The other day a nine year old critic asked me what my second book was going to be about.
‘Well,’ I said, trying to be as mysterious as possible. ‘It’s set on an island where it never stops raining.’
I jumped when he exploded into a loud ‘HAH!’
His face was smug with inside knowledge. Had I done something right without realizing it?
‘An island where it never stops raining,’ he replied triumphantly. ‘ENGLAND.’
Oh. He thought my book was based on the recent out-of-kilter, out-of-season, out-of-everything monsoon we’ve been experiencing in the United Kingdom.
Cheering in the Rain. This was my Olympic experience.
I had to explain that no, any similarity to the bad weather we’d been having was purely coincidental. It had been pouring on my fictional island way before the rain decided to hang around all Summer. I’ve been writing this novel for the past two and a half years.
Two and a half years.
Life was different when I started roughing out my story. I had yet to get a book deal and was desperate to get published. Meanwhile, Stephenie Meyer’s humongous hit Twilight was sinking its pointy teeth into the imaginations of the book-reading public.
I wanted a piece of that action, I thought. So I set out to write my own vampire novel.
Of course, like all writers trying to get into the vampire genre, I had to develop my own twist on the regulation blood-sucking but gorgeous hero (or heroine).
I found my own clever twist on vampires in my native Philippines – the manananggal: beautiful maiden by day who at night morphs into a horrible thing.
Leathery wings sprout from her shoulders and she is consumed by a powerful urge to feed on human blood. She fights the change but it’s no use, and a dark horror takes over, the wings flap, forcing her up, up. And then there’s a sickening tearing and separating as her body is ripped in two and she finds herself aloft on a hunt for prey, leaving the lower half of her body on the ground (pictured below is a manananggal figure from a Filipino theme park).
Surely a monster like that would give Stephenie Meyer a run for her money?
It was a great idea, if I might say so myself. Not original – because there were plenty of manananggal stories in the Philippines – but the rest of the world hadn’t experienced our monster yet.
A manananggal movie from the Philippines
I didn’t have a plot as such, just an idea. And I trusted – I HOPED – that the idea would somehow grow its own plot and give birth to its own characters.
So I lined up some characters:
A boy in trouble.
A girl with a secret.
A good baddy.
And then, for my setting: an island where it never stopped raining.
With all my ducks in a row, writing the story would be a cinch. Keep calm. Just write it, and three months later, voila, before you know it I should have that novel on my editor’s desk.
May I take a few minutes to indulge in hysterical laughter.
One of my writing heroes Ray Bradbury wrote in the foreword of his autobiographical novel Dandelion Wine:
Like every beginner I thought you could beat, pummel, and thrash an idea into existence. Under such treatment, of course any decent idea folds up its paws, turns on its back, fixes its eyes on eternity and dies.’
Which is exactly what happened to my original idea. I tried, believe me, to lead the characters in the direction I’d planned for them, to follow my master plan, design a framework on which I could hang the emotions of my characters.
But the story just didn’t want to go there. My boy character became irrelevant to the story. My girl with a secret lost her secret. My baddy just kept making me feel sorry for her. As for the manananggal …
I wrote (I thought) a brilliant reveal scene in which the monster flies into upper deck of a London bus. I promised myself that everything I wrote from there would lead to this big moment because this was what my book was all about.
But every path I forged withered to nothing. My characters didn’t want to go where I wanted them to go, straining and pulling, resisting my every attempt to direct them. The rain fell even harder on my fictional island, harder and harder, and a mountain rose, rain dripping from its crown, shadows on its slopes like eyes looking heavenward, tears streaming.
Secrets whispered in my dreams and words appeared on the page that I had never intended.
And as for writing a vampire story – I managed to use the word vampire once in the whole book … but no, the manananggal didn’t make it into the story. Sorry.
My recalcitrant characters went their own way. And I realized that I had no choice but to follow.
And then I found the pursuit increasingly urgent because, well, I couldn’t wait to see what they were going to do next.
Ray Bradbury wrote that his stories always came as a complete surprise. His described his writing process as a kind of word-association:
I simply got out of bed each morning, walked to my desk, and put down any word or series of words that happened along in my head.
I would then take arms against the word, or for it, and bring on an assortment of characters to weigh the word and show me its meaning in my own life. An hour or two hours later, to my amazement, a new story would be ﬁnished and done.
The surprise was total and lovely. I soon found that I would have to work this way for the rest of my life.
Sounds like this book came about in a similar haphazard way. I thought I had an idea, but my characters knew better. It took me more than a couple of years to finish and the final result… well, it’s totally unexpected.
I guess the surprise is on me. And Ray Bradbury is right, it’s kind of lovely.