Tag: Writing

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:


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)…

Storytelling – An Agent’s Perspective

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m very keen on – no, that’s an understatement; I’m frankly fascinated by stories, and storytelling.

It’s not just that I enjoy stories in whatever form they come and often have an over-zealous emotional involvement in their outcome, but I’m also very interested in the way we use stories not just for entertainment and learning, but also as a way to view the world; a friend of mine directly referenced a plotline in Sex and the City when she was talking about how she was going to get over a break-up, as if it was some kind of real world template, and not a constructed fiction with hidden plot levers and pulleys, and I know I’ve looked to books, films, comics and TV for some kind of inspiration when I’ve had tricky times.

All of which is just a brief dip in the water of this ocean of ideas, really, while the Youtube projectionist loads the reels for the short film which (technology allowing) is embedded below; it’s a talk on storytelling by literary agent Julian Friedmann (of the agency Blake Friedmann), and whilst he’s specifically addressing the topic from a screenwriting perspective, I think it applies equally well to writing in all forms.

Okay. So, roll the tape:

What do you think? I was particularly taken with the way he stresses how important the audience is, but without getting into the whole “author’s intent is irrelevant” bit.

Anyway, as I say, this is the kind of thinking I’m doing a lot of at the moment in relation to my writing. “But what exactly are you writing, John? Apart from self-indulgent blog posts, I mean…” you may well ask (and justificably so), and so I reply, “Good question – by way of trying to build a sense of drama and heighten your need for narrative satisfaction, I shall answer that next time…”

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