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.

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!

Counting words

I’ve just finished the third draft of my new book ‘Cruel Tide’, and the last thing I needed to do before I sent it off to the Editor for the first stage of its journey to publication was to count the final word total. It’s a bit of a chore and half way through I wondered, why am I doing this?

There are probably several reasons for counting words, both as you go along and as a total. I’ve always believed, for example, that a full-length novel had to have a minimum number of words so that the reader doesn’t feel cheated. Below 80,000 or so wouldn’t be enough. Where that number came from I’m not sure: I must have heard it on one of the writing courses I’ve been on and it stuck. Many of the novels you see on the shelves are much longer than that, and are usually commented upon for their length.  I recall ‘A Suitable Boy’ when it first came out bring described admiringly in terms of its staggering length, and more recently ‘The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I read all of Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’, and loved it even though I skipped through some of the political background pretty fast, but didn’t get past the first few pages of ‘The Goldfinch’ before I ran out of sympathy for the main characters and gave up. At present I’m reading the first volume of a two-part biography of Charles Darwin, but at 540 pages it’s so big and heavy that it’s very difficult to read in bed, and the weight when travelling is enough to drive you back to Kindle.

When I wrote my first novel I was obsessed with making sure it had enough words. As a consequence I rambled on far too much and in the final painful edit, having been advised to cut, cut, and cut again, I excised nearly 40,000 words, including entire characters, sub-plots and yards of riveting description, and the book was better for it, although still not as tight as it needed to be, looking back. The second and third books of the trilogy all worked out about the same, around 90,000, and that seemed to me to be about right. Each chapter was between three and five thousand, and that felt about right too, to keep the story chugging along. Every chapter had to have a point and a contribution to make, and should leave the reader wanting to read on.

The fourth one, just completed, is a bit different as I’ve switched genre from ‘local family saga’ to ‘crime fiction’, and have tried to adopt the three-act structure that I learned from Matthew Hall and Bill Ryan at their splendid workshop a year or so ago. Hall started as a screen writer I think, and he was particularly clear about the necessity of the three acts, each with its own purpose and dynamic, and the parallel internal and external dramas. Maybe that’s why this one has turned out to be somewhat longer than the previous ones. The word count just completed came to nearly 114,000, which was a surprise. This time I’ve been editing quite severely as I went along, to avoid the intimidating sprawl that requires a post-facto hatchet and all the perils of continuity that may ensue.

This longer length is curiously satisfying. It makes me feel like a real grown-up writer, which is rather sad for a woman in her sixties who’s been writing in one form or another all her life. As I have read the ms closely over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reasonably happy about the development of the characters, they way they look and especially the way they speak, and the whorls and twists of the plot. It tells a readable tale without the pace slowing down too much in some places. And I have tried to avoid the research information that so irritates me in some of the books I read, where the writer seems bent on squeezing in far more detail than is necessary, however authentic it might be.

What really matters, of course, is not the number of words but the choice of them – their meaning and imagery and stimulus and sound and balance and poetry. I wish I were more of a poet.

 

Genre cliche and sex

As you may remember from previous posts, dear reader, I’ve always struggled with the notion of ‘genre’. I’m not keen on stereotypes generally, and genre has often seemed a rather lazy and delimiting way of categorising a book, to make it easier for booksellers to know which shelf to put it on. As a writer of regional/local women’s commercial historical fiction, my irritation may be understandable. ‘Fiction’ is OK, but the rest of the labels are perjorative, and it’s particularly galling when the ‘local’ label condemns my books to the bottom shelf or the back room alongside books about copper mining in Victorian Cumberland.

After a trilogy in the ‘regional/local women’s commercial historical fiction’ category, I decided to try crime fiction, which I read much of myself and have always enjoyed. As usual, I began by trying to learn about this mode of writing, and enjoyed a day at Crimefest in Bristol last summer, to immerse myself briefly and see what I could pick up. Part of it reminded me of a weekend spent at the Gilbert and Sullivan festival in Buxton the previous year. At both events everyone seemed to know everyone else, except me of course, and there was an air of shared language and complacent jollity, with much kissing and expressions of joy. Even the names at Crimefest had a certain pattern: I was struck by the number of Camilla’s and Jocelyn’s, for example, of whom we see very few in West Cumbria. That must be a cultural habit emanating from London. 

The workshop with Matthew Hall and Bill Ryan was really good, as I’ve mentioned before, and focussed mainly on the 3 act structure, that was new to me and quite challenging, which I liked. There was also the interesting idea of a parallel between the external crises in the plot and internal personal crises for the protagonist. I could see how the best of what I’ve read reflected this dual thread. I could also see how the main characters required some personal demons that made them more interesting and vulnerable, and also generated mistakes, false assumptions and some of the blind alleys and red herrings of good crime stories. 

The crime fiction shelves,and especially the Nordic noir variety, are full of depressed, lonely, single men with fraught personal relationships and alcohol problems. When does a recurring idea become a cliche? You can change gender, as MR Hall has bravely done, but still end up with the same formula: Hall’s female coroner is depressed, lonely, single etc etc. Or you can give your hero a very particular setting, as with Bill Ryan’s Korolev in Stalinist Russia, and make him a more sympathetic character, but surround his intrinsic goodness with potentially overwhelming conspiracy and evil doings. 

There is a general absence of joy among current crime fiction ‘heroes’, which inevitably affects one of the genre cliches, the requirement to include at least one sexual encounter. We are led to believe that sex in fiction increases sales. And sex does appear to be de rigeur these days in crime fiction, which is quite a challenge when many of the current protagonists, however physically attractive they may be, are deeply depressed. They are drawn to the most unlikely and unsuitable people, sometimes against all their better instincts, although the apparently inevitable sexual encounter is often described in unspecific euphemisms. We should be grateful for that at least : anything more graphic might be too grotesque. Incidentally, this feature of the genre was never mentioned in Hall and Ryan’s admirable workshop, but there it is in their books.  

So here’s my dilemma as a novice crime writer. Do I absorb the lessons from my more experienced and successful peers and include the obligatory sex scene, even inferentially, or do I eschew it in the interests of the reader’s digestion and stick to the crime stuff – the ‘meat and potatoes’ without the gravy? Much will depend on how I choose to draw my main characters, and I’ve already decided on a rather wild and perverse young woman who finds herself collaborating with a more conventional young man with a less intuitive and more procedural approach. One woman, one man, both relatively young and unattached. The reader’s expectation of sex might be high, but does it have to happen? If a sexual encounter is part of the genre cliche, it would have to be simultaneously provoked by too much alcohol in her case and uncharacteristic lust from him. I could engineer that I suppose by some tricksy plotting, but do I really want to? Is it not possible that two people of different genders can work together without sex? I remember my mother telling me gravely that such a thing was not possible. ‘They’re all the same, dear,’ she said (meaning all men). ‘They only want thing. It’s in their nature.’ I have no clear opinion on this issue.

In each book of my earlier trilogy there was some sex, but I maintain that it was a product of, and necessary to, the development of a character-driven plot. In the current foray into crime fiction, the same must apply. If neither plot nor character would generate a sexual episode naturally, by its own volition, then it won’t happen. Part of me is quite relieved. Trying to write with commitment about something implausible is too difficult. I’m grateful too that as a self-published author I’m under no external pressure to increase sales by giving way to this particular genre cliche. No editorial or marketing voice is whispering in my ear to include something I don’t feel the need for. 

This is not to say that in future books, even those with the same characters, sex might not arise plausibly and find a place in the story. But genre cliche alone will not be enough. If we rightly criticise cliche in other aspects of writing, we shouldn’t let the obsession with genre lead to formulaic structures and plots. If that makes them less likely to be best-sellers, so be it. Most of us will never make a full living from writing anyway, so we might as well hang on to our self-respect and avoid cliche in all its forms.

First draft: edit as you go, or plough on?

A few days after getting back from our long trip, my sense of urgency about the first draft of book 4 was overwhelming. I had an outline, or thought I did, which had taken weeks to develop and looked as if it would carry me through the first draft. So I began at the beginning, avoiding the trap I’d fallen into earlier of starting with scenes I was most excited about, regardless of chronology, and hoping I would piece it all together later. That way madness lies, for me at least. So Chapter 1 it was, and then on to chapter two, then three. So far, so good. But by now the inadequacies in the outline were beginning to show. Threads had been left hanging, by default not be design, some actions seemed implausible, minor characters said unexpected things and threw the storyline around. 

I stalled, went back, fixed some of the difficulties, re-wrote the outline for the next few chapters and continued. By now all sorts of unexpected things were happening, and the urge to go back and tweak previous chapters to fit in with the current direction was slowing me down. Of course there would be some inconsistencies and things to be fixed, but remembering them was the first challenge and finding them in the text was even harder. Why did someone decide they had to Gateshead? Where did Gateshead come from? In desperation I tried ‘Find; Gateshead’ but that didn’t work. I’d have to go back and re-read all the previous chapters to track it down. 

After a number of such frustrations I decided that tweaking things as I went along would ruin the sense of forward momentum that had been turning up such unexpectedly good scenes. This was a first draft, that would be read with care by my trusty editor and annotated in detail to guide the essential re-write that would have to happen anyway, however much fiddling around I’d already done. I’m finally doing what my editor advised me to do in the first place: just crash on through the first draft, amending the outline as necessary as I go, keeping track of plot and all the other threads as well as I can and put it right, all at once, in the second draft rather than ‘toing and froing’ and driving myself nuts.

With that in mind, at least the chapters are rolling along nicely and the fleshing out of the story keeps turning up things I’m happy with and had not anticipated. Which is good, isn’t it? I just wish is wasn’t keeping me awake at night.

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. 

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.