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?

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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.

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.

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.’

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.

Character, setting and story: the perpetual balancing act

When I started writing it was really all about setting and character: there was a background story line, but after a while that declined in importance and the interplay of the characters against the West Cumbrian backdrop became the main driving force.

GoodLiar_COVER.inddReaders love the Jessie Whelan trilogy for that reason. No one ever comments that the surprises of the plot kept them reading: it was all about what would happen to the people and the interest of the background.

Then I turned to crime fiction, in which the twists and turns of events and revelations have to be managed differently, but in the first two crime books the two leading characters were still centre stage. CRUEL_TIDE COVER FRONT reduced jpg‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ are mainly character driven, despite the skull-duggery of the plots. The tension is not so much ‘who dunnit?’, but ‘would the wrong doers be brought to justice?’ There was little in the way of police procedure as neither of the two main characters were senior police people, and the police were more concerned with covering things up than searching for evidence.fatal_reck-front-cover-1

In the latest book, set in 2001 when everything about policing had changed, police behaviour and procedures are more central. The setting – the disastrous Foot and Mouth epidemic – is also vital, and now I wonder whether the delineation of character is as strong as before. As I re-write and ‘polish’ the question bothers me. In terms of ‘genre’ is this book quite different than the previous ones, and if it is, does that matter? It’s a good story, with enough twists and turns to keep things going. The body count is low – but that’s OK. I’m increasingly tired of dramas that need death after nasty death to sustain the reader’s engagement. After a while, whatever the professed authenticity of the setting, too many crime stories turn out like ‘Death in Paradise’ or ‘Midsomer Murders’. Or is that what happens when crime is adapted for TV? Is it ‘episodic’ presentation that causes the structure of the story to change? Surely what matters is not how many bodies are discovered, or even how they died, but why: what drives someone to attack another? Motive, opportunity, means, in that order. Or are we so jaded that we demand ever more violence?

My final final deadline for the current manuscript is within a day or two. Once the damn thing goes away to the editor I will celebrate for a few days before I have to think about it again. If I had a ‘publisher’ I might be able to relax a little for the next few months while the book makes it way to publication, but when you self-publish every aspect of what happens has to be organised and monitored by yourself. It’s exhausting! As my next big birthday approaches, I’m wondering – again – how much longer I want to carry on. I still have a list of things I enjoy and want to do – sewing, drawing, singing, keeping fit – all of which take time and commitment. The curse of writing is that it seems to squeeze out everything else. I have to give this dilemma some serious thought.

‘Once over lightly’?

At one of the first residential writing courses I went on, many years ago, the special guest one evening was a published author – one novel – who was invited to talk to us about his writing process. He seemed quite grumpy and I wondered if he’d been having a bad day. From what he told us, however, it sounded as if every day was a bad day. ‘Writing is hell’ was the main headline of his remarks. ‘I don’t why I do it. Once the first book was out they were badgering me for another one, and it’s like pulling teeth.’ This is not verbatim, but that was the gist. I wasn’t the only one who wished he had stpulling-teethayed at home.

This miserable bloke’s writing process was as follows. Every day he would write a sentence or two, struggling over every word until he was satisfied with it. Then he would stop, presumably exhausted. The next day he would read over what ever he’d written so far, agonise over it again, and write another sentence. And so on until he’d finished. Really? To this day I suspect he was making that up. But maybe that’s truly the way some people write: intensive and painfully slow, as if they were writing a poem.

On the sixth novel now, if I have a preferred writing process it has probably by now established itself. Needless to say, my process differs somewhat from that described above. The bloke appeared to have lost the will to live, unless that too was a wind up, and I would have felt the same if that was my daily routine.

I’ve talked before about the planning process, but let’s assume that I have a rough idea about each chapter, the key points and scenes, and what it contributes to the whole story. (By the way, if the chapter doesn’t contribute anything, then what’s the point of it?) With a few pointers to the shape and focus of the chapter I’ll start to write, quite fast. Sometimes I correct typos etc as I go along, sometimes I leave them and correct them all on the second reading. If the ideas are clear I can rattle along for quite a while, several hundred words. Something will halt the flow and I’ll stop and go back. This is the first edit, checking for continuity and consistency, improving poor phrasing, finding better words, correcting obvious errors.

At this point I often go back to the plan for the current chapter, or possibly previous ones, noting that something will need changing. Or I look at future chapters which are now taking a slightly different direction. If there are past pieces to change, I tend to do them straight away, before I lose the detailed focus. That done, on we go, more fast writing and then stop, go back, adjust, edit. A four thousand word chapter might be written in sections like this, one after the other, and pretty fast. When it’s going well I can write a chapter in a day.

There’s a very strong tendency to feel dissatisfied with the whole thing as you get beyond Act 1, when the setting is established and the story should be driving forward. I always ask myself at this point, is this story worth telling? If I wallow in this indecision for too long, or try to get feedback too early, the enterprise could quickly grind to a halt. It’s all about confidence: without confidence there’s no energy, and without energy there’s no progress. So I tell myself to stop worrying too much at this early stage and just keep going. The time for serious reflection, feedback and discussion with ones-self and others is when this first fast draft is finished. In terms of painting a picture it’s ‘once over lightly’ and then stand back and look hard at the emerging work.

The fine detail can be added, in what is now the third, or even fourth edit. If greater depth is needed for a character this can be provided with just a few more or different words or actions. A potentially confusing piece of plot can be fixed with a sentence or two. Once the whole work is ‘visible’ all sorts of extra touches, colour, fine tuning – call it what you will – can be added. Details of weather, prevailing atmosphere, smells, details, all of these can be added, so long as they don’t affect the storyline too much. When all that is done, the work is clearly an improvement on what you started with, and probably pretty close to the final version, although more polishing will continue until the set deadline is upon you. Without a deadline, you could polish for ever and drive yourself nuts, or at least I could. Part of the art of editing is knowing when to stop.

The contrast with the painstaking misery of our guest writer could hardly be greater. I wonder if he ever finished that novel?