Driving in the Dark

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as the headlights but you can make the whole trip that way. E.L.Doctorow.

Or can you? It struck me stumbling upon this quote the other day that there are two kinds of novelist. I'm not talking about the commercial/literary divide here. I refer to the two very different approaches to writing a novel of any genre.

A couple of good writer friends divide into two distinct camps. The first, let's call her Millicent, drives in the daylight. She knows her destination and never sets out without the sat-nav. Talented, hard-working, prolific, she'll wake up with a fully-formed plot in her head and away she goes. By the time she sits at the keyboard, she'll have a premise, main characters, motivation, key plot points, and a do or die moment to head towards. Millicent has seven novels, all cracking page-turners to her name and three more in the pipeline.

The second, Miranda, is the driving in the dark kind. Miranda had no idea what she was writing until she'd written the final paragraph. She locked herself away for three years, assembling fragments, wondering if they would ever fit together. Somehow they did, and to wonderful effect. She has just signed a contract with a top agent. I foresee a bright future for her.

So which approach is best? Neither one. It depends which works for you. Driving in the dark is not without its dangers. The beams from those headlights pick out all manner of strange shapes and shadows along the way. You may go round in circles. You may need to turn back halfway. If you don't keep the faith, you could wind up in the ditch. But the rewards when you reach the end may surprise you.

For my latest novel at least, I belonged in the second camp. 'The Testament of Vida Tremayne' was a Mystery Tour from the start. Where would it lead me? What would I find? There were many detours along the way, and when I finally arrived ,the destination was nothing like I'd imagined.

In the novel, writer Vida Tremayne is also driving in the dark, but without the headlights on. Big mistake. She finds things in that darkness that it's difficult to escape from.

Yet this darkness continues to beckon: 'Only in the darkness can I see the story' - Haruki Murakami. Where is the Narrative? It's in the dark - Margaret Atwood.

About to launch into writing my new novel, I plan to chart a middle course. This time I'll be driving not in the dark, but in the dusk. Less strain on the eyes, but just enough room in that mysterious half-light to find the unexpected.