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Catherine Bruton: Killings Your Darlings

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I’ve got the pleasure of introducing Catherine Bruton to ThirstForFiction as part of her I Predict a Riot blog tour. Catherine is also the author of We Can Be Heroes and Pop!, as well as writing regularly for national newspapers. Take it away Catherine!

I’ve never committed murder before. Neither in real life (obviously!) nor on the page. So when I got an email from my editor suggesting I kill off my favourite character, it came as a bit of a shock.

So, here’s how it works. I’d come up with the idea for I Predict a Riot whilst watching the streets of my London neighbourhood burning in the summer of 2011. The idea of three kids from very different backgrounds all of whom become involved in the riots for very different reasons, came to me. I was writing something else at the time but this idea gripped me like a fever and it seemed to demand to be written.

So I wrote the first few chapters in a frenzy and sent them to my editor and agent along with a synopsis. They all loved it and they got together for a meeting (at which I wasn’t even present!) to discuss the project. This is how things work in publishing sometimes. I know – weird, huh!

Anyway the next thing is I get an email saying, ‘Maggie could be tormented by guilt at her role in the death of x,’ (Names have been omitted to protect the plotline – if you want to find out who dies, you’ll have to read the book!).

I did a double take. Had my favourite character just been murdered – in a single sentence – at a meeting that I didn’t even attend?

It’s a funny old thing when your editor signs the death warrant for a favourite character. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a little cry. I mean, I know they say you have to ‘kill your darlings’ to be a great writer but I’d always assumed that was metaphorical – sometimes you have to cut passages/chapters that you love because they don’t serve the book as a whole – not doing your characters in!

And I’d never killed before (on paper or in real life, I’d like to add!) I hadn’t even planned on a tragic ending. In fact I’d wanted the book to be younger, funnier – more Frank Cottrell Boyce (whom I adore, by the way). But as I started to write, I’d found the book had other ideas. It wanted to be more like Pigeon English or The Outsiders or Top Boy or The Knife that Killed Me – and it kept tugging me in that direction. I have this theory that books are a bit like horses – or toddlers – they might allow you the illusion of being in control, but they know who’s boss really.

Luckily my editor is a bit of a ‘novel-whisperer’ and she realised quicker than I did where this book needed to go. It is a story about gangs, and guns and knife crime – and to do that justice she felt that the book needed to be a bit older, the plot less straightforward, she suggested introducing an element of first love – and she knew that not all the characters could survive if the book was to have maximum impact.

Filled with murdering qualms, I turned to Facebook and Twitter and was immediately inundated by replies from other authors telling me how much fun it was to kill characters. You’d be surprised by the blood lust in the literary world, actually!

I was also overwhelmed with suggestions as to how to do the poor kid in – some more implausible than others, I may add!

So I set out to plan the perfect murder. And it is murder – make no mistake about it. I even tell the reader on page one that someone’s going to die – but I just don’t tell you who.

They say you should ‘write about summer when you’re in winter’, so even though the story is set in a park in one of the most deprived estates in South London, I wrote the scene on a beach in Cornwall on a blisteringly hot day, sobbing as I wrote. And it is perhaps the best scene I’ve ever written.

I took inspiration from the death of Piggy in Lord of the Flies (because I Predict a Riot was inspired by Golding’s classic too – I explained how in one of my previous posts!). Golding has this brilliant way of pulling back the focus after the murder in an almost cinematic way – like the camera is zooming out from the scene, looking down on it from a distance, from far above. Chaucer does it too – in ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ when Troilus dies at the end (listen to me, sounding more high-brow by the minute!) It’s a device used by some of the best movie makers too. And I totally steal it for I Predict a Riot.

So I killed my darling. And it turned out to be one my favourite writing experiences ever. Every time I read that scene I cry buckets (and I’m a writer who needs a lot of editing before I get things right so I’ve read the scene a LOT of times) and once I’d got a taste for blood I added another stabbing into the story for good measure – although I’m not telling you whether that one is fatal or not!

So now I’ve got a taste for murdering characters who knows what might happen in future books … watch out, darlings, here I come!

About Rhys

Rhys is a 19 year old with roots in the UK and Germany. Aside from reading and blogging, he also produces theatre, loves Kate Bush and hopes to pursue a career in publishing. His reviews have been widely quoted in books such as Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet, Catherine Bruton’s Pop!, James Treadwell’s Advent and Anarchy and he has presented at such events as Book Expo America.

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