Planner or ‘pantser’: is it really one or the other?

In the past few weeks I’ve been getting into the next book, the fifth one. When I began the first one A Good Liar seven years ago, I had no idea of the implications of being a planner or a ‘pantser’ (it’s a ghastly term, isn’t it, but aptly described the exercise of writing ‘by the seat of your pants’). It turned out I was a ‘pantser’ who really should have planned more. The first draft of A Good Liar was a terrible mess and took two years to sort out. Even now it feels more of a dog’s breakfast than I’m really happy about. It sells well as the first part of the trilogy, although I sometimes wish it didn’t!

After that difficult experience I decided I would plan in much greater detail, and do try to do so, but with this latest book I’m realising yet again that however careful the plan, it won’t hold together as soon as you start writing. Writing involves immersion in the characters and their world. It’s trite to say that they take over and do unexpected things, but sometimes that’s what happens, and the carefully programmed story veers off into something else. These deviations from the plan are not u-turns, more like scenic diversions, but when they come along they are welcomed, not disapproved of. So does that make me an inadequate planner? I don’t think so.

Writing is like life, complex, varied, and predictable only up to a point. That’s what makes both of them so enjoyable. I have an outline for each chapter which gives me a sense of direction, but every few chapters I amend it, adding a chapter or removing one, introducing a new idea or nuance in a conversation or a scene to drive the story more convincingly even though the direction may not radically change. Without any plan, I’m lost. With too rigid a plan, things get stale and formulaic. So I hover happily between the two stances, – an ‘organic shaper’. That phrase sounds like environmentally friendly underwear: there must be a better term for my mixed approach to novel writing. All suggestions welcome.

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What’s wrong with ‘trends’ in publishing, or anything else?

Sometimes a thought arrives by a very circuitous route: this one started with reading ‘Lancashire Life’, one of those glossy mags that abound in England and mirror the lives of that tiny fraction of the population that can afford what lies within. As I am not one of that tiny fraction, I bought a copy last month because they were running a review of my first crime novel ‘Cruel Tide’ and I was chuffed and curious. The book page was at the back and what struck me as I leafed through to find it was the number of advertisements for wedding venues, bridal shops, ‘mother-of-the bride’ shops and so on. This in turn prompted memories of some recent family weddings where the purpose of the exercise seemed to have been lost in a morass of unnecessary and costly rituals, mostly imported from the US. That experience, reinforced by the countless wedding industry adverts made me wonder, yet again, about what drives people to want what others have, and to do what others do, rather than stick to what they feel comfortable with. Why do we ape others rather than represent our true selves?

The more I see of the publishing industry, the more of a ‘business’ and less of a creative enterprise it seems to be, at least currently. My impression is that the current obsession with ‘fads’ is relatively recent, probably since the acquisition of money to stay afloat in troubled times became the main imperative. Editors and publishers are no longer the gatekeepers of quality in this enterprise. Their role has been replaced by the agent, a mediator between the writer and her means of public expression, who lives by taking a percentage of the writer’s earnings. If your livelihood depends on the certainty of financial success, and the people you are selling to are also risk-averse, all of you are intensely concerned with finding books that will sell big and sell fast, creating and then riding a public wave which is powerful but transient, a wave to be surfed not a long-distance ocean swell.

This is the breeding ground of trends, fads, fashion, whatever term you choose. Everyone in the book business is now on the look out for sure things, and the only evidence they have to use is the last sure thing. If we analyse what made the last successful book popular and replicate it, then we might catch the wave before it fades and make some money. The problem for books is that they cannot, or should not, be written fast. If you want to catch the wave, you haven’t got time for a book to be written. Instead you go yet again through the pile of stuff you already have, looking for the desired combination of criteria. Speed is of the essence. No time to read more than a chapter or two, if that. Agents talk constantly about ‘falling in love’ with a book as their only criterion for choosing one book over another. This has to be a ‘coup de foudre’ not a long, measured appreciation. Quick flick: does it have the necessary genre features that the last best-seller had? Does it fit the bill? Is the author photogenic and have a good story? Can we sell this big and fast? If so, let’s go. If not, throw it back onto the ever-mounting slush pile.

I know it’s not as simple as this, but to someone on the outside of the conventional book business looking in, this is how it feels. Writing and publishing a book, like planning a wedding, can be an expression of your approach to life and your individual values. Or it can be a way of demonstrating how fashion conscious and competitive you are. The big fashionable wedding will get into the glossy magazines, where the wedding planners’ choices and expenses will be scrutinised by others. And the publishers’ choice of a handful of manuscripts, which are then lavished with expensive editorial and promotional support, will get noticed by the book business cogniscenti, which then adds to the hype and presumably increases sales. Fads and fashions create a barrier between the ‘in-crowd’ and the ‘out-crowd’: the in-crowd are necessarily and frenetically peer conscious and competitive, while self-publishing outsiders like myself are free to follow our own paths with some chance of staying true to ourselves.

 

 

Do I need a specialist crime fiction editor?

Two things have prompted this question. The first was a response from a well-known crime writer I asked to read ‘Cruel Tide’ a few weeks ago. I was pleased that he said some positive things about it, but he ended his note with words to the effect that I needed a specialist editor. I thought about what that implied, but then put it out of my mind in the flurry of activity leading up to publication.

The second nudge to my thinking about this question has arrived today. This evening I do my first public outing of the new book,at the library in Ulverston, and I’ve thinking about what to say. Why did I turn to crime fiction after the character-driven trilogy that preceded it? What does crime fiction entail, and what have I learned from this experience? The remark about a specialist editor came back to mind and now I’m thinking harder about it.

The role and function of an editor is always tricky for someone like me who’s written a lot over the years and always alone. Many education writers do their work collaboratively, sharing ideas, reading each other’s stuff, getting feedback as they go. I never did. I wrote, read it over a few times, made some adjustments and that was it. Only with the final education book, about school progression for the Canadian market, did I write with others and then have an editor employed by the publishers. I didn’t expect the editor to change much, but she did and all of it for the better, not about the content but in terms of the clarity and economy of expression. I analysed the changes she suggested and learned a great deal about how to write more clearly.

The role of editor, it seems to me, is three-fold: first there is ‘content’ editing. For a novel, this is the story edit, that looks at structure and character and chronology, how the whole thing flows and fits together. Then there’s the way that meaning is communicated, the structure of a paragraph or a sentence. Finally there’s the proof read, checking spelling, punctuation, speech marks and so on. All three functions have been undertaken in my books so far by the same person, a friend who has worked in publishing for decades, but almost exclusively with non-fiction. As a reader and book group member she’s analysed my stories in their various iterations, suggested changes, and pointed out anomalies or others mistakes to be ironed out in the final drafts. She would not describe herself as an expert fiction editor and she has – as far as I know – no links with current fiction publishers.

I’m hesitating to go back to my crime writer colleague and asks him what a specialist editor could do that my current editor can’t. He’s a busy bloke, and I’ve probably imposed on his time enough already. I did follow up with a phone call to a specialist editor he knows, and during the conversation what became clear was not so much the editing function as the networking that lay behind it. The person I was speaking to was well-connected, to other crime writers, to agents and publishing houses. She lived at the other end of the country and was already very busy, so I took it no further, but I was left still wondering what this editor could do for me.

I was back yet again to the issue of genre and the specialised protocols that seem to apply to different genres, and even sub-genres. Obviously a crime writing specialist editor would be more familiar with these protocols than me. She/he would know the insider tricks of the trade that would distinguish my book, and make it more interesting to an agent who would probably also specialise in crime fiction. Editor and agent would have a shared language and recognise my attempts to join that club.

The idea of this shared understanding and its unwritten rules is not attractive for me. It plays to my innate and sometimes unhelpful aversion to following rules of any kind that I don’t understand or see the point of. I still ask myself, what do readers really want? Do they get a buzz from seeing how the crime fiction rules are followed in different contexts and with different protagonists. Do they smile in appreciation as they recognise the genre features that they expect as soon as something is described as ‘crime fiction’? Do they only ever look on the crime and mystery shelves of the library or the bookshop?

The front and back covers, and the offending hand.

‘Cruel Tide’ is not classic crime fiction, as far as I can judge. It doesn’t have the closed group of potential suspects, or a single dysfunctional detective with a drink problem, or even a genius problem solver. The story is propelled by the characters as much as by ‘events’. There is no final reveal that ties up loose ends and looks ahead to a certain future. The goodies do not necessarily triumph. What would a specialist editor have made of all this, I wonder? If the advice was to follow the rules of the genre more carefully, how would I react? It’s my story after all. If the editor told me that an agent or a potential publisher would expect me to do things differently, I’m not sure I would have warmed to that advice. I’m too old and too awkward, and I’ve chosen to self-publish with all its attendant risks rather than chase any commercial publishers’ approval. If it doesn’t work, so be it.

But still, the notion of a specialist story editor lurks in my head. If I could learn from that interaction, it’s probably something I should do, for myself, but it would have to be someone I respect, and I’d offer no guarantees about my response. Maybe I’ll wait and see the reaction to my first crime novel and go from there. I need feedback, people: specific, considered, detailed feedback and suggestions about alternatives before I embark on the next book in what will probably be a series, although I’m not sure how many more books I want to write. It’s hard work!

Genre cliche and sex

As you may remember from previous posts, dear reader, I’ve always struggled with the notion of ‘genre’. I’m not keen on stereotypes generally, and genre has often seemed a rather lazy and delimiting way of categorising a book, to make it easier for booksellers to know which shelf to put it on. As a writer of regional/local women’s commercial historical fiction, my irritation may be understandable. ‘Fiction’ is OK, but the rest of the labels are perjorative, and it’s particularly galling when the ‘local’ label condemns my books to the bottom shelf or the back room alongside books about copper mining in Victorian Cumberland.

After a trilogy in the ‘regional/local women’s commercial historical fiction’ category, I decided to try crime fiction, which I read much of myself and have always enjoyed. As usual, I began by trying to learn about this mode of writing, and enjoyed a day at Crimefest in Bristol last summer, to immerse myself briefly and see what I could pick up. Part of it reminded me of a weekend spent at the Gilbert and Sullivan festival in Buxton the previous year. At both events everyone seemed to know everyone else, except me of course, and there was an air of shared language and complacent jollity, with much kissing and expressions of joy. Even the names at Crimefest had a certain pattern: I was struck by the number of Camilla’s and Jocelyn’s, for example, of whom we see very few in West Cumbria. That must be a cultural habit emanating from London. 

The workshop with Matthew Hall and Bill Ryan was really good, as I’ve mentioned before, and focussed mainly on the 3 act structure, that was new to me and quite challenging, which I liked. There was also the interesting idea of a parallel between the external crises in the plot and internal personal crises for the protagonist. I could see how the best of what I’ve read reflected this dual thread. I could also see how the main characters required some personal demons that made them more interesting and vulnerable, and also generated mistakes, false assumptions and some of the blind alleys and red herrings of good crime stories. 

The crime fiction shelves,and especially the Nordic noir variety, are full of depressed, lonely, single men with fraught personal relationships and alcohol problems. When does a recurring idea become a cliche? You can change gender, as MR Hall has bravely done, but still end up with the same formula: Hall’s female coroner is depressed, lonely, single etc etc. Or you can give your hero a very particular setting, as with Bill Ryan’s Korolev in Stalinist Russia, and make him a more sympathetic character, but surround his intrinsic goodness with potentially overwhelming conspiracy and evil doings. 

There is a general absence of joy among current crime fiction ‘heroes’, which inevitably affects one of the genre cliches, the requirement to include at least one sexual encounter. We are led to believe that sex in fiction increases sales. And sex does appear to be de rigeur these days in crime fiction, which is quite a challenge when many of the current protagonists, however physically attractive they may be, are deeply depressed. They are drawn to the most unlikely and unsuitable people, sometimes against all their better instincts, although the apparently inevitable sexual encounter is often described in unspecific euphemisms. We should be grateful for that at least : anything more graphic might be too grotesque. Incidentally, this feature of the genre was never mentioned in Hall and Ryan’s admirable workshop, but there it is in their books.  

So here’s my dilemma as a novice crime writer. Do I absorb the lessons from my more experienced and successful peers and include the obligatory sex scene, even inferentially, or do I eschew it in the interests of the reader’s digestion and stick to the crime stuff – the ‘meat and potatoes’ without the gravy? Much will depend on how I choose to draw my main characters, and I’ve already decided on a rather wild and perverse young woman who finds herself collaborating with a more conventional young man with a less intuitive and more procedural approach. One woman, one man, both relatively young and unattached. The reader’s expectation of sex might be high, but does it have to happen? If a sexual encounter is part of the genre cliche, it would have to be simultaneously provoked by too much alcohol in her case and uncharacteristic lust from him. I could engineer that I suppose by some tricksy plotting, but do I really want to? Is it not possible that two people of different genders can work together without sex? I remember my mother telling me gravely that such a thing was not possible. ‘They’re all the same, dear,’ she said (meaning all men). ‘They only want thing. It’s in their nature.’ I have no clear opinion on this issue.

In each book of my earlier trilogy there was some sex, but I maintain that it was a product of, and necessary to, the development of a character-driven plot. In the current foray into crime fiction, the same must apply. If neither plot nor character would generate a sexual episode naturally, by its own volition, then it won’t happen. Part of me is quite relieved. Trying to write with commitment about something implausible is too difficult. I’m grateful too that as a self-published author I’m under no external pressure to increase sales by giving way to this particular genre cliche. No editorial or marketing voice is whispering in my ear to include something I don’t feel the need for. 

This is not to say that in future books, even those with the same characters, sex might not arise plausibly and find a place in the story. But genre cliche alone will not be enough. If we rightly criticise cliche in other aspects of writing, we shouldn’t let the obsession with genre lead to formulaic structures and plots. If that makes them less likely to be best-sellers, so be it. Most of us will never make a full living from writing anyway, so we might as well hang on to our self-respect and avoid cliche in all its forms.

Aversion to formula, or mere perversity?

There’s a book I brought with me on this trip. A real book, not the virtual ones I loaded onto my ipad before I left to save the weight. This real book I want for reference, not for reading: I want to scribble on it, turn pages down, use a leaky highlighter, do all the damaging things we do with real books that makes us possess them and feel part of them. Trouble is I haven’t opened this book yet even though I’ve been away for nearly three weeks and have had plenty of opportunity. I could be reading this book now instead of sitting here writing about why I’m not doing so. Something about this book is putting me off.

The book is about writing crime fiction. I bought it because I want to try this genre and my academic upbringing says that you should do research before you start a new project. So I bought the book, to find out how to do it. What am I afraid of? Part of it is that I have an exaggerated aversion to doing as I’m told. If someone says that this is the way to do something I instantly want to do something else. Part of it also is that I read too much crime fiction and recognise the formulas, which I don’t want to replicate. I don’t want to create a middle-aged protagonist with a dysfunctional family and a destructive personality, even though these create fruitful dramas to spice up the narrative and give it ‘depth’. I don’t want to hide ‘clues’ for earnest readers to find, or to divert the same earnest readers from a final chapter revelation. I don’t want to wrap everything up neatly at the end, tied with a ribbon or a rope, a prison cell or a gun.

And there’s something else I want to avoid. I don’t want to write about graphic violence, and I would love to avoid any violence against women altogether. Oh, and did I say I would like my crime fiction to win prizes and sell big?

If I could stop wittering and read the book on writing crime fiction all these immature assumptions about the genre might be exposed as immature assumptions, and I would be so relieved and inspired that I would start plotting and planning immediately. Or not. Maybe, seriously, I should think first and then read how it’s supposed to be. Reading the book might be easier, but I think I need to let this ‘cognitive dissonance’ fester for a little longer. That’s what I think right now. By next week I may have changed my mind. That’s what comes of being perverse.

Highsmith: of course. I need to read Highsmith. Any other genre-busting suggestions?