Back in June 2018 I received a contract for a third novel in the Inspector James Given series (it didn’t start out as a series but has just grown that way) and, despite my slackness until I agreed a deadline, I completed the first draft by the last week in November. Hurrah!
I even got as far as devising a working title – it’s been James Given #3 for the last 5 months but now is called A Patient Man for the time being.
Unfortunately this is just the start of the process and there are many hours of work still ahead before it’s ready for a professional editor to take a look. Certainly I could just check it for typos, package it and send it off, there are plenty of novels out there where the author seems to have taken that approach, but then it wouldn’t be the best I could make it would it? And that’s what I want it to be, so the hard hours have to be put in.
I suspect every writer edits their work differently, and there are lots of guides out there to self-editing, so all I can talk about is how I’m attacking it. There are two main issues to address at this stage:
- I’m about 15,000 words short of my target length;
- I need to make sure the narrative of each of the story strands works from beginning to end.
I write using Scrivener on my laptop and on my iPad but prefer to read a hard copy, so the first job is to print a full manuscript, double spaced, punch it and put it in a ring-binder. The general advice seems to be to put it away for 6 months to give distance, but I’m not sure that works for me. Firstly, I’ve an awful memory so would probably forget where I put it. Secondly, I suspect that if I put it away I wouldn’t pick it up again, having moved on to new projects. Thirdly, there’s that deadline.
So, with my hard copy in hand, I skim read it, looking for time/day references or specific real events which provide a date stamp. I then produce what I should probably have produced before I started writing, a timeline. Because I’m that sort of geek, and because it’s easier to amend than a paper version, I tend to produce this as an Excel spreadsheet. Then I find that I need to go over the manuscript several times making margin notes to correct the times/days. This can, of course be very frustrating, and produce problems which seem almost insoluble – in this novel I had the declaration of the Second World War, which I’d have preferred (for other events) not to be on a Sunday, but it was, and nothing I could do about that so just had to make adjustments.
With these timing errors noted and rectified as far as possible I read the hard copy again, trying to avoid looking at typos, bad phrasing, etc, (that’s a later stage), making margin notes where further explanation might be needed, where gaps in the narrative arc have occurred and where opportunities exist to increase the word count. This latter one is really dependent on the others because adding words just for the sake of it isn’t a good idea, the reader simply finds it annoying to read verbiage.
Having read from beginning to end, without making any changes on the digital version, I then begin making the amendments in Scrivener, making sure I tick off each one on the hard copy.
This is the stage I’m at now. When it’s complete I’ll then read again and perhaps ask someone else to read it, still looking for errors in the narrative.
After that I’ll look for opportunities to increase internal and external conflict – the lifeblood of any good story. Then the work will start on phrasing, typos, repeat words, redundancies, excessive adverbs, clichés, pacing, etc. So not much there then.
Finally. The writing of James Given number three has started. I’ve been plotting for a few weeks, and planning to start for much longer, but the actual words on the page have eluded me.
True, there have been a few changes in my life over the past few months (selling the house, moving country, etc, etc) and I’ve not quite settled in to a routine yet, but it’s not really a good excuse for not writing. I’ve still been sitting at the keyboard for a few hours every day reading those all-important Facebook posts, checking vital emails from holiday companies, and generally wasting time. I’ve told myself that if only I was still able to go into my favourite coffee shop (Mrs B’s in Killybegs, County Donegal if you’re passing) the prose would flow, though I know it isn’t the reason. The real reason is I’ve just been too lazy and easily distracted – not a good combination for a writer. I did have a traumatic experience in one new café though – I was accused by one of the locals of writing down everything that was being said. He might have been right but I wasn’t going to admit it!
So, to get a grip, I started to plot. I began with a vague notion of a body being found – there almost always is, you know – then asked ‘how did it get there?’. A chance encounter with a ‘what’s on’ guide gave me a murder weapon. Whilst thinking about who the villain might be, I wrote a ledger for the victim using some characteristics from someone in a newspaper article. The murderer came to me part way through the poor corpse’s scribblings so I wrote their journal next. Then, using a three act structure passed to me in a recent workshop, I sketched out the three main storylines.
Today, I wrote the end, then the beginning. At least it’s a start, and only 75,000 more words to join them together.
I’ll keep you posted.
I recently came upon a poem Death by Harold Pinter which apart from being brilliant in its own own right is also, in my opinion, an excellent framework for developing plot. Just the sort of questions we should be asking about any character or situation in our writing, not just the dead body of Pinter’s work. Check it out – I’d like to quote it here but it appears to be covered, quite rightly, by copyright but you can see it here http://www.haroldpinter.org/poetry/poetry_inart.shtml
I love the line ‘Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey’.
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!
A few days ago I was chatting to a writer friend who was saying she’d submitted to around 30 publishers and agents without success before self-publishing. Her book has sold a couple of hundred copies to date and has been widely praised, so why no traditional publisher?
If I knew the definite reason for that then I could probably retire on the proceeds but it occurs to me there are at least three elements:
The first is obvious – write a good piece of work and edit it until you’re happy it’s finished. It won’t actually be finished because the publisher will have their own views on the need for changes, but it needs to be as good as you can get it before you submit.
The second is also obvious if you think about it – you need luck. There are a limited number of publishers out there and they’re all trying to be a commercial success. Nothing wrong with that, they need to pay the bills same as anyone else. As I result, they will be cautious about what they take on and more likely to go with known names, famous/infamous writers of autobiography, or the current fashion. So the luck comes in at least three ways: either be famous, somehow hit the current trend (but don’t forget that the current trend was probably commissioned a couple of years ago and publishers have moved on to the next one), or hit on a publisher who currently has a space in their list.
Thirdly, research and focus – There’s very little point sending material to publishers who don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts or who only accept submissions through an agent. Equally, there’s even less point sending your noir-crime novel, regardless of how good it is, to a publisher who specialises in literary fiction or science fiction. The internet enables us to both identify publishers with an interest in our particular genre and then research them in detail. When I started to submit A Shadowed Livery I looked through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and highlighted all of the publishers who published crime fiction. Then I stumbled upon a list of these on the ‘net so added a few from the Yearbook which had been missed. There were, I believe, 63 on the final list. I then went through the websites of every one and weeded out those who were not taking submissions or who only took them via an agent. This left me about 13. Further research took out the ‘vanity’ publishers and those where their preferred sub-genre or target group didn’t match my novel. This left me with eight publishers I felt confident I could approach. The final bit of research was to be clear about the submission requirements and to then follow them to the letter. Virtually all of them were different. I was lucky enough to find three who expressed further interest and then went with one who definitely wanted to proceed. So, even with all the initial research, there was interest from less than five percent of the initial list – but if I had simply used a scatter-gun approach, firing off submissions just anywhere, I might not even have hit that figure.
On the other hand, I might have. What did I say about luck?
Last time I blogged I thought I was facing a major rewrite but over the past few days it’s become clearer I simply need to make some small amendments, a line here, a word or two there, then deal with the resolution differently and all should be fine. As I haven’t written the resolution yet this shouldn’t be a major problem.
It is fascinating how, as authors, we devise seemingly insurmountable barriers for ourselves which, in the cold light of day, are little more than molehills which are easily levelled or skirted around. My wife is also a writer and we share our tribulations so I’m lucky. If she can’t help then I also have a support backup in my writers’ group who can either offer a solution or at least act as a sounding board until I find one for myself.
As the BeeGees once sang ‘it’s only words, but words are all I have’ – shame they’re such awkward sods sometimes!
My, my. I’ve arrived at a difficult place. Sixty one thousand words into my second novel and I’ve worked out I don’t know where it’s going. It’s a mystery in which Inspector James Given is investigating a case where a mummified body has been found in the crypt of a school chapel. It’s not the case which is the problem, that’s all fairly well plotted, but I think I’ve realised that the murder itself isn’t the main issue for my hero. Well, I’ve known all along it isn’t, but now I realise I probably haven’t written the first draft with this in mind and will need to do a considerable amount of work to get it back on track.
Fortunately, I do have a second case he is working on and this probably needs to become the major case, rather than a sub-plot.
Interestingly, I’ve only discovered this flaw when I was working on a synopsis to approach potential agents. I was following an outline in a blog from Glen C Strathy based on Dramatica principles and realised my main character might solve the crime but won’t actually change as a result.
Ah well, back to the drawing board. At least I now know one of the reasons why I’ve been stuck on this synopsis for the past couple of weeks.