Wednesday, May 30, 2007

73,050 Words

I'd be interested to know how established crime writers conceive their plots. Do they begin at page one and just let it form itself along the (linear) way? Do they brainstorm it all out in a big spiderweb, adding 'story' into the gaps as they go?
My writing falls somewhere in between. I started off as the former type. Then, at about the halfway point, I panicked and started doing the brainstorming thing, creating a pinboard-full of scribbled yellow post-its. My big, halfway point re-write involved adding some of these new ideas in, and emphasising others that were already there. Eventually, when I felt able to move forward again, I carried on with the straight linear approach, just banging the words out, but with the benefit of all the extra thinking I'd stopped to do in the middle.
The main difference is that, as I write now, and I'm very close to the end, I'm having to go back and add 'clues' (for want of a better word) into earlier chapters. I just hope they won't stick out like sore thumbs. I don't want the plot to appear 'tacked on'. It does seem a very false way to do it but this book is definitely more about 'story' than 'plot'. I hope that isn't seen as a drawback.

I've been at this too long and I'm accomplishing very little. I was up at six with a snotty baby (poor thing). I need to get out of the house and buy some chocolate.


72,068 Words

Every time I come up here and sit down to write, I begin with the ritual of a cup of strong, black coffee in my armchair and the pages of the Guardian Review section from the previous Saturday's paper. I usually only read two or three articles in a sitting, just to get myself focussed and in the right frame of mind to work. Occasionally I find real inspiration in somebody's comments about another piece of work or discover some truth about my own work that I had (up until then) been hiding from. To whit: I've just read a review of The Post-Birthday World (Lionel Shriver again), that said the author appeared to have sacrificed drama because her story was so autobiographical. This little snippet hit me like a sledgehammer. I am also guilty. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say: I am also cowardly.

There is a fair amount of drama in my book. There is also a fair amount of people saying that these events are awful, terrible, heartbreaking, etc. while at the same time I have shied away from the more extreme things that could have happened to them - I have been letting my characters off easy (for example: the murdered girl wasn't raped, the father wasn't the killer, the detective had already split with his girlfriend when he met his new love-interest, the asian constable is generally well-treated...). Each time I rejected one of these avenues, I told myself that it was for the sake of realism: if too much bad stuff happens to a small set of people, it will become ridiculous. However, I ought to have remembered its corrollary: if too little happens to a set of people, it will become boring.

Some of the characters in my book are very loosely based on real people. They are not portraits, however. It's more like I took a photo, or maybe even just a silhouette, of people I have known and used that static, empty thing as a template upon which to build a fictional character. They are like people-shaped blank canvasses. For example, I am Caroline, but Caroline's mother is not my own mother, she is lifted from the aged aunt of a friend whom I once met for less than an hour. I have imagined her personality and I have knocked twenty years off her age and, hey presto! one fictional mother. They are all a bit like that, however, I find it hard to let some things happen to the characters because of who they used to be. I must try to free myself of this self-defeating inhibition.

I'm also midful that my parents (and their long-established book group) will want to read it. Even my Nana has asked for a copy of the manuscript, although it is somewhat of a perverse relief that she can only manage talking books and the occasional magazine nowadays, as she can neither hold a heavy book for long, nor raise her head sufficiently to look at one.
Gautam Malkani was asked what his parents thought of his book and whether the idea of their reactions had held him back at all, particularly in the areas of sex and swearing - he seemed genuinely surprised at the question!

P.S. Of course this means that if anyone who believes that they know me, thinks they recognise a version of themselves in my book, don't take it personally if bad things happen to 'you' or if I cause 'you' to do bad things to others. It isn't you at all! I have heard it said many times over that the reason a second novel is so hard is because a writer puts their whole life (up to that point) into the first book and the next one has to be pure imagination. (I think the same goes for debut albums.) There must, therefore, be people all over the world who don't realise that some mutated form of themselves exists on paper: copyrighted, sold and distributed to the masses. I might even already be in a book myself. You might.


Monday, May 28, 2007

71,392 Words

As I near the end of my book and aspire to commercial publication, the inevitable subject of reviews comes to mind. I read that Harper Lee, on finishing To Kill a Mockingbird (her first and only completed novel) dreamt only of 'a swift and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers'. Lionel Shriver, in contrast, got into such a bitter email exchange with one Washington Post reviewer his comments about her 6th(?) book that she dreads his ever being let loose on another because now it's personal. If they're going to pan it I would certainly prefer a short, sharp 'we hated it' but on the other hand, a more detailed critique would surely be useful feedback as I intend to make my living out of this and expect to get better with practice. I hope I can learn to take the lashes that really smart without being tempted to hit back or simply to give in.
Realistically speaking, if my book's no good, it simply won't get published or it'll get published but no one will bother reviewing it. But if I could dream of the perfect review, if I could whisper the words into their sleeping ears and have them wake up believing they were genuine, what are the words I would snip from the newspaper and treasure? artful, suspenseful, shocking, tragic, a metaphor, a subtle depiction of..., loneliness, grief, identity, loss, family, sisterhood, outsider, jealousy, murky, scheming, finely drawn, a patchwork, a slideshow, a series of vignettes, gestalt - the whole being more than the sum of its parts. Which words do I most dread? What are the weaknesses I am trying my best to stamp out? repetitiveness, clumsy dialogue, full of holes, lost strands of plot, pointless, predictable, boring, weak.

I've used a lot of poetry extracts and quotations from other novels in my book (well, about ten in all) and I wonder whether the author is supposed to go about getting permission to include these or whether the agent or publisher has that responsibility? I wonder if either of the aforementioned would be put off taking on a manuscript because of that extra work? I've divided my book into five sections: prologue, parts one to three and epilogue. I've chosen a poem to begin each section and there are also some parts of the book where the more bookish characters, partilcularly when diarising, quote phrases from books or poems that express what they feel. I'd hate to lose or compromise those bits of my book.

Avidly I devour articles by authors, interviews with authors, anything I can get my hands on. Some of their advice grates, a lot seems wise at the time of reading but is quickly forgotten and a few things, just a few, stay with me. I can't remember who said each of these things but these are the pieces of advice I have found the most valuable.
(some of them I haven't explained very well, some comprise a single buzz-word that I keep in my head but they all mean something important to me, they are like my writing-mantra)

  • Show, don't tell
  • Suspense can only be achieved by keeping another possibility alive until the last possible moment
  • The semiotic vs. the symbolic (the emotional narrative vs. links to real-world objects)
  • Intertextuality
  • The number 3 - a storytelling staple since the beginning
  • Truths, themes and plot points
  • 'Postmodern tricksiness' - I once read a book described as such by a reviewer and it really appealled to me
  • When I think I know where a character is heading and am in danger of plodding, continually to ask myself 'But what if...?'
  • Different ways of indicating the passage of time
  • Always speak your dialogue out loud when re-reading - imagine it's a TV programme or a film

Sunday, May 13, 2007

65,654 Words

Overdrawn again and it's only the thirteenth of the month. I'm really torn between keeping up the pace with my book and trying to make money by other bits of writing.
I've sketched out half a dozen children's picture books in spare moments, usually in the school holidays when I don't have the significant blocks of time necessary to work on Amelia's Body. I haven't sent them out in any kind of organised manner. I'd have to spend valuable time improving the presentation: I'd need to re-draw most of the illustrations on better quality paper and spend money on having them properly photocopied. Then there's the time spent researching the right publishers and agents to send them to, the covering letters, the postage, the SAEs... It doesn't sound like much but it very quickly eats into both your writing time and your bank account.
I don't want riches, I'm just so tired of worrying about fitting in one last 'big shop' before the end of the month, not being able to get things fixed when they break down, praying secretly that the girls don't get invited to too many birthday parties. It's just exhausting.
He's finally had the 'all-clear' from the hospital. That probably isn't improving my mood.
I'm worried about my book. I think I'm trying to fit too much in. I read a review recently (I forget the name of the book) which said something along the lines of 'The author seems to be trying to write several books at once. One should not attempt to include every single good idea one has - some may be saved for later.' I have that problem. Maybe it will turn out David Mitchell-like: a patchwork of short stories, loosely sewn together. I'd be okay with that, after all, that's how life is.

Friday, May 11, 2007

64,715 Words

It occurred to me yesterday that I will be finished in 60 pages or so. It made me realise that I have to take a new approach with the book.
So far, I've been plodding forwards, a few hundred words at a time, stopping every now and then to re-read and make changes. It has been a very linear process. Now I realise that I have to allow it to unfurl. I have to spread it out, literally, chapter by chapter and get a really good look at the whole story. So that's what I've been doing for the last couple of days.
I printed it all out (a page at a time, instead of two or even four pages per sheet, as I usually do) then stapled each chapter together and laid them all out on the floor. It was quite revelatory.
For example, it was by looking at it in this way that I noticed that I had let six chapters come between the 2nd crime scene being discovered and anyone doing anything at all about it. They were only short chapters and, within the linear narrative, it made sense to do so but in the story (which I am coming to find is a different thing, not always rational, not always easy to bend to my will) it was just silly to have such a big gap. Anyone reading the book would have thought 'Eh? What on earth has this got to do with anything I've been reading about so far?' so I've added bits and chopped bits and generally made it flow a little better.
This gave me another shock: if I'm likely to be ADDING to the chapters I've already done, a page here, two pages there, then this 60 pages that I have left to do is going to get eaten up pretty quickly. If I still want to constrain the book to 80-90,000 words, I've got to wrap things up in maybe as little as 45-50 pages to the end.
I have 15 chapters left to do (this is dictated by the structure that I've been working to from the very beginning, and can't be changed). I had planned to manipluate the pace of the story by shortening the last few chapters, in order to create a feeling of racing toward the conclusion. At this rate, the last two or three chapters will only be half a page each! People may think it's pointless and perhaps too contrived to stick so rigidly to a word count and a preconceived structure but I have to do it, at least for this first book, or else I'd never finish. I'd re-write and re-write, adding descriptive passages, over-explaining the motives of the characters, adding internal monologues to clear up vague plot-points; all of which might benefit the story, I don't know, but I'm a real short-story fan so I know it's possible for a writer to do everything they want to do within a strict word-count, if they're only clever enough. I'm determined to try.

Friday, May 04, 2007

62,122 Words

I've done the room, so how about me? My photo doesn't give away much. It's only partly because I don't tend to like most photos of myself, who does? It's more about anonymity. If I'm ever published, I'd prefer it to be under a pseudonym, although I realise that this blog and my other site provide plenty of clues to anyone interested in finding me but I have no interest in celebrity whatsoever. I never fantasise about going into a hotel or shop and hearing people say 'Hey, isn't that _____?' I've never wanted special treatment.

Well, I'm 5'6'', female, 30 years old. Short dark hair and greeny-brown eyes. Average really. Neither as slim as I want to be or as fat as I could be (if I ate what I wanted).
Husband, two kids, three hens, two rabbits, one cat - an inventory of my predominantly happy life.
First class honours in environmental science with energy engineering. Post-grad in climate change.
Likes: reading (of course), painting, film, theatre, summer festivals, cooking, wine, etc. etc. The usual stuff.
Currently reading: Death & a penguin, The children of men, Behind the scenes at the museum, Tender is the night
Listening to: The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Madeleine Peyroux, Radio 4
Notable talents: I speak Norwegian and I can still do a perfect cart-wheel after all this time, although sadly I can no longer manage the splits.
Currently wearing: a long black dress that I had from M&S to use as a maternity dress because it's cut on the bias and it's actually a size 22 so if you stretch it out it just grows and grows. I still wear it when I'm feeling lazy and I don't think anyone can tell. It's shrunk quite nicely after lots of washes. A ratty old tesco cardigan, hopelessly pilled but it has a collar that sits high up on the back of the neck and prevents that stiffness you get when sitting at a computer for a long time, so I sew it up every time it gets a trailing end of wool or a stray thread and hopefully it'll last forever. Some very fetching knee-high anti-DVT socks, because I've had varicose veins before and don't want them again. Underwear of course. Not my best.
So that's me on an average work-day.

Speak soon.
Love A

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

60,681 Words

I really feel like I'm on the home stretch now, as I'm both writing forward from about 59,000 words and backwards from the ending. I feel considerably more comfortable with the whole thing now that I know for certain how it's all going to end. I expect that, having reached my target of 80-90,000 words, I will have to re-write and shuffle things around, tie up any loose ends that I might have forgotten about, and then of course there are the typos - especially those hard-to-spot ones that spell out a real word (not the right word) and therefore sneak past the spell-checker.

People keep suggesting things that I might do to earn money in the meantime: write short stories for magazines, write book reviews for book-clubs, etc. but I'm so desperate to finish this now. I foresee a long waiting period, after I start sending out drafts of my novel to publishers, when that sort of thing will be essential - perhaps more for my sanity even than for my bank balance. I already know what my 2nd book will be about (and the one after that!) but I don't think I will be one of those writers who can post their drafts one day and sit down to work again the next. I'll need to concentrate on placing the first one before my head is clear enough for another big project. Maybe I'll do some paintings. I'm pretty good at watercolours and I can do those detailed botanical pictures that are quite popular.
Speak soon.