Editing – Now the real work begins

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.

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The pen is mightier

Almost nine years’ ago my wife bought me a pen for my birthday from Brendan Bannon’s small shop in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. The body of the pen is bog-oak, estimated by Brendan as being between 2,000 and 6,000 years old, which means it fell to the ground to begin its preservation when the pyramids were being built.

I’ve carried it in my pocket every day since then, initially for work and latterly to help me write four novels and countless short stories. Two weeks ago I lifted some change from my pocket and discovered the cap of my beloved pen had broken. I fiddled with it for a half hour without success then contacted Brendan Bannon, asking if he could fix it or replace all the fittings. He got back to me saying he probably couldn’t replace the fittings because it would damage the wood, but he’d supply a new pen at trade price – a very generous offer. However, did I want a new pen? I wasn’t sure. This was an old friend. We’d been through a lot together, at least three murders and hundreds of thousands of words. So I thanked Brendan and explained my dilemma.

Today he’s sent me a message saying he’s fixed the cap and he’ll post it back. What a star!

The point of this story isn’t to praise a pen-maker in Northern Ireland, or to talk about a bit of old wood, but to show how important it is for writers to have routine in order to be effective. This routine isn’t just about setting word targets or the hours when we write, it is also about the mechanics (pens, paper, tablet, laptop, etc) and place (coffee shop, desk, garden shed, etc) where we feel comfortable. I wouldn’t have stopped writing if I’d been deprived of my birthday pen but it wouldn’t have been the same and it may not have felt right with a new one. At least not for the first 50,000 or 60,000 words.

What routines do you use to increase your production?

Why did she say that?

How often in creative writing workshops have you heard that it is important to make your characters come alive? Like most authors I’ve struggled with that over the years but let me tell you, when it happens it’s both exhilarating and problematic.

I’ve plotted every scene of my current novel in sufficient detail for me to work on the first draft, which I’ve been doing now for a couple of months. There are quite a few characters in addition to the protagonist and antagonist, some I’m happy with, some I’m not. The latter need more work but the former feel well-rounded and I can see them. The problem starts when they’re so well drawn that they say things that aren’t in the plot but seem entirely appropriate for them to say at the time and in the place they find themselves. The other characters then need to react to the new situation and the story takes a twist I wasn’t expecting.

I could, of course, just go back and make the character say what I wanted them to say, bully them into submission if you like, but that would then be me talking, not the character. It would be false and, after all, I’ve wanted my characters to jump off the page so shouldn’t complain when they do.

How have I drawn them in this way? I don’t know. I’m a writer not a tutor and there are many good books out there which explain better than I could how to strive for this. All I know is that the two characters in this novel who seem to be speaking out of turn the most are ones where I drafted character sketches in the early planning. They didn’t become the characters I’d sketched, not entirely, but something in the process must have made them more real to me – allowed them (and me) to break free of two dimensions.

It’s exciting when this happens, even if it does mean parts of the plan need to be screwed up and re-written. It’s more than worth it in the end.

Is Research Worthwhile?

This week I spent a couple of hours researching the availability of cross-Channel ferries during the first weeks of the Second World War. Why? Because a character needs to get to France from England in September 1939. I found my answer after extensive googling and three emails to people who might possibly know.Continue reading

Finding the killer

I was just running through the main plot of my new crime novel with my wife a few days ago and she pointed out some similarities to the plot of my last one. After arguing for a few moments and trying the ‘there are only so many stories and it’s how you tell them’ defence I acknowledged she was right.

Unfortunately, by this time, I’d outlined almost 60 scenes and three sub-plots. I couldn’t abandon it all and I couldn’t go on – not with this ‘you’ve written this before you dummy’ gremlin sitting on my shoulder. So I tried tinkering. Could I use a different murder method? Could I use a different victim? Different killer? But I was so wedded to all the work I’d done and the intriguing (in my eyes) characters I’d developed that I couldn’t see past it.

In the end I drew a deep breath, pulled out my mind-mapping tool (mine’s Freemind but any will do) and started a new page. I asked three questions:

  • What are the methods of killing someone?
  • Why are people murdered?
  • Who might the killer be?

I didn’t bother with all the subsidiary variations, just enough to give me some choices and ideas, though I would have broken them down further if I was getting nowhere.

What I ended up with were half a dozen or more options in each category and within a few minutes I’d freed the head to completely rethink the story I was going to tell. I’m now writing a few alternative story-lines to see what works and what doesn’t.

The figure below shows my initial results. Try it for yourself. Let me know what you think.

Motive etc

Number Three

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.

Scrivener and multi-strand plots

It’s well known that Scrivener is one of the most versatile and useful programs around for creative writing, although it does take a little getting used to, and there are some annoying differences between the Mac version and the Windows version. Also the lack of an Android version is a distinct disadvantage if, like me, you use Windows and an Android tablet, so working ‘on-the-go’ can be fiddly and frustrating at times. It can be done, and given all the other advantages of Scrivener, perhaps one shouldn’t complain.

I’ve recently completed the first draft of my third novel, which has four story-lines over a hundred years, interspersed. So, I needed to check each story-line for consistency of language, voice, etc and ensure they followed naturally from one scene to the next (in the same story-line). This is where I began to discover the joys of ‘collections’ in Scrivener. One of these joys is that the collection is a virtual state – that is, the scene stays in the binder, even if you decide to remove it from the collection, but changes made to the scene in the collection, will be reflected in the ‘main’ scene in the binder. So no need to worry about which is the latest version.

I had, of course, every scene listed in my binder, so I created a collection for each story-line and popped all of the relevant scenes into each. This can be done in a couple of ways:

  1. Highlight each scene in the binder (using ctrl + left-click), then right-click for the context menu. Choose ‘Add to collection’, then ‘New collection’, naming it as you see fit. Or,
  2. Click on the ‘+’ sign next to ‘Collections’ at the top of the binder window, naming each collection as you see fit. Then right-click on each scene, choosing ‘Add to collection’ from the context menu, having chosen the collection you want to add it to. Again, this can be done in multiples.

Both of these are really the same, just in one the collection is created first, whilst in the other, the scenes are highlighted first.

My collections are shown below.

Collections

From here you can compile each collection for on-screen use, print it out, or export to something like Word. I compiled to Word, saved in Dropbox, and then have been able to read each story-line independently on my tablet. If I’d had an iPad, I’d have stayed in Scrivener and edited directly – putting comments in the document notes, so this is a bit of a compromise, but it works, even if I do have to then flip between Word and Scrivener later when I’m redrafting.

I’m looking forward to starting a new novel in a couple of months and using this feature from the start to plot the story-lines. I’d be interested to hear if other people are using this feature.

It wasn’t that bad after all

A month ago I was mired in writer’s block, or to put it another way, feeling so despondent about my current novel that my mind went blank every time I opened Scrivener. I’d been like that for months. At first I thought it was the usual ‘half-way-through blues’, my demons telling me it wasn’t good enough so why bother. But after a while I felt there was something more and the block became self-fulfilling,

Then the magic happened. I found myself with an hour to waste in a town I didn’t know, so settled in a coffee shop (with a cake, naturally) and returned to pen and paper. The words flowed – no, gushed – and I was sorry to stop to meet my appointment. Since then I’ve managed to write most days, even on the laptop.

And last night I finished the first draft. No champagne nor balloons – this is where the work really starts.

I think the problem, and perhaps the solution, was that I’d changed my routine. My pattern over recent years was to go into town with my wife every Friday, then sit scribbling in my notebook while she did what she had to do. This was augmented a couple of years ago by a similar activity earlier in the week. Producing this material, typing up the longhand, and developing it in the ensuing days, meant I was in a discipline of writing regularly. Then a couple of things changed and my trips to the café stopped for a while. Even when I had the chance to go my mindset had shifted – an ‘I’m not writing so why go to the café’ kind of thing.

Until today I hadn’t realised what the problem had been, I only knew I’d got over it. Just goes to show how difficult and fragile this writing process is. So, if you’re facing the same, try changing your routine, or look at what you were doing when you were writing, and try going back to it for a while.

Adverbage

Two weeks ago several members of our writers group attended a day workshop on Editing Your Novel, led by Brian Langan of Transworld Press. The breadth of advice was immense and it prompted me to get back into gear with submitting my second novel to publishers – but not before a ninth edit.

I’ve written before about the excellent ProWriting Aid software (or is it ‘app’ these days?), and this was my first port of call – oh oh PWA would definitely pick that up as a cliché – and that one as an adverb. So, I ran the range of reports on my first ten thousand words and gasped at the number of adverbs, passive verbs and personal pronouns it highlighted. How could I get it so wrong?

Simple. We all use these devices every day in our speech, often as a kind of shorthand: clichés probably exist for that primary purpose, to avoid extensive explanations; adverbs help us avoid flowery imagery; passive verbs often sound more natural than their active counterparts in English speech patterns; and personal pronouns are almost unavoidable regardless of whether we’re writing in first or third person. I’ve given you seven personal pronouns to this point in this paragraph alone. However, I’ve dodged the cardinal sin here of repeating the same pronoun at the start of successive sentences.

Try a little test if you use Microsoft Word. Search your manuscript for ‘I’ (better to search for ‘. I ‘ – that’s: full stop, space, I, space – to avoid finding the letter as part of other words) if in first person, or ‘He’/’She’ in third person. See how many you find. If you miss out the full stop from the search you’ll be likely to find lots more.

Before going further perhaps a short explanation might be beneficial:

  • Personal pronouns are used to replace names and denote gender and/or number. Examples include he, she, I, it, you, they, them, us, and so on.
  • Adverbs are used to qualify verbs, nouns and adjectives. They tend to be frowned upon in creative writing. In most cases (or at least most cases I could think of) they end in ‘ly’. Examples include quickly, slowly, gleefully, quietly, etc, etc, etc.
  • Depending on where you use a verb in a sentence it can be active or passive. For example: ‘John throws the ball’ (active) or ‘The ball is thrown’ (passive). Both are valid but active verbs tend to give more movement and immediacy to writing.

Finding these little devils isn’t difficult, it’s fixing them that is. Sometimes we can avoid them, sometimes we can’t. A good thesaurus can often provide alternatives to adverbs, though we shouldn’t dispense with them altogether. They can be used in opposition to the verb to provide atmosphere where an alternative verb wouldn’t. For example ‘He laughed grimly’. The personal pronouns are like grains of rice dropped on the kitchen floor – you sweep and sweep but they still pop up days later where you were certain you’d got them all. Passive verbs can be so hard to fix – the ball was thrown and you don’t know who threw it, and you want to avoid ‘Someone …’ where do you go. Wholesale rewriting of the sentence is often the only option. Sorry folks, no easy options here.

So, I bounced into my novel, scanned the analysis from ProWriting Aid, wept a little, then set about reducing those low scores. The results, I think, are looking beneficial. Let’s hope a publisher thinks so soon.

 

What’s the secret?

As a writer I struggle, like many others, with maintaining momentum. In fact, for weeks, I’ve written very little except when I’ve been in coffee shops, as I mentioned in my previous post. There are, of course, the usual distractions – Facebook, emails, cutting the lawn, etc – but there’s also something which, for me, always seems to put up a barrier to moving forward.

Stephen King, and a great many other writers, say that to write well you must read a lot. But how does that help when the books you read end up being poor – either poor prose, poor plot or poorly edited, sometimes all three? I’ve recently read three novels, which I won’t name because I think writing is hard enough without getting bad reviews, that had one or more of these attributes. One of them was in the top 20 sales on Amazon Kindle, yet I struggled to finish it because the writing was so bad. And I don’t think it’s just a matter of opinion. Last month I led a discussion on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, one of my all-time favourites, and other readers didn’t enjoy it as much as I did, though none of them said it was badly written, and I can live with that, we all enjoy different things in novels. Similarly, a friend recommended a book which I read and didn’t like stylistically, it just wasn’t for me, but I admired the way it had been written.

With bad writing it’s possible to pull out a couple of positives. Firstly to identify the things we should avoid, like inaccuracy, bad punctuation, ‘he said, she said’ sloppiness, and so on. It’s much easier to see these on the page than in some theoretical class. Secondly, I expect there is some comfort to be taken when you notice that the writing is poor – at least some of the lessons have stuck.

writers tears

However, the barrier for my writing in these badly written novels is that they’ve been published, so the punctuation, lack of historical/technical accuracy and plot holes should have been picked up long before they hit the bookshelves. Even so, they still seem to sell well. So what am I doing wrong? My first novel found a publisher after a number of rejections but my second has been turned down by lots (and I mean lots) yet I know, and I hope it’s not just arrogance on my part, that the writing is better than my first and better than some of the offerings I’ve read lately. Do I expect the world to be fair? To be just? No, I don’t. It’s only that I sometimes become discouraged and it makes me want to give up. Is it any wonder I feel like turning to the bottle – especially this one?