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.
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.
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.’
Of course, the question is facile: it’s not as black and white as that. So let’s pick apart the proof-reading stage of the publishing process, just to see what it contributes and where problems can arise.
First off, doing without proof-reading is a mistake. Nothing irritates a reader and or embarrasses a writer more than published text containing missing words, incorrect or unclosed speech marks, upper case/lower case mistakes, or whatever the obvious transgression might be. Having said that, something seems to depend on the reader. While some readers spot everything, and usually tell you so, others seem not to notice at all.
As an ex-educator with a very picky grammar school education, I’m unbearably fussy about punctuation, or I least I thought I was until a recent experience with a professional proof-reader. My ‘rules’ seem to be based on what I’d learned at school and not updated since, and I was unprepared for the technical approach to writing that my proof-reader friend was keen on. And from what I read about current approaches to ‘grammar’ in English primary schools, it looks like today’s children are getting a bellyful of these ‘rules’ which are then tested: enough to put them off writing confidently for a long time.
I have had a very unfortunate experience with proof-reading, which I’m keen not to repeat. My first three books fared well, or relatively well, with very few errors being spotted during that first nervous check when they came back from the printers. Maybe we got complacent, even sloppy. When the fourth book arrived, something had gone badly wrong. I spotted one or two mistakes in a casual flick through, but then the careful readers’ feedback started. At first it was a general complaint about the number of errors, and then after a routine library talk a woman handed me a list of the errors she had spotted and kindly written out for me. My stomach turned when I glanced at the list of shame. For days I could hardly bear to look at it. Then one morning after a miserable night worrying about it, I sat in bed with the list, a copy of the book and a highlighter pen and marked up every single one. It took a while. In my distress I managed to get highlighter on my duvet covet and it has proved impossible to get rid of, reminding me of the miserable business every time the duvet cover appears on my bed.
The colleagues who had helped me with the errant book’s publication were duly informed and were as puzzled as me. How had this happened? We still can’t explain: it was as if the penultimate uncorrected proofs had been sent for printing by mistake. The ebook version of the book was corrected immediately, which was a relief, but I couldn’t afford to scrap the printed paperbacks and redo them. Mercifully, two years on, the stocks of the first edition are almost exhausted now and we can correct the mistakes before the reprint.
No need to convince me of the essential need for proof-reading. The conventions of the written form need to be visible in the text, to make the reader’s life bearable. But…are all these conventions set in stone? Some renowned authors have chosen to ignore them completely, but we can’t all be James Joyce.
Here’s my question: does the style and intensity of proof-reading vary according to genre? What’s acceptable – and required – in an academic paper maybe just too much for a work of fiction. And what’s appropriate to ‘literary fiction’, where writing style is the first concern, may feel wrong in a plot-driven crime story. Even within a story, the level of technical accuracy in a descriptive paragraph will and should be quite different than in dialogue, where people simply don’t speak in full balanced sentences with semi-colons and sub-clauses and all the rest.
Here’s my advice: when you’re working with a new proof-reader, ask for a few sample pages before he/she starts work in earnest. Be prepared for a discussion about the level of correction that could be deemed essential and what is a matter of choice and style. It’s your book, and you call the shots, but obviously you’ll listen to advice from a professionally trained person, even if sometimes you choose to ignore it. I’m sure that some proof-readers yearn to be editors even after the editing stage is officially over, but that could lead to all sorts of confusion and frustration. You – the author – may have to arbitrate and mediate. It’s your name on the cover, and you carry the can.
Back to the original question: can proof-reading flatten language? Yes, potentially it can, by applying ‘rules’ too heavily and inappropriately. If that’s not what you want, make sure you discuss the process with your proof-reader and find an acceptable compromise. “She who pays the piper calls the tune.”
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.