At 7.54am this morning I checked the Tesco online delivery service and to my astonishment, there was a delivery slot available and I got it. Not only that, I put in a long list of things we needed and checked out. All done within fifteen minutes, booked, paid for and the confirmation email kin the inbox. For some unaccountable reason this minor lockdown triumph filled me with confidence. I’d managed something that had been beyond my reach for weeks.
Within hours, the optimistic glow of a obstacle successfully hurdled transferred itself to the outline of a new story I’ve been struggling with. I can do this, I said firmly to myself. If I can scale the Tesco delivery mountain I can sort out the flabby middle of a plot which starts well, and could end well, but flounders around in between.
I can’t be the only one who struggles with a muddle in the middle. This is the stage where the story gets complicated, and possible blind alleys are introduced to tempt the reader but end up confusing the writer instead. It’s all very well starting several hares running, but you have to know roughly where they’re going to end up. I thought I’d done that, but going back to the outline after a bad night I realised that there were plot holes all over the place: hence the feeling of inadequacy that a successful tussle with Tesco seems to have cured.
So now I’m back, unpicking and mending the holes, unmuddling the middle and hopefully adding more life and colour to the story as a whole. The great thing about the current situation is that I can slow down and take my time. No point in having deadlines that just fade into the mist of uncertainty that surrounds us right now. This stage of the writing process will take as long as it takes, and when I’m ready, the first draft will roll out as smooth as a good Malbec.
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?
It’s some weeks since my last post, and I’m still debating whether I want to write another book. It could help if I could pin down why the prospect feels problematic. What is it that fills me with trepidation?
I’ve already accepted that my recollections of the past year have been coloured by my fall down the stairs just over a year ago and all its consequences – temporary immobilisation, pain, frustration, endless physiotherapy. I’m almost back to normal fitness now, but it’s been a long haul.
The content of last book was difficult too. I chose a backdrop – the catastrophic Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 – that required very careful research and a balance between authenticity and fear that the ghastliness of it all could overwhelm the ‘front story’. The research was painful, but I live in a farming community and couldn’t get the details wrong.
I was also working with a new editor, which was fine in the end but felt different than the well-worn relationship I’d had earlier. The new editor is very experienced in what makes for successful commercial genre fiction, but sometimes her expectations clashed with my obsession with authenticity. Yes, her ideas for a scene or the ending would be exciting, but if they felt ‘unrealistic’ I couldn’t go along with them. It’s quite a strain to pay someone for their advice and then decide to ignore it. And when I did agree with her, after the first draft, our shared view required a complete re-write of the first quarter of the book, which I didn’t enjoy at all.
For all these reasons, and probably others too, writing the last book rarely flowed easily. I had a deadline, and achieved it, but when ‘Burning Secrets’ finally emerged it didn’t excite me, even when it was clear that readers enjoyed and some think it is my best to date.
Looking back, I think I was so taken up with the research that I didn’t spend long enough on the structure before starting the first draft. So the writing stopped and started, got stuck and had to be rescued, and in the end had to be hammered into submission by some agonised re-thinking of the final scenes. Very stressful. If I could summon the patience and imagination next time to create a better detailed outline, that would definitely help to enhance the writing experience, and avoid painful rewrites further down the line.
Now I have the Arvon writing course to look forward to, which starts on September 10th. I signed up for this particular as the focus seemed to be on structure and plot, which is exactly what I need. I’m going with an open mind to see if help, advice and an undivided focus will clarify the future enough for me to stop writing without regret, or carry on.
In darker moments I think about the boxes of unsold books stored in my writing shed. While I have a new book to promote, sales of all the books tick along nicely. If there’s no new book, will I still be able to sell the backlist? I don’t necessarily need the money, but those boxes could haunt me for a long time.
Almost at the end of the writing and editing process on the new book now, and the last thing on the list of issues to deal with is the opening paragraph. The current version has been written and rewritten countless times over the past few months and before I’m done it’ll be started all over again. Not many lines, maybe half a dozen sentences, but I want to get it as good as I can.
It’s always a challenge. In a short space you have to give the reader a sense of place, time, character and the impending story, and every word counts, like poetry. It’ll be the first thing the curious potential reader will look at, and probably the first thing I read aloud when I’m presenting the book. I’ve read the first paragraph of ‘A Good Liar’ many times over the years since it was published and I’m still pleased with it, and I want to feel the same about the first paragraph of this book too. It’s almost there, but it’s still too clumsy. I’ve tinkered with it until the words start to blur. Now’s the time to start it all over again.
The other crucial section of course is the ending, the final few sentences. All the major plot points are sorted out by then, no more twists, just a ‘human interest’ scene and a shred of dialogue to leave the reader interested in what might come next. I think I’ve got that. So the first paragraph will keep calling to me until the deadline for sending it to the designer is upon me, or I just can’t bear to look at it any more. In either case, by the end of next week it’ll be done. Thank heaven.