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?

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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.’

Summer break

For what seems like the first time in decades, I have nothing much to do, think about or worry about, or plan for, or worry about not planning for – you know how it goes. No matter how many things you’re juggling, there’s still the worry that you’ve missed something vital that will scupper everything and it will all be your fault. Not familiar with that feeling? You are truly blessed.

IMG_0917Maybe it’s something to do with the weather, which has been unusually consistent, and not consistently grey and wet as it often is here. Day after day of dry, sometimes windy, sometimes a little cloud, but no rain. Not for weeks. The current daily routine consists of exercise, watching sport on the tv – cricket, World Cup football and now Wimbledon – occasionally seeing friends and relatives, and watering the garden evening after warm evening.

I do have the odd commitment, and ‘engagements’ will arrive quite regularly over the next few weeks as I do the usual round of libraries, bookshops and groups talking about the new book, and hopefully selling some. That means getting in the dusty car and driving, meeting people, talking to them, answering questions, signing and selling – all of which I enjoy. Once the routine is established I’m prepared, and it doesn’t take much effort.

Inevitably, people ask about my writing, what am I planning, when the next book will come out, and my answer is now always the same – ‘I’ll think about that after the summer.’ And I will. Maybe when the weather finally breaks, which will probably be just when the kids finish school, I’ll get twitchy and start thinking about the next big project. That could be writing, or it could be something else.

pencils in stainless steel bucket

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I have a perpetual urge to be doing, creating something, but there are other ways to scratch that itch. I’ll just wait a while and see what turns up.

The anti-climax of completion

Yesterday morning a strange feeling came over me, a sense of loss and uncertainty, a long way from the delight and celebration I’d anticipated at ‘The End’, the final words of the new novel. In the final week, for six days straight from first thing in the morning utired eyesntil it was dark I’d tapped away furiously, stopping only to gaze at the wall while I found a way through a barrier. The concentration was intense: it spilled over into those times when I wasn’t sitting at the laptop, and unfortunately haunted the night too. I would sleep for a couple of hours and then wake with dialogue or a plot twist in my head.The only way to break its hold on my mind was to play Solitaire on the ipad, which meant more screens, more eye strain and was probably not conducive to getting back to sleep. When I’m writing, the usual habit of reading before sleep doesn’t seem to work.

When ”The End’ finally came it took me by surprise, and more surprising was that I felt so flat. Maybe it had happened before, but if it did I’d forgotten. Living alone, there was no one to turn to in triumph. Friends are very patient, but listening to someone banging on about the details of a fictional conversation or the way out of a plot puzzle is enough to make your eyes roll back.

I was ahead of schedule, but worried that I’d been too driven by the deadline and should have taken more time. I’d resolved a big plotting problem, but it still felt too cerebral, too subtle, not enough action. I’m working with a new editor and chose her for her experience and ‘hard-nosed’ straight-forwardness, but I don’t know how she’ll react to the first draft of mine she’s ever seen. Worry, worry, worry.

And of course, the ever-present question: why do I put myself through this? I’ve retired from ‘work’ and should be pleasing myself, sauntering through the days, going on little jaunts, planning big jaunts, seeing people, having fun. And instead of that I’m spending most of time on research, planning, writing, re-writing, and worrying.

NewBookRelease1I tell myself that the rewards are worth the painful gestation and birth. It’s undoubtedly true that you have to keep writing if you want to maintain people’s interest in your work and the sales that go with it. Every new books boosts sales of the previous ones. If you want press interest or access to speaking at book events and festivals you have to have a new book to showcase.

If all goes well, the new book should be out in June, and then what? I have a choice: pack it in and have an easy life, or keep going and endure the lows as well as the highs, all over again.

‘Angst’: does it undermine creativity, or inspire it?

There’s a Woody Allen movie – which one is it? – which opens with the young Woody talking to a psychiatrist. The boy is appalled by the idea that the universe is expanding, which he sees as a sign of impending doom. After the ‘angst’ of the past few months, I think I understand how he feels.

First there was the UK referendum decision, which was a shock. I went to bed before the first results came in, and when I turned on the radio the following morning I just sat in bed and cried. The immediate political implications – Boris Johnson? Nigel Farage? Michael Gove? – were dire, and the bigger picture – retreat to an offshore island cut off from Europe – was worse. Since then the future looks no better, with years and millions wasted on untangling a 40 year old legal, commercial and cultural framework that needed tweaking not tearing up.

Then there was Trump, and my mounting disgust at the man and everything he represented and stood for.
trump-hair-birdI longed for him to be not just defeated but annihilated.

 

 

 

 

Again, I woke the morning after the US election to find my worst fears realised. I sat with my head in my hands for a while, trying not to think seeing and hearing the ghastly man for the coming four years, and grieving the departure of the current President whom I and millions of others admire for his intelligence, rationality, optimism, grace and humour. The contrast could hardly be more extreme and disheartening.

There’s nothing to be done about either of these events and all their nasty consequences, but it’s taking me a while to pull myself around. For days I didn’t want to do anything. The new book seemed like a futile gesture, a waste of time. Future writing projects held no interest. But slowly the energy is returning. My writing is something I can do on my terms, inspired by my ideas and the glorious landscape all around me, which is still there and will continue, unless Mr Trump’s nasty little fingers stray too close to the nuclear button. My tiny contribution to creativity can’t overcome fear and hatred and racism and misogyny, but it might just push back a little, and every little helps.