Tag Archives: crime fiction

A Writing Life: time to take stock

I don’t do Christmas and New Year. I hope not in a bah-humbug way, I’m just not really interested in the fuss which explodes around this time of year. Gifts; over-indulging in food; the commercial pressures to buy, buy, buy; the societal pressures to be hippy, happy, hoppy, when there’s lots in the world to be sorrowful about – none of it makes much sense to me. Being with friends and giving and receiving meaningful loving and supportive gestures, well that makes sense to me whatever time of year it is. Why just keep it for December 24th to January 2nd?

However, there is something about this time of year which for me encourages reflection. In this hemisphere we are headed towards the longest night. After this the days get imperceptibly (at first) longer, the light begins to return. Hence our impulse to use candles and electric bulbs to remind us of this. Many animals hibernate, perhaps this is another reason I feel inclined to go inwards and take stock of the preceding months.

I have completed a draft of my fifth crime novel No Justice and it has gone to a couple of fellow writers for comment. I am proud of this novel. I feel I have grown in confidence and become more skilled and this has only happened through continuing to write. Yes, it’s important to read to be a writer and to listen to critiques, but the most important thing is to keep writing. Like many things in life, we only get better in the doing.

For the few stalwart fans I have out there (thank you my dears, I am very grateful) you may be wondering what happened to my fourth crime novel Drowning Not Waving. A literary agent is still considering whether she will take it on. I submitted it in April (after a three-month re-write requested by her). I heard from her on the 31st of October, she said she would give me a response within the week. And I continue to wait. Patience is perhaps another requisite for a writer wishing to be traditionally published.

I have also pushed forward with three other writing projects this year. I have collected together short stories I have written (or half written) over the years and they are in differing states of readiness to be critiqued. I have pulled together various strands of my non-fiction writing into a collection which I have entitled The Long Distance Writer. This encompasses what I have learnt about the creative process, the connections I have found between writing and walking and my thoughts around memoir. Again this is all in draft form and needs further work before being released, possibly in sections on this blog.

Finally, in a moment of madness I entered 3000 words of a novella to the Mslexia competition. I recently went back to their website to see what the timescales for the competition are. I discover that if I am short-listed I have to submit the whole novella in January. I still only have the 3000 words I submitted. I think it entirely unlikely that I will be short-listed, however, hope springs eternal in a writer, so I feel I need to be prepared. Part of my festive period, therefore, will be spent furiously working out a plot for this novella and slamming out another 15000 words. It would be desperately ironic if this piece of writing which I have spent the least time and care over should actually get further than those I craft and craft.

As I look towards 2019, the one thing I am certain about is that I will continue to write. Writing is the spine of my life. It keeps me sane. It brings me a great deal of joy as well as the friendships of some wonderful people. I am signing off from this blog until next year, so (though it maybe a bit early for some) I would like to wish everyone the festive season they aspire to and a creative New Year.

 

A writer’s motivation

I am pleased to say my re-write of No Justice, the fifth in my Scarborough Mysteries series, is going well. I am finding some inventive ways to tell the story and I am also pulling apart the time-line, giving the narrative more space to breathe. It all appears a bit messy at the moment, but I like messy and I am confident it will all come together in the end.

Last week I met with a friend of mine and we got into a discussion about the pros and cons of indie publishing against the pros and cons of having a literary agent. For those of you who are regular readers of my posts, you will know that I don’t exactly choose the indie route, it is more thrust upon me. I don’t feel it suits me as I am not good at marketing. I am very grateful for the readers I have, but it is fair to say, I appeal to a niche market. I am not terribly commercial. On the other hand during our discussion, I did come to appreciate the freedom of being an indie. The freedom to try out. The freedom to experiment.

We tend to think that because the publishing industry is as it is today – with large conglomerate publishers and literary agents as gate-keepers (at least for fiction) – thus it has always been. Not so. We only have to go back a hundred years to find a much more mixed picture. Authors who are now household names basically ‘self-publishing’ or publishing by subscription (the original crowd-funding). Sometime between then and now publishers and literary agents ascended to the power they currently have to decide what we shall and shall not read.

New technology should have brought some democracy. However, it seems to me, that the reading public has not embraced the possibilities as much as the listening public has for music. Reviews, TV/radio slots, bookshops, awards, festivals, long & short listing still dominate how readers decide on their next purchase. These are almost entirely closed to indie published novels.

I am as guilty as the next reader. If you want to sample indie, you really have to go looking forward it and do your own research. Having said all that, there are stories all over social media (and figures from Amazon) showing indie published authors who have readers in their millions and who make more money than traditionally published authors, so there are other experiences than mine.

My friend ended our discussion by asking the age-old question: why do we do it? If readers, exposure and money are not guaranteed, why do we keep slogging away? Plus, though the books we write are all-important to us, containing as they do our toil, our imagination, little particles of us, it must be realised that for most readers they are ephemeral. They are in a reader’s hands for only a short while before they land on the pile for the charity shop.

The only answer I could give my friend is that I do it for the love, because I enjoy the process. I find enormous pleasure in the splurge of ideas at the beginning of the writing journey and then in the crafting, crafting until I have something I feel I might want to share. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do it.

Why do you do it? What motivates you?

 

Experimentation in Writing

I have begun my read through of novel #5, No Justice. I put it away several months ago, so I am coming to it with a relatively clear head, in preparation for re-writing. I had set out to write a straight forward crime novel, but it seems I am incapable of straight forward. I break several ‘cardinal’ rules: there are many characters; there are many narrative voices; there are ‘poetic’ descriptions; we’re several chapters in and there is no crime to investigate.

On the other hand I enjoy writing (and reading) it, and since I may be its sole reader, isn’t that the point?

I admire writers and artists who break the rules and stick to their own creative vision. We would not have most contemporary prose without Virginia Woolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’ approach. Yet she had to self-publish as she could not cope with the rejections she got from commercial publishers. She and her husband Leonard set up the Hogarth Press to publish her novels in 1917 with a hand-press in their dining room. The hand-press cost them £19, the equivalent of £900 today. Hogarth press is now part of Random House publishing. Ironically perhaps, RH is one of the big conglomerates which currently so dominate the market that they can dictate what books we find on shops’ shelves and what reviews we find in the media.

I have written elsewhere about trends in experimenting with the narrative arc (https://bit.ly/2yTSX6Q). I recently read Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor and boy does he knock around with our expectations of story-telling. Each chapter is a year, there is no traditional paragraphing, human tales are given the same value/space as nature’s tales, there are no speech marks (this last, I personally found rather confusing). Not to mention the unresolved resolution. I had some complaints about the ending to my first novel, The Art of the Imperfect (for me the clue was in the title, it’s going to be imperfect). I would suggest these critics would hate McGregor’s finish.

I understand that some readers want an easy ride, they don’t want to be pushed or challenged, but I like it, and I want greater daring to come into my writing. In my last post (https://bit.ly/2xinR5B) I said I was entering a piece into a novella competition. I made the deadline and my submission included fictional prose (which moved between centuries), literary criticism and poetry. Maybe the judges will merely see it as a mish-mash, however, I was pleased to have attempted something different.

Currently I am wondering how to pull apart the timeline in No Justice without losing pace. Or, given I’m already transgressing various ‘cardinal’ rules, maybe it’s OK to lose pace?

How do you experiment in your writing?

 

The Joy of Re-writing

For this New Year, my project is to re-write my crime novel Drowning Not Waving. Re-writing is often a real struggle, especially for novice writers. Where to start? What to do? Here are some pointers.

Firstly take some distance. I finished the first draft of this novel over six months ago. That’s a good length of time to leave before attempting a re-write. It should mean that when you re-read your work you can do so more as a disinterested reader than as the involved writer. Six months ago I thought I had done a pretty good job on my novel. However, when I re-engaged with it in January, I could immediately see problems with the pacing, with when and how clues are revealed and with keeping the tension going. Being a crime novel, these aspects are important. What’s paramount in making your novel work will depend a bit on what genre it is. Though issues around pacing, reveals and tension are probably worth considering whatever the type of story it is.

Secondly get some feedback. I got some following a writing course I did with Curtis Brown Creatives and this has helped me to focus. I started by tightening up the character profiles. I usually discover a character by writing about it, but at some point I pin down a profile with everything I now know. I had done this last year. I re-visited them and ironed out inconsistencies, worked on back-story and refined motivations.

I then pulled apart the time-line, creating more space for characterisation and creating jeopardy. This has also meant moving chapters around which does get a bit hairy, as I then find things happening in an earlier section which can’t until something in a later one occurs.

When I am writing my first draft, I generally find I am carrying all my characters around in my head. At this stage, I have them and my narrative arc which – as a friend helpfully put it – is currently a partly unravelled piece of knitting. It feels like a delicate balancing act, so excuse me if I appear distracted….

Thirdly ensure your feedback is from someone who understands the concept of re-writing. This is not the moment to show your writing to someone who is pernickety about grammar or spelling. What you want is a fellow writer or a reader who is able to take in the narrative as a whole and see where the kinks are or the patches where it limps along. Who is able to meet the characters as real people and suggest where they become too thin to be believed. Who can hear your dialogue and root out where it clangs or where it is unnecessary. It is not an easy task, nor one for the faint-hearted.

I am about two-thirds through this re-write, with all the unpicking and re-stitching I have done, I have no idea whether it will work as a whole. But for the moment I feel confident and energised, so I hope this will carry me through.

What are your tips for re-writing?

Keeping Motivated

For most people, the festive season is a break with routine, which will probably mean a break from writing. Then January dawns dark and cold, possibly accompanied by a hangover caused by too much indulgence, too little sleep, or too little peace and quiet (or all three). How to get writing again?

I love to write. I love the act of creating something which will communicate to another, crafting an idea in a way so that it can be shared and understood. I like to tease over words and sentence construction until I have that well-turned phrase or that evocative description. I love to create and enter into imaginary worlds. I also feel better when I’m writing. The act of expression – even if it is only between me and the page – can bring pleasure and relief.

Even so, it is sometimes hard to get going again. Making space and giving permission to myself to write are key. This year, I made some physical space. I spent two days re-organising shelves and filing drawers along with sorting and shredding documents. There’s space there now for new works and that is exciting.

As those of you who have read this blog over some time will know, I have indie published three crime novels based in Scarborough. I still have a couple of boxes of these books and I have decided to run down my stock. The best way I have found of selling books is to get out there and give talks. I now have five set up – see my events page. And I have been enjoying developing a new talk about book cover art. It is a fascinating subject which I will bring more of to these blog pages in due course.

I am also re-writing a fourth crime novel based in Scarborough which is tentatively entitled Drowning Not Waving. Where to start with re-writing? Here are some suggestions: (1) Get feedback from trusted sources. (2) Leave several months before going back to it. (3) Re-visit character outlines and time lines to ensure they are coherent and characters are well-rounded with a decent back-story. (4) Re-read with a reader’s head on, with as much distance from your work as you can muster. (5) Make guidance notes for yourself. (6) Use your notes to start re-writing from page 1 and keep going, one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time….

I feel energised with these projects on the go. I hope whatever creative projects you have this year, they prove to be satisfying and full-filling for you.

Any tips for keeping motivated when writing?

My Year in Books

I got the idea for this post from one of the books I read this year, Samantha Ellis How to be a Heroine. Or what I’ve learned from reading too much. She goes back through the books she read throughout her life, I’m merely proposing to explore the books I read in 2017, and only some of them.

I want to concentrate on the books I feel the most positive about. Last year I read fifty-four books (full list below). Two I didn’t finish. Some were indie published, some traditionally published. What I have discovered is that there is good, bad and mediocre published by both camps. What do I mean by bad writing? (1) Use of cliché. There’s lots of them out there, sometimes they are difficult to avoid, but as with (2), careful copyediting can weed them out. (2) Lazy use of vocabulary. As writers we all have words or phrases we over-use. And sometimes a word suddenly begins to appear suddenly in every sentence suddenly. By being aware of this, we can work on it when we edit. But having a good copy editor also helps a lot. (3) Plots which don’t add up. Readers are required to suspend their belief to a certain extent in order to enjoy fiction, after-all they are being asked to enter a 3-D world created by flat symbols on a page. However, I don’t want my belief to have to take a vacation. (4) One dimensional characters. Give me complex and tortured any day. (5) I know this is controversial, but over-use of direct speech doesn’t work for me. Good use of reported speech can lift a piece and be used to change pace.

I write crime so a read a lot of crime. I think it is important for a writer to read what they are writing. One thing I really appreciate in novels, including crime ones, is a good use of landscape: rich descriptions and metaphorical layers. Dobyns drew on the landscape to good effect. Two things I do not like in crime novels are when perpetrators confess what they’ve done for no reason. Nor do I want it to be the ‘crazy one what dunnit’. However, (spoiler alert) Dobyns managed to have a seriously unhinged perpetrator who I could believe in. As did Kate Ellis in High Mortality of Doves, though having a similar resolution in Plague Maiden took the shine off. In spite not strictly being a crime novel, Sheers had an excellent twist – where two characters knew something about the other stopping them from telling the truth – for a mystery narrative. In November, I went to Hull Noir, the crime festival which was part of the City of Culture programme. I had a great day and saw some very interesting panels, Rachel Rhys was on one of these and I am very glad I shelled out for her Dangerous Crossings.

I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna in a second hand bookshop. I’ve enjoyed Kingsolver since I read Pigs in Heaven and Bean Trees in the 1990s. The Lacuna was a satisfyingly wide sweeping story with true life characters and events mixed in with the made-up. Re-discovering Helen Dunmore was also a real pleasure, though A Spell of Winter was a truly twisted tale. Liane Moriarty Truly, Madly, Guilty was a surprise finding, kept me guessing with entertaining and rounded characters.

I like to be taken to other worlds in my reading, so thank you to Tan Twan Eng The Gift of Rain and Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man. One of my characters in my crime novels has Nigerian heritage and in 2016 I read Nigeria by Richard Bourne. This year I turned to fiction: Sefi Atta A Bit of Difference and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim Season of Crimson Blossoms (thanks to Anne Goodwin for alerting me to them: http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/). I was particularly taken by Crimson Blossoms, set in the Islamic region of Nigeria, the main character is a widow who starts an affair with a younger man, a leader of a gang of street criminals. The woman, Hajiya, is not desperately likeable and something of a hypocrite when it comes down to it, but boy did she come off the page and feel like a real person.

Of the fiction I’ve not already spoken about, the following should have an honourable mention for keeping me hooked with interesting characters and plot lines: Messud; Billingham; Doughty.

I am very fond of a bit of creative non-fiction & biography. Hence Samantha Ellis, Stempel, Downing, Kelly, Solnit, Kassabova and Whitaker are on the list and were captivating in their own way. But it was Horatio Clare Down to the Sea in Ships which gripped me. Clare spent time as a writer in residence on container ships and his book charts the madness of capitalism which sees cargo loads of useless items going across oceans. Plus he explores the desperate inequalities between the officers and the crew on the ships, the former being mainly European, the latter from Asian countries. I didn’t immediately take to Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk, however, I was struck by her honesty, particularly in her phrase: ‘The narcissism of the bereaved is great.’

Tara Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx was the only poetry collection I read this year. On the other hand, I heard more at a regular local Open Mic and poetry salon and I had a feast of verse at the Bridlington Poetry Festival. I am beginning to wonder whether I prefer to listen to poetry than to read it, or I’d prefer to do both at the same time.

What were your favourite books in 2017? What would you say are the features of bad or good writing?

January
Arnaldur Indridason Arctic Chill
Barbara Kingsolver The Lacuna
Orhan Pamuk My Name is Red

February
Nadine Matheson The Sisters
Ann Cleeves Cold Earth
Janet Ellis The Butcher’s Hook

March
Claire Messud The Last Life
Daphne Glazer By the Tide of the Humber
Margaret Drabble The Pure Gold Baby
Samantha Ellis How to be a Heroine. Or what I’ve learned from reading too much
Arnaldur Indridason Outrage
Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man
Orhan Pamuk Snow (unfinished)

April
Peter Robinson Friend of the Devil
Owen Sheers I Saw a Man
Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk
Colm Tóbín Nora Webster
Val McDermid Out of Bounds

May
PD James Talking about Detective Fiction
Patrick Gale A Perfectly Good Man
Mark Billingham Die of Shame
Helen Dunmore A Spell of Winter
Louise Doughty Black Water

June
John Lewis Stempel The Running Hare. And Secret Life of Farmland (unfinished)
Sefi Atta A Bit of Difference
Taylor Downing Breakdown, the crisis of shell shock on the Somme 1916
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim Season of Crimson Blossoms

July
Ann Cleeves The Seagull (advance copy)
Kate Summerscale The Wicked Boy
Helena Kelly Jane Austin, the secret radical

August
Stef Penney Under a Pole Star
Helen Dunmore Exposure
Elly Griffiths The Woman in Blue
Kate Ellis A High Mortality of Doves

September
Sarah Waters The Little Stranger
Kate Ellis The Plague Maiden
Horatio Clare Down to the Sea in Ships
Leila Aboulela The Kindness of Enemies
Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust. A history of walking

October
Samantha Ellis Take Courage. Anne Bronte and the Art of Life
Tara Bergin The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx
Sophie Hannah Did You See Melody? And A Game for All the Family
Tan Twan Eng The Gift of Rain
Liane Moriarty Truly, Madly, Guilty

November
Robert Whitaker The Mapmaker’s Wife
Donna Leon By Its Cover
David Young Stasi Child

December
Stephen Dobyns Boy in the Water
Alison Baillie Sewing the Shadows Together
Kapka Kassabova Border, a journey to the edge of Europe
Rachel Rhys Dangerous Crossings
Helen Dunmore The Lie

Nourishing the Creative Soul

As a writer I find that I must take time to nourish my creative spirit. Julia Cameron in her excellent book The Artist’s Way talks about this too. She suggests ‘artist’s dates’ which we take by ourselves to top up our creativity, visits to, for instance, art galleries, the theatre, festivals…

This weekend I went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (https://ysp.org.uk/) What a wonderful place this is. This was my third visit and I sometimes feel I could move in there! As I wandered around, I discussed with my companion (OK I didn’t follow Cameron’s stricture of going alone) the sculptural beauty of the nature around us as opposed to the sculpture created by humans. The trees in particular were looking especially wondrous. I often think this with my writing, why should I try to capture in my paltry words what mother earth creates with truly staggering and startling abundance? In the end, I came up with the suggestion that what we artists and writers are trying to do is add a layer of meaning or story-telling beyond the realism.

We also deliberated over why artists feel the need to share their work, especially when, frequently, the expression is so personal. I have often thought that my need to publish is narcissistic, egotistically and possibly pathological. However, on Saturday, I realised that to share is a human trait; it forms bonds, societal boundaries, empathy. Sharing is (at its best) the glue which sticks us all together. It gave me a modicum of relief from my worries over the balance of my wits.

I am very lucky because next Sunday I will also be gaining food for thought and, hopefully, soul by attending Hull Noir https://www.hullnoir.com/ I am only able to go on that one day – the festival runs over the weekend of the 18th/19th November, and there are events in the preceding week as well – but the panels look as if they will stimulating. The subjects being ranged over include: the golden age Vs digital age; freedom, oppression & control; unusual settings; and unlikeable protagonists.

Hope to see you there!

 

Photos copyright Mark Vesey 2017