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?
After the difficulties in writing and publishing my last novel ‘Burning Secrets’ I vowed I wouldn’t put myself under that kind of pressure again. I would not set immutable deadlines, or make important decisions too quickly. And I would set time aside for other things in my life, to avoid the constant feeling of obligation to a project which was supposed to be a pleasure, not a burden.
So far, I’m doing well with these resolutions. I took time to plan an overdue visit to see friends in New Zealand, and for the four weeks or so I was away I wrote no blog posts, didn’t look at the draft outline of the new book, or read anything remotely connected with it. But now I’m back, living once more in the area where all my books are set, and the itch to get writing has started again. For my morning reading today I chose not the biography of Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd that is sitting by my bed but a book about forensic science. Not a detailed dry tome about a technical subject but a great read, full of engaging questions and dilemmas, just the kind of book I enjoy. The book is ‘All That Remains: A Life in Death’ by Professor Sue Black, about her career as a forensic anthropologist, and inevitably it’s started me thinking again about my story.
The timing isn’t great, as I really ought to be doing something about Christmas, but maybe the upcoming busyness could be turned to advantage. If in the next day or two I can absorb enough information, my brain can churn away for several days, processing and sorting and generating new ideas while I’m distracted by mindless festivities. When I return to ‘work’ in a couple of weeks I expect things to be clearer and the draft outline improved. It takes time and deliberate distraction for this useful process to be effective, and I suspect it doesn’t work for everyone. I just need the confidence to step away for a while. The mistake I made last time was to get so anxious about losing momentum that I didn’t step away, and some opportunities for improvement were lost.
I can already feel some of the pieces of the complex plot dropping into place, which makes the new writing project a potential source of pleasure rather than pain. Thank heaven for that.
All self-published writers know that the hardest part of the whole process is not the writing, which is creative and challenging and satisfying. The bit we struggle with is getting our books into the hands of readers, and having those readers pay a price commensurate with the effort and energy that’s gone in to the book.
Obviously, much will depend on the mode of publication you choose. With an ebook there’s no physical product, but readers still have to know where to find your book, and choose it over the masses of others that are available, especially in the crowded market of genre-fiction. Some ebook authors use price as the come-on, but that quickly turns into a race to the bottom and the pressure to charge a derisory amount or nothing at all.
If you choose, as I did, to create a physical book as well as an ebook, there are more routes to sales, but most of them still fundamentally depend on ‘visibility’. I advertise my books on my website and on all the flyers and bookmarks I have printed. I also get orders through Amazon, and through the major book distributors such as Gardners Books in Eastbourne. In Cumbria, where I live and the books are set, distribution is handled by Hills Books of Workington, which supplies almost all Cumbrian bookshops and other outlets, but beyond this region getting my books onto bookshop shelves is almost impossible. Readers can order them of course, and do so, but the supply chain is long with discounts at every stage.
The bookshop contacts their wholesaler, who contacts me, who posts off the requested amount, which then goes back to the wholesaler, then to the bookshop, and finally into the hands of the reader. With postal charges rising all the time, any supply chain that relies on the self-published author fulfilling such orders by post means precious little profit.
An efficient and profitable selling route for me is via my website direct to the reader, using Paypal for payment. I could invest in a card reader, but that in turn relies on a good mobile signal which can never be assumed either in my home or when I’m out on the road meeting potential readers. Maybe it’s something I need to investigate again.
The main problem is the very slow traffic to my website and how to increase the website’s ‘attractiveness’, a task so far from my original passion for writing that I constantly put it off. Everything I know about the internet and how to use it I’ve had to learn in the last twenty years, and much of it still frustrates me. I have a Twitter account with over a thousand followers, but won’t play some of the games that seem to required to grow that number. I use FB too, but am wary of it and share only with a limited number of people already known to me. The key issue may be that the generation that reads and loves my books is, like me, a pre-internet generation. Why else would people sometimes tell me that my books are ‘hard to find’ when a ten second online search using just my name would give them all the information they need?
Why do they go to a bookshop and order, when they could go straight to my website and its online ‘bookshop’ in half the time? Of course I’m keen to preserve local bookshops, but I wish more of them would stock good self-published books like mine.
Fortunately, I really enjoy doing presentations about my books to groups large and small, meeting readers and potential readers. Almost all of these are in Cumbria, but that’s where my books are already known. Without a publisher or an agent, it’s well-nigh unheard-of to be asked to present self-published work at any of the major events and book festivals, unless you’re very well-connected, which I am not. For me, an added frustration is that after thirty years as a professional presenter I know I could do as good a job as most of the authors I hear talking about their work, and better than some. Even with a restricted field for selling, however, direct sales account for a major part of my sales every year, and the most profitable.
Of course I’m contacted regularly by people offering to improve my website’s effectiveness, at a price. Is it worth it, in terms of time as well as cost? Life’s too short to spend too much time on things I really don’t enjoy. My problem is patience: I couldn’t be bothered trying to find an agent after the first few generic rejections. Nor, I fear, can I be bothered to spend precious hours growing my website traffic when I could be crafting another story. So, I’m a bit stuck. My books sell, but not as well as they should!
So, the week’s writing adventure at the Arvon centre in The Hurst, John Osborne’s house in Shropshire, is done.
Monday to Saturday, five days of thinking and writing and talking and sharing, and cooking and washing up. And very enjoyable it was too. Two well-prepared and interesting tutors – Chibundu Onuzo and Lucy Hughes-Hallett – and a great group of writers. Ages in the group ranged from early twenties to myself; three blokes, the rest women. I was impressed by the quality of what we produced in fast writing exercises, and the diversity of experience we brought. Really enjoyable, and only slightly marred by the responsibility of producing an evening meal for fifteen people on one of the nights. I was relieved when my turn was behind me. The food was delicious, and too much of it!
I wish I had copies of some of the short pieces we produced. Re-workings of the Cinderella story generated some great laughs, I remember, At one point, Lucy asked to write about a person from our childhoods, which turned out to be very emotional. And how many words could we find as an alternative to ‘nice’? What might the choice of word indicate about the character who would choose it? All sorts of activities reminded me of the basics of writing a great story.
For me, the purpose of the experience was to clear my head about whether, when and what I want to write in the future. And the main thing I came away with is that I should relax, slow down and not commit to anything until I’m ready. I’m leaving my options open, and not succumbing to pressure from myself or anyone else to a deadline for another book, if there’s going to be one.
So, there we are. For the time being my future plans are inside my head and not to be shared. Does that sound curmudgeonly? Perhaps, but never mind. At my time of life, I can do as I please. Watch this space.
I’m trying to keep my ideas open and fluid around the issue of future writing. At the end of the last post I wondered whether I could sell copies of my backlist books if I didn’t have a new book to add to the list. Now my conversations with myself, and with others in the writing business, are revolving around whether readers will stay loyal if a new book doesn’t appear for a couple of years.
Whatever I do in the future, I need to get off the treadmill that this focus on the next book has become. Having been divorced and self-employed for most of my adult life, I respond badly to pressure from external obligations – which is not the same as avoiding responsibility. Responsibility is fine, so long as its a choice, not an expectation.
The unsurprising conclusion is that my motivation is almost entirely intrinsic, not extrinsic: clearly I need to write because I want to, not because I have to.
So, is all this incompatible with life as a self-published author? If I take my time to decide what to do next, will it matter if a new books appears in two years rather than one? If I want to play around with genre, regardless of whether the outcome will sell well, does that matter? I wrote ‘Burning Secrets’ with an eye on a continuing crime-fiction series, but my current thoughts are veering away from that towards something more character-driven and less concerned with police procedures.
Above all, I’m asking myself whether my books sell – which they do – because of the genre, or because they have my name on the cover? Without any real marketing, and with no budget for promotions or advertising, sales are slow but keep going, and readers who pick up one book usually come back for more.
If there isn’t a new ‘Ruth Sutton’ book next year, of course readers won’t just wait, twiddling their thumbs. Of course they’ll migrate to other authors. But readership isn’t a ‘zero-sum’ game. If existing readers are looking elsewhere for books, that doesn’t mean they’ll forget about mine, and when a new book appears, with a modicum of publicity, they’ll be interested. New readers may need more persuasion, but the backlist is there, waiting for their interest to be piqued, and curiosity about what else I’ve written might well overcome the unfamiliarity of a different genre. Genre boundaries are so artificial anyway.
So another option opens up for me. Delay the decision about whether to write again. Turn away for a while, do other things, scratch the itch. If something really attractive begins to bubble in the writing brain, follow that lead, but don’t force it. Don’t be bound by past decisions about genre. You can’t force inspiration into being, it has to be allowed to develop, even it that takes a bit of time.
There, I’ve convinced myself that’s it’s OK to wait. Let’s see if I feel the same after the week’s writing course I’m starting on Monday.
The last blog post was all about slowing down, taking things easy, enjoying the unusually lovely weather, and yet here I am, only a few days later, reflecting on my default attitude to life which seems to be ‘Life is short, don’t hang around, make decisions, get things done, move on.’
I’m pretty sure I know why this is so: most of my immediate family members have died prematurely. Father went out to work one day when he was 45, died at work and never came home. Mother declined into Alzheimers in her mid-60s and died four years later. One of my older sisters died at 37 and another at 65. I think it was Dad’s sudden disappearance when I was nine that had the most profound effect. Suddenly my certainty about the future was fractured. If he could go without warning and with such effect, anything could happen, and the future could not be relied upon. If there was something I wanted to do, or to become, don’t wait. Just go for it. It may not be planned to perfection, but that’s OK.
Sometimes you need to ‘Ready, fire, aim’. If you think and dither around for too long it becomes ‘Ready, ready, ready.’
I was listening this morning to Michael Ondaatje, author of ‘The English Patient’, talking about his writing approach which involves twenty edits before he commits to print. The first draft is just a sketch, and it goes from there. What patience, I thought to myself. How does he slow down enough to let such snail’s pace iteration happen? Could I ever work like that?
Probably not! I’m 70 now, and enjoying every aspect of my life. I have many things to do and to learn, not just my writing. Worse, as soon as I start thinking about writing another book I start planning deadlines and put time pressure on myself. The urge to write too quickly is so strong that my first response now is to avoid that pressure altogether by not writing at all. There must be another way, surely, somewhere between Ondatjee’s caution and my usual recklessness.
The next step could be, consciously and deliberately, to dawdle. Just mess around for a while. I have some characters I’d like to play with, and I have a setting – it has to be Cumbria, nowhere else provides the same inspiration. Now what I need is a story, a real character-driven story, not just a series of twists and turns choreographed by some formulaic notion of ‘tension’. The story needs to intrigue me, and move me. The central character might be a police person but it’s not going to be a ‘police procedural’ or a forensic puzzle, both of which in the modern era require tedious technical research.
Maybe I should abandon even the pretence of ‘crime fiction’ and just tell a story about a person and a crisis. Above all, I need to drift and learn to use the first draft as a mere sketch. Only then will I know whether I’ve got something worth spending time on. ‘Ready, fire, aim.’