It seems like eons ago that I decided to update my website, in another era, when we could go shopping, and see friends, and even have a holiday. The latter stages of working with my steadfast ‘helper’ Russell – bless him! – have been via Zoom, which was great as we could share what was on our laptops. Then we had issues with the Bookshop to work out and finally, finally, the whole thing was ready.
Russell picked out some of my past blog posts just to get us started, but now I’m writing a new post for the first time in a long time, to celebrate the new site. For a week or two I’ve been wondering how I could write a new post without reference to my novel writing which seemed to be on hold, paralysed by the sudden availability of time that I wasn’t prepared for. But as the first weeks of self-isolation have passed my mind has slowly turned to the idea of a new novel, and worked through the thicket of decisions about setting. The location is a given, it’ll be West Cumbria like all my other stories, but the question has been – When?
As some of you may know, I started some years ago with a trilogy set over twenty years, from 1937 to 1957. Then I turned to crime fiction and began with ‘Cruel Tide’ set in 1969, followed by its sequel two years later in 1971. After that I faced a quandary: I wanted to focus on a female CID officer in the Cumbrian force, but then discovered that there were no females above the rank of DC until the late 1990s, so the 1980s were passed over and my sixth novel ‘Burning Secrets’ was set against the dystopian background of the Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001, followed by the seventh ‘Out of the Deep’ later that same year.
So, now what? Earlier this year I was favouring writing a ‘prequel’ to the original trilogy, set in and around Barrow-in-Furness just before World War One. That would have necessitated a fair amount of research and primary documentation accessible through the Records Office, but that door closed – literally – as the current lockdown began. So I needed a writing project that could use research already done, filling in some of the blanks in the chronology of the series so far.
For some time I’d wanted to look at the 1980s, a time when policing was changing almost beyond recognition. During that decade the Police and Criminal Evidence Act was passed, DNA testing was first used in criminal prosecution, the Crown Prosecution Service began, and developments in computing revolutionised the gathering and collation of data. There would be many police officers who welcomed and embraced all these changes, but there would be others – inevitably – who hankered for the old ways of doing police business.
Tension and disagreements make for good stories, and the backdrop of the 1980s provided other useful national and local flash points. The Miners’ Strike of 1984, for example, did not affect Cumbria directly as the few hundred miners left in the county voted to keep working, but that decision also would bring with it the kinds of tension that a good story will thrive on. So after much wandering around, I think I’ve decided on the year, and can build my cast of characters accordingly, some of them already established in the first two crime novels, and others in the early stages of careers that we’ve already witnessed in the 2001 novels.
This sounds like a logical thought process, which was far from the case, but now at last I have an idea that might float, and a place to start. New website, new story – a fresh start all round.
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.”
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.
The papers this weekend are commenting on, and apparently bemoaning, the decline in sales of the ‘literary’ novel over the past two years. Some of the articles suggest that sales of this or that novel might increase when it’s published in paperback, usually a year or so after the hardback.
I read all this with some bemusement. Firstly, I’m struck yet again by the artificiality of genre distinctions that the publishing world seems fixated on. Who decides whether a novel is ‘literary’ or ‘genre’ fiction – I think that’s the main divide, before the ‘genre’ is further sub-divided? I’ve seen it defined that character drives ‘literary fiction’, and plot drives ‘genre fiction’, but surely these are points along a spectrum, not a dichotomy? It might be easy to identify novels at either end of the spectrum, but after that the distinction falters.
The ‘literary’ tag may have to be reconsidered, especially as it now seems to be connected to poor sales, which is increasingly the traditional publishers primary concern. We’ve all heard that a very high proportion of published books lose money, and that the business is rescued from financial disaster only by a few block-busters. Some of these massive sellers can be predicted – the ghastly Dan Brown, for example – whereas others come out of nowhere, as predictable as a win on the lottery. Does any other business trying to make a profit organise itself like this?
And if we’re talking about sacred cows in need to disposal, what is the point of publishing novels in hardback form first and making anyone who doesn’t want a heavy expensive tome wait for a year to get the version they actually want to buy? This is a mystery, and clearly, it’s not working. This time next year, and the year after, will publishers still be fretting about poor sales of the hardback versions and still planning to keep on churning them out? I admit to be baffled about it all.
Many readers like a ‘real’ book – I do myself: the paperback format fulfils this need. Ebooks are also useful in some circumstances. So who wants to read a hardback, besides a tiny number of picky traditionalists who profess to have ‘standards’ and probably insist on esoteric and expensive ways of eating and drinking as well as reading?
My recent and unsuccessful dalliance with ‘Unbound’ crowd-funded publishing came across this issue all the time. Many of my readers, keen to see the new book as soon as it comes out,were puzzled that they would have to pay twice as much as normal for a ‘special edition’ hardback when they would actually prefer a paperback, lighter to carry around and easier hold with one hand in bed, for instance. ‘That’s the way traditional publishing works’ I would lamely explain, and I had no answer to the inevitable next question – ‘Why?’
‘Are you a planner or a ‘pantser’?’ is the question. Being a planner is obvious: the alternative is to ‘fly by the seat of your pants’, hence the use of this odd word. (I could elaborate on the origin of this phrase, but not right now.)
If you’re writing non-fiction or for academic reasons, planning the order of your piece is pretty crucial. Can you imagine an instruction manual written like a novel? But when you’re writing fiction as I am now there are more choices to be made. The ‘pantsers’ make various claims for their preferred approach. Once you have strong characters, they say, these characters will take over and influence the direction of the plot. Another ‘pantser’ rationale is that half the fun of reading mystery, thriller or crime fiction lies in not knowing how the story will end, and the writer needs the same. ‘Where’s the fun in writing?’ a well-known crime writer asked me, ‘if you already know how it’s all going to turn out?’
Could it be that different fictional genres encourage different approaches to planning? If the story is principally character-driven, then surely the development of the characters during the story will drive the shape and narrative of the story. But crime fiction is surely different, isn’t it? Unless the author is capable of holding a mass of detail suspended in her head without the need to write it down in advance. The final stages of a crime story are heavily dependent, it seems to me, on the detail. This could be about ‘chronology’ – when exactly did certain events happen, and in what order? Or it could be about forensic detail and its role in the denouement.
Specific things said or done and mentioned, or not mentioned, in the text are what the reader relies on to work out what actually happened. That’s part of the challenge of crime and mystery fiction: it’s a game between writer and reader, dependent on the careful planting of clues which are then spotted and interpreted by the vigilant reader. If that’s the heart of the genre, it’s really hard to envisage how the writer could succeed without planning.
I need to plan. I wrote my first novel without a proper plan and got into a terrible mess as a result. It took two years to disentangle the web of plot, sub-plots, confusions and unnecessary scenes and characters, and once or twice the whole thing nearly ended up in the bin. Never again, and as I turned towards crime fiction the need for planning became more intense. There’s still fun in working out how all the threads will tie together, and how the reader will be keep on turning the pages, but the fun’s now in the planning, not in the actual first draft.
The planning takes time, going back and forth, adjusting, adding detail, making sure the backstory fits together and propels the action forwards. For the structure of the story, that’s the creative stage. When the first draft is started, following the narrative structure established in the plan, then the creativity of language, dialogue and setting are to the fore. For me, it’s the plan that enables me to write quickly and fluently: without the detailed outline I’m constantly stopping and starting, losing the flow.
So, are you a planner or a pantser?
In next week’s post, I’ll try to explain how I actually plan. It’s pretty messy!