The importance of ‘Chapter 1’

My temporary living space is looking pretty well organised now (check previous posts to see what this is all about). And my head is getting round the new situation too: instead of fretting about the necessary confinement I’m using the time to tackle something that’s been overshadowed by health issues for a a couple of weeks – starting the first draft of the new book.

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The outline is pretty well sorted, apart from the final denouement which I want to leave loose for now. So first thing this morning I split my screen, posted the outline of Chapter 1 on one side and pulled up a blank document on the other headed, ‘Burning Secret Chapter 1’. The title may change, but it’ll do for now.

Immediately at this point the writer faces a choice about ‘point of view’. Whose eyes am I looking through in this scene? Whose head am I inside, and what does this person see, hear, do and feel? What are the implications of this choice, and is it significant for the reader? It’s a chance to clarify who is at the centre of the story, or possibly to catch the reader off-guard. Do you remember the film ‘Psycho’? For the first several minutes of that Hitchcock masterpiece the viewer thinks they’re being told a story about Janet Leigh’s character having an affair. All the action is from her point of view, until in an iconic shocking twist her character is gone and we are jolted into another story. The decision about the first POV the reader encounters is one the writer needs to think carefully about.

For this book I’ve decided that POV should stay the same for the whole of the first chapter. The setting, both time and place, is quite complicated and one POV is probably enough for the reader to manage. Perhaps at the chapter’s end the hook to draw the reader forward could be the introduction of a new POV, as the story begins to unfold. Malice 51lsLKs+yCL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_

I read an excellent Japanese crime story recently, – ‘Malice’ by Keigo Higashino – at the end of which there was an interview with the author about the techniques he’d used. One of these was to give the reader an early memorable snippet of information about a key character that would be crucial in establishing whether the character was trustworthy or likeable. With that impression established, the reader would interpret the character’s behaviour through that lens. ‘First impressions count’ is the message, and those impressions are manipulated by the author.

So, the choice of character for the first POV, the information the reader is offered, the source of that information and what it signifies, are all Chapter One decisions. However well I’ve planned, much of this subtlety only presents itself when the actual first draft is being written. And that’s what I started on yesterday. I couldn’t write for long because of the sore shoulder, and I’m writing this post early so I can rest for a while before going back to Chapter One later in the morning. Pacing myself like this is useful as it makes me think more about what I’m doing and why, instead of just racing on.

For those of you who are new to this blog, I’m confined to the house having injured myself in a fall, and trying to use this as an opportunity for achievement, not just a source of frustration. It’s Day 2 of a ten day confinement: I hope the good intentions can be sustained. While the rest of country is starting the busiest holiday weekend of the year I shall be quiet in my small space and live inside my head. And if I need distractionthere’s a cricket test match to listen to on the radio. What more could I want?

Preparing the audio book: what am I learning?

GoodLiar_COVER.inddPreparing to produce the audio book of ‘A Good Liar’ is turning out to be an interesting experience. The first task, before any other planning or costings can be undertaken, has been to re-read and abridge the original text. Actually, even further back, the very first question was whether I wanted to abridge at all, and the answer is I would prefer not to. ‘Murdering your darlings’ they call it – killing off slices of the story that meant a great deal to you at the time. That process is usually part of editing the final draft, but abridging is even harder. The final text of my first book was truly a labour of love. Writing ‘A Good Liar’ took me nearly four years and involved some very steep learning, stumbles, frustration, almost chucking it on the fire and then dogged determination to see it through. Maybe there’s always a special attachment to the ‘firstborn’. Whatever the reason, abridging it is proving painful, but unavoidable. An unabridged version would run to too may CDs, twice the time and at least twice the cost. Every extra 1000 words of text means more studio time, more CDs to duplicate, more packaging – and each of those means more outlay for me and a higher price for the buyer. Just not practical. So abridging it is. Woe is me.

Rather than using the paperback for this process, I’ve chosen to work from the mobi file, highlighting on screen where the cuts are to be made. That way I can read off the screen rather than the page, and avoid the inevitable sound of turning pages, which the sensitive mike at the recording studio picked up when I made my demo disc.

big-booth-11I’m glad it’s me doing the abridging: the decision about what to leave out is dependent on thorough knowledge of the text and the significance of details. It’s made me realise how keen I was on the authenticity of the setting in this first book, both place and time. That’s why many local readers enjoy it so, but for an audio book there may be too much detail, and some of it has had to go. Some of the dialogue has been cut too: on the page it reflects the complexity of conversation, the interruptions and dialects, but that’s hard to relay in a narrated text with only one voice. It is possible to cut some of the text and still leave the story moving on, with enough detail to help the reader understand the where the characters are, and why they do what they do. I’ve found myself drawn in to their stories yet again, which has been reassuring. It’s a good tale, if I say it myself.

Apart from the necessity of abridging, I’m also clear now about the need to read it myself. I’ve seen some critical comments about audio books and poor narration by authors. I simply couldn’t afford the extra cost of a professional actor, and the demo disc sounded OK. Really! The abridging of ‘A Good Liar’ should be finished this week. Then I have to read it all through and check the timing. The goal is to get it down to 240 minutes, but I’m not confident yet that I’ll achieve that at the first attempt. When the required length is achieved, then it’s off to the studio. Hard work, but enjoyable on the whole, and I’d rather be busy than bored..

 

Authentic local setting: useful or off-putting?

It was a wild and snowy night, with a full moon wierdly visible through the snow, as I drove to a readers’ group meeting at Grange-over-Sands library on Thursday and spoke to the hardy souls who turned up. Talking about the new book ‘Fatal Reckoning’ grange-librarywithout giving away most of the plot was a challenge, so I relied on questions to pick up what my ‘audience’ wanted to discuss. ‘You obviously like to use specific local settings,‘ said one, ‘but what about people who nothing about the place? Doesn’t that specificity make them feel excluded and put them off?’

It’s a good question, and one that’s been on my mind for a while. Many of my most enthusiastic readers are local to the region of West Cumbria that I love and have used as the setting for all my books so far. The area has everything a story backdrop should have – interest, historical depth, variety, beauty and even controversy, in the local nuclear industry based around Sellafield. Occasionally I have to anonymise the community I’m writing about, but mostly the place names and the details are precise, and that’s what many of my readers enjoy. They haven’t seen references to their own home turf in novels before, and it’s great fun to recall them in your mind’s eye as you read.

But there’ll be many more readers – I hope – for whom the area is unknown and the specific references immaterial. Honestly, I don’t think this detracts from their reading pleasure. All of us read about places we don’t know, and accept the author’s word about what the settings look like. Too much description is a drag, but we appreciate enough detail to picture the scene, whether the setting is authentic or not. We enjoy finding out more about the setting of a good book: evocations of Ann Cleeve’s Shetland or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh add immeasurably to the reading experience.

For me, setting is important on a number of levels. For all readers it provides the visual context of the story, adding colour and depth to the ‘events’. Sometimes, setting is so crucial that it becomes almost a character in itself. CRUEL_TIDE COVER frontIn my first crime novel ‘Cruel Tide’ the vast mudflats of Morecambe Bay and its sneaking tides are central to the plot. This can be achieved whether or not the reader knows the area herself. Local knowledge is not and should not be essential, but it adds another layer of enjoyment for some readers. This is especially so when the locality has previously been neglected in fiction, which I feel West Cumbria has been. Cumbria has been celebrated by many writers and poets, but not the west of the county, where the mountains meet the Irish Sea and seams of coal stretch further west under the waves. Coal and ore mining have gone, steel and iron works have closed, ship building has been replaced by nuclear submarines and commercial fishing is a shadow of past prominence, but the fascination of this coastal area continues and cries out to be shared. My next writing project may be different in characters and genre, but I’ve no doubt the setting will be the same, and hope it will be appreciated whether the readers are familiar with it or not.

What does a book cover really mean?

This is a bit complicated. Just to start things off, here are the covers of the two crime fiction books I’ve published, last year and last week.

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I think they’re quite good, but what they indicate more than anything else is the setting – Morecambe Bay in ‘Cruel Tide’ and Whitehaven harbour in ‘Fatal Reckoning’. The fact that they deal with dark deeds is implicit, not unmistakeable. These are the covers on the paperbacks that are in the shops, but they will not be the covers of the ebooks. How come?

Here’s what’s been going on ‘behind the scenes’. The ebook versions of both these books are being published not by me and my imprint ‘HoadPress’, but by an international crime fiction publisher called ‘Fahrenheit Press’ fahrenheit-press.com. They specialise in ebooks and POD, but rarely if ever publish paperbacks, unless there’s an enormous demand, at which POD becomes impractical. Casting around for a way to avoid the ‘agent’ route to publishing I found Fahrenheit Press a few months ago, sent them a copy of ‘Cruel Tide’ as an example of my work to date, and said that the sequel was in production. Long story short: the MD of Fahrenheit, Chris McVeigh, and I met in London, talked about the various routes to market and made the deal outlined above. I find the business of Amazon algorithms etc quite puzzling – as I wrote about a week or two ago. Chris understands that whole business better than I ever could, so why not give it a go, just to see what happens? He’s preparing both books for digital production right now, and when he’s ready I’ll take down my Kindle posting for ‘Cruel Tide’ and he will replace it immediately with his, adding ‘Fatal Reckoning’ as an ebook for the first time. The difference will be the covers, which we have been discussing this week. His preferred covers are completely different than my originals, denoting not setting but ‘genre’. They are very dark and stark, as befits a dark tale in two parts, and he’s called both of them ‘Judith Pharaoh novels’. So simple. When they’re finally agreed and published – in a week or two – , you be able to see them on the Amazon and Kindle websites and make your own comparisons. This is the first time that anyone else has published my work, in any format, I’m fascinated by the experience, so different from a traditional publishing deal.

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.

 

Simplicity is seductive

Who remembers good old Sergeant Dixon, courteous, uncomplicated, with his files and his big black phone, solving crime through listening to people and figuring things out?

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Those were the ‘good old days’, before DNA and computers and CSI forensics, when policing was simple and villains were wicked and the death penalty was still the ultimate deterrent and women knew their place.

I’m thinking about the setting of a new crime series. The choice of place is easy, it has to be Cumbria. But time? Personally I prefer the present day to previous decades when oppression of various kinds was more widespread, but as a crime writer I’m attracted by the relative simplicity of policing in the past. I want my main detective to be female, but that’s unrealistic in the days before the late eighties when it was finally accepted that female police officers might be given more to do than making the tea. But I also want to avoid some of the more clinical and technical aspects of contemporary policing which radically affect both the research and the plotting. There must be a window of opportunity between these two. It would be really interesting to focus on the early days of women in CID in Cumbria, in which case I need to talk to some of those early pioneers and get their stories. That would be a worthwhile exercise, no matter what plots ideas flowed from it.

At the same time as I’m considering all this I’m watching the Brexit decision and all its implications. Today I saw the figures on the close correlation between those in favour of the death penalty and those wishing to leave the EU. And there’s a piece in the Guardian about ‘false binaries’, another way of saying that the best choices are rarely just one solution or another, which is one reason why the EU referendum was so flawed in both process and result. Real life, personal, social and political, is always complicated and pragmatism is an under-rated virtue. President Obama has maintained a good balance of principle and pragmatism, in my view, but I’m not optimistic about political leadership in the UK right now. They say we get the political leadership we deserve. We must have done something really bad.

‘Viral marketing’and local success

Last night at a local Women’s Institute meeting I heard a young man talk about how he and his wife have developed a plant nursery over the past seven years or so. Dull? It was rivetting, a saga of enthusiasm, aspiration, challenge, set-backs, perseverance, commitment, hard work, adverse weather and current growth – both commercial and horticultural. What kind of promotion and marketing has worked for you, he was asked. ‘Word of mouth’ he said. ‘If two people find us, a mile off the main highway and on the road to nowhere, and if those two people have a good time and each tell two, or three or ten people about it, then the business grows, and it costs us nothing that we wouldn’t be doing anyway, ie giving our customers a good experience.’My words, perhaps, not his, but that was the inference.

These people are BUSY, running a seven day a week outfit, developing the site, growing and selling their own plants and raising two young children. They won’t have time for sitting at the laptop, doing all the internet-based social media marketing stuff that we are told is the only way forward for a new business. And they are successful, doing what they love and are good at.

So what did I gather from all this, as someone trying to write and publish one novel a year, which is also pretty time-consuming? Tom Attwood’s story about the Halecat Nursery confirmed what I’ve been learning myself about the relative ‘efficiency’ of different forms of ‘promotion and marketing. We’ve learned that meeting people matters, and that nothing spreads sales faster than word of mouth. The most successful bookshop for sales of my book is the one where the person who owns and runs it tells each customer how popular my books are, that they are set in places they know, and that I live just minutes away and bring in the books myself. The single largest income stream in my book sales is the thousands of pounds I make every year through direct sales. I’ll do a talk somewhere, explain about how I write my books, the research, the stories, the challenges, and then I sell copies to people who are interested in them. It’s ‘book signing plus’, and it works.

In rural areas like ours there are many opportunities for people to come together and listen to a speaker, and an author like myself can gain an audience by simply making yourself available, and being prepared to plan as far ahead as these organisations do. Numbers may not be great, but there were forty or so people listening to Tom last night and he did a really good job. He brought lots of plants with him, made a fair amount of money from sales, garnered a small fee, and – more importantly – encouraged everyone there to come and visit the nursery, tell their friends, check the website. I’ve no doubt that the impact of his personal presence was far more effective than seeing a Tweet or an advertisement somewhere. People love plants grown locally for local conditions. People love books written locally with local stories and locations. If that’s the niche in this crowded market, then it pays both of us to address it.

That’s not to say that a writer like me can ignore all the internet-driven routes to market, but it’s clear to me that ‘viral marketing’ inspired by personal contact works really well, and it’s much more enjoyable than sitting at a keyboard.

 

 

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.

What do readers want to read in a blog, or a novel?

I probably know the answer to this question as well as you do: any mention of SEX usually creates a spike in the visitors to any web site, but you can’t talk about SEX all the time. So in between we bloggers have to talk about less stimulating – sorry – things such as genre or structure or titles. Last week’s post about the structure of a trilogy appeared to go down like a lead budgie, even though it was on my mind and I wanted to write about it, so I did. What’s currently on my mind may be unattractive to the average blog reader, but it’s interesting to me, so here goes.

In the past few days I’ve been thinking about the link between visual images and what I write, and I’m asking myself  “Is my best writing ‘filmic?'”. When  I look at other authors’ writing I most enjoy, they seem to create strong visual images. I can see, not just feel or understand, what the writer is presenting to me. The first paragraph of Dickens’ Bleak House and its depiction of London fog for example, or the opening of The Road to Coorain by Jill Ker Conway, about the grasslands of Australia. Just a few nights ago, I dreamed very vividly about the opening scene of book that’s currently taking shape in my head. It was intensely visual, like the opening scene of a film. I could see how the camera would pan, the close-ups and the wider shots. It woke me up, a sign that this scene was in a sense ‘cooked’ and ready.

The problem with the description I’m looking for is that it can cut across the dictum about ‘show don’t tell’. You can’t represent the visual image I have in mind through the speech of one of the characters, without defying every rule of authentic dialogue. A passing by-stander wouldn’t say to herself, or her dog, ‘Look at the green of the samfire and how it’s growing in the mud round our feet,’ or ‘I’m struck by the pale gleam of the rising sun on tide-washed sand’. If the reader is to see the scene as I see it I need to describe it, in my authorial voice, the voice I’m trying to use as little as possible.

Maybe my aversion to this authorial intervention is misplaced and needs to be re-considered. Sadly, I’ve received very little detailed feedback about my writing so far, but  I was once told by an author I respect that what she loved was this – the opening paragraph of Chapter 5 in ‘A Good Liar’.

“August. A hazy Sunday. Breeze from the south, hardly stirring the heavy trees. The land breathed slowly, imperceptibly, as if asleep under the sun. Tides crept up and down shingle and sand, silent save for a creamy whisper at the edge. On the beach the air shimmered over warm stones. Fields and valleys smelled of grass. Sheep crowded into shade, panting.”

There’s no action in this piece, except the movement of the tide. There’s no dialogue. I needed this scene-setting passage to explain a significant encounter for one of my characters. And the opening scene of the new book will need the same sense of place, as the setting is almost a character in itself, influencing both the people and the events of the story. What I really want is to find the words that will share the image in my head with the reader in an unforgettable way, that the reader will want to read again and again and share with others, like a poem.

So maybe I’ll think again about ‘show don’t tell’ and allow myself the indulgence of  carefully worded description every now and then, something I’ll enjoy reading out loud, to myself and to others.

 

‘Forgiven’: the middle child of the trilogy

I’m beginning to think of ‘Forgiven’ the second book in my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ as the middle child, quite quiet, somewhat overshadowed by its more noticeable siblings. The eldest child, ‘A Good Liar’ was the first, long awaited, with a troubled pregnancy and long labour. When she arrived, to quite an elderly mother, she was greeted with delight and some surprise that she had ever been born at all. The youngest child, ‘Fallout’ created less trouble and worry in pregnancy, as by now the mother knew roughly what was going on and felt more confident. This new baby was louder and forced her way into the family with a freshness bordering on the brash.

Child number two ‘Forgiven’ came along quite quickly after her elder sibling but was in turn overshadowed by the youngest before she had found her place in the family. She is quiet, more thoughtful and perhaps too easily overlooked, but has a grace and charm all of her own. Secretly, for a mother must never admit to favourites, I love this middle child the most. She made me cry more as I created her, and still does. There’s a poignancy in the story, as Jessie Whelan faces her darkest moments, and makes the hardest choices. At the end her loneliness seems set to continue as she hangs on determinedly to her independence.

‘Forgiven’, is currently the least popular of the trilogy. It’s relative of course: all three books have been well received and sell steadily, but still boxes of the eldest and youngest books leave the shelves with greater speed, and ebooks sales have the same pattern. That means that some of my readers at least may not have read the full story told in the three books, which I’m sad about. Between my heroine’s early troubles and her eventual acceptance of love the quieter time is being overlooked. Set in 1947 Forgiven in some ways as ‘unforgiving’ as its context: the post-war years in West Cumberland were difficult. On the first anniversary of VE Day one of the local councils turned down a suggestion of a party to celebrate. ‘We’ve nowt to celebrate,’ they said, ‘and nowt to celebrate with.’ Unemployment, poor housing, rationing, coal shortages and the bitter winter of March 1947 added up to a cold, hard few years, before the resurgence into the 1950s. In my village mains electricity didn’t arrive until 1953, and only three years later the first nuclear power station was officially opened by the Queen, to be followed the year after that by the world’s first nuclear reactor fire, which forms the backdrop to the third book in trilogy ‘Fallout’.

History was moving so quickly then that the immediate post-war troubles were almost forgotten. And so it feels with the slower sales of the book that was set in those difficult times. But it remains – I believe – a much better book than its elder sibling, and a necessary precursor to the youngest of the three. In ‘Forgiven’ Jessie faces some of her inner demons and makes her worst mistakes as a mother. Maybe that’s why I have such an emotional attachment to this book, and wonder why it is seems to be attractive than its fellows. Maybe this is what happens with trilogies: does anyone out there know if the middle books of the three do less well?

If you’ve read this far and you’ve not read ‘Forgiven’, beg, buy, borrow or download it and see what you think, even if you’ve never read either of the others. Then go backwards to ‘A Good Liar’ for the backstory and forwards to ‘Fallout’ for the denouement. I love Jessie, and I want to see the middle years of her life, tough though they were, celebrated and enjoyed.