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

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.



Do sex and money make the world go round?

Sex and money are powerful human motivators. Almost all the great stories involve one or the other, or both. What can I learn from this?sex

My new book is taking shape, in chapter outlines not a first draft as yet, and it’s at this stage that I begin to look at the movement in the story, how it rattles along, what makes the reader want to turn the pages. At the root of it all is the energy generated by the characters themselves, faced with the circumstances that I have created for them. What makes them act they way they do? Are sex and money critical in this story too?money-logo

Having left myself more space this time to think about the story rather than ploughing on quickly to meet the self-imposed target of ‘one book each year’, I’m interested to see how the characters are developing in my head. Straight-forward ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ are too easy: there need to be layers, nuances and contradictions that push the reader one way and then another as the story unfolds. I’m asking the ‘what if?’ questions about my story, and it seems to be working. At some point, when all thirty or so chapters are sketched out, I’ll start the first draft. Even then, details and complications will come to me and have to be incorporated, but hopefully without too many ramifications for earlier parts of the plot.

Another useful effect of spending longer thinking before I write is that I forget great chunks of the research. The things that remain are the precious bits that stay lodged in the memory when the rest has gone – the ‘nuggets’. Nothing bogs a story down as fast as too much extraneous detail which the writer has dredged up through painstaking research and is consequently determined to use. The trick is to identify the ‘nuggets’ and use them sparingly, adding colour to the story without slowing it down.

Sex and money aren’t the only things that drive action: love, fear, survival – they all play a part. Theymay manifest themselves differently in different eras and societies, but they never lose their relevance and their potency.


Planner or ‘pantser’: is it really one or the other?

In the past few weeks I’ve been getting into the next book, the fifth one. When I began the first one A Good Liar seven years ago, I had no idea of the implications of being a planner or a ‘pantser’ (it’s a ghastly term, isn’t it, but aptly described the exercise of writing ‘by the seat of your pants’). It turned out I was a ‘pantser’ who really should have planned more. The first draft of A Good Liar was a terrible mess and took two years to sort out. Even now it feels more of a dog’s breakfast than I’m really happy about. It sells well as the first part of the trilogy, although I sometimes wish it didn’t!

After that difficult experience I decided I would plan in much greater detail, and do try to do so, but with this latest book I’m realising yet again that however careful the plan, it won’t hold together as soon as you start writing. Writing involves immersion in the characters and their world. It’s trite to say that they take over and do unexpected things, but sometimes that’s what happens, and the carefully programmed story veers off into something else. These deviations from the plan are not u-turns, more like scenic diversions, but when they come along they are welcomed, not disapproved of. So does that make me an inadequate planner? I don’t think so.

Writing is like life, complex, varied, and predictable only up to a point. That’s what makes both of them so enjoyable. I have an outline for each chapter which gives me a sense of direction, but every few chapters I amend it, adding a chapter or removing one, introducing a new idea or nuance in a conversation or a scene to drive the story more convincingly even though the direction may not radically change. Without any plan, I’m lost. With too rigid a plan, things get stale and formulaic. So I hover happily between the two stances, – an ‘organic shaper’. That phrase sounds like environmentally friendly underwear: there must be a better term for my mixed approach to novel writing. All suggestions welcome.

Where do plots come from?

I’m sure anyone who writes a novel is asked the question: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I can’t speak for anyone else, but thinking back on the books I’ve written so far, there seem to be a few places where plot ideas come from.

  • My own experience, things that have happened to me personally, together with all the emotions that surrounded them. Some of these are from decades ago, others more recent. I’m not providing any examples of these, to preserve my own privacy and the trust of those around me.
  • Stories or snippets of stories I’ve heard from other people. One of these, told to me many years ago, concerned growing up in Belfast in the 1960s with a Catholic father and protestant mother. Another, just a memorable snippet, was about a young man whose wife left him and then returned to their house a few days later while he was at work and removed every stick of furniture, every carpet, curtain and light fitting. He was too shocked and humiliated to track her down.
  • Details gleaned from contemporary newspapers and accounts. I use the Whitehaven News for some of this background colour, peering at the microfilm reader to find authentic details that could later become small valuable nuggets in the story. It’s a useful source as it’s weekly and contains all the court cases, petty theft, accidents, and features that add depth to the picture I’m painting. The post-war period I researched for ‘Forgiven’ was rich in detail that evoked that particular time: the parish council resolution that refused to celebrate the anniversary of VE Day in 1946 as they had ‘nothing to celebrate and nothing to celebrate with’; the couple who were caught handling blackmarket pork when a mouse ate through the string supporting a heavy illegal ham hanging upstairs, with damaging consequences. In ‘Sellafield Stories’ an oral history of the Cumbrian nuclear plant I found some rich detail about the reactor fire of October 1957 from people who were there at the time. Transcripts of hearings and enquiries are also great ‘primary sources’, raw, unfiltered by anything except the capacity of the note-taker to capture everything that was said. One of the survivors of the William Pit disaster of August 1947 gave evidence to the official enquiry about his experience of the explosion and his escape from the mine, and I took some of his words directly into my text for ‘Forgiven’. Maybe it’s the historian in me that get so excited about the authenticity of evidence like that.
  • Places, and what might have happened, or could happen in this setting. When I did the walk across Morecambe Bay from Arnside a year or two ago I was very struck by the care we had to use when approaching the shore at Kents Bank to avoid a shiny grey patch of mud that wobbled visibly as we came close. This was quicksand, and a false step into it could have been life-threatening. My latest novel ‘Cruel Tide’ drew its opening scene from this experience.

None of these nuggets, of themselves, provide you with a plot, but some of them will provoke the essential ‘what if?’ questions from which great stories can be created. They also remind you of features of earlier times that could provide a starting point. For the novel I’m researching at present, a casual meander around some websites has already provided a striking image that will anchor the plot at the start and leave an after-taste of menace and threat. I had to decide who would witness this image, where, when and how, and what impact it might have, and the story began to take shape. It’s very early days yet, but I’m pretty sure that I already have the first chapter. Once I get to that stage, the story ideas begin to bubble up, adding more strands and twists. The trick is to know when to stop adding layer after layer of complexity and characters, how to shape the story into the necessary peaks and troughs, and then take a deep breath and start….’Chapter One’.

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.

From outline to first draft

I hope someone’s noticed that I’ve been away, out of the blogsphere all together, for weeks on a long and amazing trip to Argentina and Antarctica. Actually, it’s over two months since I’ve posted anything, and now there’s so much on my mind I’m not sure where to start.

The question on my mind right this minute is this: how helpful is a detailed outline before you start the first draft? Five years ago I might have said, ‘Who needs an outline. I have a few characters and a few ideas and doesn’t it all just roll out?’ Two months ago I would have said,  ‘An outline is absolutely essential and the more detailed the better.’ Right now, today, I’m thinking. ‘The most helpful thing about an outline is that when you get lost, you have some idea where you are. It gives you a bigger map, but with a smaller scale so you can take in the whole picture more easily.’ But, just like with OS maps of the Lake District, sometimes the paths marked on the map don’t correspond exactly with the paths on the ground.

The first draft is where your writing feet meet the ground. Only then can you see more detail in the territory. Contours and dotted lines turn into real hills and walls. PH marked on the map becomes a real pub, which could be closed and boarded up, or open and welcoming. I spent much of my ‘thinking abut the new book’ time in the past few months on the outline, changing it again and again until I was sure it made sense and flowed and had a good balance of character and events, internal and external dilemmas and conflict, the highs and lows of a classic 3 act structure, and all that. When I actually started to write last week, the first two or three chapters fell on to the page pretty quickly, following the outline page by page. But then things began to spread out. I thought I’d dealt with all the ‘what-ifs’ but then more popped up, demanding to be pursued. Characters said some things I hadn’t expected, and unforeseen anomalies became glaringly obvious.

I’ve noticed before that as I go from outline to draft the story gets darker. Why is that? I think of myself as a reasonably happy and optimistic person, but the words seem to be pushing me into ‘noir’. ‘Cumbrian noir’ – a new genre perhaps? The current book is definitely feeling more ‘noir’ than the previous ones. It should, given that it’s a crime novel rather than the ‘family saga’ tag that loosely describes the trilogy published in the past three years. In crime novels, necessarily, some people do bad things and some people suffer: that’s the nature and impact of crime. But the things I want them to do and suffer seem more ‘noir’ in the draft than they were in the outline.

Seven chapters in now: the overall plot is holding together OK but the chronology has changed a little. I’m having to look ahead three chapters in the outline rather than one to get the best sense of where to go next, and wondering of course why I didn’t anticipate the extra twists and turns that seem so obvious now. I don’t regret this: actually it’s rather fun and keeps me engaged for hours, while the washing up languishes in the sink and I stay cloistered in my upstairs cubbyhole, facing away from the stunning view beyond the window. At the end of several hours writing I feel I’ve achieved something more substantial than the mere fleshing out of a given story. I also need some exercises to relieve my aching neck and shoulders.

I try not to word count: it’s the quality of the words not the quantity that matters. But I couldn’t resist counting at the end of Week 1 and it came to an impressive 20,000 or so. Sounds far too much, but there they are, and most of them read and checked and amended. So far, so good.

Tomorrow there are distractions, in the form of a trip to Cockermouth for a book-related evening at the New Bookshop where I’ll talk about my work as a ‘local author’. That should be fun too, although not as deeply satisfying as keeping on writing, to which I’ll return on Friday.

Talking about my books

Tomorrow evening I’ll be talking to the ‘Friends of Whitehaven Museum’ about the Jessie Whelan trilogy, which has the overall title ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’. It could be quite a large group, some of whom may have read all three books and others may not even know of their existence. My appearance is part of their regular programme of speakers, and I guess I’ve been invited not as a writer but as someone who has researched and recorded slices of local history in fictional form.

So, I’m thinking: what should I talk to them about? The one thing we all have in common is the setting, and the meeting will take place just across the harbour from the site of the major backdrop event in Book 2, ‘Forgiven’, the explosion in the William Pit in August 1947 that claimed the lives of 104 local men and boys. Think of the impact of that on the local community: all those funerals, day after day, and the thousands of people whose lives were affected, children left without fathers, wives without husbands. I’ll tell them how I tracked down the transcript of the NCB report on the accident, including the accounts from the three men who survived, and how I researched another facet of ‘Forgiven’, the lives of the Displaced Persons in their camps in Cumberland in the years after World War Two. Book 3, ‘Fallout’ was set at the time of the nuclear reactor fire at Windscale, just south of Whitehaven, in 1957, and in doing the research for this book I accumulated far more detail than I could possibly have used in the story, much of which was not clear at the time, even to those who were working at the plant. That too will probably be part of what I share with the group. People are usually interested in the past history of where they live, especially when that history is as rich as ours.

As a writer I should be discussing the triumvirate of character, plot and setting, but talking about setting alone would take us far longer than the limited time I’ll have, and I must find time to say something about the process of turning local history into fiction, which presents another set of challenges worthy of conversation. I’ll try to explain how the characters were born and developed as I wrote about their lives, and how I have tried to have both setting and character drive the plot. Looking back, the process of writing looks far more rational and ordered than it felt for me at the time. I’m now learning more about how to structure and plan a work of fiction, but – in the words of the metaphor – the stable door is banging in the wind and the horse has long gone. Maybe it’ll make for a better effort for the next book. In the meantime I’ll reflect on what I thought and did at the time and not pretend that I consciously followed rules that I was mostly unaware of. Considering that admission. the books turned out better than they might have been.

I’m doing many talks to various groups around Cumbria over the summer, and each one will be different, which sounds inefficient but it’s the only way to keep things fresh. If the people I’m with seem willing to talk I’ll ask them right at the start to help me frame our discussion through their questions and interests. Managing those unanticipated expectations, adding important bits of my own and doing it all within a short time frame is enjoyably risky. It’s like really good teaching and I love it.


Looking for a villain

All the characters I’ve developed so far in my writing have been flawed in one way or another – Jessie is impulsive, John so unassertive, Maggie ambitious, Violet blinkered by her religion –  but all of them are essentially good people. If, as I’m considering, I turn to crime fiction for Book 4 I need at least one character who is truly malevolent, and now I’m struggling. The big piece of paper where I’m sketching out the interrelationships in the new book is looking interesting but too benign. It lacks an attractive ‘baddie’, like Milton’s Satan, just charismatic enough to reel us in and make the inevitable betrayal all the more shocking.

Current events lead me to consider a possible backdrop of paedophilia, or people smuggling, or abuse of immigrant workers as the dark side of the plot. It may be squeamish on my part, but I want to avoid explicit violence against women, although setting the action in the 1970s would provide plenty of scope for misogyny and casual gender discrimination. My own working life began early in the 1970s, and I clearly recall how as a young married woman at my first job interview being asked what my contraceptive arrangements were. I said I would share mine if the Deputy Headteacher interviewing me would explain his. He didn’t pursue the matter. Women in general, and young women in particular, were routinely insulted and undermined, and it would be so easy to turn the story into a feminist rant, but that’s not what I want to write. I’m looking for a villain, a rounded, credible, intelligent, articulate character uninhibited by compassion or conscience whose behaviour wreaks havoc and threatens the people we love. Rather than trawl unsuccessfully through my acquaintance looking for such a person,  I may look for inspiration among fictional villains, past and present. Scarpia? Iago? Shakespeare’s caricature of Richard III?

Or should I aim for an ill-intentioned collective, the paedophile ring, the terrorist group, the cabal of bent coppers on the take? Looking across the current literature, it feels like every conceivable angle of conspiracy has been done to death, literally and figuratively. The heroic isolated protagonist against the odds, again? Maybe the nature of successful crime fiction is that it repeats the well-worn genre protocols with just enough of a twist to pique the aficianado’s interest. Is that what I want to do? For the time being it’s back to the drawing board, and the large piece of paper.



Can you teach someone how to write fiction?

There was such a huge response to my post on the question ‘Can you teach writing?’ that I decided to add some more, so here it is. I didn’t make this stuff up: I learned it from my own painful experience, and from great guides like Andrew Pyper, Matthew Hall and William Ryan, whose ideas I have shamelessly plundered. Here goes….

There are a number of aspects of teaching how to write fiction. Let’s divide the process up and pay attention to at least some of them…

  1. Translating thoughts into words and sentences. This is about vocabulary and rhythm, the sound, imagery and flow of the language. If you need to pay attention to grammatical accuracy, this is where the conventions need to explained and practiced. Some of the rules of these conventions – the use of the apostrophe, for example – might need to be ‘taught’, but the best learning is from reading and speaking words aloud, analysing the ‘poetry’ of others’ language and how the full meaning is conveyed, and then bringing those insights into your own work. Working with others encourages you to hear your language, get feedback on it, and refine it constantly to achieve the effect you are striving for.
  2. Finding and developing ‘characters’. People are the essence of fiction, who they are, how they react to the world and others to them, how they speak, walk, dress. There is no easy way to develop the characters who will inhabit and drive your story, and every writer will have their own way to find and flesh out the people they need. You can start with an image, from life, from a picture, or in your head. Then you think and ask questions of this image until it develops dimensions and warmth. What motivates the person, how do they look and sound, what are they afraid of, what and who do they love, – the questions are the ones you use to check out anyone who does or will mean a great deal to you. All and any questions are relevant here, some of them very personal. Even if you never use the answers to all the questions in your story, it helps to deepen each character in this way. Once you have the details, add things like birthdays, favourite colours, hair style, etc and make a separate file, or file card, for each character to help continuity and consistency. It’ll save so much time later. This process can be both taught and practised to great effect, before you embark on a first draft of anything.
  3. Plot, and the ‘Three act structure’. You can research the theories of plot and structure online to great effect, and as much as you want. The three act structure is most commonly used in films, or in crime fiction, but you’ll find it in all forms of fiction, back to Dickens, Jane Austen and other classics that were around long before such a structure was given a name. Most fiction starts with a question – ‘What if…?’ – or a crisis, to kick start the action and grab the reader’s attention. Much of the plot will then evolve from the interaction between the characters and the events, to drive the story forward. Action is generated by both external events and internal processes, such as the emotional reactions of the characters, and their development and changes over time. We want our characters to have an impact on the external events and also be affected by them, creating tension on a number of levels to keep the reader engaged. The relationship between character and plot, between internal and external can be as complicated as you can handle, and as the reader you have in mind will be happy with. My advice would be to keep things relatively simple while you’re learning the craft.
  4. Point of view: whose shoulder are you sitting on, seeing and hearing what they see and hear in each scene? Do you write in the first person, or the third person? In the present tense, or the past. The ‘costs and benefits’ of all those approaches can also be ‘taught’ and rehearsed, leaving you the writer ultimately to make the best choices for the effect they wish to generate.
  5. The idea of a ‘theme’ that runs throughout your work. I’m not certain about this for a beginning writer. It could lead to some pretty pretentious and self-conscious stuff, and needs to be handled lightly, but this too – like keeping notes on the details of your characters – can help the continuity of longer works of fiction and add to the shape and structure of what you write. You should be able to answer the question ‘What’s your story about?’ without just recounting what happens. Incidentally, the answer to the question will also help in ‘pitching’ your story to an agent or anyone else in the book and film business. In the scale of what can be ‘taught’, the issue of ‘theme’ might not be the first thing I would ask the apprentice writer to tackle, but it would be something to work on before you start to write in earnest.
  6. Planning and thinking before you start to write: learning patience, when all you want to do is get writing. I paid a heavy price for my impatience in writing my first novel, embarking on the first draft way too soon and getting into all sorts of trouble that took years – yes, years – to untangle. What I’ve learned to do – having been well taught in various workshops – is to start with an idea or a question, and gradually expand to a page of the overall shape of the plot, then expand again, and again, and again, into ‘Acts’ or stages, then into sections, then chapters. I call this working from the inside, out.
  7. Displaying your plan. By this time you’ll have an outline for most of your sections or chapters. Now pin them up somewhere, on a wall, or lay them on a cleared floor, and look at them. Take in the big picture and start moving things around, adding bits, changing bits. You can’t do this by reading sequentially on a screen: you have to get a ‘simultaneous visual impression’ of the shape of the whole work, before you start to write. This is your map of the territory. You may change your mind about the route once you embark on the trip, and you may even change your destination, but the map is always there to ground you and to keep you going if you start to feel lost or stuck.

I’ve written this pretty fast – it’s a blog post of a thousand words or so after all, not an essay. There’s loads more you could add, and heaps of great books and advice available. But this might do for a start. I wish I’d thought about these few things before I started. I haven’t even mentioned dialogue, which is definitely something you can be taught, but if you get the characters rights, and the setting, and speak out loud whatever you have characters say, you can improve the quality of dialogue immeasurably. And then there’s the challenge of the opening paragraph. Bets way to learn that is to look at opening paragraphs, consider what makes them work, and then write your own. See what I mean? So much to be learned, and all of it can be taught, if you have the right teacher.

Point of view – a more detailed look

When you’re a fiction-writing novice like me, it’s hard to know what you don’t know. Not only had I never written fiction before I started on my first novel in 2008 aged sixty, I’d never learned anything about writing, no courses, no books, not even in a book club, although I read widely and daily. In those circumstances I embarked on the novel with confidence born of ignorance. I thought I could put words together quite effectively, but I hadn’t thought about structure or any other key questions. First person or third? Past tense or present? Plot-driven or character-driven?

In Part One of what was to become a trilogy I started with two questions for the reader: who pushed Alice in the river, and would the abandoned child ultimately find his mother? It was only after a year or two of hopeless meandering and some very critical professional feedback that I realised that neither of these questions really mattered. The most interesting questions were: why does cautious Jessie take a lover, and then another, and what happens when the abandoned child turns up twenty years later.

The key point raised by my ‘reviewer’ (Sarah Bower for The Literary Consultancy) was that I didn’t seem to understand ‘point of view’. Whose eyes are you looking through, Sarah asked; whose ears hear what’s being said? In the draft that I submitted for critique the point of view sometimes varied randomly from one sentence to the next, as if the narrator of the action was formless, slipping at will into the shoes of whoever might be around in the scene. I wasn’t bothered whether the eyes and ears were those of a major character or a minor one. I called it kaleidoscopic, she called it a mess.

My reactions to the critique were classic: for a number of weeks I put both it and the manuscript aside and refused to think about them. Then I decided that ‘point of view’ was a pretty silly concept and therefore it couldn’t matter much. In the end I bowed to the unavoidable conclusion that my reviewer knew much more about writing fiction than I do, and that I should think more about what she had suggested. Choose two or three characters to carry the ‘point of view’ she had said, no more. Make it clear to the reader whose point of view is paramount, chapter by chapter. If you want to change it within a single chapter do so carefully and purposefully.

It was soon very clear why I was tempted to either ignore the critique and abandon the whole project or carry on regardless. Limiting the points of view in this way changed everything. Almost every chapter would have to be re-written. And then another realisation hit me: if I wanted to tell a complicated story with very limited points of view, some of the details would have to be conveyed indirectly as none of my key protagonists could realistically be involved in witnessing the action directly. Sounds complicated, and it was. The first draft of the first novel took two years, and the radical redraft a further two before I had anything that was worth polishing. The effort involved, sustained by only a faint glimmer of confidence in the potential outcome, nearly finished me off. It was only stubborn determination not to waste the effort completely that finally pushed me to finish ‘A Good Liar’, cope with the repeated generic brush-offs from agents and decide in the end to publish the book myself.

The second and third parts of my trilogy have continued the decisions about third person, past tense and two or three points of view adopted for part 1. But now I’m thinking about what to write once the trilogy is complete, which should be summer 2014. Knowing what I know now, what different choices could I make about the next novel I hope to write?

My own reading has become more analytical, more aware of tenses, voice, dialogue and structure. Maybe reading fiction is like watching cricket: you never really understand what’s going on unless you’ve played it yourself. And I’m still thinking about ‘point of view’. If you choose the singular point of view, as in Jane Austen, all the action and details necessary for the reader have to be conveyed through the eyes and ears of one person. That person has to be in every scene, witnessing the action directly or hearing about it from someone else. Unless this key protagonist is merely the constant recipient of other people’s news, he or she has to drive the action forward by their own actions, or inactions.

I recall reading Robert Goddard and wondering why his protagonists seem so prone to getting drunk, or over-sleeping, or other mistakes that lead in turn to twists and crises in the plot. With only one point of view there’s no other way to drive the plot forward. Those same necessary personal frailties apply in spades to various contemporary fictional detectives – Morse and Wallender to name but two – who are irredeemably prone to aberrant behaviours, depression and dysfunctional personal relationships. How else can drama be created?

As writers we are faced with a choice of singular, limited or multiple points of view. What are the implications for both writers and readers? Do different genres necessarily deal with this issue in different ways?