When I started Chapter 2 of Dark Farm, I was expecting Dylan to be the hero and main voice. He was the one everything happened to, so it made sense at the time to frame the story around his experiences.
It didn’t turn out that way. The main theme of Dark Farm is ‘the importance of family’ – but more than that, it’s a story of redemption. Dylan starts off being the surly, lazy depressive type and develops into someone more … but as I continued writing, I realised it’s his brother, Kane, who is truly redeemed. In a way, Dylan is swept along by events, and his development has a strong external drive. Kane’s change is almost all within himself. He doesn’t need to stick around and help his frustratingly idiotic brother; in fact, at various points in the story he wrestles with the idea of running away, and it’s this element of choice that makes his journey the more important – the more human. At this point, Dylan sighs a sigh of relief and withdraws into the background.
Chapter 2 nonetheless begins with Dylan and his parents as they meet Wilfred Waite. Kane wasn’t there when I first wrote it, which meant he simply wasn’t there. I couldn’t lie and insert him into the scene. (This is what’s known as letting your characters write your story. “Don’t lie and say I was there!” insists Kane, smacking me on the back of the head. “I was at home fixing my BMX bike!”)
Something I haven’t mentioned yet is that Dark Farm started off as a screenplay. I wrote it in a matter of weeks and then thought: what do I do with it? There’s little chance of a screenplay from an unknown author getting made into a movie, and no one reads screenplays. In truth, I loved the story; I’d fallen in love with the characters, and it was an easy decision to expand it into a novel.
What this means is that the story follows the classic three-act, eight sequence structure of a screenplay. Chapter 2 describes the status quo world of the protagonist. But I wrote an action-packed screenplay in which I I started setting up some of the ‘predicament’ and ‘inciting incident’ aspects of the story from the start (rather than writing one of those movies where the first 13 minutes show lovey-dovey families petting cats or revealing their petty familial grievances so we raise a forefinger in the air and say to ourselves, “Oh yes, I can empathise with that family/relationship/person). You’ll therefore notice a little danger and tension thrown into Chapter 2, as well as some hints of things to come.
In my first draft, Mike and Lauren Gates were the perfect 40-something couple who traded love and humour like teenagers throwing spit-balls at each other; they finished each other’s sentences, rolled their eyes good-naturedly at their ill-natured son, etc. But when I went in for the second draft, I hated them. I can’t tolerate smugness or happy couples who don’t notice, or take seriously, important things happening around them, like their son being depressed and withdrawn. They had to change.
How did they change? Well, I reminded them they used to have another son, who died. Like a lot of things that start off small or coincidentally, this plot point turned out to have significance throughout the book. I won’t say how at this point, but what I will say is that it’s important, when you’re introducing a plot point to achieve a set purpose, to integrate that plot point into the whole story – the more the better. You don’t want people being pulled out of the story by thinking, “Ah, that random thing happened to solve a plot problem – that’s cheating!”
I like doing the opposite of what people expect, as much as possible. Not only does it make a story more interesting, it forces me to be creative to make the unexpected convincing. A small example in Chapter 2 is Dylan walking the statue of Kragn across the arm of the chair. Here’s the biggest threat to the survival of the universe, and Dylan treats it like a Muppet. There’s also something a little bizarre in Dylan’s exchange with Wilfred (I hope). This becomes more apparent as their relationship develops.
One thing I’ll reveal about Wilfred Waite is that he (almost) always tells the truth. In my first draft he was deceptive – acting friendly, telling the Gates’ what he thought they wanted to hear, etc. But I decided I wanted him to be so narcissistic that he couldn’t help himself – he had to say exactly what he meant. This was hard to write, as the Gates’ had to hear him but not realise he was being serious.
A final point about my writing style: Because I started my career writing short stories, and won some awards, I was more confident writing stories than writing a novel. What’s come from this is that I tend to treat each chapter of my novel as a short story. They’re self-contained. They have an opening, middle and climax. There’s an arc to the chapter. Remember My Name had a lot of long chapters, but I decided with Dark Farm (in line with it starting life as a screenplay) that the chapters should be short – bite sized, as a zombie, werewolf, ghoul or ogre might say. It’s hard to change style like that, but I actually like the short chapter style, and will definitely continue that in Kragn Rises and the third (as yet untitled) novel.