My first full day writing workshop

I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks, and anxious about it too, and last Saturday, January 17th 2015 at Kendal library I led my very first full day writing workshop. And I really enjoyed it, although I was pretty exhausted when it was over: partly the several hours of concentration and partly lack of sleep the night before.

There were eleven in the group, small enough for conversation and large enough to benefit from a range of people. The range was hard to deal with too, as each person came with different prior writing experience, and therefore a range of wants and needs. It was quite a short day as the library didn’t open until 9.30am and closed at 3.30pm. We took a short lunch break but even so it was only about 5 hours once we’d got organised and started, and the challenge was trying to cover the long list of ‘aspects’ that I’d made. Some things went by the board when they didn’t appear in the group’s list of priorities: we mentioned ‘dialogue’ only briefly, for example, even though to my mind it’s essential to the pace and depth of a novel, to drive the story and to reveal character. I could probably have skipped or truncated the focus on the interaction between character, setting and story, but that was the first session and it was only at that time that the importance of the prior learning became obvious. Or maybe we needed to start with relatively familiar stuff just to get warmed up.

What really delighted me was everyone’s willingness to contribute and be honest about the struggle of both writing and getting published. I felt as if I was among friends, and in that safety people were open to new ideas and developing their story plans really quickly given the stimulus of good ‘what if questions’. We laughed and encouraged each other, and that was great.

The part of the day that seemed to resonate with all of us was about ‘structure’, not just the protocols of the 3 act structure which I didn’t do well explaining I fear, but the business of seeing a full-length fiction as a whole before starting to write the first draft. That doesn’t mean that every last detail is mapped out and immutable, but it does give you as the writer a view of the landscape before you start your journey. Maybe I enjoyed discussing this because it was what I lacked so woefully when I started my first novel, and was probably the reason why it took four years to complete. I learned the structure lesson the hard way, and took much more care with planning the second book. Now on book 4 I’m planning ahead in even more detail, but this is the first foray into crime fiction and the intricacies of the story are demanding more care at this early stage.

I suggested that we need to see the shape of the work all at once, rather than sequentially. To this end I put my early draft outline on paper or cards and lay them all out on the floor, or pin them on the wall, taking in the picture all at once, moving pieces around, seeing connections and possibilities that I hadn’t seen when the work was on screen or in one continuous piece. ‘Simultaneous visual display’: maybe it depends what kind of mind you have. I’m an abstract random thinker by preference, at least in the first instance, and need that overall picture before I can sort the pieces into an order.

Most – but not all – of the group wanted to talk about publishing, and I’d forgotten how depressing the conversation can be as one by one we told our stories of disinterest from agents, prejudice against self-publishing, the financial considerations, the time and the waiting, ineligibility for competitions and so on, and so on. I don’t regret the decision to self-publish and to invest my time, energy and money in the process but for people with less to invest it looks a pretty bleak picture.

As we concluded, however we want to get into print, the most important starting point is to have a really high quality piece of work, and for that we need to welcome editing. Family and friends mean well but their feedback isn’t enough. Getting professional critique seems to cost so much that it becomes another hurdle that blocks progress. One or two people asked if I would offer a critique, and although I have a professional interest in feedback my own experience of writing is still limited. So I agreed, but won’t charge anyone until I feel I can offer a service worth paying for. Already I fear the siren call of writing-related activities – running workshops, critique and feedback, advice on self-publishing – when what I most need and want to do is write my own stuff.

I’m taking a break from everything for the next two months to pursue a long-standing travel ambition, so I’ve got some time to think about it. When I get back in mid-March it’ll be straight into the first draft of book 4 (as yet untitled) to meet the deadline of August that I have set myself. So I’m disappearing from Twitter, blogs and all that for two months at least. I’m not sure that anyone will notice!

Clues, red herrings and ‘reveals’

The current novel is my first attempt at crime fiction, after reading tons of it over the past decades. Reading other authors’ crime fiction is easy: you can be self-righteously critical of too much information, too little information, too many clues, none at all, plot twists you can see coming a mile off and others so arbitrary you feel cheated. Oh yes, I can take other people’s work to pieces, but writing your own is a different story, literally.

To some extent, crime fiction can feel a bit formulaic. You go on the course and buy the book – the Arvon book on crime writing, for example – and see what protocols characterise the genre. But a perverse refusal to obey rules that I have always struggled with is getting in my way. If someone says, you need a 3 act structure I say ‘Really? Why?’. I’m working hard to overcome this unhelpful trait. So for now, as an novice in the field, I am following the structural conventions, but am still struggling with whether and how to hide clues, and pop in just enough false leads and red herrings (where on earth did that phrase come from?) to keep the reader on her/his toes.

Only got the outline so far, although it’s pretty detailed in parts and up to 18,000 words. The clues etc are in the outline, but because they’re in this truncated form they’re obviously standing out more than they should and hopefully more than they will when the full ms in in place. Those trusted few who are reading and providing feedback on the outline are counselling a lighter touch, and they’re probably right. I’m pleased with one false trail that serves to undermine the protagonist’s self-confidence, which always adds to the tension.

The new book is set in the recent past, and so has necessitated some research about details of the period, but I think I may be learning how to handle it as the obsession for authenticity isn’t looming as large in my mind as it did previously. Some details are essential of course, but I’m also trying to detach the action a little from its setting to avoid local readers feeling that their home turf is being traduced by bad people doing bad things. No-one minds recognising the local setting when the characters and their actions are benign, but I don’t think that will hold true when some of the people are pretty nasty.

The overall problem is how to balance the inferences with the need for twists and a ‘reveal’ towards the end. Classic examples of the genre require the main characters to be summoned finally by the hero detective who then rehearses the clues etc before finally revealing the baddy. I definitely can’t be bothered with that, but some final shocks are necessary. Too many clues may herald and reduce the impact of the shock, but if there are none, is the writer cheating? Maybe I read too fast and without sufficient thought, but sometimes I’m not prepared for the final reveal at all and don’t like that. Thinking about it, what really matters, even in crime fiction, is that we have to care about the characters, even if we don’t like them. What happens to them should matter to us: it’s not just a plot device. And we’re back to character driving the story as much as plot.

What I seem to be doing as the outline expands slowly into a first draft is putting in clues etc and then paring them back to the merest sliver of a passing detail that could be missed or noticed and remembered, so that the assiduous reader feels rewarded later for their concentration. Will it work? Hard to tell. The acid test is giving it to someone to read who’s never read any previous version or had any conversation about the plot. They have to come to it raw, as it were, and then tell me how satisfied or otherwise they feel. It’s going to be a while before I get to that stage.