My personal fascination in books is to look beyond the story, to those questions which fascinate the author – and hopefully the reader. I do love thumping good reads, with strong plots, character-driven action and preferably a breathless, adrenaline-filled finale. But what stays with me, as my heart rate returns to normal and my blood slows in my veins, are those questions. The deeper, never quite expressed but bubbling beneath the surface, themes.
As writers we all start at different points in our story – for some it’s a situation, a relationship, or even a great first line. And it’s usually as we work on something, revise and recraft the book that we start to see what we’re really writing about. What it is that makes this book worth reading beyond the plot and the characters. What’s at the heart of our fascination as a writer.
When I first started writing The Devil’s Poetry it was our relationship with books itself that drove me. My heroine Callie lives in our contemporary world, with a slight twist. The oil wars have kicked off and her world trembles on the brink of World War III. She and her friends, along with millions of other young people presumably, across the globe will be sent to fight. Their childhood is over. Maybe their lives too.
So when she is given an ancient manuscript and told that she can bring peace just by reading from this book, her choice seems simple.
When I started writing it was that relationship between Reader and text that fascinated me. How you and I can both read a book and yet imagine characters differently, understand different elements of it, create separate worlds in our heads and ultimately have completely different experiences. It is one of the most joyous elements of reading, that the novel really happens, not on the page, but in the ethereal interface between the page and the reader. As Callie finds, it is the Reader who really gives any book meaning.
Over time, however, my focus switched and I became more concerned with the choice that lies before her. We all dream of magical solutions to intractable problems. But would you dare to wield magic to change your world, without knowing the consequences? How desperate would you have to be to make a choice like that? How much would you need to know and how much would you have to trust the people around you to say yes?
And from there I found that I was looking at the nature of decision-making itself. Is it possible to ever make a good decision, truly, when we can’t ever know all the consequences? Is it possible to ever choose the right thing when we always have such imperfect information?
There are other issues which bubble under the surface of my novel but I’ll leave you to find those for yourself. The issue for us as writers, and readers, is always why? Why this novel? Why does this book deserve to be written, or read?
I had a boss years ago who always said: Every story needs to know why it’s being written.
What he meant was that once you knew why you had to commit this story to page, the structure and the storytelling techniques you would use, the elements you would include or leave out, would all fall into place. Once you know what a book is really about, you know what content and tools are relevant.
So I’ll leave you with that thought. When you next read a novel, or go back to writing your novel, ask yourself: what’s it really about? Not what happens, but the dark meditative heart of it. That’s where the real magic happens.
The Devil’s Poetry, by Louise Cole and published by Kindle Press, can be pre-ordered on Amazon Kindle now (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B06XWL4XPJ or https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XWL4XPJ) and launches on June 13. The paperback, published by Valkyrie Books will also be on sale in June.