Eighty-five thousand words in, with a plan that looked OK for a while and has now been changed countless times, I’m still unsure how to end the story. I’ve been here many times before, six times before in fact, once for each of my previous novels. Endings are the bane of my life.
Depending on the particular genre you have in mind, the protocols around endings are usually quite clear. Courtroom dramas end with a verdict, psychological thrillers with a twist. Generally speaking, classic crime and police procedurals are supposed to end with the baddies brought to justice, so that readers feel that satisfactory closure has been reached and all is well with the world. So where does that leave me? Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that I’ve never been keen on knowing my genre, or sub-genre, and sticking to it. Or maybe it’s the state of ‘existential angst’ that seems to surround me at present, looking at the political debacle here in the UK and the ghastly POTUS across the pond. For whatever reason, I’m uncomfortable with tidy endings. I want to leave my story ambivalent, uncertain, compromised by the realities of human nature and the vagaries of the legal process.
Leave it, I said to myself; there’s no rush. Do all your edits on what you’ve got so far, and eventually, the last thousand words will come to you. That was last week. This week the deadline for getting the final draft to the editor is that bit closer, and my ‘hurry up’ habit is nagging away even more loudly than usual. I have a holiday coming: do I definitely finish off before the holiday starts, or take the laptop with me and hope that distance and a change of routine will help the last decision? My holiday companion is counselling delay, and perhaps he will be a useful sounding board for the choices I face.
However much time I have, my instinct tips towards ambivalence, and that’s not just because I’m setting the reader up for a sequel. I really believe that the reader should be left with a question, not an answer.
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. In 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 models.
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. 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.
Last week, little more than two months after starting it, I finished the first draft of a new novel. At just less than 90,000 words, it’s currently shorter than some of my crime novels, and my editor may suggest that it needs more depth in some places, more background, more whatever. But that’s the thing about a first draft: you write and write, revising as you go, letting the original plan founder in the wake of what comes out of your head. And when it’s done you stand back and look at it from a distance. That’s the time too when you ask someone else to have a look, as you’re too close to see it clearly.
The draft was zipped off to my editor, after one last re-reading and some tidying up. So now, I wait. It’s a curiously flat stage in the process. Day after day for several weeks I sat at the laptop for every available minute. Night after night details of the plot, unfinished business, unresolved anomalies, all reverberated round my brain.
My sleep suffered. Sometimes by morning I could see a way through to the next steps, sometimes the dilemmas turned out to be non-existent. But the damn thing occupied my head almost without respite until I never wanted to see it again.
And now it’s gone. For a day or two I was still fretting about it in the night, but then that wore off and here I sit, waiting, like a deflated balloon.
I’m trying to do the things I put to one side while I was writing, but nothing feels important enough to bother with. Days that passed so fast are now dragging, not helped by a tendon strain that’s restricting my walking and exercise routines. It’s only a week since let the draft go, but it feels like a month and I’m impatient for some reaction. I know there’ll be re-writes to do, but what and how is still to be decided.
When the last book was heading towards publication this time last year, I asked myself whether I ever wanted to do it again. The same question is on my mind now. I know there are so many other things in life I want to do: getting older certainly adds a sense of urgency. But right now nothing other than writing seems to provide the sense of ‘flow’ in the way that Csikszentmihalyi defined it, a very satisfying combination of effort and focus, that makes the hours flash past. Fell walking comes close, and maybe I need to concentrate on my recovery and get the boots back on. With summer coming, that looks like a worthwhile alternative.
The current fashion in crime fiction seems to be for the writer to visualise the plot of a story in terms of a series of gripping scenes. It’s certainly the way to go if you fancy selling to TV. The drama of these scenes can lie in the characters and their individual or collective crises. Or it can rest in the extraordinary landscape, or with a revelation, or twist in the story, or – possibly – all of these at once. As authors we imagine the details that would make these scenes as engaging as possible, but it’s not easy.
The problem lies in the machinations necessary to get your characters into a particular space at a particular time with a worthwhile revelation to share. The frequent victim of this process is authenticity. What we end up with is a story that just doesn’t makes sense.
All writers try to avoid too many coincidences and accidents in plotting, although one or two are useful if they drive the story forward. Similarly, we treasure dysfunctional characters with flaws, because they can be delightfully unpredictable and prone to mistakes, both of which help with the ‘twists and revelations’ issue. Coincidences, accidents and characters’ poor judgements are all OK up to a point, but if overdone can steer a plot towards improbability. The reader may be asked to ‘suspend their disbelief’ once too often, and if the reader is me the story is dismissed as a ‘fix’.
With the first draft of Book 7 rolling along, I’m right in the middle of this dilemma. I have a number of great scenes in mind, and need them to work without stretching authenticity just that bit too far. I’m looking forward to seeing what my editor will think when she sees the first draft in a month or so.
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.
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. Ann 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?