bad sex. Sorry, Una, but if you're in love with someone who isn't in love with you, and you're twenty and a virgin and someone else is desperately keen, wouldn't you? And would it be wonderful? Most unlikely. And a couple of readers have said it's one of their favourite scenes.
2) More recently, I realised that a character in the work-in-progress, who hardly appears but sets off the whole plot, had dropped out of view. This is not only unlikely in terms of realistic plotting (and if I told you any more about why, I'd have to kill you) but is also a bad practice from the storytelling point of view. Real life may be full of random appearances and disappearances, but storytelling is all about making patterns and connections: there's a basic assumption in the reader that everything in the book will tie up, will make sense as part of a whole. On the other hand, I can't have this character cluttering up my plot, since it's already planned, in a chamber-opera sort of way, for a small number of characters we know very well. So the poor bloke had better turn up dead. Murdered, in fact. No bad thing, either, to crank up the sense of danger, of latent violence, specially in a part of the book which is, perforce, a lot about talking and planning and not so much about action. Now, which chapter is quietest? Which could do with a body in a ditch? Let's have a look at my grand spreadsheet plan...
3) When I started work on The Mathematics of Love I already had the voice for Stephen, my 1819 narrator, as well as his letters and much of his backstory. And so for the parallel, 1976 strand I needed a narrator who would contrast with him as clearly as possible. That was partly because the whole parallel project was to cast light from different angles on the same questions - transgressive sex, lost children, voyeurism and so on - and different angles need different eyes and minds to see them. But it was also because one of the dangers in alternating first-person narratives (or alternating limited third-person narratives, come to that) is that the reader wakes up in the middle of a page and realises that they've no idea where they are. The more different in every way my two narrators were, the less likely that was to happen. So, Stephen was male, old in experience if not in years, melancholic, gentle, horrified by his own latent capacity for violence, compassionate, faithful, and frozen by a lost, ideal love. I needed a female, very young, resentful, stroppy, horrified by others' capacity for victimhood, promiscuous, and doesn't do the children thing, any more than she does the falling-in-love thing. I called her Anna, and off we went. The cold-blooded decision was even at the level of their sentences. Both think in long sentences, because I do, but they're very different: Stephen's are balanced, grammatically sophisticated, syntactically flexible and full of antitheses, while Anna's are looser, simpler, jointed by commas and lollop along with a series of 'ands'.
Of course it goes without saying (or I hope it does), that I wouldn't have stuck with these or half a dozen other cold-blooded decisions I could name (if I could remember them), if they hadn't worked out in practice. The test of a good idea for your work is how well it curls in among all the others. Indeed, perhaps it's because they worked out that I can't remember most of them: the goal of the writer is to melt inspiration and technique together, so that the reader experiences the story as a single whole. The last thing I want is for readers to see the component threads - research, technique, inspiration, borrowing - of my story separate out. And even if a reader chooses to separate them out later (and I won't pretend I don't enjoy seeing my writing heard so thorougly) I hope the threads curl themselves back together into a rope as thick and strong as ever. But which thread was made how and for what reason shouldn't - needn't - doesn't make any difference, once the tale is spun.