When I decided I was going to be a writer I had the same attitude as Snoopy. I didn’t exactly start off with ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ but I felt the only way to keep my reader’s attention was to be as dramatic as possible. It was a romantic novel, so I wanted it chock full of all the best stuff I could possibly think of.
I gave my characters dramatic names, Rock and Sian (Rock????? What was I thinking?) (and Sian? How many people outside Wales know how to pronounce Sian?) I put them in a lush place (an island in the Caribbean). I made him a pirate who was a property developer on the side (glamour and wealth, you see) and her a proud but virginal librarian. I even had a dissolute Hollywood film star as the sexy beast who comes between them. How could I possibly fail?
The answer to that one of course, is, how could I not? It was a complete mess. I was so taken up with assembling all these marvellous elements, that I completely forgot about my characters’ feelings. I rode roughshod over them. I made my librarian go windsurfing, when really, all she wanted was a cup of tea and a lie-down. I made my pirate fall for a woman who might know the Dewey Decimal System backwards, but couldn’t even find her way to her own hotel bedroom. In any case it was obvious that he would much rather use his dark brooding charm on the hotel receptionist. And as for old Hollywood sexy boots; why on earth was he waylaying a colourless limey when every woman he met (apart from her) was throwing herself at his feet? Why indeed.
The point of course is that you don’t construct stories by just chucking stuff together. You start with one character, what they look like, how old they are, where they live, what their secrets are – and who they are keeping these secrets from. That way, everything pretty much falls into place.
If I were going to do the decent thing, I would go back to that original manuscript of mine and liberate those characters, stuck helplessly for the last 20 years in a haunted plantation house in the middle of a storm. I would allow Sian to find an old sofa to sleep on for the night, before ringing the police in the morning and getting back in time for her trip home to Bracknell. Rock could stumble about for a bit and then get knocked unconscious by a banging shutter (they always have banging shutters in storm-tossed Caribbean houses) to be awoken by the Hollywood sex god bathing his face. And they could live happily ever after running an interior design service in LA. There. Sorted. Sorry it took so long.