Murdering my darlings

I’ve reached the conclusion that time away from ‘the current work’ enables me to step back and view what I’m doing more objectively, and more clearly, but it has to be a certain sort of break to be most effective. Here’s how it seems to work for me. I’ve been writing outlines and planning the current book (number 4) for some months now. I knew I would be taking two months away from it early this year and expected that this would provide the space I needed to reflect on the project – characters, pace, themes, plot and so on – so that everything would be clearer when I returned. But that didn’t work. The time away was like being on a different planet, so exciting, varied, all-consuming, and exhausting at times that there was no space in my head to reflect at all about the book. After I’d got home and recovered for a while I just started the first draft as I’d planned to do, using the outline much as it previously stood.

Ten days later, into the first draft and rolling along quite nicely, I’ve just had another shorter break over the Easter weekend. Immediately beforehand I was up to my ears in writing and editing, working and reworking the original outline as the detail on the ground was revealed – as  I mentioned in my previous blog post. Maybe that was why, during four non-writing days, my head has been wrapped around the story to the point where I could hardly sleep. Two darlings have been ruthlessly put to the sword as a result. The first of them, the opening paragraph, was nudged towards its demise by my perceptive editor Charlotte who skims the drafts every now and then and always asks incisive questions. The old first paragraph which I’d polished carefully for months, is now dead, and the one will be sharper, clearer and more likely to capture a reader’s attention.

The second doomed ‘darling’ is a character from my third book, who was about to reappear in this one. I was looking forward to meeting him again, but yesterday, when I was half watching Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Leeds United on the TV, I suddenly thought ‘Why do I need him here? What’s he adding to this story? If he has a function, is that not already being played by another character? Why complicate matters unnecessarily?’ Scales fell from eyes and when the next stage of the outline is re-written, he will be gone. 

Have I ever mentioned the Faber Academy course I went on years ago called ‘Stuck in the Middle’? Just a weekend, but I still remember the shot in the arm it gave me. Gill Slovo and Sarah Dunant led it as a double act, a pincer movement of perception and experience that caught many of us round the table in the middle, making us look at our half-finished work from the outside rather than the inside. It was harrowing but salutary. I’ve thought about signing up again, but I don’t think I need to. I think I can be ruthless – no pun intended – all by myself. Maybe watching football helps. 

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From outline to first draft

I hope someone’s noticed that I’ve been away, out of the blogsphere all together, for weeks on a long and amazing trip to Argentina and Antarctica. Actually, it’s over two months since I’ve posted anything, and now there’s so much on my mind I’m not sure where to start.

The question on my mind right this minute is this: how helpful is a detailed outline before you start the first draft? Five years ago I might have said, ‘Who needs an outline. I have a few characters and a few ideas and doesn’t it all just roll out?’ Two months ago I would have said,  ‘An outline is absolutely essential and the more detailed the better.’ Right now, today, I’m thinking. ‘The most helpful thing about an outline is that when you get lost, you have some idea where you are. It gives you a bigger map, but with a smaller scale so you can take in the whole picture more easily.’ But, just like with OS maps of the Lake District, sometimes the paths marked on the map don’t correspond exactly with the paths on the ground.

The first draft is where your writing feet meet the ground. Only then can you see more detail in the territory. Contours and dotted lines turn into real hills and walls. PH marked on the map becomes a real pub, which could be closed and boarded up, or open and welcoming. I spent much of my ‘thinking abut the new book’ time in the past few months on the outline, changing it again and again until I was sure it made sense and flowed and had a good balance of character and events, internal and external dilemmas and conflict, the highs and lows of a classic 3 act structure, and all that. When I actually started to write last week, the first two or three chapters fell on to the page pretty quickly, following the outline page by page. But then things began to spread out. I thought I’d dealt with all the ‘what-ifs’ but then more popped up, demanding to be pursued. Characters said some things I hadn’t expected, and unforeseen anomalies became glaringly obvious.

I’ve noticed before that as I go from outline to draft the story gets darker. Why is that? I think of myself as a reasonably happy and optimistic person, but the words seem to be pushing me into ‘noir’. ‘Cumbrian noir’ – a new genre perhaps? The current book is definitely feeling more ‘noir’ than the previous ones. It should, given that it’s a crime novel rather than the ‘family saga’ tag that loosely describes the trilogy published in the past three years. In crime novels, necessarily, some people do bad things and some people suffer: that’s the nature and impact of crime. But the things I want them to do and suffer seem more ‘noir’ in the draft than they were in the outline.

Seven chapters in now: the overall plot is holding together OK but the chronology has changed a little. I’m having to look ahead three chapters in the outline rather than one to get the best sense of where to go next, and wondering of course why I didn’t anticipate the extra twists and turns that seem so obvious now. I don’t regret this: actually it’s rather fun and keeps me engaged for hours, while the washing up languishes in the sink and I stay cloistered in my upstairs cubbyhole, facing away from the stunning view beyond the window. At the end of several hours writing I feel I’ve achieved something more substantial than the mere fleshing out of a given story. I also need some exercises to relieve my aching neck and shoulders.

I try not to word count: it’s the quality of the words not the quantity that matters. But I couldn’t resist counting at the end of Week 1 and it came to an impressive 20,000 or so. Sounds far too much, but there they are, and most of them read and checked and amended. So far, so good.

Tomorrow there are distractions, in the form of a trip to Cockermouth for a book-related evening at the New Bookshop where I’ll talk about my work as a ‘local author’. That should be fun too, although not as deeply satisfying as keeping on writing, to which I’ll return on Friday.

Plotting with a purpose

When I first thought about writing fiction several years ago, I imagined that I would do some ‘research’ and then spend all my time writing and revising, busy at the keyboard, tapping merrily away. I started writing the first novel this way, long before I was really ready to do so, and the result was a hopeless tangle with more hours of wasted time than I care to think about. What I hadn’t realised then and I do now is that that the writing phase has to be preceded by many, many hours of thought. Before the research, before I even know what research may be needed, I need to think long and hard about the plot.

First you need a central idea or a question, the old ’25 words or less’ nugget that lies at the heart of it all. After that it’ll be a messy process of finding some progression from a to b to c and so on, with possibly some idea emerging of how the action might start and end. In the new book I’m planning now, which will be my 4th, I want to switch genres from historical fiction to crime fiction, still set in the recent past, but with a mystery of some kind at the centre. I’ve bought myself the Arvon book on writing crime fiction and ‘thrillers’ and have started to study it. Clearly plotting will be critical, and will take even longer than I’ve spent on Books 2 and 3, and far longer than I spent on plotting Book 1.

This is where the advice I got from a workshop with Andrew Pyper six months ago will come in handy. In a few hours in the Winnipeg public library he outlined a process that made perfect sense to me, and that I adopted to some degree in plotting Book 3 ‘Fallout’ which is now at the pre-publication stage. His advice was to control the urge to begin writing too soon and keep on thinking about the shape and twists and turns until you have the outline of every chapter clear in a big visual display, which provides the map and the route and guides the writing from then on. That way you can keep up the momentum of the writing once it starts without getting trapped in ghastly dead-ends, or meadering around in circles until you are as almost as bored as the reader will be. Having this overall view of the landscape provides the confidence to take an unusual route sometimes, or to off piste occasionally without disappearing into a crevasse or being swept away by an avalanche of irrelevance.

‘Simultaneous visual display’: it’s what I advocate in my education work when I want people to step back and see the bigger picture with all its connecting parts. That’s what i need to create for myself in plotting Book 4. I think I’ve made some decisions already. The heroine is someone I already know from the earlier books; the time will be the 1970s; and the location will be somewhere in the west or south areas of my beloved Cumbria. From there on, who knows? It’ll be fun finding out, and I mustn’t rush it.