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Posts from the ‘Creative writing tips’ Category

Why having a plausible plot really matters

imageHaving just released the ninth instalment of my DCI Dani Bevan detective series, the issue of plotting is currently at the forefront of my mind.

As part of the editing process, the first read through of any new manuscript focusses on making sure that the plot hangs tightly together. The characters need to be acting in a way that’s in keeping with their personalities and the storyline mustn’t have any inconsistencies or ‘holes’ that will ruin the reader’s experience.

By coincidence, in the last few days, I read an article criticising modern crime dramas on tv for not possessing the same attention to plot detailing as their novel counterparts do.

I found myself agreeing with the sentiment wholeheartedly. The recent BBC1 series of Line of Duty has been a case in point. Although action packed and full of twists and turns, critics have pointed out the many inconsistencies and unlikely scenarios thrown up by the plot.  I enjoyed the series at first, but became increasingly frustrated with the implausibility of the action.

As writers of crime, we have to carefully balance dramatic action with plausibility. If nothing exciting happens in your book/script it will be dull and slow moving. Conversely, too much twisting and turning can make your readers suspect an author is resorting to shocks and gimmicks to gain their attention, rather than relying upon more fully developed storytelling.

Many viewers enjoyed Line if Duty, despite the plot holes. So does the plausibility really matter? It depends. The article I read suggested that tv dramas could use visual tricks to distract viewers from these inconsistencies. Something that books could not replicate. But I think this underestimates crime viewers. Largely, we overlook the errors because very good crime dramas are few and far between. Whereas excellent thriller novels are more commonplace.

The reason it is so crucial to keep the plotting and characterisation plausible is because this is where you most successfully hook a reader or viewer into your world. If characters act in a way someone in real life wouldn’t, or their motivations don’t make sense, the viewer stops believing in the imaginary world you’ve created. It makes them less involved with the characters and (literally) causes them to switch off.

Writers must always treat their readers with respect. Plot consistency is fundamental to the crime genre. A truly great piece of work will have both action and plausibility. It is certainly possible, so we must strive to deliver it.

When a character just won’t let you go.

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I’ve been considering this a lot recently. I’ve just completed book 8 in my DCI Dani Bevan series and with each new instalment I have to decide if it will be her last.

So I’m always fascinated when I hear other writers discussing the right time to end a long-running series, particularly a popular one with readers. I was impressed to read recently that despite its incredible success, Sally Wainwright will only pen one further series of Happy Valley. And even then, she won’t be releasing the script for some time, as she wants one of the characters to be older, as it fits with the way she feels the story is going.

Wainwright did much the same with popular ITV drama series Scott and Bailey, which was wound up in its fourth instalment earlier this year. With television production being so risk averse, this is a bold move for a scriptwriter. But Wainwright appears to remain true to the story and to the integrity of her writing.

Watching BBC2’s excellent documentary about the life of novelist Sue Townsend last night on catch-up, highlighted for me a situation that was quite the reverse. It seems that Townsend’s most popular character, Adrian Mole, whose Diary of 1980, gave the writer her first real break, proved reluctant to let his creator go.

After The Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 came its follow-up, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. What I hadn’t realised was that Townsend had written a number of later books exploring Adrian’s life. She commented in interviews that every few years Mole’s voice would begin to speak to her again and she knew he had more to say to the world. This would trigger a new book.

I found this concept intriguing and also recognisable. Sometimes your characters do feel as if they have more to share. A few months after completing a book, you will hear that inner voice nagging at you once again. A new story will inevitably follow.

I wondered how many other authors experienced a similar phenomenon. I make no secret of believing that literary characters take on a life of their own and almost appear to ‘write themselves’ at certain stages of the novel production process.

Sue Townsend’s extraordinary life had many fascinating aspects to interest both writers and readers alike. It turned out that Townsend had witnessed a notorious murder when she was only 8 years old. She claimed this had forced her to ‘turn in on herself’ and escape into a world of fiction. Townsend suggested that many authors had been driven to pursue an active inner life because of a similar trauma in their lives. I wonder if that’s true.

I think the undisputed success of serialised novels indicates that very often for a reader and a writer, a character or set of characters refuses to let us go.

When should we finally say goodbye? There are no easy answers. In Sue Townsend’s case, she clearly never did.

There’s no limit to what you can learn from a book.

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I was really interested to hear that veteran snooker player and multi world championship winner Steve Davis learnt to play the game by practicing with his father and closely following the book, ‘How I Play Snooker’ by Joe Davis (no relation). Steve commented that they referred to it like a bible. It taught him how to approach every different type of shot.

This story struck a chord with me. I firmly believe that it’s very possible to learn pretty much everything from a book (except possibly brain surgery!). Like most teachers, I don’t much enjoy being taught by others. I’ve attended several evening classes over the years but they just aren’t for me. I’d rather be at home, teaching myself from a self-help paperback. Nowadays you can also watch a YouTube video or two. The possibilities are endless.

Three years ago I read Adele Ramet’s book on creative writing. It helped me to complete my first novel, Aoife’s Chariot. Now I’ve got fifteen in my back catalogue, including a book for children. The advice was clear and straightforward. I was able to refer back to Ramet’s words at moments of uncertainty. It didn’t write the books for me, but it trained me in the fundamentals of the craft.

Steve Davis’ story also reminded me of my sister, who taught herself to draw from our mum’s guides to painting. She later learnt how to branch out into oil painting by using books. Technically speaking she is ‘untrained’ as an artist, having not attended an art school. But to me, her works are every bit as good. She has been a consultant artist on a feature film for heaven’s sake!

So why is it so important that books can teach us these skills? Crucially for me, it means that simply owning a library card can give a person access to the type of education and training that usually only those with wealth or privilege have access to. Snooker has always been a sport for all classes, not requiring expensive equipment or memberships to exclusive clubs. It’s not a sport played in public schools or by members of the royal family.

I remember very well the ‘teach yourself’ series of books which were popular in the 70s and 80s, offering comprehensive courses on everything from speed reading to playing golf.

My Dad didn’t have the opportunity to go to university, yet he is the most knowledgable person I know. Why? Because of books. At one point in the nineties, he had read just about every book available on the American Civil War and was often found correcting so-called ‘experts’ being interviewed on TV.

I wont be the only person who has a relative like this. Books have always been a great leveller. Those who have taught themselves that way are also more often than not self-starters, not spoon fed like overly educated types (like me!). They love knowledge for its own sake.

I stand  by my claim that you can learn pretty much anything you want from a book. And just like the cover of Ramet’s book, it can open doors to an entirely new world of opportunity.

New year, new genre…

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This time last year I had just published the first book in a new series. It was Against A Dark Sky, the first instalment of the Dani Bevan detective Series. There are now five more books and the series has been very successful. But the decision to switch characters, series or genre is not an easy one to make for an author. When we write a book it requires an enormous commitment of time and mental energy.

There is always a concern that you will be neglecting your regular characters and faithful readers by starting on something different. But there is something about the start of a new year that inspires us to embark on fresh ventures. The dawning of 2016 has proved to be no different. I completed the book I was writing for my ten year old daughter this week. It was the first time I’d undertaken a writing project in the children’s fiction genre. But my main aim was to produce a book for Shona, whilst she still wanted me too.

The writing experience was a challenge but it was a bonus to be able to use a more lighthearted tone and be freer with using colourful, expansive descriptions. This is a technique which is more acceptable now in YA than in adult fiction. Other than these aspects, I found the process surprisingly similar to writing one of my adult crime books. Mint Choc Chip is also a mystery story, like my adult novels, so the plotting was a familiar affair. I also endeavoured to weave in some historical references which are a feature of my Imogen and Hugh Croft Mysteries Series.

Ultimately, I’m not sure if I will return to the children’s fiction genre. I have the new DCI Bevan novel plotted and am looking forward to continuing with that. But I’m very glad I’ve stepped outside my comfort zone. Hopefully, my daughter will appreciate it. The process has challenged my writing in a new way. It helps to keep an author’s approach fresh to try something they’ve not done before. As long as it doesn’t distract us from the day job of course!

 

The power of adolescent fiction on the subconscious mind.

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I started writing novels in my late thirties but have been an avid reader all of my life. When I began penning my eighth book, The Ghost of Marchmont Hall, I knew that I wished to recreate the magic that I’d experienced when reading adolescent fiction such as, A Pattern of Roses by K.M Peyton and The Autumn Ghosts by Ruth M Arthur.

Both titles are now long out of print and I must have read them getting on for thirty years ago. But the effect these stories had upon my subconscious mind was clearly profound. Both novels explore a mystery from the past and interweave these events with the present day. The author then skilfully  shows how the resolving of the puzzle has impacted upon the main characters.

To a certain extent, all of my twelve novels play with similar themes and style of plotting. There is always a time shift between events past and present in my books. Of that much I was already aware.

But after finally tracking down a copy of The Autumn Ghosts this afternoon, I discovered something which made me gasp. This particular book was without a doubt the most evocative of my youth. I recalled certain elements of it – that the book was split into two parts; one exploring the summer that Millie spent with her grandparents on their country estate and the love affair she formed there, and the other half exploring the experiences of her granddaughter, returning to the same estate several decades later. What I did not recall, was that the place Millie visits is called Karasay.

When I read that, my heart skipped a beat. In my Imogen and Hugh Croft Mystery novels, the fictional Scottish island that Imogen comes from I named Garansay. I had no conscious awareness that the two locations had such similar names. When I was selecting an appropriate name, the idea must have presented itself from deep within the part of my brain which housed those long forgotten adolescent memories.

My intention was certainly not to plagiarise these works. In many respects, my books are quite different. They are adult mysteries and not YA fiction. However, this coincidence has illustrated just how powerful our adolescent reading experiences can be. Books read and re-read in our youth can have a significant impact upon our future creative endeavours and maybe even the way in which we approach our personal lives.

I hope that through my writing I am paying a compliment to those wonderful writers like K.M Peyton and Ruth M Arthur, who had the skill to touch me so deeply with their storytelling. If my books had the power to affect their readers in such a way I would be really very proud.

How close should writers get to real life?

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Watching an interview with journalist Quentin Letts about his new novel ‘The Speaker’s Wife’, I was interested to hear him quite comfortably discuss how the current speaker, John Bercow, and his wife were the inspiration for the characters in the book although he stressed that the piece was purely fiction.

This statement fascinated me. Recently, I had looked into all the legal aspects of novel writing and publishing having now released 12 novels of my own plus several short stories. Quentin Letts made the issue of libel and defamation sound entirely clear cut. If it’s fiction, you can write what you wish. I suppose that as a regular columnist, often highly critical and ascerbic about certain individuals, he should know what he’s talking about.

My understanding of the issue was that it wasn’t so black and white. If you are basing a character in your published work on a particular individual, you need to take care not to mirror their life and experiences too closely.  You certainly must be careful about names. If you give a character in your book the name of someone you know, they might reasonably assume you’ve based it on them. A court of law  may also agree.

This doesnt mean you can’t use real life to inform your writing, but I would make each protagonist a blend of many characteristics, then they will shine out as believable and real to a reader. If you lift their personality directly from a living person then you’ve produced a satire or a pastiche, which is quite different from fiction.

Writing about true crime, sport or current affairs is another matter entirely and legal advice should be sought before embarking upon these projects.

Social media has led to a trend towards openness of expression in digital print, but libel laws still apply here too. So writers take note. We may seek inspiration from real life, but it is important to remain firmly in the world of the imagination with the stories we create.

No element of this piece should be interpreted as legal advice.

Where do you write?

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I’m having one of those weeks when I’ve got itchy feet. It’s probably the unseasonably warm and sunny weather. But my little office just isn’t enticing me to sit down to proper work.
So, I unplugged the laptop, gathered together my notes and shifted the whole book writing operation down to the living room, where sun was pouring through the patio doors onto the sofa and it simply felt like a much more pleasant place to be.
The move got me thinking. Where do us writers work best? I suspect that this is something very personal to each individual author. For me, it depends on the circumstances. Most of the time I work more efficiently at my desk. I have my dictionaries, notepads and Kindle Fire close to hand and it feels as if I’m embarking upon a proper working day.
But every so often, when I’ve just finished a novel and I’m pushing myself to get going with the next one, I need that extra boost.
With my earlier books, when my family weren’t quite so used to the lengthy writing process I had to adhere to, I tended to take my laptop out to coffee shops and worked there. The bustle and noise of such a public place being less of a distraction than the children asking me endless questions and refusing to defer to their dad if they knew I was still on the premises.
I’ve even done an Agatha Christie a couple of times, going away to a hotel for a weekend to finish a novel. I did this two years ago with The Only Survivor and ploughed through about forty thousand words in a handful of days. Now, I am less compulsive about writing. I’ve got eleven books under my belt and know there will be many more. I still enjoy the process, but the burning desire to complete isn’t quite as strong as it was.
Holidays are another occasion where my writing seems to flow with greater ease. If we go away somewhere with my parents, my family are happy to leave me in the cottage or lodge, tapping away at the keys whilst they go sightseeing. It often only takes a couple of really focussed days’ work to get fully into a new book. This is often all it needs to get me kick started.
Some writers need alcohol to fuel their writing, others have survived on the steady inflow of nicotine. But I think a slavish adherence to these habits doesn’t really represent the modern author, who writes as a business, in order to support their family and doesn’t much like the idea of becoming an addict in the process.
For me, the occasional stimulant required to keep going has to be gained from something less harmful than drugs, however mild they may be, and a change of scenery seems like a perfect way to achieve it.

How I used my book titles to create a strong author brand

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I write two separate series of detective, mystery novels. When I set out to pen the second series, featuring my new main character; Scottish policewoman DCI Dani Bevan, I wanted all the titles of the books to share a common feature.
This decision wasn’t pre-planned. When I make a choice about my next title it is usually quite early on in the planning process. The title helps me to formulate and develop the storyline. I need to have it in my head as I write. With the Dani Bevan books, I knew that the first instalment was going to be called ‘Against A Dark Sky’ because I wanted to create the image of a mountain set against a dark, stormy background in the reader’s imagination. The plot revolves around a suspicious death which takes place on Ben Lomond, when the weather turns bad without warning during a hiking expedition.
Once I had this first title fixed, I was keen that all of Dani’s subsequent cases should follow a similar theme and that the ‘dark’ element should be retained in each new book. ‘On A Dark Sea’ was the follow-up novel. The title was a natural progression from the planning phase as the story begins with a young woman’s perilous journey across dangerous seas at night, in a small fishing boat.
The other titles then flowed quite naturally as the series continued. ‘A Dark Shadow Falls’, ‘Dark As Night’ and ‘The Dark Fear’ were the books which followed.
I didn’t really realise at the time, but by creating this ‘dark’ series of books, I was building a kind of title-based brand for the Dani Bevan novels. Because of the nature of the titles, it was clear to my readership whether they would be getting an Imogen and Hugh Croft Mystery or a DCI Dani Bevan police procedural. I’m an avid reader of crime novels myself and I like to know exactly what I’m getting from a book. An author’s brand plays an important part in re-enforcing this and making the genre clear to consumers.
My Dani Bevan books are slightly different from the Imogen and Hughs – they are ‘darker’ and although containing humour, they are more brutal in subject matter than their sister series. The titles reflect this perfectly and help to formulate the brand.
The next book in the DCI Dani Bevan collection already has a working title; ‘Girls Of The Dark’, which I am hoping to be able to release before Christmas.
So, if you are looking to establish a strong author brand, you would do well to consider the title of the book itself, which can be a very powerful tool for conveying just exactly what your series wants to say.

The change of season can give you ideas to kick start your writing.

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I should really be concentrating on promotion. I’ve just released my eleventh novel, The Dark Fear. I’m still excited about its completion, don’t get me wrong, but the change in the season, as we slip from late summer into autumn, is giving me ideas. I’m sure it’s the same for all those who make their living in the creative sector. We need to follow inspiration from wherever it comes and at certain times of the year, it comes more readily than at others.
For me, the shortening of the days and the turning of the leaves from green to gold, encourages me to shift the tone of my stories slightly. For a mystery writer, the season in which you work has great significance. Summer suspense is full of the intensity created by long, hot days and characters throwing off the shackles of work. Winter perhaps lends itself best to the thriller author, providing the backdrop of dour weather and dark evenings. But to me, autumn is the preferable season. The landscape changes significantly; bonfires are lit and the temperature drops, so that the heavy boots and jackets come out. But it doesn’t have the stark bareness of mid-winter.
My plots change accordingly and I am finding that a new story is forcing its way into my mind. I wouldn’t wish to lose this moment of inspiration, so I will follow my urge to get back to the wordprocessor. They say that the most effective promotion is to keep writing more books. Lets hope that’s true, because it’s the part of the job I really enjoy the most. I will take the excuse given by the change of season to allow me to get back to it.

How many great thrillers are set during summer?

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The heatwave that we are enjoying in the UK right now has got me thinking. The weather is perfect for plonking yourself down in a sun lounger with a great book. As it happens, my latest DCI Dani Bevan novel, Dark As Night, is set during a rare Glasgow heatwave. But just how many other crime books take the summer months as their backdrop?
I must admit that the majority of my ten novels are set during autumn and winter. These ‘darker’ months just seem to lend themselves better to the creation of atmospheric tension and foreboding which goes hand-in-hand with the mystery genre.
In Dark As Night, the dramatic tension is built instead, by the close humidity and the climax of the story is precipitated by a sudden, violent storm. To make the atmosphere right, there have to be some dark clouds lurking on the horizon, ready to ruin that clear blue sky.
So how many great thrillers have been set during summer? One of my personal favourites is Barbara Vine’s (the pen name of Ruth Rendell) ‘A Fatal Inversion’, where the oppressive heat of a hot summer spent at an old country house in Suffolk is the scene for a tense drama of intrigue and murder. Yet, this particular book is more about psychological twists and turns than it is about true ‘things that go bump in the night’ horror.
Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile and Ten Little Indians, use the fierce heat of their locations to evoke an oppressive atmosphere which facilitates murder.
I believe that ‘summer crime’ can certainly work, although we use the word ‘chilling’in conjunction with a great thriller for good reasons. If you really want to put the frighteners on your reader, a book has got to make their ‘blood run cold’and this is very rarely achieved by transporting them to a warm, sunny day.

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