I don’t consider myself skilled enough yet to give the impression I actually know what I’m talking about with this writing lark. Ten years ago I had the enjoyable experience of having a new house built and working with an architect to design our dream home. Even before we moved in we saw things we’d have wanted to do differently. When I was talking to a neighbour about this I was told ‘aah, you have build three houses before you get it right.’ And so I think it might be this way with writing.
I’m halfway through my third novel and am beginning to get the feeling that I have a better idea that I’m in some kind of control, but that’s only because (a) I’ve written a lot of words over the past five years and (b) I’ve read quite a lot on the craft of writing. One of the best guides I’ve read is James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel. In fact, I read his How to Write a Damn Good Mystery first because that’s what I was trying to do at the time, but he covers more of the fundamentals in the former and he’s such a good writer it was no heavy labour to read the two.
A few days ago I signed up to Jane Friedman’s newsletter which led me to her excellent video on audience development for writers. Check it out – I wish I had the staying power to follow it through.
I’m a procrastinator in my writing. In real life I’m pretty good at making decisions and figuring out the shortest path between two points. My creative self is significantly different.
First of all I plan. Some time ago I discovered the joys of Scrivener after working my way through FreeMind, Writers’ Cafe and half a dozen other programs designed to supposedly increase my output. I can’t help thinking that if I’d dedicated half the time to writing as I did to mastering (huh!) the software I’d have finished my first novel in half the time. Still, you never know if the effort is going to be worthwhile before you put it in. I’ve certainly been impressed with the way Scrivener has helped but it’s a shame it took me so long to get to it.
Secondly, I commit that cardinal sin warned against by writing pundits – I edit as I go along. I’m not sure why it is but I read and rewrite every sentence, every phrase, two or three times before I move on to the next. Not that it stops me making mistakes, nor enables me to write faultless prose, that would elevate it to the status of being time well spent, it’s just something I do.
Finally, I have a need for accuracy and this leads me to endlessly research history and location. My family and friends tell me this is because I prefer the chase to the feast and I’m afraid they might be right. Today, for example, when writing two short scenes, I happily Googled 1930s women’s fashion, the distance on foot between Alexandria and Suez, and the names of British troopships sailing to Cape Town in 1852. I thought, perhaps, I was going too far when I typed ‘how far can a donkey walk in a day’ into my browser. I was going to include the answer in this blog but decided you can waste your own time if you really want to know!
I’ve recently returned from a long holiday in France and whilst I did do some writing (honest) a lot of my time was spent reading. I’d loaded my Kindle with a mix of material but I set myself a goal in the first few days of getting through an anthology of the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. There are four novels and five collections of short stories.
In one respect I failed, I only read three of the novels and all of the short stories. I chose to miss out on The Hound of the Baskervilles, partly due to me having read it before (but then I’ve read them all before) though primarily because it’s been done to death on TV and film and also I didn’t enjoy reading it the last time.
The plots of all of them are absolutely bonkers but they’re largely very well written. The crux of the story is almost always revealed within the first couple of pages then Holmes darts here and there gathering clues until the culprit is revealed. With alarming frequency what happens to the perpetrator depends largely on their social class. Genteel, or just plain rich, murderers always seem to have had a good reason to have done away with their wife/husband/business partner so Holmes lets them go or speaks on their behalf at trial. Woe betide anyone from the lower classes, however, as they’ll find themselves shot or at the end of the hangman’s noose.
A device used quite a lot by Conan Doyle is to have the perpetrator, once they’re caught, tell the background story of why they committed the crime, it seems quite a clever way of revealing this without Holmes having to appear even smarter. Unfortunately, if you’re wading through every story it can become a little wearing.
Conan Doyle wrote many of the stories for publication in periodicals and I was fascinated to see two of them share the first few pages word for word. I was also interested to note that the title of Mark Haddon’s highly successful mystery novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was taken from one of the Holmes short stories Silver Blaze.
The stories are of their time, as is the language (I lost count of how many times Watson ‘ejaculated’), but I think any aspiring crime/mystery writer should at least take a look at them to consider structure and how to move a plot along.
For my part, I loved them, though I’m not likely to try to read them all again on one holiday!
As an author of crime fiction I strive for accuracy and continuity. Now, I may not always get it right but at least I try. As a result, both a blessing and a curse, I notice flaws in other people’s work, particularly on TV. Sometimes it’s just the easy ones, the result of editing or costume changes but at others it’s just plain poor.
I’m currently watching Homeland and ended up screaming at the screen last night for two awful errors. The first was the dialogue between the various terrorists switching between English, German and Arabic with no rhyme nor reason to it. The one language they’d have in common, I imagine, would be Arabic – notice I say ‘imagine’. I hope I’d have researched it and explained the differences if there were any. The second was more subtle, though a double blunder. Someone is called into a room with ‘you’d best watch this on TV’, then a news item starts (so how did they know it was going to be on?). On the item an American is being interviewed by a German TV journalist in English. The programme is in German TV but no subtitles.
I know we have to suspend disbelief but come on, give us half a chance.
Today was not good. It started well enough with a sunny morning and the opportunity to get on with some gardening, but the main task of the day was to drop off some copies of my novel, A Shadowed Livery, at a bookshop who’d initially offered to take some. The reason I’m delivering them myself is that it appears to be impossible to get onto the bookshelves through a distributor unless you are a big name or are part of the stable of a major publisher. I’m neither and although I’m immensely grateful to my publisher, we’re both aware that marketing budgets are limited.
The bookshop in this case reluctantly took a small number, saying ‘we don’t normally take fiction unless it’s a known author’. Chicken and egg, I’d say – how does an author become known unless their books are on the shelves?
I left, muttering, I bet Stephen King hasn’t been in begging you to stock his latest novel!
I then went for a well earned sandwich and cuppa, only to be asked by the young woman behind the cafe counter if I was alright to take the tray myself or should she carry it to the table for me. Do I really look that old?
At least when I arrived home my wife was able to tell me she’d received a notice from Amazon promoting my book.
This week I visited The Four Masters bookshop in Donegal Town to ask if they’d take some of books. To my surprise, and unbounded joy, they already had them on the shelf. I was so impressed I’ve put a photo as my new header image.
I’m plodding through my redraft of my current novel, though it is something to be undertaken in small bites. This morning, due to associated research to check what was in the news in March 1939, it took me around two hours to get to 300 words. I feel that accuracy is important but sometimes it takes so long to find material which will only provide half a line in the manuscript. Still, it is easier than trawling through a physical library. Actually, it was an interesting time historically, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, finally bringing Europe to the brink of war and the siege of Madrid was almost at an end, cementing Franco as head of Spain and bringing the Spanish Civil War to a close.
Also, as an avoidance technique, I’m checking my Amazon ratings from time to time. Aren’t they strange? I had a very nice review on the Crime Fiction Lover website a few days ago and it must have resulted in some sales, I imagine only 2 or 3 , but I shot several hundred thousand places up the ratings on Amazon.
Only two weeks to go to the publication of A Shadowed Livery and I’m excited to think it will soon be out there.
It’s an odd feeling when something you’ve worked on for so long eventually grows wings and flies the nest. There’s nothing else can be done with it, the darling either flies or it doesn’t. I keep thinking of parts I could have phrased better, twists in the plot which might have improved the story, traits of my main characters I could have emphasised, but none of these are now possible because it’s in print and ready to go.
Do other authors have this problem?