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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Who pulled the plug out?

Last week, little more than two months after starting it, I finished the first draft of a new novel. At just less than 90,000 words, it’s currently shorter than some of my crime novels, and my editor may suggest that it needs more depth in some places, more background, more whatever. But that’s the thing about a first draft: you write and write, revising as you go, letting the original plan founder in the wake of what comes out of your head. And when it’s done you stand back and look at it from a distance. That’s the time too when you ask someone else to have a look, as you’re too close to see it clearly.

The draft was zipped off to my editor, after one last re-reading and some tidying up. So now, I wait. It’s a curiously flat stage in the process. Day after day for several weeks I sat at the laptop for every available minute. Night after night details of the plot, unfinished business, unresolved anomalies, all reverberated round my brain.

analysis blackboard board bubble

 

My sleep suffered. Sometimes by morning I could see a way through to the next steps, sometimes the dilemmas turned out to be non-existent. But the damn thing occupied my head almost without respite until I never wanted to see it again.

 

And now it’s gone. For a day or two I was still fretting about it in the night, but then that wore off and here I sit, waiting, like a deflated balloon.

ground orange balloon deflated

I’m trying to do the things I put to one side while I was writing, but nothing feels important enough to bother with. Days that passed so fast are now dragging, not helped by a tendon strain that’s restricting my walking and exercise routines. It’s only a week since let the draft go, but it feels like a month and I’m impatient for some reaction. I know there’ll be re-writes to do, but what and how is still to be decided. 

When the last book was heading towards publication this time last year, I asked myself whether I ever wanted to do it again. The same question is on my mind now. I know there are so many other things in life I want to do: getting older certainly adds a sense of urgency. But right now nothing other than writing seems to provide the sense of ‘flow’ in the way that Csikszentmihalyi defined it, a very satisfying combination of effort and focus, that makes the hours flash past. Fell walking comes close, and maybe I need to concentrate on my recovery and get the boots back on. With summer coming, that looks like a worthwhile alternative.

brown work boots

 

When plots strain credulity

The current fashion in crime fiction seems to be for the writer to visualise the plot of a story in terms of a series of gripping scenes. It’s certainly the way to go if you fancy selling to TV. The drama of these scenes can lie in the characters and their individual or collective crises. Or it can rest in the extraordinary landscape, or with a revelation, or twist in the story, or – possibly – all of these at once. As authors we imagine the details that would make these scenes as engaging as possible, but it’s not easy.

The problem lies in the machinations necessary to get your characters into a particular space at a particular time with a worthwhile revelation to share. The frequent victim of this process is authenticity. What we end up with is a story that just doesn’t makes sense.

ask blackboard chalk board chalkboard

All writers try to avoid too many coincidences and accidents in plotting, although one or two are useful if they drive the story forward. Similarly, we treasure dysfunctional characters with flaws, because they can be delightfully unpredictable and prone to mistakes, both of which help with the ‘twists and revelations’ issue. Coincidences, accidents and characters’ poor judgements are all OK up to a point, but if overdone can steer a plot towards improbability. The reader may be asked to ‘suspend their disbelief’ once too often, and if the reader is me the story is dismissed as a ‘fix’.

With the first draft of Book 7 rolling along, I’m right in the middle of this dilemma. I have a number of great scenes in mind, and need them to work without stretching authenticity just that bit too far. I’m looking forward to seeing what my editor will think when she sees the first draft in a month or so.

 

Can you plan a book around key scenes?

Over Christmas I read Peter Ackroyd’s excellent biography of Alfred Hitchcock, and was particularly interested in how Hitchcock set about planning his films. He began not with characters, or even with a plot, but with a series of scenes – actions in a setting – and then talked at length with a writer, whose job it was to incorporate these scenes, in any order, into a story.download

The film maker’s vision was essentially, and unsurprisingly, ‘filmic’: he saw the scenes in his mind’s eye and then had to unpick and articulate the details in a series of ‘storyboards’. The characters were merely servants of the scenes: it was the writer’s job to get them into these various settings with as much realism and authenticity as possible.

This got me thinking about the new crime novel which is beginning to take shape in my head. I was already aware that the final scene was the first one I’d thought of, and that the planning/plotting process was at least in part about working backwards from the end point. What I began to consider was whether idea that would work repeatedly: could I see the story as a series of key scenes, adding drama through the physical setting as well as by means of dialogue or plot twists. Instead of two characters having a conversation in an office, should they have it on a beach, or in extreme weather, or in a setting that contributed to the tension of the story rather than merely accommodating it?

The other aspect of Hitchcock’s ‘modus operandi’ that I found fascinating was his insistence on developing the details through talking with the writer, not for a few hours, but for days at a time. They would sit together and ask the ‘what if?’ and ‘why?’ and ‘so what?’ and ‘what next?’ and ‘how?’ questions, over and over, until the story evolved in minute visual and aural detail. Neither one of them could have achieved this degree of creativity alone: it had to be through verbal interaction, sparking each other off. The other person who would consistently fulfil this function was of course Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and closest collaborator, an exceptional story teller in her own right.

How does all this square with the image of writing as an isolated activity, with the writer alone in her garrett/office/workroom, emerging only when the masterpiece is complete? Of course it doesn’t. I’m reminded of my conversation with Ann Cleeves about her writing process, which involves several people in the early stages – a forensics expert, a police procedure specialist, and her three agents, all of whom comment on the first draft, asking no doubt the same kinds of questions as those between Hitchcock and his screenwriter. 220px-AnnCleeves2017Ann very generously suggested that her book covers ought to reflect the collective effort of its various collaborators by including all their names, not just hers.

Maybe what every writer needs is a person or a group of people whose sole job is to ask great questions: how many of us can effectively do that for ourselves? And how visual does our planning need to be, as if we are film-makers not just wordsmiths?

Scratching the itch

After the difficulties in writing and publishing my last novel ‘Burning Secrets’ I vowed I wouldn’t put myself under that kind of pressure again. I would not set immutable deadlines, or make important decisions too quickly. And I would set time aside for other things in my life, to avoid the constant feeling of obligation to a project which was supposed to be a pleasure, not a burden.

BURNiNG_SECRETS_AW.inddSo far, I’m doing well with these resolutions. I took time to plan an overdue visit to see friends in New Zealand, and for the four weeks or so I was away I wrote no blog posts, didn’t look at the draft outline of the new book, or read anything remotely connected with it. But now I’m back, living once more in the area where all my books are set, and the itch to get writing has started again. For my morning reading today I chose not the biography of Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd that is sitting by my bed but a book about forensic science. Not a detailed dry tome about a technical subject but a great read, full of engaging questions and dilemmas, just the kind of book I enjoy. The book is ‘All That Remains: A Life in Death’ by Professor Sue Black, about her career as a forensic anthropologist, and inevitably it’s started me thinking again about my story.image

The timing isn’t great, as I really ought to be doing something about Christmas, but maybe the upcoming busyness could be turned to advantage. If in the next day or two I can absorb enough information, my brain can churn away for several days, processing and sorting and generating new ideas while I’m distracted by mindless festivities. When I return to ‘work’ in a couple of weeks I expect things to be clearer and the draft outline improved. It takes time and deliberate distraction for this useful process to be effective, and I suspect it doesn’t work for everyone. I just need the confidence to step away for a while. The mistake I made last time was to get so anxious about losing momentum that I didn’t step away, and some opportunities for improvement were lost.

I can already feel some of the pieces of the complex plot dropping into place, which makes the new writing project a potential source of pleasure rather than pain. Thank heaven for that.

What price expertise?

How easy backpack-book-books-256431it must be to finish a manuscript and just send it off, confident that a small army of people employed by your adoring publisher will immediately step up to do everything necessary to get your masterpiece into the hands of equally adoring readers.

Editors, designers, proof-readers, printers, they’re all provided, and you the author need not worry about any of it. You’ll have to respond to the editor, and approve the cover, and check the final proofs, but most of the responsibility rests with your publishers. For this they get well rewarded if your book sells well, and carry the deficit if it doesn’t.

If your books sell really well, and in doing so keep the entire operation afloat, your publisher will be very keen to support you in any way they can. If like me you write what is mysteriously called ‘genre fiction’ the publisher will want you to keep those books rolling out, one a year if you can manage it, and if that means providing the expert help you need to keep going, so be it.

A good crime writer knows the importance of research and getting the facts right. accident-barrier-caution-923681.jpgWhatever setting you choose – contemporary or in the past – the details of police procedures and enquiry methods need to be correct. Forensic science has changed radically over the past thirty years or so, and is progressing all the time, so those details too are very time-specific and all too easy to get wrong. What does the self-publishing writer have to do?

The trick is to gather around you a team of people to help, so that you can spend your time assembling all this information into an engaging story. You’ll need someone to advise about policing, and someone else as the forensics expert. Other aspects of criminality might need expert input too – gang behaviours, money laundering, drug smuggling, whatever. The aristocracy of the crime writing world, Ann Cleeves, Peter Robinson, Val McDermid and the like, will have all the necessary experts ready to assist, presumably paid for out of the hefty profits the publishers will make from the resulting best-sellers. The self-made artisans of the writing world, however, don’t have such support, unless we find and pay for it ourselves. At which point I ask myself, what price expertise?

I’m used to finding the production experts I need – editor, ‘type-setter’, cover designer, proof-reader, printer, – and paying each of them the agreed fee up front, before the book goes on sale. But I’m now I find myself wanting expert help of a different kind even as the book is being written. Unlike many crime writers who have had careers in the law, or the probation service, or the police, I have no professional background and expertise to draw upon. I choose a setting, and characters, and a story, but I still need expert input to get the crime details right, and sometimes the story itself will hinge around the procedural details.

I’m really grateful to the retired DI who advises me, and who wants nothing more for his help  than cups of tea and acknowledgement in the book, but I’ve struggled to find someone on the forensics issues. Textbooks and online sites are available, but they have to relate to the time period: for a story set in 2001 I scoured the booklists looking for a a text written before that time, to make sure that it was pertinent to my setting. It’s interesting to do it all myself but it takes so much time, and trying to complete a book a year is just too much.

The latest move is to cast my net wider in looking for expert help that won’t cost me more than I can afford. architecture-building-campus-356086.jpgMy local University website reveals teams of academics specialising in the very areas I want help with. Hallelujah! I scoured the staff lists, looking for the expertise I need, picked some names almost at random, and sent an email explaining what I was looking for and that I couldn’t offer remuneration. My expectations were low, I admit, but were confounded when I got reply from one name almost immediately, taking up my offer to go and talk about what I’m doing and what I need. Result!

As much as the expertise, what I’m most looking forward to is the chance to talk to someone who is interested in what I’m doing. Writing as a self-published author, and living in a wonderful rural location, it can be a lonely life. Maybe this could be the start of a collaboration that will be fun as well as fruitful.

How can I enjoy my writing more?

It’s some weeks since my last post, and I’m still debating whether I want to write another book. It could help if I could pin down why the prospect feels problematic. What is it that fills me with trepidation?

I’ve already accepted that my recollections of the past year have been coloured by my fall down the stairs just over a year ago and all its consequences – temporary immobilisation, pain, frustration, endless physiotherapy. I’m almost back to normal fitness now, but it’s been a long haul.IMG_1725

The content of last book was difficult too. I chose a backdrop – the catastrophic Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 – that required very careful research and a balance between authenticity and fear that the ghastliness of it all could overwhelm the ‘front story’. The research was painful, but I live in a farming community and couldn’t get the details wrong.IMG_0637

I was also working with a new editor, which was fine in the end but felt different than the well-worn relationship I’d had earlier. The new editor is very experienced in what makes for successful commercial genre fiction, but sometimes her expectations clashed with my obsession with authenticity. Yes, her ideas for a scene or the ending would be exciting, but if they felt ‘unrealistic’ I couldn’t go along with them. It’s quite a strain to pay someone for their advice and then decide to ignore it. And when I did agree with her, after the first draft, our shared view required a complete re-write of the first quarter of the book, which I didn’t enjoy at all.

For all these reasons, and probably others too, writing the last book rarely flowed easily. I had a deadline, and achieved it, but when ‘Burning Secrets’ finally emerged it didn’t excite me, even when it was clear that readers enjoyed and some think it is my best to date.

Looking back, I think I was so taken up with the research that I didn’t spend long enough on the structure before starting the first draft. So the writing stopped and started, got stuck and had to be rescued, and in the end had to be hammered into submission by some agonised re-thinking of the final scenes. Very stressful. If I could summon the patience and imagination next time to create a better detailed outline, that would definitely help to enhance the writing experience, and avoid painful rewrites further down the line.

Now I have the Arvon writing course to look forward to, which starts on September 10th. I signed up for this particular as the focus seemed to be on structure and plot, which is exactly what I need. I’m going with an open mind to see if help, advice and an undivided focus will clarify the future enough for me to stop writing without regret, or carry on.

In darker moments I think about the boxes of unsold books stored in my writing shed. While I have a new book to promote, sales of all the books tick along nicely. If there’s no new book, will I still be able to sell the backlist? I don’t necessarily need the money, but those boxes could haunt me for a long time.