Plot, character and setting: which comes first?

When I’m talking about writing, explaining the balance between plot, character, point of view and setting is a helpful starting point for people who haven’t yet thought about how a novel is developed. downloadIn my West Cumbrian trilogy, the first novels I wrote, setting was the central ingredient. From my research about this amazing place and its history, I began to think about a key character who could carry the story. Having found her, I then had her interact with various other characters. There was some consideration of the plot in the first one, but mostly that developed as I went along, with a fairly quiet conclusion that I felt was an authentic way for the story to end. I didn’t really think about ‘the arc of the narrative’, or how my protagonist might have a ‘journey’.

At some point in those early years of writing I went to a workshop run by Matthew Hall and William Ryan, who had both come to novel writing from careers as barristers. Part of that workshop, introduced briefly but not fully pursued because of shortage of time, was the idea of the ‘Three Act Structure’ commonly used in films. Hall had spent some time doing film scripts and this was the structure he brought to the novel. I’ve included here a relatively simple representation of this notion: check it on Google and you’ll find various more sophisticated models.download

I was intrigued by the relative complexity of the ‘formula’ he presented to us, and read more about it after the workshop, but it always felt to me to be too ‘formulaic’, putting too much emphasis on plot structure, leaving character and setting as servants to the story. Or possibly I just didn’t have the patience to think the idea all the way through. My first interest was always in ‘where’ and ‘who’ rather than ‘how’.

When I moved into crime writing for the fourth book ‘Cruel Tide’, I revisited the thinking about the structure as ‘acts’ that build towards a climax, but still didn’t really reflect the formula in what I produced. Two more crime books followed, and the latest one, as yet untitled, is in production. Reflection on ‘structure’ as the first planning tool had faded almost completely over the intervening years. My books are well-received, within the limitations of that self-publishing brings with it. Many of my readers are Cumbrian, who are as interested as I am in the authenticity of the Cumbrian settings. Because I’m self-published I rarely get any professional reviews, or feedback from other professional writers. I rarely meet professional writers as I live in a remote place, a long way from the normal arteries of the publishing world.

Maybe that was why I suggested to the Kirkgate Arts centre in Cockermouth, an hour north of here in West Cumbria, that we should try to bring some Cumbrian writers together to talk about their work, and I would ‘host’ the event, interviewing the authors and sparking discussion among them. Long story short, the event happened last week was great success: three very different crime writers, all successful, with all sorts of exciting projects in the pipeline.

One of them was Paula Daly, from Windermere. 71LyA5zks6L._UX250_She writes what she calls ‘domestic noir’, and with such success that two of her novels have been adapted to a 6 part TV drama called ‘Deep Water’, which will air on TV here, starting in August. When the question came up of ‘where do a novelist’s characters come from?’, her answer was very interesting. She starts with structure – just as Matthew Hall had suggested in that workshop years ago. The ‘hero/protagonist’ is the centre of the action and the story tells her story, through various trials and tribulations to a final denouement. The characters all have a function, to support or to impede the hero’s progress, and their roles are planned early on. They are ciphers initially, created to serve the story. Only when the structure is clear are the characters then developed into three-dimensions, with their habits and mannerisms suggested by their preordained function.

Paula was really clear about this, and I was fascinated by her certainty about the importance of this way of working. Her plotting and planning is done in great detail, she said, and the writing itself is the least enjoyable part of the whole process. It sounded as if the actual writing was almost a chore, an anti-climax after the excitement of developing the narrative. She sees the story in a series of filmic episodes, and it could be written as a screen play rather than continuous prose.

Could I do this. Do I want to? The upside is that stories written this way are almost tailor-made for adaptation into films or TV. The setting is almost immaterial: you use whatever setting is most accessible and attractive to the film-maker.

I’m still thinking, wondering whether this approach is possible for me. Do I have the patience do achieve it, or sufficient ambition to follow the rules? Maybe it’s the idea of ‘rules’ that I have trouble with. I have always been a contrarian and maybe too old, or stubborn, to change my ways.

 

 

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I’m keeping my writing plans private

So, the week’s writing adventure at the Arvon centre in The Hurst, John Osborne’s house in Shropshire, is done. IMG_0992

Monday to Saturday, five days of thinking and writing and talking and sharing, and cooking and washing up. And very enjoyable it was too. Two well-prepared and interesting tutors – Chibundu Onuzo and Lucy Hughes-Hallett – and a great group of writers. Ages in the group ranged from early twenties to myself; three blokes, the rest women. I was impressed by the quality of what we produced in fast writing exercises, and the diversity of experience we brought. Really enjoyable, and only slightly marred by the responsibility of producing an evening meal for fifteen people on one of the nights. I was relieved when my turn was behind me. The food was delicious, and too much of it!

I wish I had copies of some of the short pieces we produced. Re-workings of the Cinderella story generated some great laughs, I remember, At one point, Lucy asked to write about a person from our childhoods, which turned out to be very emotional. And how many words could we find as an alternative to ‘nice’? What might the choice of word indicate about the character who would choose it? All sorts of activities reminded me of the basics of writing a great story.

For me, the purpose of the experience was to clear my head about whether, when and what I want to write in the future. And the main thing I came away with is that I should relax, slow down and not commit to anything until I’m ready. I’m leaving my options open, and not succumbing to pressure from myself or anyone else to a deadline for  another book, if there’s going to be one.

So, there we are. For the time being my future plans are inside my head and not to be shared. Does that sound curmudgeonly? Perhaps, but never mind. At my time of life, I can do as I please. Watch this space.

 

How long will readers stay loyal?

I’m trying to keep my ideas open and fluid around the issue of future writing. At the end of the last post I wondered whether I could sell copies of my backlist books if I didn’t have a new book to add to the list. Now my conversations with myself, and with others in the writing business, are revolving around whether readers will stay loyal if a new book doesn’t appear for a couple of years.Simone-Forti-1024x576

Whatever I do in the future, I need to get off the treadmill that this focus on the next book has become. Having been divorced and self-employed for most of my adult life, I respond badly to pressure from external obligations – which is not the same as avoiding responsibility. Responsibility is fine, so long as its a choice, not an expectation.

The unsurprising conclusion is that my motivation is almost entirely intrinsic, not extrinsic: clearly I need to write because I want to, not because I have to.

So, is all this incompatible with life as a self-published author? If I take my time to decide what to do next, will it matter if a new books appears in two years rather than one? If I want to play around with genre, regardless of whether the outcome will sell well, does that matter? I wrote ‘Burning Secrets’BURNiNG_SECRETS_AW.indd with an eye on a continuing crime-fiction series, but my current thoughts are veering away from that towards something more character-driven and less concerned with police procedures.

Above all, I’m asking myself whether my books sell – which they do – because of the genre, or because they have my name on the cover? Without any real marketing, and with no budget for promotions or advertising, sales are slow but keep going, and readers who pick up one book usually come back for more.

If there isn’t a new ‘Ruth Sutton’ book next year, of course readers won’t just wait, twiddling their thumbs. Of course they’ll migrate to other authors. But readership isn’t a ‘zero-sum’ game. If existing readers are looking elsewhere for books, that doesn’t mean they’ll forget about mine, and when  a new book appears, with a modicum of publicity, they’ll be interested. New readers may need more persuasion, but the backlist is there, waiting for their interest to be piqued, and curiosity about what else I’ve written might well overcome the unfamiliarity of a different genre. Genre boundaries are so artificial anyway.

So another option opens up for me. Delay the decision about whether to write again. Turn away for a while, do other things, scratch the itch. If something really attractive begins to bubble in the writing brain, follow that lead, but don’t force it. Don’t be bound by past decisions about genre. You can’t force inspiration into being, it has to be allowed to develop, even it that takes a bit of time.

analysis blackboard board bubble

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There, I’ve convinced myself that’s it’s OK to wait. Let’s see if I feel the same after the week’s writing course I’m starting on Monday.

Zen and the art of writing

Arriving on a Caribbean island is an object lesson in slowing down. It didn’t help that four planes arrived at once, but the line for passport and customs checks took nearly two hours. Inline_979198_4.3Friday night traffic jammed the road from the airport, and by the time we had walked to a local restaurant, the meal on the plane – surprisingly good – was a distant memory.

We were a large party and the young man serving us struggled to keep track of orders. He came back twice to check drinks, and three times to check the food order before anything arrived. You could feel people getting more fretful as the time ticked by. When it finally came, the food disappeared fast, but dessert was abandoned as we trudged towards our beds, four hours on from local time and more interested in sheets than sweets.

Today while the rest of the group went sight-seeing I stayed behind to rest my injured leg, and practiced doing everything more slowly. I swam in the pool slowly, did some slow washing, lay languidly on a lounger and drank a bottle of beer one small sip at a time. Delicious. And I also did something I haven’t done for too long – read my copy of ‘The Author’ (quarterly magazine of the Society of Authors) from cover to cover. Normally I skim the headlines and read whatever looks most interesting, but in the spirit of a slow day I started at the beginning and read on to the end. All sorts of unexpectedly good things revealed themselves, most memorably a piece by a Turkish author currently imprisoned about the life of the mind which nourishes him in the bleakest of circumstances. That helped to put things in perspective

More prosaic, but still important, were references in various articles to the choices that minor novelists like myself face. Fundamentally, what are we really trying to do? It’s a question I put right up front when I do workshops on ‘Successful self-publishing’: what constitutes success? Every author will have their own answer, and these days whether you’re self-published or part of the mainstream commercial publishing world, writing just for profit is increasingly problematic. We know that most commercially published fiction actually makes a loss, and even if you keep outgoings to a minimum by self-editing and going for ebook only, the result may not financially justify the hours of time and effort invested in the project.

zenFrom my slow reading of various reports of events, the advice to fiction writers seems to be ‘Be true to yourself; enjoy the reactions of readers, regardless of how many there may be; find a community of writers (and agents, publishers etc for those who have them) to engage with and be supported by.’ Nothing new there then. No blinding flash of revelation, just a message of internal efficacy and relatively low expectations. Of course  close scrutiny and replication of commercially successful books, and assiduous courting of the ‘blogsphere’ might pay off financially. But who wants to spend their precious time doing that? Not me.

The zen of the art of writing seems, ultimately, to be about doing what pleases and satisfies you, and letting go of the urge to borrow other people’s definitions of ‘success’.

The positive power of feedback

feedbackAll my plans for meeting readers at the Lake District shows this summer went west the moment I fell down the stairs in mid-August and emerged with a ruptured Achilles tendon and damaged shoulder ligaments. Couldn’t walk for a while, couldn’t drive, couldn’t lift or carry books, couldn’t even use a keyboard without pain and handwriting was no better. What a mess!

Of course I was lucky, I could have died or sustained what are euphemistically called ‘life-changing’ injuries. As it was I was deprived of my precious independence for a while, but gradually I’ve got back to a semblance of normality and am well into the first draft of the new novel now, with every chance of getting the book to my editor by the agreed date of the end of January.

But during the past few months the lack of contact with readers has taken its toll.

I guess all writers doubt themselves, unless and until they’re clearly successful and maybe even then. However good your original idea, and however happy you may be with the plan in your head or on paper, there comes a point somewhere in the middle of the first draft when you wonder why on earth you’re doing devoting all your spare time to this project, and whether it’ll be worth it.

At that stage, it’s really helpful to have a way of refreshing your self-confidence, – especially that part of your self-esteem particularly linked to your writing. And that’s what’s been missing, because I simply couldn’t reach readers in person for quite a while.

Today was a chance to put this right. It meant a three hour return drive, and not long to talk with quite a small group, but I did so enjoy it. And when some of them began to talk about reading my books, I realised yet again how much I need that feedback.

One of the people asked me, ‘Do readers write to you, or let you know their reaction to your books?’ And the answer to that was ‘No, not much, and I wish they would!’ It’s hard to know how many people out there have read my stuff. Once the books have gone to the distributors and the shops they are beyond my view. I know that books get handed around : sometimes readers tell me with pride how many people they’ve lent my books to! I don’t know how many people get copies from the library. Simone-Forti-1024x576Nor do I know whether readers are more forthcoming with feedback for other writer’s books. I’m not myself, I realise. I may love a book, talk about it, delay finishing it because I’m enjoying it so much. But I never think of telling Claire Tomalin, or Hilary Mantel, or Ann Cleeves, or Andrea Levy how much I love their work, and why.

And there is another problem, of the relative isolation of many self-published authors like me. We rarely get reviews, or awards, or mention in the conversations of the regular book world. I could do something about this, I know. I could read and respond to more blogs and hope that the effort is reciprocated. I could actively seek more reviews on Amazon, although very few of my sales come through that route. I could be more active in the various writers’ networks. But time spent on all that seems like time off-task. My priority as a writer is to write.

As my life returns to normal I’ll probably get out more, and meet more of the people who read my stuff. Those direct conversations are obviously important to me, and I’ve been missing them.

 

 

The lottery of writing fame

Last Thursday evening I had a great opportunity to see a very successful writer up close and hear the details of her career. Ann Cleeves imageAnn Cleeves was visiting Cockermouth in West Cumbria, not far from from where I live, and I was asked to ‘interview’ her live in front of a sold-out audience. So I got to decide some of the questions that I was most interested in. This woman has written an astonishing 30 books in 30 years: ‘How did it all start?’ I asked her. ‘Well,’ she said with a smile, ‘for the first twenty of those thirty years I made only enough money to pay for a week’s caravan holiday in Dorset.’

It was only after the first of Ann’s ‘Vera Stanhope’ series was bought for TV that her career really took off. And how did that happen? A classic serendipity: in a charity shop in London the book – ‘The Crow Trap’ – was picked up by a person who worked in TV production, as something to read on holiday. The company she worked for was looking for something to replace ‘Frost’ on ITV, Ann’s book fitted the bill exactly, and the rest, as they say, is history. The ‘Vera’ TV shows now sell to over 120 territories worldwide, and the Shetland series has also been successfully adapted for TV. The Crow Trap51D7rW7FLaL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

Ann’s books are good, no question, but much of the extraordinary success she has enjoyed in the past decade stems from that chance purchase in a charity shop. As she joked herself last night, crime writers are busy dropping copies of their books into charity shops all over London, hoping to become the next TV sensation and enjoy everything that follows.

Knowing how arbitrary these matters can be, how does it make a struggling writer like me feel? Very happy for Ann, naturally. Some regret also that I left it so late to try my hand at fiction. When you first publish at 65, waiting twenty years to hit the big time is tempting fate. But the overriding feeling, if commercial success is indeed so much matter of luck, is that the only thing you as the writer can really control is the quality of the work you do. Even if your books don’t reach a mass audience, you aspire to make them truly worthwhile – well-researched, well-written, memorable, and a credit to your effort and skills. That’s a legacy to be proud of, whether you sell a thousand or a million.

How do we measure ‘success’?

I spent decades of my professional life working with schools and education systems on how they find out how well they’re doing: what information to gather, how to do so, and how to use the information so that it improves their ‘performance’ rather than just measures it. As the old saying goes, ‘weighing the pig doesn’t make it grow.’quote-Charlie-Brown-sometimes-i-lie-awake-at-night-and-3-254664

Many of my Twitter contacts are educators, from all around the world, and these same concerns never seem to fade. All of us accept that as educators we should be accountable for the public money we spend and for the futures of our students that we share with their families. The issue has never been ‘accountability’: it’s always been accountability to whom, for what, and what information is pertinent to these purposes.

The key first step is to define what constitutes success in our classrooms, schools and systems. Only after that can we decide what information will relate to and reveal these important outcomes. All sorts of information can be useful, including numerical data, so long as the numbers accurately represent something of agreed value. The problem is that the quick and ‘manageable’ tests commonly used as the most important measure are seriously flawed, capable only of representing a fraction of the outcomes that we all agree to be important in preparing our children for their future lives. These future lives are to be lived in the 21st century, not the 19th.

Of course, our young people need to be literate and numerate, but they also essentially need to be resourceful, flexible, digitally confident, and collaborative if they are to thrive as individuals. If the communities and societies they inhabit are to be successful, our people also need to be aware and respectful of others, thoughtful, optimistic – the list goes on, influenced by one’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, in England, our students and their schools face a barrage of measurement that hardly scratches the surface of the information we really need. Students’ worth can be calibrated on their performance in these inadequate assessments, and – as we have seen this week – those students whose estimated future performance might adversely affect the school’s overall ‘scores’ can be asked to leave. This perversion of true educative values has been going on for years, and this week’s headlines have been no surprise to many of us.

There is much more to say about all this, but for now I want to make a link to what can be defined as a ‘successful’ book, or author. Yes, of course ‘success’ can be defined simply in sales which are gratifyingly easy to count, but even that number doesn’t equate to the number of people who actually read the book, finding it in a library or lent by a friend. Other quantifiable measures might be the number of five-star reviews on Amazon, but you don’t have to look hard to find the flaws there.Screen-Shot-2017-03-28-at-16.48.56

Professional reviews? Questionable indicators of quality, in terms of which books are chosen and how they are reviewed, by whom, and under what pressure or obligation from a shared publisher or personal loyalty.

As with education, the starting point for deciding the success of a book is to ask the author to define what they were wanting to achieve, and go from there. When I run my workshops on “Successful self-publishing” that’s where we start. ‘What constitutes success for you?’ I ask, ‘and what it would look like if this were achieved?’

In writing as well as learning, the most useful information is ‘ipsative’, from the Latin ‘ipse’ meaning ‘self’. We are most usefully assessed against our own previous best, not against some external norms, or even against criteria that may not fully reflect our personal aspirations. If you’re a teacher or a writer, what does success look like for you?