Writer’s Blog: Stardate: 14.03.2013
I have astounded myself. On the 22.01.2013 I mentioned in a blog that I had been inspired to start writing a new book by reading a Raymond Chandler novel. (Just to be clear, it was his writing style that inspired me not theft of his plot or anything like that.) I have just finished the first draft. It is eighty-two-thousand words in length. Checking back on my computer, I created the first file for the first chapter of this novel on 16.01.2013. By my calculations that means that I have written the book in less than two calendar months (and one of those was February). I repeat: I have astounded myself.
I’m not bed-ridden, retired or unemployed. It’s not like I don’t have a life outside of my mind and away from my computer. Like every other aspiring author, I have to go to work. I have a family to support. I have a one-year-old son who insists on having my full attention during his waking hours if I’m at home. I go out. I read books too. In those two months I have written seven blog posts (not including this one), which any blogger will know needs time and attention. I have to perform all those mundane but necessary tasks like eating and washing. So where have I found the time and energy to write a book in two months?
And it’s not crap. Whatever you might be forgiven for thinking, it is not crap. You’ll just have to take my word for that. It’s not finished either but it is a first draft.
And I have a title. My last blog was about the trials, tribulations and turmoil involved in finding a title that will do justice to my book. And I have one. For any would be writers out there who struggle to find that elusive title I have some great advice: when in doubt do the following.
1) Wait until you are well advanced with the writing of the story so that you are able to pick out one or more really key themes central to it.
2) Condense that theme or themes into one or two words that sum the themes up precisely. Simple is best.
3)Take those words and type them into the Shakespeare search feature at http://www.rhymezone.com
4) Sit back and revel in the number of quotes that come up for said search term.
5) Find inspiration from the best there has ever been.
No one has ever written so much so well as the ‘Bard of Avon’. And the variety of choice phrases to ‘borrow’ is staggering. Or it was for me. There is also the bonus of using the full quote (and crediting it if you’re feeling inclined) on the title page of your book to make yourself look well-read and intelligent. I intend to.
So, what’s my title? Well, it sounds so simple and uninteresting but when it’s taken in the context of the full quote and measured against the five criteria that I set myself for selecting a title it’s a Cinderella’s slipper of a title. Don’t believe me? It’ll be out on ebook after the metaphorical six weeks in a drawer and obligatory fourteen edits.
Bad Sons – ‘Good wombs have borne bad sons.’ The Tempest, I,iii.
Congratulations! That’s really very impressive. Out of interest, when would you say you first had the idea for the book, and how much of the plot/shape of the story did you have in place before you started chapter 1? I find that I can write very quickly too, but only if I’ve got a really strong template to work from. But then I like very intricate plots, and those are pretty resistant to improvisation.
For me it’s usually about 10 months between first having an idea and it actually feeling fleshed out enough to start writing it. I might make notes or draw some diagrams, but I tend to keep it all in my head. But once I start, the writing itself is often *relatively* painless.
Ideas? Plot? Shape? Diagrams? Sounds more like building a house than writing a book. Seriously, I don’t plan at all. I just write. All of my books have grown that way. Make it up as I go along. Time between writing slots is my thinking time and when I get back to the laptop I usually have somewhere to take it. I might jot a note to self now and then. And often enough for it to be unremarkable the developments come as I’m writing. For want of a better way of putting it, I think through my fingertips. That sounds dumb, I know.
I can imagine that if you are a devoted planner then all that might raise an eyebrow. How can anything any good be written like that? That’s how I’ve written the three R&Ms and they haven’t been universally panned, yet.
Another way that I look at things is if I’m not writing, I’m procrastinating.
Horses for courses.
No that doesn’t sound dumb. Many people finding plans stifling. Personally, I find they stop me from writing thousands of words that eventually have to be cut because they aren’t adding anything or they knock the pacing out of whack. But it makes just as much sense to make these adjustments after the first draft is written (provided you have the stomach for ruthless cutting).
I think that mysteries ARE a little different, though. I can understand just sitting down and writing a story, but not a mystery. I like mysteries to be heavily clued, and I particularly like stories where the beginning takes on a whole new complexion once you know the end. And while I can see how you might END UP with a story like that without planning, I don’t see how you could INTEND to write a story like that without planning. So I plan.
But presumably your books all have one or more people who turn out to be murderers? At what point do you decide whodunnit? I always start with the solution, or at least the aspect of the solution I find the most interesting.
I take your point about mysteries being different. Bad Sons is more of a ‘thriller’.
I started writing Rope Enough knowing who the guilty party was going to be and ‘weaving’ the story accordingly. Making a Killing I really didn’t have a clue who the main killer was going to be until I was well into the story. Then when it was done I went back and tried to drop some hints regarding where the police could have looked harder. In retrospect that one turned out to be more of an unforeseeable ending given the information received and I would accept criticism for that, if I were aiming for a classic mystery. But I wouldn’t necessarily pigeon-hole myself like that. I’m just writing in my own style and if people like it they like it, if they don’t they can do one. That said, MAK seems to have worked for some but I would be interested in the response from an aficionado. Two examples of different approaches that worked for me.
For Making a Killing I had feedback from one reader who criticised me for wordiness and for devoting too many scenes to a disposable character. I actually disagree with that assessment. I found out where he lived and he hasn’t commented on any of my other books. Difficult with both arms in plaster up to the shoulder. And another reader sprang to my defence and disagreed with the reviewer. My point: you can’t please all the people all the time, so I write to please myself.
I do cut, of course, but I’ve never found myself removing pages of stuff. Maybe I’m lucky. Maybe I’m just living in a dream world.
The proof of the pudding is always going to be in the eating. If the finished product tastes OK to me and the few souls who have dipped their spoons in my bowl, stuffed their faces for free and belched out a comment (enough with that already) then I can’t ask for more than that. Can I?
Oh of course not. You’re the writer. If you’re not writing for yourself then something’s gone wrong. You should always write what you want and screw anyone else who wants to stick their nose in. That’s your zeroth law of writing.
But there are nuances. I think praise needs to be filtered as much as criticism. For example, self-publishing phenomenon John Locke likes to hide behind his fans as an excuse to not adopt more rigorous writing practices. When people suggest that he could maybe spend more time editing or proofreading, he says things like “my fans don’t care, so why should I?” But those fans don’t like the book BECAUSE of the bad editing, they like it IN SPITE of the bad editing. They either don’t notice or don’t care, which is absolutely fine. But if they’re happy either way, why not try to please some more people?
If A loves something and B has reservations, obviously A is your priority. There’s no point alienating a fan to please a critic. But writing isn’t a zero sum game, and sometimes you can please both parties.
Oddly enough, last night I was reading from a book called ‘Raymond Chandler Speaking’. Chandler was a great letter writer and to cut a long story short, some good souls put a load together and brought out a book. You probably know it. The bit I was reading last night I felt was strangely pertinent to this discussion, so I’d like to share an extract:
‘I am back at the grind at Paramount…In less than two weeks I wrote an original story of 90 pages. All dictated and never looked at till finished (Chandler’s original screenplay, The Blue Dahlia). It was an experiment and for one subject from early childhood to plot-constipation, it was rather a revelation. Some of the stuff is good, some very much not. But I don’t see why the method could not be adapted to novel writing, at least by me. Improvise the story as well as you can, in as much detail or as little as the mood seems to suggest, write dialogue, leave it out, but cover the movement, the characters and bring the thing to life. I begin to realise the great number of stories that are lost by us rather meticulous boys simply because we permit out minds to freeze on the faults rather than let them work for a while without the critical overseer sniping at everything that is not perfect. I can see where a special vice might also come out of this kind of writing; in fact two: the strange delusion that something on paper has a meaning because it is written. (My revered Henry James went to pieces a bit when he began to dictate). Also the tendency to worship production for its own sake.’
Chandler is describing my approach to this book I’ve just rattled off in record time. I’m going back through it now and rather than cutting I find myself fleshing the bones, as it were.
I like the two vices he has identified. Interesting stuff. The book itself is full of wisdom. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys Chandler.
I think there’s a lot to recommend the steamroller approach. Many people have huge trouble finishing a first draft. There’s a lot of second guessing and umming and aahing and then six months go by and then a year and eventually it all peters out. Just turning off all critical faculties and going where your intuition takes you is the best way to get over that hurdle.
What I really like is Chandler’s suggestion to just sketch over the tricky parts. I find myself doing that a lot. If something needs to be written, but I’m not feeling it on a given day, then I’ll just leave a note and move on to parts I CAN write. If you’re going all out, then momentum is key.
Chandler gets a bit of a cold shoulder in mystery circles because of his Simple Art of Murder essay, where he says some truly dopey and hypocritical things about detective novels. But a lot of his critical stuff is very solid. I’ll definitely look out for his letters.
With regards “pigeon-holing” and “classic mysteries”. I think mysteries have their own special problems here as well. For many people, a huge part of the enjoyment of a mystery is based on the ending, and anticipation of what the ending is going to be like.
Mysteries work because readers trust the author to follow through on an implicit promise. You invest upfront, accepting confusion and all the clunkiness that comes with mystery tropes, with the expectation that you’ll be rewarded, with interest, in the final chapters. If that trust isn’t there it isn’t just gone – it’s replaced with worry.
And I suppose your point would be that you haven’t made any such promise, and it’s the reader’s own stupid fault for thinking otherwise. And of course that’s right. But what worries me as a mystery writer is that, unlike other genres, readers don’t find out that they were reading a non-mystery until the END. With other genres you can give up after chapter 1 if it turns out to not be what you were expecting.
To a reader, an “unfair” mystery looks exactly the same as a fair mystery where they just haven’t spotted the clues, that continues all the way up to the final chapter, when it turns out they weren’t reading what they thought they were. What’s worse is that the more clues you don’t find, the more you think the solution is going to blow you away. The compound interest metaphor works for disappointment as well as enjoyment.
I don’t know what the solution is here. It’s not like you can say at the beginning exactly what subgenre the book falls under. But I do think it’s at least partly the author’s responsibility to manage reader expectations.
Completely agree that praise should be examined in some cold light as much as constructive criticism.
I read somewhere that Locke allegedly paid for numerous reviews when he was starting out as part of his self-pub scheming. I don’t approve of that sort of thing. Paying for an objective critical review is OK though. But look at him now and look at me. At least I can hold my head high when I’m queuing for free soup at the Salvation Army.
Locke’s blasé attitude towards the finished article sounds lazy, arrogant and potentially highly damaging to the integrity of the genre and, given his success, ultimately writing as a whole. I think that it should be an author’s overriding responsibility to make the quality of the mechanics of their writing as good as they possibly can. If you find yourself with the money through your success to pay for help in that regards I think that you should plough it back in. Show some respect. Put something back. Otherwise it just looks like your thumbing your nose at what and who made you. And that isn’t nice.
I suppose it all has something to do with your ultimate motivations for writing in the first place. We all want different things out of it. Sometimes those things are going to overlap. Fortune would be nice of course, but I’d trade half of it for industry recognition and respect of my readers and peers.
I agree with you again about responsibility in genre writing, especially mystery writing. If you are selling an orange it has got to taste like an orange and look like and orange.
Speaking personally, I put my books in the police procedural category. I’m not sure that I have a right to do this, as I have never been in the police or worked with anyone from the law and any ‘research’ that I engage in is done on the internet or watching TV crime dramas. I understand that some authors in this genre ride around in police cars for their research or were police officers. (The only time I’ve been in a police car was in the back with the bracelets on and I wasn’t thinking of how I could use the experience in a book. I was wondering how I could get her blood off my trousers without anyone noticing). But then I’m not looking to swamp the reader in procedural detail, which I find trying in a book if it’s overdone. Something to skip. I’m conscious that I need to be seen to be trying to make a point here. I suppose it is that I’m just writing what appeals to me. I’m writing what I want to read and what I’m amused by. Does that make it a hobby that I should keep to myself like collecting the ears of kittens? Self, pub has allowed me to pretend that I’m an author because I have pretty covers with my name on. It’s all more than a little fake really, isn’t it? And depressing.
The self-pub phenomenon has done many things for and against writing. Some good some bad. The gate keeper argument is valid for maintaining some standards and more often than not ensuring that the unspoken promise of a book is delivered on.
Love your suggestions for choosing a title and congrats on moving from idea to first draft without delay – we really do need to strike when the iron is hot. Just wanted to let you know that my novel is out for Kindle now on Amazon – I’d love it if you were able to give it a read.
Thanks Francis. Congratulations to you for getting your novel out there. Feels good, doesn’t it? I downloaded it last night. It is next on my reading list and I’m looking forward to reading it. Best of luck for success.
I think you’ve hit upon a great titling method. Even though I am happy with mine I played with yours. Nothing jumped out but maybe I am not summarizing myself effectively. Still I will archive this post and in my fantasy world where I sell just enough books to get a job teaching an intro fiction class I will pass out copies of your post.
Titles are so tough. My book had a working title for almost a decade and it was only when I had finished the third draft that I finally saw what everyone else meant by disliking it. Alas everyone else’s suggestions were so purple as to be ultraviolet. Since the thread addressed critiques: I’ve found that people are better at identifying problems than solving them. When several people mention the same thing I give it another look, but I don’t do what they say I should do (save the always accurate “trim this”).
Henry Miller has a hilarious passage in Tropic of Cancer about being jealous of a title in a bookstore window and planning to write the author asking for a donation of titles to himself and his fellow writers.
I will be happy if you achieve that aim and circulate copies of my post. When your students ask you who wrote it, in my fantasy world you’ll be telling them my name and they’ll be awestruck because of my famousness.
I find myself awestruck that you have been working on a single book for a decade (have I got that right?). Dedication. I can’t make a marriage last half as long as that and I’ve had several goes.
Raymond Chandler’s first rule of writing: never take advice. He didn’t do so badly.