One of my responsibilities as an agent is to try to predict the future. A career as an author is an insecure one: however hard we try to get everything right, my clients don’t know how many copies they will sell of their next novel; whether it will find critical acclaim; what they will be paid for the next contract; sometimes even if there will be one. So they often ask me what might lie round the corner. When we make decisions together, they usually only do so once I have mapped out all possible outcomes of our actions.
Fortunately, predicting the future is something at which I have had a good deal of practice. The first worrier of the family, the eldest child; in my case I wasn’t very old when I stopped revelling in the present moment, the way children do. As an adult, I like to surround myself with people who are better at living in the Right Now than I am (including as many children as possible at any one time, behaving as chaotically as they can, because when children abandon all awareness of consequence, it’s an infectious state of mind. What do you mean someone will have to pick all this glitter up off the floor? Not now they don’t!)
Predicting future events is an addictive activity for all the great plotters on my client list. They guide their stories sure-footedly to the final destinations they spotted, far off in the distance, 80,000 words earlier. Agents and publishers love to know where a book is going: my clients and I work on lengthy documents entitled ‘What Happens Next’ for submission with all partial manuscripts. “Do you have a synopsis (including the ending please)?” is an essential query I make of would-be clients.
But then there are those authors who hate to know at the outset how their novels will end. One of my clients tells me that if she knew how her book would end, she would lose all interest in travelling through it herself. The igniting spark for such writers might be a set of characters or a situation, rather than a plot idea. They invent characters they believe in and put them into dramatic situations and then… see what they do.
Every author’s challenge is to create characters who remain consistently themselves; personae who can act as catalysts for believable action. However poorly the characters may know their own selves, the writer must know them well enough to predict their behaviour in all the situations into which she will throw them. In the world of the novel, character is our compass: we rely on the author to keep North where North should be throughout the journey.
So much more reliable than life. In real life, try as I might to predict what the future holds for my clients, I don’t always guess correctly. All I can do in those situations is help to invent a back-up plan: a second route through to an author’s happy ending (new name, new book, new publisher…). Because of course, whilst we may have all sorts of ideas about where life might be taking us, and how to get there, and who we are; the older we get, the more most of us realise how naive we are in our understanding of what life holds in store. Yes, some of us find the answers early on. But most of us aren’t likely to end up quite where we expected or imagined we would. And the journey between here and there isn’t one we know; it isn’t one we’ve travelled before.
A great storyteller finds the balance between mapping carefully ahead on the one hand and letting characters take the lead on the other; between predicting events and just writing, seeing where it takes him or her. Although we think we’d like to know how it will end, too much foreknowledge lessens the joy that lies in life’s revelations. We don’t want to lose the ability to surprise ourselves, or to become afraid of effecting change. Sometimes, we just have to keep writing, and see where it takes us.