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.

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A child’s Point of View: unreliable or devastatingly honest?

I’ve written before about the challenge of writing from a child’s point of view. To some extent, the child is an unreliable narrator as their view of the world is coloured by youth and inexperience and possible misconceptions. But there’s always the possibility that the child will see things as they truly are, uncluttered by notions of what ‘ought’ to be visible. the Emperor's new clothesThe ‘Emperor’s clothes’ is the classic example: whereas adult viewers see the Emperor  luxuriously clad as befits his/her status, the child sees that the Emperor is in fact naked. The child may say so, but will not be paid attention to because he/she is ‘just a child’.

“Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings shall come forth wisdom.” That’s a biblical quote, in which ‘wisdom’ is equated with ‘truth’.

There are two children in my new novel. One of them is central to the action, first encountered on page 1 and staying centre stage for much of the story. Writing from her POV meant getting into the mind and reactions of a fairly unsophisticated young person, biologically but not personally mature. Reaching back into my own memory of being that age was quite a shock. Had I really noticed what happened around me and analysed it in that way, so intense, so sceptical? To double check, I recalled my own child at that age, and the hundreds I’d encountered at school during my teaching years. It seemed to me that some perceptions were sharp and accurate, and some others were missing altogether. Adults may see something that the child misses completely – hence the ‘unreliability’.

from_a_child__s_point_of_view_by_nxxosThe other child in my latest story is younger, further back in my memory and beyond my teaching experience. This voice was harder to capture. One thing I was sure of however: this child is more ‘wise’ than those around him give him credit for. He may not say much but he misses very little of what’s going on, even though he may not understand all of it. He will offer what he knows only if asked directly, and demonstrate his knowledge in unconventional ways. Interesting. It creates tension that is subtle and quiet, but still intriguing to any reader whose senses have not been dulled by too much ‘action.’ I hope it works.

 

Goodbye and good riddance to the hardback ‘literary’ novel?

The papers this weekend are commenting on, and apparently bemoaning, the decline in sales of the ‘literary’ novel over the past two years. Some of the articles suggest that sales of this or that novel might increase when it’s published in paperback, usually a year or so after the hardback.hardback book

I read all this with some bemusement. Firstly, I’m struck yet again by the artificiality of genre distinctions that the publishing world seems fixated on. Who decides whether a novel is ‘literary’ or ‘genre’ fiction – I think that’s the main divide, before the ‘genre’ is further sub-divided? I’ve seen it defined that character drives ‘literary fiction’, and plot drives ‘genre fiction’, but surely these are points along a spectrum, not a dichotomy? It might be easy to identify novels at either end of the spectrum, but after that the distinction falters.

The ‘literary’ tag may have to be reconsidered, especially as it now seems to be connected to poor sales, which is increasingly the traditional publishers primary concern. We’ve all heard that a very high proportion of published books lose money, and that the business is rescued from financial disaster only by a few block-busters. Some of these massive sellers can be predicted – the ghastly Dan Brown, for example –  whereas others come out of nowhere, as predictable as a win on the lottery. Does any other business trying to make a profit organise itself like this?bella-literary-fiction

 

And if we’re talking about sacred cows in need to disposal, what is the point of  publishing novels in hardback form first and making anyone who doesn’t want a heavy expensive tome wait for a year to get the version they actually want to buy? This is a mystery, and clearly, it’s not working. This time next year, and the year after, will publishers still be fretting about poor sales of the hardback versions and still planning to keep on churning them out? I admit to be baffled about it all.

 

Many readers like a ‘real’ book – I do myself: the paperback format fulfils this need. Ebooks are also useful in some circumstances.  So who wants to read a hardback, besides a tiny number of picky traditionalists who profess to have ‘standards’ and probably insist on esoteric and expensive ways of eating and drinking as well as reading?

My recent and unsuccessful dalliance with ‘Unbound’ crowd-funded publishing came across this issue all the time. Many of my readers, keen to see the new book as soon as it comes out,were puzzled that they would have to pay twice as much as normal for a ‘special edition’ hardback when they would actually prefer a paperback, lighter to carry around and easier hold with one hand in bed, for instance. ‘That’s the way traditional publishing works’ I would lamely explain, and I had no answer to the inevitable next question – ‘Why?’

 

 

Endings are really difficult, aren’t they?

I came to crime fiction really late. I didn’t publish my first novel until I was 64, and then spent three years on a character driven trilogy before I decided to try crime writing. I read crime stories and I have some idea how they’re constructed and what makes them work. So why not have a go? How hard can it be?

Oh, the misplaced confidence of the (relatively) old!The-Three-Act-Structure

Online crime writing course: tick. Found and studied my notes on the ‘Three Act Structure’: tick, although I worried that genre protocols might make the writing formulaic. Then I plunged into ‘Cruel Tide’, a story about institutional child abuse, and ignored most of the genre protocols I’d identified. I refused to make it too graphic and violent; I  avoided the expected romance between my two main characters, and – mercy! – I left the ending ambivalent, with the goodies thwarted and the baddies apparently getting away with murder, literally.

I thought it was a good first attempt, but some of my readers were fretful. They wanted a ‘cosier’ theme, more romance, and the wicked to be punished. When I wrote the sequel ‘Fatal Reckoning’ I bent towards these expectations a little more, but that’s the end of the plot spoilers. My ebook and Print on Demand publisher, Fahrenheit Press, dubbed the two crime novels ‘Cumbrian noir’ and I was actually quite chuffed about that. ‘Noir’ has great resonance: it conjures up unresolved wickedness, dark landscapes, claustrophobic interiors, moral ambivalence. Double IndemnityIf you love ‘Double Indemnity’ you’re a noir fan, and I do. So if I have a crime fiction sub-genre it’s definitely not cosy crime, nor classic police procedural, and there’s no ‘great detective’ who reveals all in the penultimate chapter.

So Cumbrian noir it is, and I decided to have another go, setting the story in one of the darkest times in recent Cumbrian history, the catastrophic foot and mouth disease outbreak of 2001. I’ve reached the point where I’m reasonably happy with Act 1, and Act 3 looked clear, important and achievable. But here’s the hard part, Act 2. Tension has to mount, complications are necessary, a few blind allies and red herrings come in handy. If it all sounds a bit meandering, that’s the problem. You have to pull the reader along into the breathless tension and twists of Act 3 and then leave things feeling reasonably well resolved by the end. Trouble with Act 2 is a common problem, apparently.

When Act 2 isn’t working, you’ve got some choices. A new character? A new sub-plot? An unexpected twist that raises the danger level? Or there’s something more radical, that might take more time to sort out: you can change the ending you’d planned.

Many writers recommend starting with the denouement and planning backwards from there, and it’s tempting. But sometimes as the characters develop they just don’t fit into the dramatic ending that seemed so attractive in your earlier plans. Or you realise that the underpinning theme that’s emerging from the story doesn’t chime with the original ending. You need to take a deep breath, go back to your outline, and start again, at least from the half way point to the end. It feels drastic, and you need to think hard about the next outline before continuing with the first draft, or you could be wasting even more time than you’ve lost already.

That’s my way out: my ending has to change, and I can see Act 2 taking a better shape already. Phew. Hope it works!

Planning a novel – I do it my way!

Every writer has a different approach to planning their work. Some claim not to plan at all: they just have an idea, start with a blank page and ‘Chapter 1’ and go from there. How they do it, and make it work, I have no idea.

The rest of us will need to do more merely thinking ahead. There’s so much to juggle, setting – both time and place, research where necessary and how much of it to use, and – probably the most important – characters and their backstories. Maybe some people can hold all that in their heads or a few scraps of paper, but I can’t.

Of course there are apps and software that you can use, to organise everything and make it easier to access and use. I have tried to use Scrivener, more than once, but having started my writing in the old days using just a Word document for each chapter, that’s the only way that seems to work for me. Although I started writing fiction only a few years ago I’d spent my professional life before that writing documents, papers, and books too using Word and the habit was too deeply ingrained to change.

My first novel was a planning disaster, with failedpyper1 (1) attempts to develop a complex story without a clear consistent idea of chronology and how the different threads of the story would weave together. It took two years to salvage the chaotic first draft and I never want to go through that again. Then, on a wet Saturday in Winnipeg, I heard an ad. on the radio for a talk at the central library by Andrew Pyper, an author from Toronto. I braved the rain and walked into town from Osborne Village and wondered whether it would be worth it. It was, definitely.

When Pyper talked us through the way he puts the key events, people,  twists, conversations, climaxes, scenes on separate sheets and then pins them up on a wall, it was all so obvious. Think of the big boards they have in police investigations, with photos and names and events, arrows, links, questions and ideas, and you’ve got an image of a plan for a novel. It’s a form of simultaneous visual display: you can see links and connections that don’t present themselves from a ‘list’. This may have something to do with the way our minds work: I happen to be a visual thinker, and quite random sometimes, so this form of display will probably work well for me.

This way of working is useful for developing the structure of the novel too. planning-a-novel-index-cardsIf you’ve got the key points of the story on separate cards you can move them around, arrange them into a time line, into chapters and then into ‘Acts’, either three or five. If you’re not sure what that’s about, Google it and you’ll find endless advice, diagrams, and so on. It’s the way most movies are constructed, and has seeped into the structures of others genres too.

I did warn you I’m a random thinker! So you won’t be surprised that I want to go backwards for a moment, to the very inception of the story, way before you get to the storyboard stage. Something has to spark you off. Pyper calls this the ‘what if’ stage: you read a piece in a newspaper and ask yourself, ‘What if that happened in the last century, not now?’ or ‘What if the key person was young and female not old and male?’ or ‘What if there was a storm and all phone and email communication was lost?’ or ‘What if DNA hadn’t been discovered when the story happened?’ or ‘What if you write this in the first person, not the third person?’

The ‘what if’s’ are endless. I recall that Pyper asked members of the audience to sum up their story in twenty five words and tell us. He then took ‘what if’ questions from the audience, and what a creative five minutes that was. You could see sparks flying all round the room. I asked the inevitable question: ‘Has Pyper ever written all this down, so we could go over it again?’ No, he never had. So all you’ve got is what I’m conveying here, although I’m sure other authors operate in much the same way and have written books about their writing process that I haven’t read.

So, you have an idea, twist it around with ‘what if’s’ to make it more interesting, start thinking about characters – their appearance, clothes, gait, speech, passions and fears, then weave them together and place them in a time and a place, and see what happens.

When you’ve got this far, go to the next stage, the ‘storyboard’ and the structure, and when you start to write, start at the beginning. I know it’s tempting to start on a big scene that’s set somewhere in the middle or right at the end, but you could be wasting an awful lot of time. I know, I did.

Just a caveat about planning too tightly…no matter what you plan on the page, and how detailed may be your vision of an ending, don’t assume that it will all work out exactly as you envisaged. When you get into the detail of your writing things will occur to you for the first time. Your characters may say something that throws the scene into a different direction, and from that all sorts of unanticipated things may happen. My advice is to plan tight for only three or four chapters ahead as you write and leave the future more flexible. If you’ve spent too much time on the long term plot you may want to hang on to it when the best decision would be to change it.

If you’re a teacher, you’ll recognise this dilemma: you have a plan for the week or the semester but learning is less predictable than teaching. For the sake of learning, the plan needs to change, so change it.

 

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!

 

Why do we find bad people so interesting?

I’ve been trying to write but my shoulder’s getting in the way. The only way to type without pain is to support my wrist and use only the fingers on my right hand, doing more with my left to reach most of the keys. It’s messy and needs so much correction that it hardly seems worth the effort, but at least I can do a few hundred words before I get fed up and rest. Yes, I know I could use voice to text software but the sceptic in me reckons that by the time I’d learned to do that effectively my shoulder will have healed. Or maybe I just want a break to enjoy someone else’s stories.house-of-cards-season-3-leaked-on-netflix-early

To pass the time when I would have been writing, and to give my head something to work on, I’ve picked up on the US version of ‘House of Cards. I watched the first series years ago in Canada and loved the ‘noirness’ of it, the claustrophobic interiors, the credits, Spacey and his cronies, and most of all its relentless amorality. Human weakness in all its guises filled every scene. I relished the storylines, some of which seemed preposterous until the current US President took office, and how they interconnect in a seething rats nest of corruption and self-serving ambition. The Archers meet Macbeth, like that.

How better for a story teller to pass her time than plunging back into that dark world where the ghastly Underwood is now President, saying and doing things that Trump might emulate if he had a brain and no access to Twitter. The complete absence of scruple and conscience – so far at least – makes for a riveting story, far more interesting than it would be if the central character were more principled.

Why do we find bad people so interesting? Is it because they do things that we might sometimes be tempted to do and struggle to put behind us? An complete absence of self-doubt makes a person dangerous, but they must save a lot of energy by not agonising over things like the rest of us do. Part of me is waiting, yearning even, for  bad deeds to catch up with the evil protagonists in ‘House of Cards’, just to see how they will react ‘in extremis’. The magic of Spacey’s performance is that we are tempted to collude with him and the occasional flashes of honesty delivered direct to camera. Very few of his more worthy opponents are as mesmerising.

‘House of Cards’ is so extreme in its depiction of unrelenting ruthlessness that it could easily tip into caricature and pantomime. It’s a mark of its quality that this doesn’t happen. In my story I’m trying to avoid depicting a ‘baddy’ who is all bad. He – or she, no plot spoiling – needs to be sufficiently authentic and complex that the reader can  empathise with the dilemma he/she faces and the choices he/she makes. Characters have to be capable of surprising us. When I get the chance, I’ll be back to making those surprises happen. In the meantime I’ll keep watching, just to see if Underwood ends up in jail where he belongs.