Who pulled the plug out?

Last week, little more than two months after starting it, I finished the first draft of a new novel. At just less than 90,000 words, it’s currently shorter than some of my crime novels, and my editor may suggest that it needs more depth in some places, more background, more whatever. But that’s the thing about a first draft: you write and write, revising as you go, letting the original plan founder in the wake of what comes out of your head. And when it’s done you stand back and look at it from a distance. That’s the time too when you ask someone else to have a look, as you’re too close to see it clearly.

The draft was zipped off to my editor, after one last re-reading and some tidying up. So now, I wait. It’s a curiously flat stage in the process. Day after day for several weeks I sat at the laptop for every available minute. Night after night details of the plot, unfinished business, unresolved anomalies, all reverberated round my brain.

analysis blackboard board bubble

 

My sleep suffered. Sometimes by morning I could see a way through to the next steps, sometimes the dilemmas turned out to be non-existent. But the damn thing occupied my head almost without respite until I never wanted to see it again.

 

And now it’s gone. For a day or two I was still fretting about it in the night, but then that wore off and here I sit, waiting, like a deflated balloon.

ground orange balloon deflated

I’m trying to do the things I put to one side while I was writing, but nothing feels important enough to bother with. Days that passed so fast are now dragging, not helped by a tendon strain that’s restricting my walking and exercise routines. It’s only a week since let the draft go, but it feels like a month and I’m impatient for some reaction. I know there’ll be re-writes to do, but what and how is still to be decided. 

When the last book was heading towards publication this time last year, I asked myself whether I ever wanted to do it again. The same question is on my mind now. I know there are so many other things in life I want to do: getting older certainly adds a sense of urgency. But right now nothing other than writing seems to provide the sense of ‘flow’ in the way that Csikszentmihalyi defined it, a very satisfying combination of effort and focus, that makes the hours flash past. Fell walking comes close, and maybe I need to concentrate on my recovery and get the boots back on. With summer coming, that looks like a worthwhile alternative.

brown work boots

 

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Can you plan a book around key scenes?

Over Christmas I read Peter Ackroyd’s excellent biography of Alfred Hitchcock, and was particularly interested in how Hitchcock set about planning his films. He began not with characters, or even with a plot, but with a series of scenes – actions in a setting – and then talked at length with a writer, whose job it was to incorporate these scenes, in any order, into a story.download

The film maker’s vision was essentially, and unsurprisingly, ‘filmic’: he saw the scenes in his mind’s eye and then had to unpick and articulate the details in a series of ‘storyboards’. The characters were merely servants of the scenes: it was the writer’s job to get them into these various settings with as much realism and authenticity as possible.

This got me thinking about the new crime novel which is beginning to take shape in my head. I was already aware that the final scene was the first one I’d thought of, and that the planning/plotting process was at least in part about working backwards from the end point. What I began to consider was whether idea that would work repeatedly: could I see the story as a series of key scenes, adding drama through the physical setting as well as by means of dialogue or plot twists. Instead of two characters having a conversation in an office, should they have it on a beach, or in extreme weather, or in a setting that contributed to the tension of the story rather than merely accommodating it?

The other aspect of Hitchcock’s ‘modus operandi’ that I found fascinating was his insistence on developing the details through talking with the writer, not for a few hours, but for days at a time. They would sit together and ask the ‘what if?’ and ‘why?’ and ‘so what?’ and ‘what next?’ and ‘how?’ questions, over and over, until the story evolved in minute visual and aural detail. Neither one of them could have achieved this degree of creativity alone: it had to be through verbal interaction, sparking each other off. The other person who would consistently fulfil this function was of course Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and closest collaborator, an exceptional story teller in her own right.

How does all this square with the image of writing as an isolated activity, with the writer alone in her garrett/office/workroom, emerging only when the masterpiece is complete? Of course it doesn’t. I’m reminded of my conversation with Ann Cleeves about her writing process, which involves several people in the early stages – a forensics expert, a police procedure specialist, and her three agents, all of whom comment on the first draft, asking no doubt the same kinds of questions as those between Hitchcock and his screenwriter. 220px-AnnCleeves2017Ann very generously suggested that her book covers ought to reflect the collective effort of its various collaborators by including all their names, not just hers.

Maybe what every writer needs is a person or a group of people whose sole job is to ask great questions: how many of us can effectively do that for ourselves? And how visual does our planning need to be, as if we are film-makers not just wordsmiths?

What’s the story on ‘quotes’ for book covers?

With the ms of the new book with the copy editor, I’m thinking ahead to the upcoming stages of the book’s production. I’ll be using the same cover designer as on the previous five novels, and have a brilliant photo image already bought and paid for: now I’m wondering about the ‘back cover blurb’ so that the designer can get started.

All of which brings me to the business of finding a ‘quote’ ie. a brief endorsement of either the book, or me as the author, taken directly from a credible source who is willing and able to provide a phrase or two and put their name to them. Amazon readers’ reviews don’t cut it, I’m sorry to say. I’ve used ‘quotes’ on only two of my previous books: the first, on the reprint of ‘A Good Liar’, was hardly effusive, but its source was impeccable in Margaret Forster, an icon of the literary world and a famous Cumbrian. She told me when we started to correspond that she didn’t normally do any kind of endorsements, and I was both surprised and delighted when she agreed to this…..

GoodLiar_COVER.indd

‘Historical background is convincing, and an excellent ending’ 

CRUEL_TIDE COVER front

‘A thrilling tale of corruption and exploitation’

The second was from William Ryan, a very successful historical fiction writer, for my first crime novel ‘Cruel Tide’. I’d met him on a course and appealed to him directly, not through his editor or agent, and again was very pleased when he agreed. I’ve not managed – until now – to get a ‘quote’ on any of my other books, but that’s not through lack of effort.

There appears to be some unwritten protocols and other barriers that stand in the way. First, it’s very hard to find a way of approaching an author to ask if they would be willing. I’ve recently been reprimanded because the approach wasn’t made indirectly by my editor. If I had an agent, the approach could presumably have been made that way. Authors don’t widely share their email addresses, understandably, and it is not in the interests of an editor, agent or publisher to have their precious ‘client/commodity’ distracted by a gesture of support to another author, especially – horror! – a self-published one.

Secondly, authors who are successful enough that their name counts for something are obviously going to be very busy people. A recent approach to one was rebuffed by a litany of the pressures that the person was currently having to deal with, which meant that there couldn’t possibly be time to glance through a proffered manuscript and offer a few words. I had used the phrase ‘a quick read’, which was been batted back to me as if it denoted a lack of respect.

The third possible reason for my relative lack of success in my efforts has been the suspicion that authors are asked (or expected?) by their agents and/or publishers to offer quotes only to writers from the same ‘stable’ as themselves. Heaps of ‘quotes’ appear routinely in newly published books, inside as well as on covers: presumably the people who provide them have been able to find the time for the ‘quick read’ or whatever it takes to enable a few phrases to be offered for this purpose. There are ‘insiders’ who scratch each others’ backs in this aspect of publishing, and there are ‘outsiders’ like me, and possibly some of you. As a self-publishing author of what is still known as ‘genre fiction’, I’m accustomed to being treated as some kind of low life, but it still rankles occasionally.

In my darker moments I wonder if this reciprocal endorsement accounts for the stellar ‘quotes’ that sometimes appear on the covers of books that are really not that good, or not up to the usual standards of the author. In my even darker moments I wonder how some of the books on the shelves ever got published at all without apparently being subject to a properly critical edit. Could it be that once your name is known and will sell a book on its own, you can get away with mediocrity?

On a more positive note, my latest book will have a quote on the cover from a well-respected writer in the crime fiction business. It will be what’s known as a ‘generic’ quote, speaking to my books as a whole rather than the new one in particular, and the person providing it – for which I’m very grateful – is someone I happen to know a little from sharing a book festival panel. We’d met and talked, and I could approach him directly without offence. I did, asked politely, and he agreed. Hurray.

‘Murdering the darlings’, again

Remember the sense of anti-climax at the end of the first draft that I complained about last week? Well, instinctive dissatisfaction was well founded. Even before the long and perceptive email arrived from my editor I had reluctantly admitted to myself that the story took too long to get going, the middle sagged, and the final chapters were either too detailed or melodramatic, or – worse – both. Oh dear.nooo

Just goes to show that you need plenty of time for second thoughts. Fortunately, because of the fierce final effort to finish the damn thing I still have some time to play with before copy-editing is due and the production juggernaut starts to roll. Some decisions were easy: the opening scene that I crafted with such care had to go, and the first ‘darling’ disappeared. With that gone, of course, other passages now didn’t work, and they had to go too. Cut, cut, cut.murder your darlings

The hardest part of the whole exercise is keeping track of the various versions and not mixing them up. Every now and then on Twitter you encounter an author bemoaning the fact that they’ve just spent several hours correcting the wrong draft. I know how it feels and how easy it is to make that mistake when you’re tired or panicking or fed up with the whole business.

I cannibalise the original draft, moving text around, deleting and adding, before cutting and pasting the new version into the 4th draft, carefully labelled as such, and saving it. Two days into the corrections I’m doing OK so far, despite a head cold. Actually, concentrating on the work, however hard that might be, helps to dissipate the effects of the cold, and at least I feel as if I’m still achieving more than just a mounting pile of used hankies.

There are some technical details I’ve had to check to make the necessary plot tweaks. Here’s an intriguing example : ‘How to evade a tracker dog?’ I think I’ve got away with that one. When you’re splicing new bits into an existing draft there are continuity issues too, which are tedious both to pick up and to deal with.

But hey. If you’re going to do it, do it right. The book could still be out there when I’m too old to remember it, and I want it to work as well as it can. What’s a few murdered darlings in the great scheme of things?

 

Do villains need likeable traits?

Maybe it’s the optimist or the humanist in me, or just naïveté, but I have trouble reading or writing about a character who is unquestionably and irredeemably wicked to the core.

I recognise that such characters are can be useful to a simple story.

baddy imageFrom pantomime onwards, everyone enjoys booing the villain and seeing her/his downfall, and the same is true of some modern psychological thrillers so that the fear can be cranked up as the ‘goodie’ (or ‘less baddie’) is faced with an implacable foe. Sometimes it’s their very badness that makes the character entertaining: the Devil in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is probably the most interesting being in the work. But I still prefer to introduce some nuances. Weakness in the villain may produce a lower level of fright, but it can add to the tension in more subtle ways.

 

My villain in my current ‘work in progress’ is a formidable person, brave, resourceful, risk-taking, committed to his vision of a family, even if that’s delusional. He is also violent, self-centred and unable or unwilling to consider the long-term outcomes of his behaviour.

boy in prison

Apparently this last is the fundamental flaw in many young men who find themselves incarcerated: a colleague of mine who worked with young offenders was struck by the high proportion who seemed not to understand the steps along the road that had led them to conviction and imprisonment.’How did this happen?’ was their cry, and the answer was found not in their own behaviour but in ‘bad luck’, conspiracies and the actions of others, not themselves. I think in ‘eduspeak’ it’s called ‘external attribution’ and is a factor in many negative outcomes for students.

If a villain is likeable at all, I can find the emotional and moral ambivalence which I’m after in both my reading and writing. My interest in seeing both sides of people and situations is not universal: it doesn’t, for example, encompass the current President of the United States for whom I cannot find anything but contempt. But almost everyone else has some traits that might be deemed likeable, or at least understandable.

I suspect that some of my readers like things to be more straight-forward, and are shocked to discover some of the frailties of characters they want to like. such as Jessie Whelan in my first novel ‘A Good Liar’. The title of that book was chosen deliberately as a play on ‘good’ in relation to lying: Jessie has to be an effective liar, but is still a good person. I expect those readers may be similarly anxious about feeling just a tiny bit sorry for a person who does bad things. Never mind. That’s just the way it’s going to be.

 

Do you plan your novel in detail, or not at all?

‘Are you a planner or a ‘pantser’?’ is the question. Being a planner is obvious: the alternative is to ‘fly by the seat of your pants’, hence the use of this odd word. (I could elaborate on the origin of this phrase, but not right now.)creataive-brain1

If you’re writing non-fiction or for academic reasons, planning the order of your piece is pretty crucial. Can you imagine an instruction manual written like a novel? But when you’re writing fiction as I am now there are more choices to be made. The ‘pantsers’ make various claims for their preferred approach. Once you have strong characters, they say, these characters will take over and influence the direction of the plot. Another ‘pantser’ rationale is that half the fun of reading mystery, thriller or crime fiction lies in not knowing how the story will end, and the writer needs the same. ‘Where’s the fun in writing?’ a well-known crime writer asked me, ‘if you already know how it’s all going to turn out?’

Could it be that different fictional genres encourage different approaches to planning? If the story is principally character-driven, then surely the development of the characters during the story will drive the shape and narrative of the story. But crime fiction is surely different, isn’t it? Unless the author is capable of holding a mass of detail suspended in her head without the need to write it down in advance. The final stages of a crime story are heavily dependent, it seems to me, on the detail. This could be about ‘chronology’ – when exactly did certain events happen, and in what order? Or it could be about forensic detail and its role in the denouement.

Specific things said or done and mentioned, or not mentioned, in the text are what the reader relies on to work out what actually happened. That’s part of the challenge of crime and mystery fiction: it’s a game between writer and reader, dependent on the careful planting of clues which are then spotted and interpreted by the vigilant reader. If that’s the heart of the genre, it’s really hard to envisage how the writer could succeed without planning.

I need to plan. I wrote my first novel without a proper plan and got into a terrible mess as a result. It took two years to disentangle the web of plot, sub-plots, plan_novelconfusions and unnecessary scenes and characters, and once or twice the whole thing nearly ended up in the bin. Never again, and as I turned towards crime fiction the need for planning became more intense. There’s still fun in working out how all the threads will tie together, and how the reader will be keep on turning the pages, but the fun’s now in the planning, not in the actual first draft.

The planning takes time, going back and forth, adjusting, adding detail, making sure the backstory fits together and propels the action forwards. For the structure of the story, that’s the creative stage. When the first draft is started, following the narrative structure established in the plan, then the creativity of language, dialogue and setting are to the fore. For me, it’s the plan that enables me to write quickly and fluently: without the detailed outline I’m constantly stopping and starting, losing the flow.

So, are you a planner or a pantser?

In next week’s post, I’ll try to explain how I actually plan. It’s pretty messy!

 

Plot hints: the ‘Goldilocks’ balance

The opening chapters of any novel are crucial. You have to give readers some information to locate the story and the people, and enough to intrigue them and make them want to read on. There has to be some sense of foreboding, or puzzle, or a hint that things may not be as they appear to be.

goldilocks-3

That sounds easy enough, but it’s actually a difficult balance to find: a classic ‘Goldilocks’ question, not too little, not too much. If the reader is given absolutely no clue, however subtle, about what might be coming, the story can quickly turn into ‘one shock after another’ with motiveless action and surprise for its own sake. I don’t like that as a reader: it feels manipulative and lazy, and I don’t want to do that as a writer. Too much hinting or heralding doesn’t work either: that feels patronising, as if the reader has to be hit over the head with something to notice it. The ‘Goldilocks’ solution is to offer just the merest mention in passing, so easily missed that the reader finds herself leafing back later, to check whether they actually read it at all, or just imagined it.

The opening chapters of this new book – emerging painfully through the exercise of my slowly mending shoulder ligaments – is a stop and start affair as I struggle to find the right balance. One word, just one word, can make such a difference. As ever, adverbs are to be avoided wherever possible, so the reader is only offered what is done, not how it’s done. The character isn’t thinking about the ‘how’ – why should they, in the privacy of their own space? – so the reader should be allowed only what is seen or heard, unadorned by any authorial intervention.

The other challenge in the opening chapters of this particular story is to present several thousand words from the POV of an adolescent. The reader is to be offered only what the young person sees, hears and experiences. I’m having to remember the mannerisms and reactions of young people I’ve worked with as a teacher over many years, the swings of mood, the partially-informed judgements, the speech patterns. I have a relative of roughly the same age too, but she’s such a different person from the character I’m working with that using her as the example might not be helpful. Much of the ensuing plot hinges around the reactions of this character, and the ways in which new circumstances can provoke change, as well as the rapid changes that always surround early adolescence and puberty.

With all this buzzing in my head, there’s serious frustration in only being able to type for a few minutes at a time. I’m told by everyone that I must be patient, that ligaments and tendons take a long time to heal. I know that, but it’s still galling. I probably need to ration myself: no email, no blogging, until and unless the necessary daily book words targets is reached. Discipline, Ruth. Discipline!