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?

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.

Why am I always in a hurry?

The last blog post was all about slowing down, taking things easy, enjoying the unusually lovely weather, and yet here I am, only a few days later, reflecting on my default attitude to life which seems to be ‘Life is short, don’t hang around, make decisions, get things done, move on.’ unnamed

I’m pretty sure I know why this is so: most of my immediate family members have died prematurely. Father went out to work one day when he was 45, died at work and never came home. Mother declined into Alzheimers in her mid-60s and died four years later. One of my older sisters died at 37 and another at 65. I think it was Dad’s sudden disappearance when I was nine that had the most profound effect. Suddenly my certainty about the future was fractured. If he could go without warning and with such effect, anything could happen, and the future could not be relied upon. If there was something I wanted to do, or to become, don’t wait. Just go for it. It may not be planned to perfection, but that’s OK.

Sometimes you need to ‘Ready, fire, aim’. If you think and dither around for too long it becomes ‘Ready, ready, ready.’

I was listening this morning to Michael Ondaatje, unnamedauthor of ‘The English Patient’, talking about his writing approach which involves twenty edits before he commits to print. The first draft is just a sketch, and it goes from there. What patience, I thought to myself. How does he slow down enough to let such snail’s pace iteration happen? Could I ever work like that?

Probably not! I’m 70 now, and enjoying every aspect of my life. I have many things to do and to learn, not just my writing. Worse, as soon as I start thinking about writing another book I start planning deadlines and put time pressure on myself. The urge to write too quickly is so strong that my first response now is to avoid that pressure altogether by not writing at all. There must be another way, surely, somewhere between Ondatjee’s caution and my usual recklessness.

The next step could be, consciously and deliberately, to dawdle. Just mess around for a while. I have some characters I’d like to play with, and I have a setting – it has to be Cumbria, nowhere else provides the same inspiration. Now what I need is a story, a real character-driven story, not just a series of twists and turns choreographed by some formulaic notion of ‘tension’. The story needs to intrigue me, and move me. The central character might be a police person but it’s not going to be a ‘police procedural’ or a forensic puzzle, both of which in the modern era require tedious technical research.

Maybe I should abandon even the pretence of ‘crime fiction’ and just tell a story about a person and a crisis. Above all, I need to drift and learn to use the first draft as a mere sketch. Only then will I know whether I’ve got something worth spending time on. ‘Ready, fire, aim.’

The joy of talking about writing

As you might have gathered from my last post, and others over the past few months, I’m seriously weighing the positives of writing and self-publishing against the negatives, and there’s no certainty that I will want to continue.balance sheet dreamstime_s_114698015

But when I think about giving it all up, one aspect of the process keeps calling me back, and it’s something that many writers would be surprised by: I love talking about my books and my writing, to groups large or small. I love just starting to speak, without notes, and sometimes without a plan or direction, and hearing what comes out of my mouth. It’s different every time, and responds to the nature of the group, their reactions, and their questions. I watch and listen and adjust how I reply. It’s fun and interactive and engaging, as I imagine playing a video game might be, although that’s something I’ve never done.

The people I’m talking to seem to enjoy it too, and tell me so. They’re used to people having a set speech, and my ‘off the cuff’ approach goes down well. Does it sell heaps of books?business-money-pink-coins.jpg Who knows? People do buy books from me at these events, and often not just the latest one but earlier ones that I may have mentioned. All my six novels are linked, by setting and by some recurring characters, and some readers really want to start from the beginning, which I applaud.

If I’m talking to a group in a library, I sell less, probably because these people use the library rather than buy their own. If it’s a Women’s Institute audience, the ladies often team up, each buying one of the series and sharing them around – which makes sense for them but isn’t great for sales! People in readers’ groups tend to want their own copies – hurray. However many or few I sell, the money’s welcome and the pile of boxes in my garden room is reduced still further, but that’s not the principal satisfaction.

I really enjoy talking to readers, but if I wasn’t writing, what would be the purpose and rationale for these talks?

If the talks about writing didn’t happen, I’d miss the ‘charge’ I get from doing them. Is that a sufficient reason for keeping going?

My new book arrives: how does it feel?

BURNiNG_SECRETS_AW.inddI’m ruthless with my Twitter feed, regularly and systematically blocking anything I don’t want and refusing to ‘follow back’ until I’ve checked the person out. Too many ‘followers’ are just fishing for reciprocation, and I’m not interested. As a consequence, my Twitter line includes almost exclusively people involved either in books and publishing, or Cumbria and the Lake District, or any combination of those.Wasdale

 

In a sense those two threads dominate my thinking about my books and writing. I’m passionately interested in West Cumbria, an area I have loved all my life and where I’ve lived for the past decade and more. Part of my determination to begin writing fiction at a relatively advanced age stemmed from the need to write about this place and its history and people.

That’s the upside: the downside is that I’ve never been sure about the ‘genre’ of my writing. Which comes first for me – setting, characters, or plot? In the Jessie Whelan trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ the priority was clearly setting and characters. The main external dramas were provided by real events, and the internal dramas arose from the interaction among fictional characters, and between them and their surroundings, both place and time. When I decided to have a go at crime fiction, I realised that balance of those aspects would have to change, and that plot would have to be more important, but I don’t believe I’ve truly made that shift. Setting and characters still dominate, and details of the plot are much harder for me.

Maybe it’s that ambivalence about what my writing is really about that has made me less enthusiastic about the new novel than I should be. All my writerly Twitter acquaintances speak of the arrival of a new book from the printers with such excitement, much like the arrival of a new baby – unalloyed positive feeling. Or at least that’s how it appears. There are photos of piles of books waiting to be signed, glamorous launch events and brimming champagne flutes.pexels-photo.jpg

For me, the new book’s arrival last week was just another stage in the long tedious process of self-publishing which has felt endless and stressful, even though the whole schedule has worked without a hitch. I suspect that part of my anxiety about it is a hangover from the anxiety about the serious accident I suffered almost a year ago when the new book was in its very early stages, too late to be abandoned but too early to see the light at the end of the tunnel. For a while I couldn’t walk, or drive, or even type without pain. It would have been good to just relax into recovery but the unfinished book haunted and taunted me, and kept me awake. I resented it, and maybe I still do.

The arrival of a new book could feel like a milestone, and a relief, but it doesn’t, because now the real work starts of trying to sell the damn thing. Promotion requires unceasing optimism and enthusiasm and for me those are both in short supply at present. Should I be honest and admit that the book felt rushed? The background details of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 are rich, authentic and moving, but one of the characters is unconvincing and the plot allows authenticity to triumph over a more eventful – and satisfying? – ending. I’m always my own harshest critic, which is unhelpful at this stage.

So, for various reasons, when the books arrived I wasn’t overwhelmed with love for a much-loved child after a difficult pregnancy. It was more like ‘Here we go again. And they’re not going to like the ending. And do I really want to do this all over again in another year or so? And I’m supposed to be retired.’ Not very positive is it? Maybe I just need to pull myself together and stop whingeing.

‘Once over lightly’?

At one of the first residential writing courses I went on, many years ago, the special guest one evening was a published author – one novel – who was invited to talk to us about his writing process. He seemed quite grumpy and I wondered if he’d been having a bad day. From what he told us, however, it sounded as if every day was a bad day. ‘Writing is hell’ was the main headline of his remarks. ‘I don’t why I do it. Once the first book was out they were badgering me for another one, and it’s like pulling teeth.’ This is not verbatim, but that was the gist. I wasn’t the only one who wished he had stpulling-teethayed at home.

This miserable bloke’s writing process was as follows. Every day he would write a sentence or two, struggling over every word until he was satisfied with it. Then he would stop, presumably exhausted. The next day he would read over what ever he’d written so far, agonise over it again, and write another sentence. And so on until he’d finished. Really? To this day I suspect he was making that up. But maybe that’s truly the way some people write: intensive and painfully slow, as if they were writing a poem.

On the sixth novel now, if I have a preferred writing process it has probably by now established itself. Needless to say, my process differs somewhat from that described above. The bloke appeared to have lost the will to live, unless that too was a wind up, and I would have felt the same if that was my daily routine.

I’ve talked before about the planning process, but let’s assume that I have a rough idea about each chapter, the key points and scenes, and what it contributes to the whole story. (By the way, if the chapter doesn’t contribute anything, then what’s the point of it?) With a few pointers to the shape and focus of the chapter I’ll start to write, quite fast. Sometimes I correct typos etc as I go along, sometimes I leave them and correct them all on the second reading. If the ideas are clear I can rattle along for quite a while, several hundred words. Something will halt the flow and I’ll stop and go back. This is the first edit, checking for continuity and consistency, improving poor phrasing, finding better words, correcting obvious errors.

At this point I often go back to the plan for the current chapter, or possibly previous ones, noting that something will need changing. Or I look at future chapters which are now taking a slightly different direction. If there are past pieces to change, I tend to do them straight away, before I lose the detailed focus. That done, on we go, more fast writing and then stop, go back, adjust, edit. A four thousand word chapter might be written in sections like this, one after the other, and pretty fast. When it’s going well I can write a chapter in a day.

There’s a very strong tendency to feel dissatisfied with the whole thing as you get beyond Act 1, when the setting is established and the story should be driving forward. I always ask myself at this point, is this story worth telling? If I wallow in this indecision for too long, or try to get feedback too early, the enterprise could quickly grind to a halt. It’s all about confidence: without confidence there’s no energy, and without energy there’s no progress. So I tell myself to stop worrying too much at this early stage and just keep going. The time for serious reflection, feedback and discussion with ones-self and others is when this first fast draft is finished. In terms of painting a picture it’s ‘once over lightly’ and then stand back and look hard at the emerging work.

The fine detail can be added, in what is now the third, or even fourth edit. If greater depth is needed for a character this can be provided with just a few more or different words or actions. A potentially confusing piece of plot can be fixed with a sentence or two. Once the whole work is ‘visible’ all sorts of extra touches, colour, fine tuning – call it what you will – can be added. Details of weather, prevailing atmosphere, smells, details, all of these can be added, so long as they don’t affect the storyline too much. When all that is done, the work is clearly an improvement on what you started with, and probably pretty close to the final version, although more polishing will continue until the set deadline is upon you. Without a deadline, you could polish for ever and drive yourself nuts, or at least I could. Part of the art of editing is knowing when to stop.

The contrast with the painstaking misery of our guest writer could hardly be greater. I wonder if he ever finished that novel?

First audiobook!

At last, it’s done!

Audiobook covers

I started on this project months ago, thought about it, blogged about it, struggled with the abridging, rehearsed, found a recording studio, got help and did it. Then the master discs sat and looked at me for a while: what was the point of all that work if I didn’t know what to do next?

Thanks God for a competent and supportive partner with experience of packaging. ‘I can do that’, he said, and he did. He researched the best deal for duplication and packaging, worked on the design, and the first batch was delivered last week. You can buy it with Paypal for £10 – you can’t get much for £10 these days – and this would make a great gift. Just go to ruthsutton.co.uk and it’s the first item in the Bookshop.

It looks really good, but I still daren’t listen to it. I know it’s OK, and my commitment to the book and the characters comes out in the reading, but it’s almost too personal. At one critical moment I was close to tears reading it and had to stop. There’s something about the voice that brings the words alive.