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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How long is long enough?

Last week’s issue was the business of ‘murdering darlings’. This week I’m looking at the carnage and wondering – to use yet another metaphor – whether I’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.baby-bathwater

The main victim of last week’s murderous rampage through the third draft was the opening of the new story, where I took four chapters to get to the first real tension, although I thought the discerning reader would see the story’s inexorable decline into noir and be prepared to wait. There was merit in some of those early scenes, but in the end they just weren’t justifiable and out they went.

There’s no doubt that the 4th draft now gets going faster and rattles along, but when I sliced away at the rather turgid middle section as well I noticed that the final word count had shrunk by an astonishing 15,000 words, from 99,000 down to 83,000, and I began to wonder whether I’d been too enthusiastic.

I checked around. How long is too short for a thriller/crime story? My previous two had been over 100,000 words, which is probably why this one felt a little thin. But other opinions were reassuring : anything between 70,000 to 100,000, said someone whose experience I respect.

What I need to do now is step away from the text for a day or two and go back to it with fresher eyes. Have I thrown the baby away? Which fragments of the erstwhile opening chapters need to be included, to add depth without length? Sometimes all it takes is a remark or a look or a thought to enrich the reader’s view of the scene, and that will be my task for the next re-write. I also need to look out for anywhere further on in the story where reference are made to passages that are now lying on the ‘cutting room floor’.

I suspect that by the the time I’ve added in one or two potentially dramatic and useful scenes and fleshed out the cuttingroomfloor-300x300opening details just a little more I’ll be up to the 85,000 word mark, exactly midway between the parameters suggested by expert colleague. Let’s hope so. I’m getting to the stage now when I never want to see this manuscript ever again.

Apart from any other considerations, a slightly shorter book will make for faster and thereby cheaper production, especially proof-reading. After the embarrassment of inadequate proof-reading in one of my previous books, I’ll be doing whatever it takes this time to get that the stage of the process properly covered, even it costs a lot.

‘Murdering the darlings’, again

Remember the sense of anti-climax at the end of the first draft that I complained about last week? Well, instinctive dissatisfaction was well founded. Even before the long and perceptive email arrived from my editor I had reluctantly admitted to myself that the story took too long to get going, the middle sagged, and the final chapters were either too detailed or melodramatic, or – worse – both. Oh dear.nooo

Just goes to show that you need plenty of time for second thoughts. Fortunately, because of the fierce final effort to finish the damn thing I still have some time to play with before copy-editing is due and the production juggernaut starts to roll. Some decisions were easy: the opening scene that I crafted with such care had to go, and the first ‘darling’ disappeared. With that gone, of course, other passages now didn’t work, and they had to go too. Cut, cut, cut.murder your darlings

The hardest part of the whole exercise is keeping track of the various versions and not mixing them up. Every now and then on Twitter you encounter an author bemoaning the fact that they’ve just spent several hours correcting the wrong draft. I know how it feels and how easy it is to make that mistake when you’re tired or panicking or fed up with the whole business.

I cannibalise the original draft, moving text around, deleting and adding, before cutting and pasting the new version into the 4th draft, carefully labelled as such, and saving it. Two days into the corrections I’m doing OK so far, despite a head cold. Actually, concentrating on the work, however hard that might be, helps to dissipate the effects of the cold, and at least I feel as if I’m still achieving more than just a mounting pile of used hankies.

There are some technical details I’ve had to check to make the necessary plot tweaks. Here’s an intriguing example : ‘How to evade a tracker dog?’ I think I’ve got away with that one. When you’re splicing new bits into an existing draft there are continuity issues too, which are tedious both to pick up and to deal with.

But hey. If you’re going to do it, do it right. The book could still be out there when I’m too old to remember it, and I want it to work as well as it can. What’s a few murdered darlings in the great scheme of things?

 

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!

 

The importance of ‘Chapter 1’

My temporary living space is looking pretty well organised now (check previous posts to see what this is all about). And my head is getting round the new situation too: instead of fretting about the necessary confinement I’m using the time to tackle something that’s been overshadowed by health issues for a a couple of weeks – starting the first draft of the new book.

FMD pyre2_cut

The outline is pretty well sorted, apart from the final denouement which I want to leave loose for now. So first thing this morning I split my screen, posted the outline of Chapter 1 on one side and pulled up a blank document on the other headed, ‘Burning Secret Chapter 1’. The title may change, but it’ll do for now.

Immediately at this point the writer faces a choice about ‘point of view’. Whose eyes am I looking through in this scene? Whose head am I inside, and what does this person see, hear, do and feel? What are the implications of this choice, and is it significant for the reader? It’s a chance to clarify who is at the centre of the story, or possibly to catch the reader off-guard. Do you remember the film ‘Psycho’? For the first several minutes of that Hitchcock masterpiece the viewer thinks they’re being told a story about Janet Leigh’s character having an affair. All the action is from her point of view, until in an iconic shocking twist her character is gone and we are jolted into another story. The decision about the first POV the reader encounters is one the writer needs to think carefully about.

For this book I’ve decided that POV should stay the same for the whole of the first chapter. The setting, both time and place, is quite complicated and one POV is probably enough for the reader to manage. Perhaps at the chapter’s end the hook to draw the reader forward could be the introduction of a new POV, as the story begins to unfold. Malice 51lsLKs+yCL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_

I read an excellent Japanese crime story recently, – ‘Malice’ by Keigo Higashino – at the end of which there was an interview with the author about the techniques he’d used. One of these was to give the reader an early memorable snippet of information about a key character that would be crucial in establishing whether the character was trustworthy or likeable. With that impression established, the reader would interpret the character’s behaviour through that lens. ‘First impressions count’ is the message, and those impressions are manipulated by the author.

So, the choice of character for the first POV, the information the reader is offered, the source of that information and what it signifies, are all Chapter One decisions. However well I’ve planned, much of this subtlety only presents itself when the actual first draft is being written. And that’s what I started on yesterday. I couldn’t write for long because of the sore shoulder, and I’m writing this post early so I can rest for a while before going back to Chapter One later in the morning. Pacing myself like this is useful as it makes me think more about what I’m doing and why, instead of just racing on.

For those of you who are new to this blog, I’m confined to the house having injured myself in a fall, and trying to use this as an opportunity for achievement, not just a source of frustration. It’s Day 2 of a ten day confinement: I hope the good intentions can be sustained. While the rest of country is starting the busiest holiday weekend of the year I shall be quiet in my small space and live inside my head. And if I need distractionthere’s a cricket test match to listen to on the radio. What more could I want?