I was just running through the main plot of my new crime novel with my wife a few days ago and she pointed out some similarities to the plot of my last one. After arguing for a few moments and trying the ‘there are only so many stories and it’s how you tell them’ defence I acknowledged she was right.
Unfortunately, by this time, I’d outlined almost 60 scenes and three sub-plots. I couldn’t abandon it all and I couldn’t go on – not with this ‘you’ve written this before you dummy’ gremlin sitting on my shoulder. So I tried tinkering. Could I use a different murder method? Could I use a different victim? Different killer? But I was so wedded to all the work I’d done and the intriguing (in my eyes) characters I’d developed that I couldn’t see past it.
In the end I drew a deep breath, pulled out my mind-mapping tool (mine’s Freemind but any will do) and started a new page. I asked three questions:
- What are the methods of killing someone?
- Why are people murdered?
- Who might the killer be?
I didn’t bother with all the subsidiary variations, just enough to give me some choices and ideas, though I would have broken them down further if I was getting nowhere.
What I ended up with were half a dozen or more options in each category and within a few minutes I’d freed the head to completely rethink the story I was going to tell. I’m now writing a few alternative story-lines to see what works and what doesn’t.
The figure below shows my initial results. Try it for yourself. Let me know what you think.
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!
So the final draft of my Inspector Given sequel is finished and with my publisher for consideration, it’s also been submitted to a couple of agents and I’m sitting here with fingers crossed – making the typing much more difficult than it needs to be. I’ve had some excellent help from my daughters and their spouses with the final edit. Two spotted the villain quite early so that’s been changed!
I’ve started a new project, significantly different to the detective novels and I’m finding it both challenging and thrilling. It’s certainly something I couldn’t have written a few years ago because I simply wouldn’t have had the skills nor the confidence to make it work. I’m not sure that I have now but I’m enjoying trying to write it. It only has a simple working title for now, so I can file it, and I’m finding that the time spent learning to use Scrivener was worth it because it is a complex structure, switching time, point-of-view and voice frequently.
Basically it tells the story of three generations of a family through the medium of a mother sitting at the bedside of her daughter who is in a coma. The timeline begins at the height of the Irish famine and ends in the last days of the Second World War – so not much danger of historical accuracy errors there then.
If you’d like to see a draft of the opening scenes, or maybe ask a question about my use of Scrivener use the form below.
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.
Can’t believe it’s so long since I posted anything – where did that time go? I’ve been editing my novel, not as much as I should have been but it’s been perched on my shoulder pecking away at my conscience all the time. Oh, and I went on holiday. Part of my paper draft is marked ‘edited in Bruges’ so that’s a pleasant reminder of sitting in a pavement cafe in the sun with an inevitable Belgian beer.
Earlier I posted about a rejection letter (email actually). Yesterday I had another. It began ‘Dear Author’. Three months to send back a standard email which they couldn’t even bother to personalise. I wrote back, politely, to express my dismay at this rudeness. I started the email ‘Dear agent’!
I’m not surprised by the rejection, especially as I’ve edited deeper and deeper – I’d have rejected the sample chapters myself. I found a massive error in the second chapter, a mind-numbingly stupid one, even though I’d edited several times. The general advice seems to be to have the draft as polished as you can get it before submission and I thought I’d done that. The step I missed, I think, was having someone else read the sample chapters once I thought I was happy with it. I’m lucky enough to be married to someone who is also a writer and we actively critique each other’s work but I didn’t run these past her. She’d have spotted the errors in an instant. I’ll not make that mistake again.
How do you make sure your material is as good as it can be?
On Sunday afternoon a wonderful thing happened. I finished the first draft of my second novel. I’m not a Stephen King-type 2,000 words a day writer but I had been consistently pushing out 600-1,000 words every day for the past two or three weeks trying to get the job done. Coming to the end was a strange experience, different to A Shadowed Livery, and, because I’d decided to put the manuscript to one side for a while (they say you should do that), I suddenly felt bereft and I’ve been the same for the last couple of days. Not quite knowing what to do with my time. So yesterday evening I began another project. I say ‘began’ but I was actually returning to a novel I last worked on two and a half years ago. I’m not sure where it will go but there’s 7,000 words in the bag and a fairly comprehensive draft plan in place. I think I may have given it up when I started the editing of my first novel because the date coincides with receiving a contract from the publisher.
I’ll only work on the new project intermittently because I do want to get back to the real job of editing ‘Let Venom Breed‘. The first task will be to re-sort the chapters – some are an acceptable 2k-3k words but some are as high as 7k, just a result of expansion in the redraft. Then I’ll check the whole thing with Pro-writing Aid, a great tool for finding all the repeated words and phrases, cliches, over-long sentences, etc. I had a note they’ve released a version for Scrivener so I’ll have a look at that one soon. These steps are really a bit of a slog, but necessary (even without Pro-writing Aid I’d have to find all that stuff).
I’ve already made some project notes as I’ve worked on the first draft, such as checking for conflict in every scene, strengthening my protagonist’s internal goal, ensuring there are barriers to achievement of his internal and external goals, etc. So I’ll work on these larger themes next.
Then to reading the manuscript again. Slowly, sentence by sentence. Can I say this any better? Have I said this before? Does this need to be moved? Underlying this is the check for spoilers related to this and the previous novel, completeness of the narrative (e.g. have I left anyone standing at a bus-stop for ten chapters?), are my characters rounded and the overall shape of the novel.
All of this, of course, is only the first phase of the edit, getting it as good as it can be before it’s wheeled in front of a publisher. If they think it’s good enough then the process starts over again – only this time it will have the benefit of external eyes.
Actually, I’m looking forward to it. Let me know your tips and tricks.
I tend to write in the first person and in the past tense. I’m in the process of redrafting my second novel and discovered I continually tripped over a particular passage, though couldn’t work out why. Then I made a couple of minor changes, just to see how it looked, and hey-presto, no more tripping. I then realised it had been the tense which was incorrect, not in a seriously ungrammatical way, simply in the context of the feeling I was trying to convey. There are plenty of sites, blogs and even good old books, which explain about tense so I’ll not add to that body of knowledge here – even if I could.
However, the lesson for me is that there are subtleties in deciding which tense to use which are perhaps beyond basic grammar. This was highlighted even more as I began to think about my use of the past tense in these two novels. They’re both crime mysteries featuring a detective inspector, James Given. James is clearly narrating events from some point in the future, but how far? It has occurred to me that each scene can’t be written from the standpoint of when the case is completed, otherwise, for example, James wouldn’t need to muse over the suspects or follow red herrings. He’d know who’d committed the dastardly deed but then he’d be left with no story to tell.
So I have to assume he’s looking back from no further forward than the end of the current scene, possibly even less. I write ‘assume’ because I don’t know, I simply put down the words as best they come to me but when I think about it, most crime novels written in the past tense must be the same.
Any thoughts and similar conundrums most welcome.