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 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.
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 night I attended a play. I wouldn’t go to the theatre that often, partly because we don’t have one nearby but I enjoyed this one immensely. My English Tongue, My Irish Heart is about emigration and its effect on personal identity, the subject of my wife’s memoir The Road Taken.
What I found fascinating about the experience was that the play was ‘in the round’, had no sets, no discernible scene changes, no costumes, and the five actors played all of the parts (spanning 1600 years) yet I shared every emotion all the way through. What I’m trying to say, I think, is that everything told me that what I was seeing wasn’t real but I was still almost in tears at the end of the first half and pleased with all their small triumphs. And it wasn’t that I share their story, I’m not Irish and although I’m an emigrant I don’t think it’s in the same way as the characters in the play.
How was this suspension of disbelief achieved? I wish I knew. Certainly the acting was very good but it was more than that. I watch TV and film drama all the time with great actors and some of it affects me emotionally and a lot doesn’t. I can only imagine it was the stripped down nature of the work which made me listen to the words – what was said and how it was conveyed. No distractions.
There’s a lesson here somewhere for my own writing. I don’t fully understand it yet, but I’ll keep thinking and, hopefully, improvement will come.