Scratching the itch

After the difficulties in writing and publishing my last novel ‘Burning Secrets’ I vowed I wouldn’t put myself under that kind of pressure again. I would not set immutable deadlines, or make important decisions too quickly. And I would set time aside for other things in my life, to avoid the constant feeling of obligation to a project which was supposed to be a pleasure, not a burden.

BURNiNG_SECRETS_AW.inddSo far, I’m doing well with these resolutions. I took time to plan an overdue visit to see friends in New Zealand, and for the four weeks or so I was away I wrote no blog posts, didn’t look at the draft outline of the new book, or read anything remotely connected with it. But now I’m back, living once more in the area where all my books are set, and the itch to get writing has started again. For my morning reading today I chose not the biography of Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd that is sitting by my bed but a book about forensic science. Not a detailed dry tome about a technical subject but a great read, full of engaging questions and dilemmas, just the kind of book I enjoy. The book is ‘All That Remains: A Life in Death’ by Professor Sue Black, about her career as a forensic anthropologist, and inevitably it’s started me thinking again about my story.image

The timing isn’t great, as I really ought to be doing something about Christmas, but maybe the upcoming busyness could be turned to advantage. If in the next day or two I can absorb enough information, my brain can churn away for several days, processing and sorting and generating new ideas while I’m distracted by mindless festivities. When I return to ‘work’ in a couple of weeks I expect things to be clearer and the draft outline improved. It takes time and deliberate distraction for this useful process to be effective, and I suspect it doesn’t work for everyone. I just need the confidence to step away for a while. The mistake I made last time was to get so anxious about losing momentum that I didn’t step away, and some opportunities for improvement were lost.

I can already feel some of the pieces of the complex plot dropping into place, which makes the new writing project a potential source of pleasure rather than pain. Thank heaven for that.

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What price expertise?

How easy backpack-book-books-256431it must be to finish a manuscript and just send it off, confident that a small army of people employed by your adoring publisher will immediately step up to do everything necessary to get your masterpiece into the hands of equally adoring readers.

Editors, designers, proof-readers, printers, they’re all provided, and you the author need not worry about any of it. You’ll have to respond to the editor, and approve the cover, and check the final proofs, but most of the responsibility rests with your publishers. For this they get well rewarded if your book sells well, and carry the deficit if it doesn’t.

If your books sell really well, and in doing so keep the entire operation afloat, your publisher will be very keen to support you in any way they can. If like me you write what is mysteriously called ‘genre fiction’ the publisher will want you to keep those books rolling out, one a year if you can manage it, and if that means providing the expert help you need to keep going, so be it.

A good crime writer knows the importance of research and getting the facts right. accident-barrier-caution-923681.jpgWhatever setting you choose – contemporary or in the past – the details of police procedures and enquiry methods need to be correct. Forensic science has changed radically over the past thirty years or so, and is progressing all the time, so those details too are very time-specific and all too easy to get wrong. What does the self-publishing writer have to do?

The trick is to gather around you a team of people to help, so that you can spend your time assembling all this information into an engaging story. You’ll need someone to advise about policing, and someone else as the forensics expert. Other aspects of criminality might need expert input too – gang behaviours, money laundering, drug smuggling, whatever. The aristocracy of the crime writing world, Ann Cleeves, Peter Robinson, Val McDermid and the like, will have all the necessary experts ready to assist, presumably paid for out of the hefty profits the publishers will make from the resulting best-sellers. The self-made artisans of the writing world, however, don’t have such support, unless we find and pay for it ourselves. At which point I ask myself, what price expertise?

I’m used to finding the production experts I need – editor, ‘type-setter’, cover designer, proof-reader, printer, – and paying each of them the agreed fee up front, before the book goes on sale. But I’m now I find myself wanting expert help of a different kind even as the book is being written. Unlike many crime writers who have had careers in the law, or the probation service, or the police, I have no professional background and expertise to draw upon. I choose a setting, and characters, and a story, but I still need expert input to get the crime details right, and sometimes the story itself will hinge around the procedural details.

I’m really grateful to the retired DI who advises me, and who wants nothing more for his help  than cups of tea and acknowledgement in the book, but I’ve struggled to find someone on the forensics issues. Textbooks and online sites are available, but they have to relate to the time period: for a story set in 2001 I scoured the booklists looking for a a text written before that time, to make sure that it was pertinent to my setting. It’s interesting to do it all myself but it takes so much time, and trying to complete a book a year is just too much.

The latest move is to cast my net wider in looking for expert help that won’t cost me more than I can afford. architecture-building-campus-356086.jpgMy local University website reveals teams of academics specialising in the very areas I want help with. Hallelujah! I scoured the staff lists, looking for the expertise I need, picked some names almost at random, and sent an email explaining what I was looking for and that I couldn’t offer remuneration. My expectations were low, I admit, but were confounded when I got reply from one name almost immediately, taking up my offer to go and talk about what I’m doing and what I need. Result!

As much as the expertise, what I’m most looking forward to is the chance to talk to someone who is interested in what I’m doing. Writing as a self-published author, and living in a wonderful rural location, it can be a lonely life. Maybe this could be the start of a collaboration that will be fun as well as fruitful.

How can I enjoy my writing more?

It’s some weeks since my last post, and I’m still debating whether I want to write another book. It could help if I could pin down why the prospect feels problematic. What is it that fills me with trepidation?

I’ve already accepted that my recollections of the past year have been coloured by my fall down the stairs just over a year ago and all its consequences – temporary immobilisation, pain, frustration, endless physiotherapy. I’m almost back to normal fitness now, but it’s been a long haul.IMG_1725

The content of last book was difficult too. I chose a backdrop – the catastrophic Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 – that required very careful research and a balance between authenticity and fear that the ghastliness of it all could overwhelm the ‘front story’. The research was painful, but I live in a farming community and couldn’t get the details wrong.IMG_0637

I was also working with a new editor, which was fine in the end but felt different than the well-worn relationship I’d had earlier. The new editor is very experienced in what makes for successful commercial genre fiction, but sometimes her expectations clashed with my obsession with authenticity. Yes, her ideas for a scene or the ending would be exciting, but if they felt ‘unrealistic’ I couldn’t go along with them. It’s quite a strain to pay someone for their advice and then decide to ignore it. And when I did agree with her, after the first draft, our shared view required a complete re-write of the first quarter of the book, which I didn’t enjoy at all.

For all these reasons, and probably others too, writing the last book rarely flowed easily. I had a deadline, and achieved it, but when ‘Burning Secrets’ finally emerged it didn’t excite me, even when it was clear that readers enjoyed and some think it is my best to date.

Looking back, I think I was so taken up with the research that I didn’t spend long enough on the structure before starting the first draft. So the writing stopped and started, got stuck and had to be rescued, and in the end had to be hammered into submission by some agonised re-thinking of the final scenes. Very stressful. If I could summon the patience and imagination next time to create a better detailed outline, that would definitely help to enhance the writing experience, and avoid painful rewrites further down the line.

Now I have the Arvon writing course to look forward to, which starts on September 10th. I signed up for this particular as the focus seemed to be on structure and plot, which is exactly what I need. I’m going with an open mind to see if help, advice and an undivided focus will clarify the future enough for me to stop writing without regret, or carry on.

In darker moments I think about the boxes of unsold books stored in my writing shed. While I have a new book to promote, sales of all the books tick along nicely. If there’s no new book, will I still be able to sell the backlist? I don’t necessarily need the money, but those boxes could haunt me for a long time.

Should I stop writing, or keep going?

Regular readers might have picked up from recent posts that I’m having a bit of a crisis about my writing and whether to continue. It’s not about whether I can write: I think I can, and have published some good stuff. Readers love my books and tell me so. No, it’s not about quality, it’s about commitment.

arizona asphalt beautiful blue sky

When I decided to write my first novel, about ten years ago, I seriously underestimated how long and how difficult it would be to finish and get it published. I thought I would find a publisher – wrong. I thought it would fly off the shelves – also wrong. Getting it into print, into bookshops and into readers’ hands was all more difficult than I anticipated.

I anticipated an easier ride the second time around, so I wrote another one, then another, and so on. Now my sixth novel ‘Burning Secrets’ is out, and although the process does indeed feel a little easier, that’s mainly because I’m no longer surprised by how much time it takes.BURNiNG_SECRETS_AW.indd

In the years since I started writing I’ve established a loving relationship, nested happily into my new community, and retired from my education consultancy. My life is happier and more settled than it was, but now I want to make sure that I’m pursuing more of my interests, without the writing becoming the cuckoo in the nest that pushes everything else out.

I’m probably thinking too much about it, so I’ve decided to stop deliberating for a while, enjoy the summer and then come to a proper decision. To help the process, I’ve booked myself into a four day writing course in September, away from home, with unfamiliar people, to let the right choice bubble up into my mind more clearly than it’s doing now.

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It’s an Arvon course, which is some guarantee of quality, although as I’ve learned before, you’re still dependent on the skills of the tutors and and the commitment of the rest of the group. I paid a lot for one Arvon course that was not well led, and distracted by group members who seemed to have come for the entertainment and late night drinking. I spent the whole time in my own room writing. My mood was reflected in what I wrote that week – the darkest passages of my first book ‘A Good Liar’.GoodLiar_COVER.indd

One of the tutors in September is the author of one of my favourite books – ‘The Pike’ by Lucy Hughes lucy-hughes-hallett-costa-book-awards-2013-in-london-k775c2Hallett. It’s non-fiction, but such a great read that I’m sure I’ll learn from her. I just hope she’s a good a tutor as she is a writer. The components of the course look useful too – plotting, narrative voice, dialogue, and more. And no doubt there’ll be discussion about publishing, promotion, and other aspects of the business of taking a book to market.

My hope is that by the end of that week my mind should have cleared, and a decision about whether to continue will have materialised out of the current fog. It could go either way.

 

Why am I always in a hurry?

The last blog post was all about slowing down, taking things easy, enjoying the unusually lovely weather, and yet here I am, only a few days later, reflecting on my default attitude to life which seems to be ‘Life is short, don’t hang around, make decisions, get things done, move on.’ unnamed

I’m pretty sure I know why this is so: most of my immediate family members have died prematurely. Father went out to work one day when he was 45, died at work and never came home. Mother declined into Alzheimers in her mid-60s and died four years later. One of my older sisters died at 37 and another at 65. I think it was Dad’s sudden disappearance when I was nine that had the most profound effect. Suddenly my certainty about the future was fractured. If he could go without warning and with such effect, anything could happen, and the future could not be relied upon. If there was something I wanted to do, or to become, don’t wait. Just go for it. It may not be planned to perfection, but that’s OK.

Sometimes you need to ‘Ready, fire, aim’. If you think and dither around for too long it becomes ‘Ready, ready, ready.’

I was listening this morning to Michael Ondaatje, unnamedauthor of ‘The English Patient’, talking about his writing approach which involves twenty edits before he commits to print. The first draft is just a sketch, and it goes from there. What patience, I thought to myself. How does he slow down enough to let such snail’s pace iteration happen? Could I ever work like that?

Probably not! I’m 70 now, and enjoying every aspect of my life. I have many things to do and to learn, not just my writing. Worse, as soon as I start thinking about writing another book I start planning deadlines and put time pressure on myself. The urge to write too quickly is so strong that my first response now is to avoid that pressure altogether by not writing at all. There must be another way, surely, somewhere between Ondatjee’s caution and my usual recklessness.

The next step could be, consciously and deliberately, to dawdle. Just mess around for a while. I have some characters I’d like to play with, and I have a setting – it has to be Cumbria, nowhere else provides the same inspiration. Now what I need is a story, a real character-driven story, not just a series of twists and turns choreographed by some formulaic notion of ‘tension’. The story needs to intrigue me, and move me. The central character might be a police person but it’s not going to be a ‘police procedural’ or a forensic puzzle, both of which in the modern era require tedious technical research.

Maybe I should abandon even the pretence of ‘crime fiction’ and just tell a story about a person and a crisis. Above all, I need to drift and learn to use the first draft as a mere sketch. Only then will I know whether I’ve got something worth spending time on. ‘Ready, fire, aim.’

My new book arrives: how does it feel?

BURNiNG_SECRETS_AW.inddI’m ruthless with my Twitter feed, regularly and systematically blocking anything I don’t want and refusing to ‘follow back’ until I’ve checked the person out. Too many ‘followers’ are just fishing for reciprocation, and I’m not interested. As a consequence, my Twitter line includes almost exclusively people involved either in books and publishing, or Cumbria and the Lake District, or any combination of those.Wasdale

 

In a sense those two threads dominate my thinking about my books and writing. I’m passionately interested in West Cumbria, an area I have loved all my life and where I’ve lived for the past decade and more. Part of my determination to begin writing fiction at a relatively advanced age stemmed from the need to write about this place and its history and people.

That’s the upside: the downside is that I’ve never been sure about the ‘genre’ of my writing. Which comes first for me – setting, characters, or plot? In the Jessie Whelan trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ the priority was clearly setting and characters. The main external dramas were provided by real events, and the internal dramas arose from the interaction among fictional characters, and between them and their surroundings, both place and time. When I decided to have a go at crime fiction, I realised that balance of those aspects would have to change, and that plot would have to be more important, but I don’t believe I’ve truly made that shift. Setting and characters still dominate, and details of the plot are much harder for me.

Maybe it’s that ambivalence about what my writing is really about that has made me less enthusiastic about the new novel than I should be. All my writerly Twitter acquaintances speak of the arrival of a new book from the printers with such excitement, much like the arrival of a new baby – unalloyed positive feeling. Or at least that’s how it appears. There are photos of piles of books waiting to be signed, glamorous launch events and brimming champagne flutes.pexels-photo.jpg

For me, the new book’s arrival last week was just another stage in the long tedious process of self-publishing which has felt endless and stressful, even though the whole schedule has worked without a hitch. I suspect that part of my anxiety about it is a hangover from the anxiety about the serious accident I suffered almost a year ago when the new book was in its very early stages, too late to be abandoned but too early to see the light at the end of the tunnel. For a while I couldn’t walk, or drive, or even type without pain. It would have been good to just relax into recovery but the unfinished book haunted and taunted me, and kept me awake. I resented it, and maybe I still do.

The arrival of a new book could feel like a milestone, and a relief, but it doesn’t, because now the real work starts of trying to sell the damn thing. Promotion requires unceasing optimism and enthusiasm and for me those are both in short supply at present. Should I be honest and admit that the book felt rushed? The background details of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 are rich, authentic and moving, but one of the characters is unconvincing and the plot allows authenticity to triumph over a more eventful – and satisfying? – ending. I’m always my own harshest critic, which is unhelpful at this stage.

So, for various reasons, when the books arrived I wasn’t overwhelmed with love for a much-loved child after a difficult pregnancy. It was more like ‘Here we go again. And they’re not going to like the ending. And do I really want to do this all over again in another year or so? And I’m supposed to be retired.’ Not very positive is it? Maybe I just need to pull myself together and stop whingeing.

Opening paragraph: it has to be good!

hardback bookAlmost at the end of the writing and editing process on the new book now, and the last thing on the list of issues to deal with is the opening paragraph. The current version has been written and rewritten countless times over the past few months and before I’m done it’ll be started all over again. Not many lines, maybe half a dozen sentences, but I want to get it as good as I can.

It’s always a challenge. In a short space you have to give the reader a sense of place, time, character and the impending story, and every word counts, like poetry. It’ll be the first thing the curious potential reader will look at, and probably the first thing I read aloud when I’m presenting the book. I’ve read the first paragraph of ‘A Good Liar’ many times over the years since it was published and I’m still pleased with it, and I want to feel the same about the first paragraph of this book too. It’s almost there, but it’s still too clumsy. I’ve tinkered with it until the words start to blur. Now’s the time to start it all over again.

The other crucial section of course is the ending, the final few sentences. All the major plot points are sorted out by then, no more twists, just a ‘human interest’ scene and a shred of dialogue to leave the reader interested in what might come next. I think I’ve got that. So the first paragraph will keep calling to me until the deadline for sending it to the designer is upon me, or I just can’t bear to look at it any more. In either case, by the end of next week it’ll be done. Thank heaven.