Do readers need a ‘friend’ if the context is complicated?

Three years ago I was in the final stages of writing my third novel Fallout, which had as its backdrop the nuclear reactor accident at Windscale in Cumbria in October 1957.windscale-disaster-6-638

Deciding on that context for a story about finding love in later life was a gamble. For a start, the background might end up being much more interesting than the main story line. And dealing with a real event was always going to be tricky. It’s a touchy subject here in Cumbria even after sixty years: the final report on the incident used a phrase about ‘local errors of judgement’ that still rankles. (Actually the phrase was inserted into the report by the Macmillan government as a way of explaining the incident to the Americans without blaming the government’s own rushed reactor building programme.) And of course, because it was a ‘real’ incident within living memory it was essential for me – a local ‘offcomer’ – to get the facts right.

The inside story of the reactor fire was a complicated technical issue. How was I going to help the non-scientific reader to understand what was really going on, and why the key the decisions were made? The plan was to place a character on the inside of the Windscale whose job was to ask questions about the operation of the reactor. This character would act as the reader’s ‘friend’, gathering information in an intelligible way. in ‘Fallout’ this character was Lawrence Finer, seconded to Windscale from Harwell, the nuclear research facility near Oxford.

In my next book  ‘Burning Secret’ I face the same issue – explaining farming to a non-farming readership, and then clarifying the complications of a catastrophic infection that decimated our farm animals in 2001. I need a character that acts as the ‘guide’ to a specialist subject for a non-specialist audience. Talking to a local dairy farmer last week it occurred to me how to handle this. dairy_farmerLarge dairy farms often employ people to help with milking and the care of the herd, but during the outbreak restrictions were introduced that made it impossible for dairy farm workers to work normally, going home after work and coming back the next day. This particular farm asked a family friend from Liverpool to come and stay on the farm for the duration to help them, and the young man had no experience of farming life. He reacted to the everyday routines of the farm as you or I might, noticing things that the farmers took for granted, asking naive questions, making mistakes through lack of experience. In literary terms, this character’s function is somewhere between the Greek chorus and the gravediggers in Hamlet, and more emotionally detached than the farmers themselves as the outbreak spread ever closer. In a crime story, as this will be, the ‘stranger’ can also be a useful source of tension and mystery. Let’s see how it all turns out.

What about the ‘unreliable narrator’?

Two recent bestsellers have two things in common: the first is the use of the word ‘girl’ in the title, and the second is a story told by at least one ‘unreliable narrator’. I read ‘Gone Girl’ because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and felt at the end that I needed to cleanse myself from its unredeemed nastiness. Both ‘unreliable narrators’ were equally horrid and it was of little interest to me therefore which of them was the real villain. After that experience I was determined to resist the hype around ‘Girl on the Train’ and haven’t read it, or seen the film. girl-on-the-trainI read the reviews however and understand that the narrator – transposed from London to the USA for the film – is a drunkard and a liar whose testimony must therefore be suspect. I’m not sure I would warm to the character any more than I did to the ghastly creatures in the previous ‘Girl’ book.

Then I remembered another unreliable narrator, where the device was employed to such effect that I was pulled further into the story than I would have been otherwise. This was in ‘Empire of the Sun’, by J.G. Ballard, a story told from the point of view of a young boy – Ballard himself – caught up in the chaos of the Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1941, and its aftermath. Jim, the unreliable narrator, brings to the story his own childish innocence, naivety, optimism and compassion. He is unaware of his own slow decline into starvation and illness, and the reader has to glean this information not from the boy himself but from the reactions of the adults he encounters. It’s a gut-wrenching experience, in both the book and the film, and had a powerful impact on me. empire-of-the-sun

Ever since then I’ve toyed with the possibilities of using the POV of an unreliable but sympathetic story-teller. To begin with in my writing it was hard enough just to get the story told in a way that would keep the reader engaged, using the most straightforward narrative techniques – past tense, third person. I recall suggesting to my editor very early on that I might try something more ambitious and being gently warned off. Now with five ‘traditionally-told’ novels under my belt, this could be the time to stretch my skills. I’ve already given myself more time, delaying the next publication until the summer of 2018. Now I have to use that time to think about the choices I have and how best to tell a compelling story with a narrator who is likeable, even loveable, but whose view of events is limited by personality, maturity, or the complexity of the circumstances they face. It’s a challenge. I’m thinking hard about it.

Simplicity is seductive

Who remembers good old Sergeant Dixon, courteous, uncomplicated, with his files and his big black phone, solving crime through listening to people and figuring things out?


Those were the ‘good old days’, before DNA and computers and CSI forensics, when policing was simple and villains were wicked and the death penalty was still the ultimate deterrent and women knew their place.

I’m thinking about the setting of a new crime series. The choice of place is easy, it has to be Cumbria. But time? Personally I prefer the present day to previous decades when oppression of various kinds was more widespread, but as a crime writer I’m attracted by the relative simplicity of policing in the past. I want my main detective to be female, but that’s unrealistic in the days before the late eighties when it was finally accepted that female police officers might be given more to do than making the tea. But I also want to avoid some of the more clinical and technical aspects of contemporary policing which radically affect both the research and the plotting. There must be a window of opportunity between these two. It would be really interesting to focus on the early days of women in CID in Cumbria, in which case I need to talk to some of those early pioneers and get their stories. That would be a worthwhile exercise, no matter what plots ideas flowed from it.

At the same time as I’m considering all this I’m watching the Brexit decision and all its implications. Today I saw the figures on the close correlation between those in favour of the death penalty and those wishing to leave the EU. And there’s a piece in the Guardian about ‘false binaries’, another way of saying that the best choices are rarely just one solution or another, which is one reason why the EU referendum was so flawed in both process and result. Real life, personal, social and political, is always complicated and pragmatism is an under-rated virtue. President Obama has maintained a good balance of principle and pragmatism, in my view, but I’m not optimistic about political leadership in the UK right now. They say we get the political leadership we deserve. We must have done something really bad.

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.

What does an editor do?

I’ve never been an editor. I’ve never been on a course on how to do it, or read a manual. But I’ve been on receiving end of a number of editors’ work, and I think I’m beginning to understand what a good editor does. Here’s what an editor does that works for me as a writer.

  1. The good editor asks really good questions about the plot plans as they develop. Some writers don’t plan at all, which means that the editor has to wait till the first full draft is available before they can ask these questions, by which time the writer may be thinking about the effort of re-writing, not whether the editor’s comments are valid. If you’re trying to write a story with twists and turns, as I’m trying to do, it takes more confidence than I have to embark on that without a pretty good idea of how those twists and turns are going to work. A few days ago I sent my editor Charlotte the outline I’d been working on, arranged roughly in chapters so we could both see how the ‘arc’ of the story would look. She read it very carefully, and came back with questions and comments such as: ‘why is that sub-plot left hanging?; ‘is that clue feasible?’; ‘should there be a reference to x earlier in the story?’; ‘does this tie in with the same character’s details in the previous book?’. Because I trust her, and she reads a lot and has a good ear for a story, I consider each point she makes, go back to the outline and think some more. The second draft of the outline is always better than the first.
  2. With some idea of the overall shape of the story, the editor is a good sounding board for key scenes or chapters as the writing develops. Sometimes I agree with the comments or suggestions she makes, sometimes I don’t but it’s a good idea to be asked to think again occasionally. If she likes the ways things are going she’ll say so, which is encouraging when you’re ploughing on day after day, trying to find a balance between a pragmatic need for progress and the search for perfection. Sometimes she and I will talk in depth about a section of the work, and disagree. Then she says, ‘This is your book, so the final decision rests with you,’ and it does. In the early days it took me a while to realise this. It’s easy to feel badgered by an editor when you lack experience and confidence in your own work.
  3. When the first draft is done, off it goes for really careful scrutiny. Now the editor is concentrating on the finer detail. Charlotte is especially good at checking chronology: ‘Surely,’ she might say, ‘the events in Chapter 13 must be on a Sunday, not on a Friday, so would that shop be open?’ The writer might be tempted to respond, ‘Who cares? Poetic licence’ etc, but you and I both know that some reader somewhere will spot any anomaly and tell you about it, which can be VERY irritating.
  4. Second and third drafts will follow, and more, each carefully checked. The daunting process of proof-reading is already underway, and typographical errors are picked up as we go, before the final preparation for submission to printer or ebook publication. Reading the ‘proofs’ is of course the final process, but by that time only minimal changes are possible. Woe betide any writer who wants to change anything much at this point. If you are making both hard copy and ebook versions, conversion from one to the other may create some typographical problems and require further proof-reading. I reckon the last proof copy was read by me, Charlotte and our book designer several times before it went to print and there are still three tiny errors, which kind and careful readers have been quick to point out. These will be dealt with before any reprint. The misprints are usually of punctuation, such as comma instead of full stop, or type-setting such as one extra space between words. It’s embarrassing when someone spots them, but the margin of error is three or so words out of one hundred thousand, which isn’t bad in the great scheme of things.

Charlotte is an old friend as well as a professional editor, so that could be helpful or not, depending on her expertise and our trust in each others’ judgement. It’s good advice not to have a friend teach you to drive, but the editor/writer relationship is  – or should be – less fraught than sitting side by side in a potentially life-threatening situation. I commission and pay for the editing and book design services that she and her partner provide. The book designer handles the layout of the book, works with me on decisions about headings, illustrations and other design matters, chooses and liaises with the printer. Yes. it costs, but the quality of my self-published book is now as good as anything produced commercially, and I have had final word on every part of the process.

That’s how it works for me. I’m interested in how other editors and writers work together.

Where do plots come from?

I’m sure anyone who writes a novel is asked the question: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I can’t speak for anyone else, but thinking back on the books I’ve written so far, there seem to be a few places where plot ideas come from.

  • My own experience, things that have happened to me personally, together with all the emotions that surrounded them. Some of these are from decades ago, others more recent. I’m not providing any examples of these, to preserve my own privacy and the trust of those around me.
  • Stories or snippets of stories I’ve heard from other people. One of these, told to me many years ago, concerned growing up in Belfast in the 1960s with a Catholic father and protestant mother. Another, just a memorable snippet, was about a young man whose wife left him and then returned to their house a few days later while he was at work and removed every stick of furniture, every carpet, curtain and light fitting. He was too shocked and humiliated to track her down.
  • Details gleaned from contemporary newspapers and accounts. I use the Whitehaven News for some of this background colour, peering at the microfilm reader to find authentic details that could later become small valuable nuggets in the story. It’s a useful source as it’s weekly and contains all the court cases, petty theft, accidents, and features that add depth to the picture I’m painting. The post-war period I researched for ‘Forgiven’ was rich in detail that evoked that particular time: the parish council resolution that refused to celebrate the anniversary of VE Day in 1946 as they had ‘nothing to celebrate and nothing to celebrate with’; the couple who were caught handling blackmarket pork when a mouse ate through the string supporting a heavy illegal ham hanging upstairs, with damaging consequences. In ‘Sellafield Stories’ an oral history of the Cumbrian nuclear plant I found some rich detail about the reactor fire of October 1957 from people who were there at the time. Transcripts of hearings and enquiries are also great ‘primary sources’, raw, unfiltered by anything except the capacity of the note-taker to capture everything that was said. One of the survivors of the William Pit disaster of August 1947 gave evidence to the official enquiry about his experience of the explosion and his escape from the mine, and I took some of his words directly into my text for ‘Forgiven’. Maybe it’s the historian in me that get so excited about the authenticity of evidence like that.
  • Places, and what might have happened, or could happen in this setting. When I did the walk across Morecambe Bay from Arnside a year or two ago I was very struck by the care we had to use when approaching the shore at Kents Bank to avoid a shiny grey patch of mud that wobbled visibly as we came close. This was quicksand, and a false step into it could have been life-threatening. My latest novel ‘Cruel Tide’ drew its opening scene from this experience.

None of these nuggets, of themselves, provide you with a plot, but some of them will provoke the essential ‘what if?’ questions from which great stories can be created. They also remind you of features of earlier times that could provide a starting point. For the novel I’m researching at present, a casual meander around some websites has already provided a striking image that will anchor the plot at the start and leave an after-taste of menace and threat. I had to decide who would witness this image, where, when and how, and what impact it might have, and the story began to take shape. It’s very early days yet, but I’m pretty sure that I already have the first chapter. Once I get to that stage, the story ideas begin to bubble up, adding more strands and twists. The trick is to know when to stop adding layer after layer of complexity and characters, how to shape the story into the necessary peaks and troughs, and then take a deep breath and start….’Chapter One’.

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!