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.

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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 book title dilemma

whats in a nameMy editor and I are having a disagreement about the title of the new book. The first title I chose sounded fairly dull, and I wasn’t convinced. Then I opted for a phrase ‘Seize the Day’ which appears once in the book, and quite significantly, but right at the end. She feels that the reader might be annoyed that the title’s meaning remains a mystery until the very end. She also thinks that the  abstract phrase would be hard to link to an attractive cover image. All this may be true, but I can think of many books where the cover image is a mystery, and the title too: the connections between them and the story are intended to be part of the riddle. Am I asking too much of my readers? Do titles need to be ‘literal’?

We’re now considering various alternatives, but the issue of a connection between title and cover image remains a dilemma. There are various themes and events in the book that could be picked up in both title and image, but which would be most effective? No decision is absolutely necessary for a few weeks yet, so I shall wait for inspiration – showing more patience and tolerance of uncertainty than is customary for me.

How important is ‘authenticity’?

Problem:

  1. I want to write a crime series based in Cumbria.
  2. I want to have a female detective, who needs to be at least at sergeant and better still at inspector level.
  3. I want to keep clear of the technical complications of the DNA, Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the introduction of computerised data.

But… there were no female detectives in Cumbria until the 1990s. So, something has to give. Does authenticity matter, or could I introduce a female detective earlier than it actually happened? Ironically, the Cumbria police force now has plenty of high-status female detectives, including one with the wonderful surname of Thundercloud, but this is now and that was then. So what to do? My reluctant conclusion is that authenticity does matter: I must stick with my physical setting of West Cumbria because it’s so important to me, and so the time setting has to move into the mid/late 1990s. All the necessary research is unavoidable, but I can do it. Should be fun to discover how life has changed over the past twenty years.

 

What’s in a name?

I always struggle with titles, and then with the cover image that should illuminate the title and engage the reader: as an independent author/publisher, these decisions are all mine. The image on the cover of ‘Cruel Tide’ developed before I even started the book. It came to me when I did the walk across Morecambe Bay and was struck by the menace of quicksand very close to the northern shore. The snaking, threatening tide that covers these huge mudflats twice every day connected with another cruel tide – of abuse, cover-up and corruption that have damaged so many children’s lives. The decision about both title and cover came to me quite quickly.

Not so with the sequel to ‘Cruel TideI’ that I’m currently completing. My editor Charlotte and I have brainstormed possible titles, but nothing really stood out. Then in the final stages of the first draft, in one of those times when the story seems to be writing itself, the words ‘Seize the Day’ became suddenly significant and I could see them on the cover, with a dark image of one of the settings – no details for fear of plot-spoiling.

The first thing you do is check how many other books already exist with that title. Of course there are several, but then you have to take them one at a time and decide whether the replication is significant. The most recent was non-fiction, an autobiography, so that was OK. Another appeared to be a religious tract, too different to bother about. There was one fiction book, but a very different genre.

I think I have my title. Next I’ll think hard about the image, and start working with the cover designer Kevin Ancient who did such a wonderful job with ‘Cruel Tide’. Crime fiction covers seem to be have some common characteristics, to ensure that readers understand what may lie between the covers. Decisions to make. Watch this space.

Learning on-line: does it work?

Late again this week with my regular blog post, mainly because much of my screen time has been taken up with a new on-line course, and it’s that experience I’ve been thinking about. I was attracted to it in the first place because it was so much easier and cheaper than schlepping down to London for something similar, finding a place to stay, dealing with a large group whose demands on the tutors always seem more pressing than mine – you know the story.

But cheaper things are often not worth the little you pay for them, so a week or two into it, what are my feelings so far? It’s a first for me, and I wasn’t sure at all. But so far, it’s been OK. It does what any good learning experience should do, make you think about what you’re doing by exposing you to alternatives, providing feedback which is useful as long as it’s specific, and encouraging you to change things and be more adventurous. The course, by the way, is called ‘An Introduction to Crime Writing’ and is with the Professional Writers Academy. The tutor is Tom Bromley, and the visiting ‘mentor’ is Sarah Hilary, a familiar name given her success with ‘Someone Else’s Skin’. Her book is one of those that we’ll be reading and discussing with her as a group exercise.

Other than that, the work is spread over four weeks and provides a succession of structured exercises: first week on ‘settings’, second on ‘developing character’, and so on. For each section we have some contrasting examples to look at and critique, and then a piece of our own to write using what we’ve learned, which is posted and critiqued by at least two others in the group.

What’s working so far? First, we were able to see Tom Bromley talking in a podcast in which he explained the course and introduced himself. It’s always useful to see and hear someone you’re dealing with on-line: without that, it’s very difficult to establish any form of relationship, especially when you are trusting that person to provide something worth both your time and your cash. We have audio interviews too with Sarah Hilary, although audio-only is less engaging. Second, the extracts and writing tasks are well-chosen and conducive to learning. In the second section, on Character, we’ve been offered three examples of ‘the detective’ – the genius who has a massive brain and works everything out; the meticulous plodder who just keeps doing the leg work until enough information is forthcoming; the flawed anti-social person who gets there by some bizarre route the rest of us would never consider. I’ve found those differences interesting, and helpful in deciding what kind of behaviour I want from my ‘detecting’ character. Today I’ll tackle the exercise in which we are asked to describe how our chosen ‘detective’ makes and eats his/her breakfast. What a great idea. As well as enriching the setting, both place and time, we can show so much through just watching and recording what happens in the mind’s eye.

Of course when you’re offered examples it’s tempting to mould your character to fit one of these ‘models’. The seduction of ‘genre formulae’ has to be resisted, even against the siren call of the latest block-buster. If a particular approach has worked and sold heaps of copies for someone else, last year, that’s no reason to attempt to replicate it, even though it might be reassuring to an agent. I had an interesting ‘conversation’ with Tom Bromley about ‘Someone Else’s Skin’ and what constitutes ‘success’, which I’ll come back to in a later post.

I’m enjoying the screen contact with some of the group members, although there are fewer of those than I was anticipating. Some have posted a picture and a detailed profile, others have not, although the privacy protections are strong. It’s easier to ‘talk’ to someone if you know where they’ve been and what they look like, isn’t it? We’re all reacting differently to both the extracts and the tasks, which makes for fewer assumptions about what’s ‘good’ or ‘clear’ for a reader, and that’s salutary for a writer.

One potentially unhelpful aspect is the quality of feedback available to any of us from the other participants who look at what we write. Surprisingly, no guidance is offered about what constitutes useful feedback, and how to react to it: it’s just assumed that we all know how to do it, and we don’t. I want to provide and receive specific detail, critical as well as positive. It takes longer to consider and to write, but if feedback is an essential part of the learning we should expect it to be quite rigorous, and some advice about this would be useful.

So far, so good. Compared to some of the writing groups and courses I’ve been on over the years, this is proving relatively useful. When an actual group works well, which involves good leadership as well as the accident of composition, the experience can be more intense than anything you could achieve on-line. But when a group doesn’t work well it can be immensely frustrating. I recall paying a lot of money and travelling many miles for a five day experience that was a model of what shouldn’t happen. It was a group for established writers but with no ‘filters’, so some of the members had no writing experience and had come only for a holiday. The group leaders were also inexperienced and badly prepared. One of them spent most nights drinking noisily with some of the group members. The following morning his apology for not having read our work – one of his duties – was all about what a great night it had been. After one day I absented myself from the group completely and got on with my writing, which I could have done without leaving home. Looking back on what I wrote that week I notice now how dark and violent it was!

 

What do readers want to know?

It’s been a busy week for meeting readers, and I’m always interested to discover what they want from me and from the books. Here are a few of the questions that crop up most frequently:

 

Q. Do you base your characters on people that you know? Do you people-watch and use it in your books? (The sub-text here is ‘Are you watching me now?’)

I never really know how to respond to this. The details of characters for the story don’t just appear from nowhere: from a few decades of people- watching there are hundreds of people in my head, but memory retains only bits and pieces – the metaphors someone uses, or the voice or style of clothes, or something they did. I remember, for example, a boy I was at school with who had wide shoulders and a short body, and how his jackets always looked too long. He and I were walking near my house one afternoon and were overtaken by a sudden violent thunderstorm. We’d never shown much interest in each other before, but in the middle of this violent weather we kissed passionately, just once, galvanised by the energy around us. That was a moment of intensity that has lingered in my memory: I haven’t used it in a story yet, but I will.

There are countless fragments like that, some visual, some emotional, that surface suddenly while I’m writing. It’s not really an intentional process. It just happens, and I think my characters and the stories are the richer for them. When I’m writing I do so for hours at a time, reaching a level of concentration which is sometimes called called ‘Flow’, (defined by Wikipedia as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” That’s it. In that state, fragments of memory appear and find their way on to the page: the outline of a character might have been created earlier, but many of the details emerge during the writing.

Q. Do you always know how your story will end?

I’ve certainly improved my planning since the random chaos of the first attempt at writing a novel, but I can’t say that I know exactly how my story will end when I start it. It’s trite to claim that the characters take over, but to some extent it’s true. If the story is character-driven, that’s bound to happen. Crime fiction, with its requirement for structure and ‘clues’ sprinkled around makes that more difficult, as I found when writing ‘Cruel Tide’. I knew quite early on how the penultimate climatic scene would work, but the final scene of reaction and resolution was written several times before I found a way of closing the story that was true to both the characters and the authenticity of the events and the setting.

Q. When is the next book coming out?

It’s a  welcome question in as much it indicates an willingness to read on, but my hear sinks whenever I hear it. ‘This time next year,’ I’ve been replying as cheerfully as I can muster, thinking as I do so of the months of work that are entailed, the planning, the problems, the research, and then the days of purdah, sitting at the laptop for hours at a time, reading, re-reading, worrying, dreaming, talking to my editor, worrying some more. Sometimes I wonder if I really want to go through it all again at such speed, but my commercial sense tells me that a year is about as long as my readers are prepared to wait for the next one before they lose interest.