Monthly Archives: August 2016

How to write a (crime) novel #8 – two bits of advice

gaudy nightIn the last posting for How to Write a (Crime) Novel, I mentioned the Golden Age of crime writing and the author DL Sayers. She gave two pieces of advice to crime writers which I think are still apposite today.

Firstly, leave clues in plain sight. The reader should have a sporting chance of solving the mystery. Some writers play around with this, allowing the readers to see clues that the detective does not. However, it is rare these days, for the detective to have access to information which the reader is not privy to – unlike in Sherlock Holmes, who always had to explain his workings out to that dullard Watson so we, the reader, would understand.

Because of the way I write – character-led – planting clues and red herrings at appropriate places in the plot is not uppermost in my mind. It is, therefore, something I will begin to think about once I begin to structure the story. Then I will return to the idea that a structure has to have points of crisis and tension at spaced intervals within the narrative. It’s like looking over a flower bed and noticing where the earth is bare and wondering whether this patch requires filling and, if yes, with what. I do find this hard to do myself, I generally need the help of others, my writing friends and my wonderful copyeditor, Charlotte Cole (https://charlottecoleeditorial.com/).

Secondly, DL Sayers likened the enjoyment of reading a crime novel with that of completing a crossword puzzle (crossword puzzles also gained in popularity during the 1930s). There is a pleasure for me in working out the mystery in a novel I am reading, generally I like to do it a little before it is revealed, but not too far before. However, I do think crime novels have gone far beyond merely being a conundrum to be unravelled.

Author Val McDermid has said that, of all the genres, crime is the best at tackling current issues. In a recent Artsnight (BBC2, 22nd July 2016), she explored what she described as the ‘complex relationship between truth and fiction.’ She said she had, ‘Walked the fine line between making things up and staying real.’ And, for her, ‘The very act of imagining has been a powerful way of accessing the truth.’

This is echoed by Nigerian writer, Helon Habila, when he said the crime genre was the best atArt of Survival Coverfront onlyfinal addressing issues in society, it is the best for putting a mirror up to our world and asking questions about it. Polish writer, Zygmunt Miloszewski, said readers of crime novels now expected more than a body, they wanted a guide book, a keyhole onto other cultures and countries. (Quoted from BBC Radio 4 series Foreign Bodies 17th Nov-21st Nov 2014).

In my novels, a crime series set in Scarborough, I aim to explore mental ill-health and wellbeing, particularly what I consider to be the very shaky and dim line between the two.

What is your experience of bringing current issues into your writing?

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Author Interview: Anna Chilvers

Anna ChilversToday I am delighted to welcome Anna Chilvers for interview on my blog. Her second novel, Tainted Love (Bluemoose, 2016) has just been long-listed for The Guardian’s Not-the-Booker-Prize.

Her first novel, Falling Through Clouds (Bluemoose) was published in 2010. In 2012 she was writer in residence for the Watershed Landscape project and published a collection of short stories, Legging It (Pennine Prospects, 2012). In 2013 her play, The Room, was performed at the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival. Anna also writes and performs poetry. She teaches writing for WEA and independently.

I first met Ann when she gave a talk about completing a long distance walk from St Abbs to Ely, following the story of a seventh century woman, St Ethelreda (http://eastcoaststory2015.blogspot.co.uk/). This was in preparation for writing a novel (see below). She talked to me about not being able to fully encompass the ‘story’ of the walk except by turning it into fiction. She said: ‘It is by turning memories into fiction that we can make them easier to handle, to pass on, by capturing, perhaps, the essence rather than the full experience.’

‘It is time which does the sorting and sifting for us and helps us to select which details are significant,’ she continued. ‘If we want to move into fiction, or write a poem, basing our work on our experience, it is that essence, those ‘quick’ details, which will make our work alive, and also make it our own.’

What are you currently working on?
I am working on a novel with a working title of East Coast Story, which combines the story of Anglo-Saxon princess, St Etheldreda, with that of Jen, a girl in the present day. Etheldreda escaped from her husband, the king of Northumbria by travelling from St. Abbs in Scotland to Ely in Cambridgeshire, a journey of 500 miles. In 2015 I received a grant from the Arts Council to walk this journey in Etheldreda’s footsteps. I now has copious notes, bits of writing and photographs and my current task is to shape this into a novel.

What has inspired your most recent novel?
I have just published my second novel, Tainted Love. It has a playlist printed at the end of the book. One of the characters, Mr Lion, is a northern soul DJ and these are songs he plays at clubs in the north of England. They are also the songs that inspired the plot of my novel. Song lyrics are great for story lines. They tell us stories – My baby done left me –  he’s a cheatin’ no good man – but they also carry the emotions of that story, distilled into a cry of sadness or joy – I’m gonna sing the blues or  I’m on top of the world.

I made a cd of Northern Soul and Motown songs and listened to it whilst I was washing up or cutting vegetables. I thought about my characters, heard their voices coming out of the speakers. Sometimes they made me cry.  Or maybe that was the onions. I wondered what had happened to them to make them feel that way and stories formed around them. But then while I chopped coriander and cleaned saucepan, the characters began to talk to each other. Across the songs they formed connections. Their stories touched and twined and became something else. I realised what I had was a novel.

That was a long tine ago now and Tainted Love has been through many drafts and revisions. As I wrote, and rewrote, more songs found their way onto the playlist, and the original list of fifteen or twenty expanded to the thirty-eight which are now listed in the book. At one point the song titles were used as chapter headings, but the novel began to stand up on its own – it no longer needed their support.

How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life?
Fiction is inspired by real life, but generally has more of a pattern, more obvious cause and effect. Real life events and experience provide a bank of material to draw from. It is the job of the fiction writer to form stories from this that satisfy the expectations of the reader. Real life isn’t always so accommodating.

Could you give five tips on how to tackle either characterisation or plotting or dialogue or descriptive passages?
Get to know your characters inside and backwards. Know what they have in their pockets, in their fridge. Know what happened to them at ten, at twenty, if they like cats. Even if none of this gets into your story.

Plot your story as you would an adventure. Have a final destination in mind, but be flexible, open to calls from unexpected directions.

It has been said that description is ‘the stuff you skip’. Don’t allow your reader to do that. Make sure description is necessary to your story and intertwined with action and dialogue.

Don’t write dialogue that is ‘on the nose’. Think about the difference between what is said and what is meant.

If you’re stuck, do something physical like walking, running, swimming. Don’t think about the writing problem. You will often find that your subconscious sorts it out for you whilst you’re busy doing something else.

How would you describe your writing process?
Lots of time pondering and thinking, allowing ideas to mature on their own in the recesses of my brain. Intense periods of writing activity, when I might get up at five in the morning to write every day for a few weeks.  Exhilaration and self-doubt in equal measure. Leaving a first draft to stew for a good while before coming back with a serious editing head. Listening to the advice of trusted readers. Not being precious.

What helps you to write/what gets in the way?
Deadlines are great for getting work done, and best when someone else imposes them. All of the rest of life gets in the way. It’s always easy to prioritise other things and other people’s needs.

What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it?
I like to visit places I’m writing about if possible. Though sometimes it’s the other way round and I write about places I have visited. Recently I got a readers’ pass for the British Library and spent a couple of days there doing research, which was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I loved it there and would happily move in.

What are your thoughts on your publishing route?
In my experience independent publishers have more time to spend with their authors, working Tainted Loveon editing and presentation. They are also more willing to take risks. Bluemoose are brilliant at marketing and promotion as well, and do everything they can to push the books once they are out in the world.  The relationship I have with my publishers is a personal one. I haven’t had the experience of being published by a mainstream publisher, but guess that in terms of the company an individual writer would be a much smaller cog. I am very happy with my publisher.

How can readers find you and learn more about your writing?

http://www.annachilvers.co.uk/

Tainted Love is available from Bluemoose: https://bluemoosebooks.com/books/tainted-love

 

 

And the adventure continues

pccloudThis Autumn I will be indie publishing my third novel, The Art of Breathing, as well as re-launching The Art of the Imperfect and The Art of Survival with new covers. The three form the beginning of a crime series set in Scarborough which (among other things) explores themes around mental wellbeing and surviving childhood trauma.

To be honest, this is not my favourite part of the process. The manuscript being sent off to the proofreader, I am in the middle of: formatting for createspace, kindle and a local print run; liaising with cover designer and printer; ‘organising’ (begging for) reviews, guest blog posts and events; and re-vamping my website. I’m not saying none of it is fun or enthralling, but a lot of it is a bit of a grind, especially the marketing side. Having now indie published two novels, I know effort does not equal outcome when it comes to promotion. There is a whole lot of luck and who you know involved. I am trying to be more targeted and canny about it this time around, even so it is tough to remain motivated.

I read recently an article about mental resilience. This suggested that people with a good balance of optimism and realism are more likely to be mentally resilient. It also said that mentally resilient people do not feel an entitlement. On the other hand, it seems to me that there is a strong societal script out there which goes something like: ‘If you try hard enough, you can achieve anything.’ It appears to me, this narrative is undermining of what are apparently factors in building mental resilience. In reality, the vast majority of us will be ‘also ran’s and, even if we work hard and throw our whole heart into a project, this does not entitle us to any particular result.

I have begun to volunteer a couple of hours a week at my local library and I was also asked by a friend to vote for her book on The Guardian’s ‘not the booker list’. Well done to Anna Chilvers Tainted Love for getting on there and look out for an interview with her on this blog on the 22nd of August. What I have come to realise (even more than I did before) is that there are an awful lot of books out there, a lot published by traditional publishers and a lot I haven’t heard of, despite being an avid reader. It is, perhaps, hardly surprising that my books have hardly made an impression.

Why should I want sales? It’s not about the selling/money as such, it is about reaching readers. And I love to talk about my writing with those who have read it… so if you have, please feel free to get in touch. The stories told in my three novels are very important to me, yes I want them ‘heard’ but I also hope they may help others have a greater understanding and/or feel more signposts‘normal’.

I have written three books I am proud of and by the October they will all have gorgeous covers. Celebrate that with me, but please don’t ever ask my about my sales.

How do you keep motivated? What is it about writing which makes it important for you to keep going?

How to write a (crime) novel #7 – structure

hangerThe 1930s in the UK has been called the ‘Golden Age’ of crime writing. The genre was massively popular and some of our best-loved crime writers – Agatha Christie and DL Sayers – were at work. At first sight, it seems perverse that readers in a country still traumatised by the First World War should lap-up stories revolving around violence. One explanation is that crime novels are an antidote to the indiscriminate carnage witnessed and experienced during the ‘Great War’ in that they offer resolution, they come to a meaningful end.

One possible reason that we as humans love stories is this idea of resolution. To misquote Gillie Bolton (The Therapeutic Potential of Creative Writing, 1999, Jessica Kingsley Publishers) most of us are muddling along with middlings in our daily lives. It is rare that we really get to fully experience a completely obvious beginning or conclusive ending. Stories allow us to enjoy the possibility that things can be settled acceptably. As readers we can relax into the knowledge that the writer will carry us safely to the end page, however disturbing the story might be.

In order for this to be the case, narratives have a structure. To put it in basic terms there is usually: (1) a beginning with a question or crisis; (2) a few peaks of tension – in a crime novel these normally hinge around red herrings and (as we near the end) an increase in jeopardy (someone else is in danger); and then (3) a resolution of sorts. It was rare during the Golden Age for the baddie to ‘get away with it’. However, resolution in today’s crime novels can be less certain. In my first crime novel set in Scarborough, The Art of the Imperfect, the conclusion was flawed, as the title suggests.

When I think about structure, I think of a rail with hangers on. The rail is undulating, some of the hangers sit at the top of an upward sweep, others in a dip. Incidents from my story will eventually sit on these hangers and fill up the rail. Personally, this rail is at the back of my mind when I begin to write, it will only be later that I start to put the hangers in order and decide whether they belong on the crests or in the hollows. But then I am more of a ‘pantser’ than a ‘plotter’ see blog post, How to Write a Crime Novel #3.

The best way to learn about structure is to read, read, read and study structure as you do. Try representing the novel you are reading visually on a ‘rail’ or time-line. Which incidents cause the tension to heighten? Which bring about a lessening in tension? What would happen if you move the hangers/incidents around on the ‘rail’?

What are your tips for structuring a (crime) story?

Crime novels set in Scarborough:
The Art of the Imperfect  https://goo.gl/JrGat2
The Art of Survival   https://goo.gl/6RPzk5