Back on track

A few posts ago I wrote of the impending disaster of arriving at my penultimate chapter with 40,000 words short on my target. Since then I’ve been back at the drawing board thinking, revisiting my plan and occasionally weeping. I also discovered that my chronology was all wrong, with weekends where there should be weekdays and vice-versa.

I decided I need to get a grip and go back to basics on my plotting, to try to look at the structure of the novel and identify where I’d fallen down in my word production target – I know that sounds a bit like Stalinist economics but it is a practical consideration, novels are an average length and that’s what I’m aiming for.

So I started by going through a printed draft with the easiest task, sorting out the chronology. By having to read every scene afresh to look for date/time stamps I spotted quite a few areas where I’d skated over issues or, perhaps more importantly, missed the opportunity to add depth and colour to the scene. These were, obviously, marked up on my paper copy.

Then I remembered reading about a program called Scrivener. I’ve tried a number of different packages to help with planning and haven’t found one that suits my particular style but thought I’d have a go with this one as it is, reportedly, the best on the market. There’s an excellent 30 day free trial, where the days are actually available, that is, they don’t all have to be used up within a month, if you can only work on Wednesdays then the trial will last 30 weeks. Although a little complicated initially, especially if you don’t bother reading the manual, it does seem an excellent tool with the ability to plot using an index card and corkboard system, add an outline and notes to each card, stamp each card/scene with a status e.g. ‘To do’, ‘Completed’, etc, and to then write the text of each scene with the cards in view.

It took me a few hours to transfer the material I’d already produced but I’m now about a third of the way through my new outline with very clear indications of where the work needs to be done. Getting it done is quite another matter but at least I now feel confident I’m back on track.

I did worry it was just another diversion but then agreed with myself that if I hadn’t done something my project would be dead in the water. Instead of wasting a day or two trying something new I’d have wasted the year it’s taken me to get this far.

Researching for a novel

I’ve just signed up for a session at Stratford Literary Festival, intriguingly entitled ‘The Gory Details: Researching for Crime Writing‘. I’ll be doing a reading and signing there of A Shadowed Livery the previous day so thought it would be good fun to look in on this one.

Writing any kind of novel probably requires some level of research but historical crime fiction definitely does, especially where the piece is set just beyond the memory of the writer. I’ve blogged earlier about issues relating to the apparatus of detection, where CCTV, DNA and mobile phone records don’t feature in the toolbox, but there are wider problems of being historically accurate. For example, would a cottage on the edge of a small town have electric lighting in 1939; what was the name of our hero’s local newspaper; and, one that I was asked recently, did people in England know about the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany before the Second World War? There are, of course, also all the usual bits of detail associated with murdering our fictional victims which need to be accurate.

I shudder when I think how difficult this would be without the internet. Even if an author was lucky enough to live near a comprehensive library, with good sections on contemporary history, police procedures and forensics, how many hours would they need to spend trawling through books and articles to find the nugget they needed?

Thankfully, there are masses of resources now out there on the ‘net and two good sites pointing to them are Research Resources for Mystery and Crime Writers (which is mainly US) and Research Method for Crime Fiction Writing. I also use family history sites, like Findmypast and Ancestry to provide character names for the appropriate period and location and for newspaper research.

Roadworks ahead

Several months ago I was extremely proud of myself. I’d finished my plan for another crime novel, with every strand of the story worked out and every scene, plot point and character woven into a whole.  True, as the actual writing developed, things moved about, small holes appeared in the fabric, but nothing too serious. I was happy with the way it was going. Then, a few weeks ago, I became uneasy. Something wasn’t right. Like a truck careering through the ‘bridge closed ahead’ sign, I was running out of road and couldn’t do anything about it.

I’m now a hundred metres from that bridge and disaster looms. I’ve three scenes to write and I’m 40,000 words short of my target size. What seems to have happened is that I’d (foolishly in hindsight) imagined all the scenes I’d planned would be the roughly same length, at around 800-1000 words each. In fact, they’re not. Some are longer, much longer but others are so short they take up the slack in the average and more besides. For example, my item ‘X tells Y that the hammer is his’, only stretches to a sentence or two and has become incorporated into a longer scene.

Solution? Abandon the truck now and save myself? Or, like the plucky hero of a Saturday matinee movie, keep driving and hope something unexpected will happen?

I know what I’m going to do, but I’m not telling – it would spoil the cliffhanger. What would you do?

Sticky end

I’m musing over a villain I want to dispose of and can’t decide between a number of options. This bad guy isn’t the main one in the novel, though he’s caused quite a bit of trouble for our hero, a police inspector, let’s call him Henry,including kidnapping him and attempting to kill him.The options are:

  1. Henry chases bad guy (henceforth known as BG) in car, resulting in fatal crash for BG;
  2. Henry chases BG through derelict building and floor/balcony collapses and he falls to his death;
  3. Henry chases BG through new building and he runs into electric cable, frying him;
  4. Henry discovers BG setting a fire in an arson attack, chases him and BG becomes trapped and incinerated;
  5. BG is attacking someone and their son (or other protector) kills him.

Just typing it out helps me see my preference. What’s yours?

How I found a publisher

This isn’t a ‘how to’ guide, I wish I had the trick, it’s just a quick run-down on how I went about the task and was lucky enough to be successful without too many false trails. There are 114 million results to ‘finding a publisher’ on Google, so there’s no shortage of advice. Try putting the same term into Amazon and there are over 100 books dedicated to the topic. In among all of this material I came across a list of UK-based publishers of crime fiction so I copied them all into a spreadsheet.

Next, I visited the website of every one of the 63 on the list – or at least those who had a website. I discarded all of those who weren’t accepting submissions or who only accepted them through an agent. I hadn’t got an agent and one of the other bits I found on the ‘net was that it’s as hard to get an agent as a publisher. This left me around sixteen possibles.

I then visited the websites again, delving in a little more, and discarded all those which appeared like vanity publishers (I didn’t want to go down that route) or where they had a specific sub-genre or target audience which wasn’t relevant to my novel. In the end I had eight publishers who I thought it worth submitting to.

I transferred all of their contact details on to my spreadsheet and visited their websites again. This time I checked the submission guidelines for their required submission format and, surprise, surprise, they were nearly all different. Some wanted one sample chapter, some none (just a synopsis), some three chapters. Some wanted a ‘short’ synopsis, some a long one, and so on. All went on the spreadsheet. Most accepted electronic submissions but, annoyingly, some wanted hard copy.

Individual letters were sent, strictly adhering to the stated, or gleaned, requirements and I waited. A small number asked for the full manuscript. One expressed further interest and if I’d actually interviewed the 63 I started with I don’t think I’d have found a more insightful and supportive one than Grey Cells Press, who is publishing A Shadowed Livery in April.

All I’m suggesting, in order to save heartache and postage, is simply do a little research before sending your baby out into the big wide world to do battle.

Hitting the ceiling

I set myself a target last week of getting over the 40,000 word threshold by today. I hadn’t really far to go but was seeing it as a barrier though, strangely, didn’t actually notice the moment I passed it. This may have been because I’d set another wordcount target, just for the day, and was more intent on reaching that, than the bigger figure.

To say I’d been worried about approaching this theoretical halfway point would be an overstatement, but I have been apprehensive. I’ve been considering how long it has taken me to get this far, and how meagre my remaining plan looks when working out that I have to make it stretch at least another 40-50 thousand words.

It’s at this point when I believe many authors give up, abandoning the project, doubt piled upon doubt that their work isn’t good enough, compounded by these thoughts that they won’t get it finished anyway. Fortunately, I’ve been here before, with A Shadowed Livery, and had the same feelings. I can’t say it’s made it easier, it hasn’t, but at least I know when I’m over this hump it will be downhill all the way home.

Then starts the real work – bashing, shaping, even crafting, the 250-plus pages into something a reader will enjoy.

Perhaps it’s the setting of small, achievable, targets which makes it easier to reach the bigger one. The old chestnut of ‘how do you eat an elephant – one spoonful at a time’ seems to hold true with most tasks at work and in life, so why not with a novel?

Death in the stars

telescopeFunny where the inspiration comes from. I downloaded an astronomy app this weekend, Night Sky Pro, and began thinking of where I might put a telescope if I bought one, again. Then I remembered that when I had one some years ago, it was usually too cold on clear nights to go out to use it. So I considered the option of building a shed, with an opening roof. But thought this still might not be warm enough. The obvious solution would be a paraffin heater. Dangerous though, unless the roof was actually open, because of carbon monoxide poisoning. Blam! How about a story where an amateur astronomer is found dead in his shed-cum-observatory, presumed to have been overcome by fumes. But, of course, our intrepid detective discovers this isn’t the case. I’ll need to put that one in the box marked ‘ideas’.

Where do you find your inspiration?

UPDATE: I did write this story, called ‘Stargazing’ and it is published in ‘Wild Atlantic Words’.

Burning enthusiasm

Having spent the last hour or so stoking a bonfire, getting rid of old files, with Paloma Faith on the iPod, I drifted into that sublime state of contentment where the world doesn’t get any better. My thoughts wandered firstly to all the work which had created this mass of paper; all the people I’d met, all the meetings I’d attended, the dozens of reports I’d read and written, the years that had passed by. The flames drew me back to an article I’d read recently about how difficult it is to dispose of a body in a fire. It seems that, with the exception of a crematorium furnace, it’s almost impossible to get sufficient heat in a fire to break down flesh and bone to the necessary fineness of ash. Not that I have anyone in mind, of course, except perhaps a victim in a future storyline, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

There are probably dozens of novels where the villain digs a shallow pit in the woods, douses the corpse in petrol and sets it alight, then he/she bounds free with all traces of the dastardly deed destroyed. With modern forensic techniques, however, anything less than total destruction of the skeletal remains just won’t be sufficient. Luckily, my hero, Inspector James Given, is active in the late 1930s so he may have his work cut out at some point in the future.

ps I know I should have been disposing of the papers environmentally but the pile was literally a foot thick and they were confidential so several hours of shredding would have been the only alternative.

Give me that old time detection

A few nights ago I watched a thriller on TV where a couple were being tracked via cell locations where their mobile phones had been used. I made a mental note to read up on the technology. Earlier, the police had triangulated phone records to link three people of possible interest. The case was finally solved when DNA from a previously unsuspected woman appeared on a murder weapon. A further note to myself to learn more about DNA matching.

Then I remembered. My detective, Inspector James Given, lives in the 1930s. No mobile phones, no computers, and almost 15 years before Crick, Watson et al published their seismic discovery of the structure of the double helix. James Given has to actually solve the crime with very little use of technology.

Now don’t get me wrong; I love all the modern methods. They’re fascinating and when used well in fiction they add to the drama. We all know they now exist so their inclusion is an accurate reflection of how policing works in the early 21st century. But I sometimes wonder if gadgetry is being used by authors to replace deduction.

I was brought up with detectives who used their superior reasoning powers, or just plain slog and determination, to catch the criminal. Where we, as the reader, can participate in the hunt and feel the thrill of being only one step behind our hero. It’s perhaps even more satisfying when we’re a step ahead and we can scream at the pages that it was Colonel Mustard, in the library with the candlestick.

What isn’t so good is following 200 pages of a convoluted plot only for some minor character to dash in from the lab with the results of a DNA test showing the murderer was the victim’s aunt who only appeared briefly on page four. The ‘rabbit out of the hat’ ending is never good, it’s far too easy for the author and disrespectful of the reader, but using technology to achieve it is just plain sloppy.

To blog or not to blog

With the publication of my novel, A Shadowed Livery, due in April I’m advised I need to put the word out. In fact, I was talking to a bookshop owner yesterday who, when I told him I had the book coming out, he said ‘well good luck if it’s fiction, we rarely order any fiction by unknown authors’!

So today I set my mind to the task, but where to go? I have a Facebook page but that doesn’t seem appropriate, similarly LinkedIn. So, as the novel is available for pre-order on Amazon, I thought I’d set up an author page on their Author Central service. Easy enough but then realised people will only see my author page if they’re looking for it or looking for the book, so not the best starting point for a freshly published writer.

I bought a domain name awhile ago but didn’t have a web page to go with it. After a couple of hours fiddling about trying to design a landing page I thought ‘why not point my domain at the WordPress page I’ve set up?’. It looks clean, it’s (fairly) easy to use and I can both blog and keep other content in the same place. Eureka! I’m sure if I read articles I’ll find the advice is to have as much presence as possible but I’m not sure I have the energy to keep track of lots of places and to keep them all up to date. I guess the real challenge is not where to write but how to get people reading it.

Any thoughts most welcome.