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For A Post On The Subject, This Is Arguably Rather Unstructured…

I’m currently reading Into The Woods by John Yorke, which (as you may know) is about stories and storytelling. Unsurprisingly, it features quite a bit of discussion of structure, which is a subject I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently, and in the spirit of self-indulgent sharing, it’s the springboard for this blogpost.

Cards on the (perfectly square and clean-baized) table: I like structure. And I like it both as a reader and as a writer. As I’ve written before, my tiny mind was happily bent out of shape many years ago when I started reading and watching things that played with form and chronology and the like, and I still delight to this day in works which don’t draw a straight line from “Once upon a time…” to “… happily ever after” (provided it’s in service of the story; if it’s just done for its own sake, I may wonder if there’s some shortcoming in the story which is being disguised by shuffling the chronology or whatever – and I’d go so far as to suggest that might well be the case with my own first published work. But I digress, and this parenthesis is getting unworkably long, so I’ll close it and then put a full stop and we can move onto a new paragraph).

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I think there’s been a bit of a rise of narratives with unusual structure over the past few years – to give a couple of examples,the success of Gone Girl in both written and filmed form was testimony to audiences’ willingness to watch events play out of sequence, and complex structure was a key aspect of Steven Moffatt’s work on Doctor Who (though he doesn’t need time travel as a plot device to enable this kind of thing, as fans of his earlier work Coupling [and I am one of those fans] will be aware). There are often suggestions that audiences are becoming increasingly sophisticated and aware of how narrative works, and I guess that willingness to accept breaking and bending of the A to B shape of a tale may well be a part of that.

But whether it’s part of a wider phenomenon or not, I’ve long been a fan of structure; as a reader, once I recognise it, I find it reassuring (and in the case of Cloud Atlas, it took me until the midpoint of the book to realise what the author was doing, but when the penny dropped, it did so in a very satisfying way), and as a writer – you knew I’d get to this eventually – I find it very useful.

I’m a plotter, through and through, and like to have a pretty firm grasp on where the story’s going before I set down even the first line; I’m not one of those people who conjure up characters and then set them off into the environment of the story and see what happens – as novelist Sarah Perry says at about 2m38s in this podcast…

… the characters are plot devices; they’re adrift in the sea of the story, and they can no more shape the tides than you or I can.

And from a writing standpoint – and especially working, as I do, in the crime/thriller genre where plot is key – there’s something very useful about having a structure to work to; that might be a simple three or even five act structure, it might simply mean having the story starting and ending at the same place or in a similar way to hint at some idea of symmetry, or whatever, but if you have a structure sorted out ahead of time that lets you know what you should be writing about next, then that’s very useful indeed.

My most recent completed novel, Captives, was very deliberately structured from the outset of the writing process, because I knew that I wanted to have an investigation taking place in the present day, but I also wanted to detail the events which led up to the start of the story, to give a sense of what the stakes were and of the players involved. Rather than do this through infodumps disguised as dialogue or anything like that, I opted to alternate sequences set in the present with flashback chapters which grew progressively closer to the inciting incident which happens a couple of hours before the start of the first chapter; once I’d cracked that approach, it made things a lot easier – though I still regret the fact that as I counted down from ‘Twelve years before’ to ‘one day before’, I couldn’t make the time-jumps involved align with a reversed version of the Fibonacci Sequence… though given how pretentious that sentence looks when typed out, maybe that’s for the best.

So, as you can imagine, I was keen to see if I could take the same approach with the next novel (working title: Refuge). Once I’d had the characters sketched out, and the sequence of events worked out, I wondered if it would be possible to create a structure which would serve the story – as the book’s about a kidnapping, I wondered if I might be able to rotate the narrative point of view so that we’d hear from The Detective, then The Kidnappers, and then The Kidnappee, before rotating back to the Detective again. I’m particularly keen to make sure we spend as much time as possible with the Kidnappee, as it often feels that people in such stories run the risk of being little more than a MacGuffin, or ‘item’ to be retrieved, and I wanted to avoid that.

However – and you’ve probably already spotted this – the problem with this idea is that (non-spoiler alert) the kidnappers and the kidnappee unsurprisingly spend a lot of time in the same locale, so whilst I could convey a fair amount of detail on events by jumping from our detective to the villains, there’s little additional material (save for internal monologue and the like) that would be conveyed by the jumping to the kidnap victim. I’d effectively end up spending 2/3 of the narrative time on the baddies and their environment, which would make it hard to describe what was going on outside of that without the book becoming excessively long.

However, given that the story is in itself a ‘ticking clock’ tale with a set ending looming on the horizon and moving closer in stages (akin to most films featuring weddings, for example: the wedding is a fixed point in time and everything we see is drawing us closer to that), it did occur to me that having a race against time which is also viewed through the fragmented narrative of rotating POVs would perhaps be too much to put on top – and given that (again, non-spoiler, given the genre expectations) the paths of the Detective and the Kidnappers will inevitably cross, whose narrative section should I include that in? The Detective closing in, or the Villains realising that things aren’t panning out as planned? I wasn’t sure.

Ultimately, I’ve decided to keep it straightforward, shifting scene as required whilst trying to maintain the sense of a countdown, and to find other ways of including the relevant background information and internal monologue of the Kidnappee. We’ll see how it goes – and given how cathartic and therapeutic it’s been (for me, I mean – I’m sure this has been less so for you) to discuss it here, I’ll see about reporting back on how well (or otherwise) it works out.

Given how writing’s an essentially solitary process, and how every 100,000 words is probably more like 300,000 or so re-written and edited and generally switched around in the writing process, talking about it in this way is very probably just an attempt to provide an almost contemporaneous ‘director’s commentary’ during the process of writing it. Which in itself could be distracting – and is often the reason I cite (with varying degrees of truth) for my infrequent blogging.

Thanks for reading this long sprawling post, and if you have any thoughts, insights or tips on structure, or examples of great structures which amplify or serve the story, please do leave a comment below, I’d like to hear other viewpoints on this.

But enough musing and prevarication: back to the actual writing… 

The Allure Of The Unexplained

So I’m ferociously late to the party in appreciating this (late in doing everything, one might argue, evinced by the limited posting in recent years), but nonetheless I wanted to share the sketch from Saturday Night Live which – tech permitting – you should find below.

I wish I could explain what I find so oddly compelling about it – it could the performances, the funky dancing, the line ‘Any questions?’, or the reactions from the normal people in the sketch, which escalate in confusion but also make absolute sense. I can only conclude that, sometimes, plain stupidity is enough – and with that failed attempt at explaining myself, and/or the sketch, I shall get out of the way.

Behold:

 

…told you it was compelling.

Still here.

Honest. Posting is imminent…

All new … almost ready

If you’re reading this,  then that means you’ve found my revamped website. Hello! Are you well?

This blog pulls into one place my very first online musings (dating back years –  cue nostalgia about how the internet all used to be fields) from the old ‘blogger’ platform, and the far more limited number of postings which I made directly onto the old version of this site (for the technically-inclined amongst you, it was an FTP setup, and I found it very hard to post regular blog updates using that approach). So if you want blog posts by me, this is the place.

There are a couple of pages which I just need to put the finishing touches to, but they’re almost there now (I promise), so this site should be all in place very much imminently, and then the blogging shall recommence (I promise). In the meantime, though, please feel free to take a look around, and do let me know what you think of the new place.

(Taps microphone)

Hello?

Testing, testing…

Is this thing on?

Suddenly, it’s 2017

If all goes to plan, this will be the last blog post in this current website format – should soon be shifting over to a new platform, hosting arrangement, and lots of other techie stuff that’s a bit dull to share. But anyway.

And on the offline writing front, I’ve finished the fourth draft of my novel Captives, and it’s currently out with my test readers… and on the basis of comments already received, I’ll be starting in on the fifth draft any day now.

Once the revisions are done, and I’m sending the book out to agents and so on, I’ll be shutting up about that side of it (like dreams and the difficulties experienced on a journey, other people don’t tend to be quite as interested to hear the details), but as I start on the next book, I intend to blog fairly regularly about that.

My current thinking is that, instead of talking about the (puts back of hand on forehead) soul-searing trauma of the creative process and the ins and outs of the plot and so on, I suspect I’ll talk about the thinking behind the aspects of the story, how it’s structured, etc. Plan on doing this at least once a week, and whilst I don’t expect to be sharing the twists and turns of the story, I thought it might be interesting to talk about the topics which lurk behind the storytelling decisions, etc. That’s the intention, we’ll see how it all works out…

And yes, I should also be sharing other bits of nonsense that stray through my mind (a dodgy neighbourhood, granted)… should, he said, with some awareness of how often he’s made such a vow.

See you soon.

 

Despite All The Evidence To The Contrary…

… I have not forgotten that I own a blog (and indeed a website). Honest.

In the (many) months since my last blog post, amongst other things I’ve been pointing my attention towards the polish-drafts of the novel (as opposed to the Polish drafts of the novel, which I optimistically hope to hear about in the future when the book sells in multiple translations), and also training for the London Duathlon (more info, including sponsorship details, can be found here).

Not long now, though (he said for the zillionth time), and I’ll see about an overhaul of the site, and a return to proper blogging (as opposed to micro-blogging via Twitter, which I do seem to manage a moderate amount of, but 140 characters always seem more feasible).

But enough of that: how have you been?

To the surprise of those nearby, the blog suddenly coughed and sat up on the slab

So, instead of posting on the blog, I’ve been directing my words onto the page, and cracking on with the book.

I – sorry, what? Oh, that’s sweet of you to ask, it is going pretty well, thanks. I’m on track to finish the first draft by Halloween, which avoids me (for the gazillionth time) claiming I’ll be using National Novel Writing Month as a springboard to finish it off, and then losing focus after a week or so. As I write longhand, my plan is to use November and December to type it up and re-draft, at which point I’ll be passing it to those brave folks who have agreed to read the draft and comment, before slinging it out into the world and seeing how it fares.

Those of you who’ve followed my intermittent blogging over the decades (okay, I exaggerate, but it seems that way sometimes, I know) will be all too aware that this book has taken a frankly ludicrous amount of time to get done – completely at odds with my intentions, and very much a case (as Mr O’Boogie put it) of “what happened while I was making other plans”. Then again, in a way, having carried the story in my head for so long has been useful because it’s allowed me extra time to consider bits of it and look at the angles. Well, that’s my after-the-event justification anyway.

One thing I will share, though, which is probably the key knowledge this experience has given me, and which may be useful to anyone reading this who’s in the middle of thinking about writing a book, in the midst of doing so, or anything like that: books on ‘how to write a novel’ often have lots of pages talking about character traits and story and subplot and dialogue and structure and POV and all that kind of thing, but without a shadow of a doubt the main difficulty I’ve found in getting the thing out of my synapses and onto the page has been the simple one of finding the time.

If you don’t set the time aside regularly and deliberately, then – just like saying you’ll start saving with whatever money’s left at the end of the month – you’ll find that it just doesn’t get done. Like exercise or reading or anything that takes time, writing needs you to allocate time to it, and then to use that time as well as you can. I know this sounds basic – and it is – but I’ve read so many books about writing over the years, and so many of them seem to assume that people are approaching the idea of writing a book with the mindset of ‘something I’d like to do, but I just don’t have any ideas for a story I want to tell or the characters who will move through the story’, when my experience (and that of a lot of people I’ve spoken to) is less a case of not having the basic idea, but struggling to eke out the time to set pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, as the case may be).

So that’s probably the key thing I’ve realised from writing this book: make sure you have time to write, and if necessary set that time aside, because chances are there will always be other people or events or mishaps or things which will cheerfully take the time instead, and leave you with the story loitering at the back of your mind, like a nervous actor awaiting their cue; and that’s not what stories are for – they’re meant to be told, to be read (or heard) and shared. And that, I fear, doesn’t happen if it stays in your head.

And on that thought, I’ll get back to it. After all, I’ve got to wrestle with the problem of a homosexual nymphomaniac drug-addict involved in the ritual murder of a well known Scottish footballer, and … no, hang on, that’s not me, is it? It’s this chap:

[youtube=http://youtu.be/YPSzPGrazPo]

What I Am Writing (And A Bit Of Why)

So, as promised last time, a bit of an update on what I’m currently writing, as well as some stuff about my main character, and no doubt some stray but related thoughts too.

I am, like a shocking number of people, writing a novel. In fact, if you’re someone who knows me in a non-virtual sense, you’ll be appalled/unsurprised (delete as applicable) to hear it’s the thriller I’ve been working on for … well, let’s admit it’s taken longer than I intended, but lifestuff tends to get between me and the pen (and in all honesty I wouldn’t have it any other way: better busy than bored, I like to think).

The book is, as I say, a thriller – specifically a murder mystery set on a high-security military installation, which is my variation on the classic ‘locked room mystery’ idea; the whole environment is effectively locked, so the number of suspects should be limited… I said ’should be’.

The main character is a female detective, and much of the book is written from her perspective, for a variety of reasons; firstly, I want to create a sense of immediacy to the events, and telling a story in the first person effectively makes the reader inhabit that character’s brainspace and experience the stuff that happens to her with a bit more impact, I always feel.

Secondly, as the story is about her unravelling the circumstances that led to the body being found on the base, writing it in the first person, and limiting the reader’s knowledge of events to those of the character means that they get to play at being detective too, which hopefully makes it a bit more immersive and engaging.

And thirdly and quite importantly, I wanted to write the book from a female perspective because I distinctly recall being told back in my college days that ‘male writers can’t write female characters’, which I thought was a horrible generalisation (and one which I think is equally untrue in reverse, as shown by the book recommendation below) at the time and I still do now, and so I wanted to see how difficult it was.

Obviously, it involves a certain amount of thinking to write from the perspective of a woman, but I’m actually less bothered by the work involved in that than I am by the potential for stereotyping to arise. And by stereotyping, I don’t mean making her need rescuing at the last minute by a male character or something daft like that, but more the danger of going too far the other way; much as I applaud the trend towards strong women characters in fiction in recent years, there’s a bit of a problem in that phrases such as ‘kick-ass’ and ‘uncompromising’ have almost become seen as some kind of shorthand for strong female characters, and I’m keen to avoid falling into this stereotyping trap, though it’s one which I suspect arises from genuinely good intentions.

I don’t want the main character to be demonstrating ‘strength’ by kicking people through walls or having shouting matches with her colleagues, but rather by being a consistent character who knows what she wants to do, and has a pretty good idea of how to do it, in constantly-changing and fairly perilous situations.

Most of the people I’d classify as strong, of whatever gender, are more prone to be like that than ready to kick bottom or to engage in a war of words. I don’t think it’s accurate – or necessarily wise – to define a person’s strength in these ways, and as a male writing a female character, I’m particularly mindful of the need to avoid this kind of stereotyping.

I won’t say too much about the main character at this point, except to say that she’s a fairly normal woman doing a strange job, and doing it well; hopefully relatable, as her narrative carries much of the story.

You’ve probably noticed by now that I haven’t given her name here – that’s because the name I’d planned to use also turns out to be the name of someone in the world of sport, and she’s currently on the rise, so if she becomes very well known I may need to use the ‘Replace All’ option to rename my character. Then again, I seem to recall there was a female character in one of Lee Child’s novels called Holly Johnson, and I don’t think anyone confused her with the singer from Frankie Goes To Hollywood, so maybe I’m being overcautious.

As for how far in I am, and how close to finishing, it’s hard to say with any real certainty, as it seems to be turning out longer than I expected as I try to make sure all the plot elements are given equal weight (important to include some red herrings and the like so solving the mystery isn’t too easy), but I like to think I’m past the halfway point now (“after only eighteen years”, heckles a voice at the back of my mind).

I mentioned that most of the book is in the first person – the bits of it that aren’t take the form of occasional flashback chapters (written in conventional third person omniscient narrative voice) which run in parallel to the main story and give details of events prior to the first chapter. I was a bit concerned that the structure might be a bit tricksy and over-complex (my touchstone for comparison was the film Memento, though that’s way more complicated than what I’m aiming for), but then Gillian Flynn had enormous success and acclaim with Gone Girl, and I was reassured.

(Incidentally, if you haven’t read Gone Girl yet, I heartily recommend it – stylishly written, and so well plotted that she doesn’t need to save the game-changing twists until the end, they’re nicely paced throughout the book. The forthcoming film looks interesting, with a good cast and crew, but I’d recommend you read the source material, I’d be surprised if you didn’t enjoy it).

And that’s about it in terms of stuff I can probably share about the book I’m writing; not just because I want to keep the plot cards close to my chest for now, but also because I’m completely braced for considerable rewriting to happen between this, my first draft, and the time when I launch it out onto an unsuspecting world, and so I’d rather not embarrass myself by referring to story elements or other aspects which are ultimately edited out.

Hope this provides some interest, and also that it gives useful background information when it comes to future posts where I talk about progress, what’s occupying my thinking, and the like. If you’ve got any comments about any of the above – and particularly if you’ve got insights to share on the gender issues aspects referred to above – I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to leave a comment below.

One thing which I plan to write about in more detail is why I’m writing in the thriller genre (well, ‘crime’ is more specifically the genre, I guess), but that could be a slightly lengthy bit, so I’ll save that for another time (trying to keep you in some kind of suspense once again, it could be argued)…

Readers With Long Memories May Recall I Like To Do This Sort Of Comparison

SOLO%20PAPERBACK

The cover of the paperback edition of the latest James Bond novel there. It’s a new Bond! For a new era! Like nothing you’ve ever seen before!

0-10Paperback1998

…as long as you ignore the cover of this paperback edition of a James Bond novel from 1998, that is.

(Right down to the explosion reflected in the eye, no less. Strange.)

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