I plot novels like a bank robbery. Get a plan, assemble a crew, assign them their jobs, then hit the bank, hard and fast – in, out, no-one gets hurt. Then, inevitably, someone turns left instead of right and everything goes horribly wrong.
My current protagonist, Rousse, is an orphan indentured into a travelling circus and freak show, one that offers the usual entertainments but which also engages in a series of much more profitable, and violent, crimes. Rousse wants to escape. He hates the circus, he hates what he does, he hates those that control his every move, he hates himself. He’s fed up with his life, the brutality, the pain and the guilt. With few safe prospects outside the circus, he’s close to topping himself.
He is, in other words, a character who should do what he’s told and go where you want him to. Unfortunately, the bugger’s developed the kind of bravery that comes with having no hope. Which means that when I suggest he not mention various plot points to the other members of the circus for the purposes of dramatic tension, he ignores me and tells them anyway. His whole life is dramatic tension and pain, so keeping secrets to reveal later as new turning points strikes him as pointless.
Another case in point. Sparrow. She’s been kidnapped and had her brain operated on by the Professore - a sociopathic Mengele type - who converts girls to Nightingales, freaks who can sing like angels and do nothing else. Lobotomised, they are cared for by the other freaks, and are objects of mingled pity and wonder as the only parts of their brains left functioning are connected to their vocal cords. But the Professore’s neurosurgery isn’t perfect, and when Sparrow emerges from her locked-in syndrome, the personality that emerges from this delicate singing angel emerges less like a butterfly from a chrysalis than a bull entering a china shop just before closing late on Christmas eve.
Can I suggest she go easy on Rousse, bearing in mind his depressive and pre-suicidal inclinations? Can I urge her to some restraint considering his self-loathing? Can I bollocks. No, she’s been stuck inside her brain watching and learning and falling in love and she’s buggered if she’s going to wait to tell Rousse how she feels. Can I stop her going to the one person she shouldn’t go near, let alone make demands of - the sinister and violent circus owner Mister Splinter? Can I suggest she not get a sniper rifle and climb on the roof of a moving trailer to take out a helicopter in the middle of a fire-fight so she can protect Rousse?
You can see what I’m dealing with here. The three-act structure means nothing to these people. I’m trying to rob a bank – I mean, write a novel, and they’re trying to live their lives and find meaning and happiness. I find myself relegated to reportage as this mad troupe fight their way across Europe.
First Campbell Newman ditches the Premier’s Literary Awards – letting me know that my work is neither valued nor wanted, then my characters take over my manuscript.