When I started writing it was really all about setting and character: there was a background story line, but after a while that declined in importance and the interplay of the characters against the West Cumbrian backdrop became the main driving force.
Readers love the Jessie Whelan trilogy for that reason. No one ever comments that the surprises of the plot kept them reading: it was all about what would happen to the people and the interest of the background.
Then I turned to crime fiction, in which the twists and turns of events and revelations have to be managed differently, but in the first two crime books the two leading characters were still centre stage. ‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ are mainly character driven, despite the skull-duggery of the plots. The tension is not so much ‘who dunnit?’, but ‘would the wrong doers be brought to justice?’ There was little in the way of police procedure as neither of the two main characters were senior police people, and the police were more concerned with covering things up than searching for evidence.
In the latest book, set in 2001 when everything about policing had changed, police behaviour and procedures are more central. The setting – the disastrous Foot and Mouth epidemic – is also vital, and now I wonder whether the delineation of character is as strong as before. As I re-write and ‘polish’ the question bothers me. In terms of ‘genre’ is this book quite different than the previous ones, and if it is, does that matter? It’s a good story, with enough twists and turns to keep things going. The body count is low – but that’s OK. I’m increasingly tired of dramas that need death after nasty death to sustain the reader’s engagement. After a while, whatever the professed authenticity of the setting, too many crime stories turn out like ‘Death in Paradise’ or ‘Midsomer Murders’. Or is that what happens when crime is adapted for TV? Is it ‘episodic’ presentation that causes the structure of the story to change? Surely what matters is not how many bodies are discovered, or even how they died, but why: what drives someone to attack another? Motive, opportunity, means, in that order. Or are we so jaded that we demand ever more violence?
My final final deadline for the current manuscript is within a day or two. Once the damn thing goes away to the editor I will celebrate for a few days before I have to think about it again. If I had a ‘publisher’ I might be able to relax a little for the next few months while the book makes it way to publication, but when you self-publish every aspect of what happens has to be organised and monitored by yourself. It’s exhausting! As my next big birthday approaches, I’m wondering – again – how much longer I want to carry on. I still have a list of things I enjoy and want to do – sewing, drawing, singing, keeping fit – all of which take time and commitment. The curse of writing is that it seems to squeeze out everything else. I have to give this dilemma some serious thought.
At one of the first residential writing courses I went on, many years ago, the special guest one evening was a published author – one novel – who was invited to talk to us about his writing process. He seemed quite grumpy and I wondered if he’d been having a bad day. From what he told us, however, it sounded as if every day was a bad day. ‘Writing is hell’ was the main headline of his remarks. ‘I don’t why I do it. Once the first book was out they were badgering me for another one, and it’s like pulling teeth.’ This is not verbatim, but that was the gist. I wasn’t the only one who wished he had stayed at home.
This miserable bloke’s writing process was as follows. Every day he would write a sentence or two, struggling over every word until he was satisfied with it. Then he would stop, presumably exhausted. The next day he would read over what ever he’d written so far, agonise over it again, and write another sentence. And so on until he’d finished. Really? To this day I suspect he was making that up. But maybe that’s truly the way some people write: intensive and painfully slow, as if they were writing a poem.
On the sixth novel now, if I have a preferred writing process it has probably by now established itself. Needless to say, my process differs somewhat from that described above. The bloke appeared to have lost the will to live, unless that too was a wind up, and I would have felt the same if that was my daily routine.
I’ve talked before about the planning process, but let’s assume that I have a rough idea about each chapter, the key points and scenes, and what it contributes to the whole story. (By the way, if the chapter doesn’t contribute anything, then what’s the point of it?) With a few pointers to the shape and focus of the chapter I’ll start to write, quite fast. Sometimes I correct typos etc as I go along, sometimes I leave them and correct them all on the second reading. If the ideas are clear I can rattle along for quite a while, several hundred words. Something will halt the flow and I’ll stop and go back. This is the first edit, checking for continuity and consistency, improving poor phrasing, finding better words, correcting obvious errors.
At this point I often go back to the plan for the current chapter, or possibly previous ones, noting that something will need changing. Or I look at future chapters which are now taking a slightly different direction. If there are past pieces to change, I tend to do them straight away, before I lose the detailed focus. That done, on we go, more fast writing and then stop, go back, adjust, edit. A four thousand word chapter might be written in sections like this, one after the other, and pretty fast. When it’s going well I can write a chapter in a day.
There’s a very strong tendency to feel dissatisfied with the whole thing as you get beyond Act 1, when the setting is established and the story should be driving forward. I always ask myself at this point, is this story worth telling? If I wallow in this indecision for too long, or try to get feedback too early, the enterprise could quickly grind to a halt. It’s all about confidence: without confidence there’s no energy, and without energy there’s no progress. So I tell myself to stop worrying too much at this early stage and just keep going. The time for serious reflection, feedback and discussion with ones-self and others is when this first fast draft is finished. In terms of painting a picture it’s ‘once over lightly’ and then stand back and look hard at the emerging work.
The fine detail can be added, in what is now the third, or even fourth edit. If greater depth is needed for a character this can be provided with just a few more or different words or actions. A potentially confusing piece of plot can be fixed with a sentence or two. Once the whole work is ‘visible’ all sorts of extra touches, colour, fine tuning – call it what you will – can be added. Details of weather, prevailing atmosphere, smells, details, all of these can be added, so long as they don’t affect the storyline too much. When all that is done, the work is clearly an improvement on what you started with, and probably pretty close to the final version, although more polishing will continue until the set deadline is upon you. Without a deadline, you could polish for ever and drive yourself nuts, or at least I could. Part of the art of editing is knowing when to stop.
The contrast with the painstaking misery of our guest writer could hardly be greater. I wonder if he ever finished that novel?
Every writer has a different approach to planning their work. Some claim not to plan at all: they just have an idea, start with a blank page and ‘Chapter 1’ and go from there. How they do it, and make it work, I have no idea.
The rest of us will need to do more merely thinking ahead. There’s so much to juggle, setting – both time and place, research where necessary and how much of it to use, and – probably the most important – characters and their backstories. Maybe some people can hold all that in their heads or a few scraps of paper, but I can’t.
Of course there are apps and software that you can use, to organise everything and make it easier to access and use. I have tried to use Scrivener, more than once, but having started my writing in the old days using just a Word document for each chapter, that’s the only way that seems to work for me. Although I started writing fiction only a few years ago I’d spent my professional life before that writing documents, papers, and books too using Word and the habit was too deeply ingrained to change.
My first novel was a planning disaster, with failed attempts to develop a complex story without a clear consistent idea of chronology and how the different threads of the story would weave together. It took two years to salvage the chaotic first draft and I never want to go through that again. Then, on a wet Saturday in Winnipeg, I heard an ad. on the radio for a talk at the central library by Andrew Pyper, an author from Toronto. I braved the rain and walked into town from Osborne Village and wondered whether it would be worth it. It was, definitely.
When Pyper talked us through the way he puts the key events, people, twists, conversations, climaxes, scenes on separate sheets and then pins them up on a wall, it was all so obvious. Think of the big boards they have in police investigations, with photos and names and events, arrows, links, questions and ideas, and you’ve got an image of a plan for a novel. It’s a form of simultaneous visual display: you can see links and connections that don’t present themselves from a ‘list’. This may have something to do with the way our minds work: I happen to be a visual thinker, and quite random sometimes, so this form of display will probably work well for me.
This way of working is useful for developing the structure of the novel too. If you’ve got the key points of the story on separate cards you can move them around, arrange them into a time line, into chapters and then into ‘Acts’, either three or five. If you’re not sure what that’s about, Google it and you’ll find endless advice, diagrams, and so on. It’s the way most movies are constructed, and has seeped into the structures of others genres too.
I did warn you I’m a random thinker! So you won’t be surprised that I want to go backwards for a moment, to the very inception of the story, way before you get to the storyboard stage. Something has to spark you off. Pyper calls this the ‘what if’ stage: you read a piece in a newspaper and ask yourself, ‘What if that happened in the last century, not now?’ or ‘What if the key person was young and female not old and male?’ or ‘What if there was a storm and all phone and email communication was lost?’ or ‘What if DNA hadn’t been discovered when the story happened?’ or ‘What if you write this in the first person, not the third person?’
The ‘what if’s’ are endless. I recall that Pyper asked members of the audience to sum up their story in twenty five words and tell us. He then took ‘what if’ questions from the audience, and what a creative five minutes that was. You could see sparks flying all round the room. I asked the inevitable question: ‘Has Pyper ever written all this down, so we could go over it again?’ No, he never had. So all you’ve got is what I’m conveying here, although I’m sure other authors operate in much the same way and have written books about their writing process that I haven’t read.
So, you have an idea, twist it around with ‘what if’s’ to make it more interesting, start thinking about characters – their appearance, clothes, gait, speech, passions and fears, then weave them together and place them in a time and a place, and see what happens.
When you’ve got this far, go to the next stage, the ‘storyboard’ and the structure, and when you start to write, start at the beginning. I know it’s tempting to start on a big scene that’s set somewhere in the middle or right at the end, but you could be wasting an awful lot of time. I know, I did.
Just a caveat about planning too tightly…no matter what you plan on the page, and how detailed may be your vision of an ending, don’t assume that it will all work out exactly as you envisaged. When you get into the detail of your writing things will occur to you for the first time. Your characters may say something that throws the scene into a different direction, and from that all sorts of unanticipated things may happen. My advice is to plan tight for only three or four chapters ahead as you write and leave the future more flexible. If you’ve spent too much time on the long term plot you may want to hang on to it when the best decision would be to change it.
If you’re a teacher, you’ll recognise this dilemma: you have a plan for the week or the semester but learning is less predictable than teaching. For the sake of learning, the plan needs to change, so change it.
Millom and Broughton Show, Cumbria, August 26th 2017.
On Saturday August 26th, all being well, I’ll be in one of the big tents at this agricultural show in the gorgeous show field behind Broughton village. With any luck it’ll be dry and sunny and plenty of people will be there, some of whom will make their way to the crafts tent. That’s where I’ll be, at a table with my books on display and a banner and posters explaining who I am and what my books are about.
I’ll sell and sign some books at a ‘special show discount’, hand out some bookmarks, and take names and contact information from people wanting the new book when it comes out next year. But the main purpose of the day, and the most enjoyable part, is meeting people. Some of them will seek me out, to continue conversations begun last year: others will have read some of the books but not met me before, which is great fun. Others again won’t know either me or the books and with any luck I’ll start them at book 1 – A Good Liar’ – and they’ll follow the series through. I know some writers find meeting readers to be a bit of a drag, but I love it.
The Cumbria summer shows are really about farming and all aspects of our farming communities. from tractors to poultry, flowers to jam. And there I am in the middle of it all. talking about local history and stories rather than the esoteric mysteries of novel writing. People love reading books set where they live, and I love talking about what my research uncovers and how I weave the characters and the setting together.
There’s a show somewhere around Cumbria almost every weekend day from June to September and I could have a ‘table’ at all of them if I had enough stamina and was sufficiently well-organised. Writing and selling my Cumbrian novels is a creative enjoyable hobby that just about pays for itself. I enjoy almost every aspect of it – apart from proof-reading which has to be farmed out to someone with the right kind of brain. Going to a few of the ‘summer’ shows is part of the enjoyment, but too many might be a chore. So I’ll be at Millom and Broughton on Saturday, possibly Grasmere on Sunday if my accident-related injuries allow for a second day, and then Eskdale and Wasdale in a few weeks. Financially the profit may be small, but the social rewards will be great.
You’ll have noticed the ambivalence about ‘summer’. As I write, it’s cold and windy outside with heavy showers rattling through every few minutes, much the same as most of this month so far. And the month is August! Any resemblance to real summer might happen – as it often does – in September as the kids head back to school. But that’s why England is so green, and Cumbrian lakes and waterfalls so beautiful. The Lake District mountains are glorious too, when you can see them. They say when the air is clear enough to see the view it’s about to rain, and when you can’t see the view it’s already raining. Hey ho.