KILL YOUR DARLINGS?

As writing advice goes – it doesn’t get much pithier.

It’s even shorter than the original version which said, ‘murder your darlings’.  The quote’s often attributed to William Faulkner or Stephen King, but it actually came from the pen of the English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

quiller-couch

The irony is, of course, that the more an author loves a darling, the less likely she is to recognise one. Not when literary sweethearts are sentences, passages, even entire scenes of which she’s most proud.

But as we know, they’re also phrases, description, lines of dialogue that are just a tad too clever, a gnat’s too self-indulgent, even a smidgeon pretentious. The author loves all those precious little literary ones but they add nothing to the narrative.

Far from developing the story, they distract from the action. As with cooks and broth, too many darlings spoil the plot.

Or do they?

Who gets to define, darlings?  One person’s meaty prose might be another’s wordy poison.

Let’s face it no one can write a book that will please every reader. But surely a good place to start is with writing that the author really likes a lot?  I’d rather produce a page of over-indulged darlings which I can then work on than face a page of words that whisper not-so sweet nothings in my ear. To my way of thinking, a screen filled with purple prose beats the pedestrian shrinking-violet kind any day.

I have to say I’m feeling this way because I’ve just spent well over a  week writing the opening sequence of my next novel and on Sunday I reluctantly came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t working. The words didn’t leap off the page they limped along weak lines.  The writing didn’t scintillate and it certainly didn’t sing – it had lost its voice. Like me. Temporarily, I’d lost my author’s voice. (I was battling a sore throat and heavy cold as well but that’s another story.)

There is a saving grace though.

Having written fourteen crime novels, I knew that forcing it and continuing to try and make the sequence work would be like flogging a dead horse.  As with the horse, it was beyond saving.

Much as it pains me to admit, the prose was so lifeless there was only one place for it: the writing equivalent of the knacker’s yard.

For the first time, I scrapped the entire opening of a novel and started completely afresh. I doubt I’d have taken that course ten, even five, years ago but with fifteen years’  fiction writing experience (and twenty more in journalism) I had – and still have – no doubt that it was the right write thing to do.

The prose was just plain ordinary and I recognised that fact just as those years spent writing help me recognise the darlings I produce. I certainly know which I prefer to kill: the padding plodding prose deserves to die; the darlings at least have potential.  Deft sharp editing can give new life.

Of course in a crime writer’s life ‘killing darlings’ often takes on a new meaning. Some readers still berate me for dispatching one of my lead detectives to the grand interview room in the sky.

And that, too, is another story.  . .

And I’m delighted to say  – so is this . . .

death-wish-cover

It’s my fourteenth novel and the ninth in my DS Bev Morriss series. It came out just last month and I so hope you like it – darling.

 

 

 

BY MY WATCH IT’S TREE O’CLOCK

Words for all seasons . . .

summer-tree

… or how this beautiful oak tree helps me chart how close I am to a writing deadline.

You see my study’s on the third floor, my desk’s situated in front of a picture window and the tree pretty much dominates the view.

I generally start work on a new book in the autumn and when I look out the oak’s leaves are just beginning to turn. I see every shade of russet under the sun – when I’m not catching odd glimpses through seasonal mists of mellow fruitfulness.

autumn-tree

As the leaves slowly and steadily fall, I’m writing the opening chapters – laying hooks, planting plot seeds, introducing characters.  In as far as an author embarking on a novel can be, I’m fairly chilled and laid back.

When there’s a chill wind outside, the leaves have all but gone, the branches nearly bare.  At this point, I know I should be about a third of the way through the story. If my output’s not on track, I might begin to feel the first faint stirrings of unease.

winter-tree

Those feelings increase considerably if the word count’s still down when the first snow falls and the tree forms part of a winter not-so wonderland.  If I’m not halfway to the finishing post, I know I need to speed up or risk not hitting the deadline.

That’s easier said than done, of course. As we know, writing isn’t like building a wall or knitting a scarf.  It’s impossible – or should be – to create and sustain a fictional world to order.

snow-tree

 

Even so, I plough on and I’d love to say that when the tree’s first pale green buds begin to show, my fresh ideas have started to shoot and the creative juices are flowing. I’d love to say that. But it wouldn’t be true. It would be fanciful and wishful thinking.  There are times when the words just don’t come.  Or at least they do, but not the right ones and not necessarily in the right order. In fact, I feel that in some ways the more I write the harder the challenge is of doing it well.

It’s then when experience kicks in. I recall that there’s always a phase when I fear this is the book I won’t be able to finish, that the narrative strands just won’t weave together. I have to remind myself how many books I’ve written. That no one said – heaven forbid – that it would be easy. That it takes persistence, professionalism and faith. ‘Keep your nerve’ an editor told me years ago and it’s probably the best writing advice I’ve ever been given.

So what do I do? I work through the doubts. I keep my head down, my bum on the seat, my fingers on the keyboard. I work later into the evenings and every weekend if need be. I might spend a little less time looking through the window . . .

Then suddenly it’s summer time and I look up and the tree’s not only in full magnificent leaf but I have a completed script under my author’s belt.

Winter, spring, summer and fall – you could say I have a writing buddy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HAVE YOU HEARD THE ONE ABOUT . . .

. . . the stand-up comedian who writes seriously good crime fiction?  

No it’s not a joke. And this time it’s not the sublime Mark Billingham. The new funny man on the crime writing block is Caimh McDonnell whose first novel – A Man With One Of Those Faces – is published early next month. It’s so good, I still find it hard to believe he’s not written a book before.

caimh wry

 

Caimh’s already firmly established on the British comedy circuit as the ‘white-haired Irishman whose name no one can pronounce ’ and I reckon he stands to become equally well known as a crime writer.

I think his work’s original, innovative, intelligent and in places laugh out loud funny.  The book deserves to be noticed, but it’s a crowded market out there which is why I’m spreading the word.

caimh's cover

 

I first came across Caimh eight or so years ago during the research for one of my Bev Morriss crime novels. He was on the bill at a comedy night in Birmingham and afterwards I talked to him about his life in stand-up. I doubt either of us had any idea that evening that nearly a decade on, I’d interview him again about his role as a crime writer.

caimh's face

 

So Caimh, what’s a nice stand-up comedian like you doing working in the murky world of crime fiction?

I think in some ways, it is a natural fit. By the nature of the job as a comedian, you’re working nights and you’re travelling through city centres in the wee small hours. You end up being a night person by necessity so you perhaps see more flashes of the darker side of life than somebody in a regular day job. Besides, you can’t spend as much time staring at the two remaining sandwiches in a motorway services at 2AM without contemplating homicide.

Also, there are rumours Mark Billingham got himself a swimming pool and now half the comedians in the country have started working on their crime novel.

Why choose the crime genre? 

In all seriousness, it kind of chose me. A few years ago, I had an idea for a novel that I tried to write and I couldn’t get it to work. I decided that although I’d written a lot of scripts, I didn’t have the prose writing skill set I needed, so I signed up to do a Masters in Creative Writing at Manchester Met University. I then decided to spend a year concentrating on short stories. I’m always a bit surprised when I see articles giving people advice on writing their first novel that more authors don’t suggest writing a load of short stories first. You don’t train for a marathon by running a marathon, you start doing 5ks, then 10ks etc.

After writing several other stories, I started working on one about a guy whose job was visiting dementia patients in hospital and pretending to be who they wanted him to be. It was a nice idea but it lacked an inciting incident. I was about to scrap it when I hit on the twist of one of the patients trying to kill whoever they thought he was. This threw up way more questions than could be answered in a short story and A Man with One of Those Faces was born.

How does your ‘night job’ in comedy feed into the writing? 

To give you an odd analogy, good NFL quarterbacks are said to have a clock in their heads that tells them when they have to get rid of the ball or else they’ll get crushed by an avalanche of humanity; comedians have something similar. It goes off in your head and tells you that you’ve not said something funny or engaging in a certain period of time and you’d better or you’ll start losing the audience. I think that carries over to writing. Comedians and writers understand you engage your audience or you die.

caimh with mic

I think combining humour and crime fiction is notoriously difficult to pull off. I also think you do it exceptionally well. Do you find blending the two difficult to achieve?

Thank you! To be honest, the humour side sort of happens naturally, I don’t over-think it. If you give me a start and an end of a scene the route my mind goes down will be humour-based by default. Where I have to be careful is making sure the funny doesn’t over-ride the plot. I’ve read a lot of crime fiction that contained humour and sometimes where it goes wrong is when the comedy takes control. The plot and the characters are the most important things – you can’t compromise them for a gag. I was lucky enough to get the brilliant Scott Pack as my editor. His big note was to let the darkness be dark. In my final scene for example, during the editing process I removed pretty much all the comedy because, while they worked as jokes in their own right, they were compromising the dramatic integrity of the scene.

I found myself laughing out loud at some of the wonderful lines in the book. Do you laugh as you write them or when you read them back?

I think first and foremost I try and entertain myself because if you’re enjoying it then odds are your reader will too. My wife is my first reader on everything. I have heard her laughing and ran into the room to check which bit it was.

caimh 2

I’m not into spoilers, suffice to say it’s a great story with lots of twists and cliff-hangers; lots of what I call ‘flipping the signposts’ and definitely no spoon-feeding the reader. Tell me, did you work from a detailed outline or write by the seat of your pants! 

I’m a mixture of pantser and plotter. With A Man With once I really realised it was a novel, I had the ending in my head fairly early on but I didn’t know how to get there. I also initially intended it to be two main characters going on this journey but then a third one turned up and literally refused to leave.

I’m now becoming more of a plotter. It’s a gradual process, though. I’m a big believer in worrying about just trying to get better bit by bit.

I love the book’s pace and flow – there’s no padding or verbiage – I get the impression you edit with a finely-honed scalpel? Do you edit as you go along or write several drafts?

I typically do what every writing book tells you not to. I start every day’s writing by re-reading and editing the work from the day before. It seems to get my head in the space I need to be in. I then do several drafts – I’ll often give myself the task of cutting 10% from every chapter. If I can’t, that’s fine – what’s important is trying. I’m also really lucky, my wife is a former non-fiction editor and my other first-reader is Clare Campbell-Collins who is a brilliant playwright. Between them, they really kick me into shape so by the time it gets to my editor Scott, there’s less kicking for him to do!

The prose has real rhythm and the dialogue sings off the page – I’m guessing you read your work out loud at the end of each writing session?

I actually don’t. I think because I’m used to delivering things out loud, my internal monologue sort of automatically performs, if that makes sense. Having said that, I do want to read stuff out more. I did a book reading to an audience as part of my Masters and that really helped. I now try and read things aloud when I’m editing so I can feel the rhythm.

caimh's cover

I love the characters. How did you come up with such an original bunch of individuals? Do you ‘see’ them in your head/base them on people you know?

Absolutely, my three main characters are Frankenstein’s monsters made out of bits of people I know. I want to care about my main characters and I want the reader to hopefully feel the same about them.

My work and the brilliant Mark Billingham’s are very different in tone, but the one thing they both have in common is that if you’re a really obsessive comedy fan, you can have a fun game of comedy bingo spotting the names of circuit comedians scattered throughout.

I was delighted to learn the leading characters will feature again in your next book. Did you always see A Man With as the start of a series?

Not initially. I started writing the story and then the characters came to life for me and at the end, I just didn’t want to leave them. I’ve also spent a lot of my career developing various sitcom projects, some of which came pretty close to getting made. I’ve been waiting for an awful long time to write a second episode and I’m loving the chance to go back to the same characters again and again.

I’ve nearly finished the follow-up, The Day That Never Comes, and after that, I think there’s going to be a prequel and a third book to complete what I’m provisionally calling The Dublin Trilogy. After that, it is going somewhere that I think is pretty unusual for an on-going crime fiction series but I’m keeping that to myself for the moment.

A Man With . . . is your first crime novel yet you’ve already developed what I think is a really distinctive authorial ‘voice’ – how did you manage that? Again, I’m guessing you read a lot so you know what’s out there and what works and doesn’t work?

I read a fair bit but I also spend an awful lot of time in a car on my own travelling to gigs, so Audible is a big part of my consumption. Then, when I get home it’s late and I’m too full of caffeine to sleep, so I consume an awful lot of TV crime drama. That comes through really clearly in the novel as I made one of my main characters a huge crime fiction geek. That means she often tries to figure out what to do next by referencing things she has seen in ‘fiction’. It’s a fun way of wearing my fandom on my character’s sleeve while at the same time, hopefully giving the whole thing a twist the reader won’t have seen before.

Okay before we wrap this up describe a typical day at the Caimh McDonnell type-face.     

My entire day runs on a frankly alarming amount of Diet Pepsi. I wrote A Man with One of Those Faces in the university library but people between the ages of 18 and 22 are way too full of hormones to whisper properly, so I have since moved. Lord knows who has taken over my shushing duties. I’m now part of a co-op office in Manchester, which is ace. I’m always trying to refine my writing process so I’m moving from 2,000 words a day to trying to hit 3,000. It can be a long day but nothing feels better than heading back home after hitting my word count.

 

And for once, he’s not joking . . .

caimh

 

You can find out more about Caimh’s double life here:  http://whitehairedirishman.com/

The book’s out now.

caimh's cover

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Man-One-Those-Faces/dp/0995507503/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472647355&sr=1-1&keywords=a+man+with+one+of+those+faces

 

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YOU COULD DIE LAUGHING

With a deadline looming for the new Bev Morriss novel, I asked a colleague from my radio days if he’d sit in my blog seat this month. So over to . . . Adrian Juste.

Hat

As someone who’s spent a lifetime writing comedy, I’ve always admired the work of the ‘serious’ scribe. A crime writer could invariably do comedy, but it’s far harder the other way round. Some of the gags I’ve committed to print over the years might be verging on the criminal, but that’s the closest I got!

When Maureen asked if I’d like to do a piece here, it got me thinking: our respective styles aren’t the polar opposites you might imagine.  Humour is a very useful tool for the crime writer: I liken it to sea fishing – you release a bit of line with a tension-busting gag, then slowly wind the reader back in again.

And repeat.

It’s that cadence that keeps them hooked.

Television too has always known about laughter in dark places: The best TV cop shows have always used it to great effect.

The Americans started the ball rolling in the ‘70s with assorted detectives in flasher Macs, overweight ones, bald ones crunching lollipops, and even one on horseback !

They certainly weren’t taking it seriously.

columbo

And of course, Peter Falk had things easy – his villains invariably nestled in the sumptuous Rodeo Drive end of Beverly Hills.

I’m sure Maureen would have loved writing for that . . .  cold-blooded murder doesn’t have quite the same resonance in a Kings Heath chippie !!

While all that was going on, back here in the UK the vaguely gritty tenor of Z-Cars was laid to rest as TV turned towards pure grit with the heightened realism of Thames’ blockbuster The Sweeney – another series tempered with comedy . . . bad-tempered comedy!

If you’re of an age, who can forget grouchy Jack Regan spitting out the classic line: Get your trousers on – you’re nicked or, We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner – both delivered with the venom-ometer set to 11.

But those tetchy barbs still provided light relief from the violent wages blags and non-stop boozing and carousing which occurred on ‘the manor’ back then.

Sweeney

The 80s proved a rather fallow period for good crime series here in Britain; but Hollywood’s hit factory was on a roll, with biggies such as Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice and Cagney & Lacey.

We rolled over, countering feebly with The Bill – which turned into a soap opera, with the consequence all villains Sun Hill way kept their trousers on before being nicked.

Thankfully the 90s proved more fertile ground for the crime writer.

We were treated to David Jason balancing his distinguished comedy background against the ‘legit’ role of maverick DI Frost in A Touch Of . . .

Frost

Played for more laughs than creator Rodney Wingfield ever intended, running gags came aplenty: we had the office radiator which only worked with a well-timed kick, and the stuffed mullet on Frost’s wall (a nod to his straight-laced Superintendent of that name).

But two really amusing scenes spring to mind: the time Jason was confronted by a twelve-foot ’gator at an exotic animal dealer’s home, which saw our hero scrambling to safety atop a high fence, and getting on the radio to shout: It’s Frost! We’ve got an alligator chasing us! Get the exotic animal unit down here – and make it snappy.  Corny, but what writer would leave it out!

Or the time he was investigating a murder, the trail of which had led to a crypt. He radioed back to HQ: Tell George I’ve found a dead body in the cemetery – and when he’s stopped laughing, tell him to get down here pronto.   

 Again, it’s that well-aimed use of laughter to break the tension; a convenient emotional turntable before you start ramping the plot up again.

More recently, a series I’m ashamed to say I’ve just got into is New Tricks – with the original cast.  It started to wobble a bit for me after James Bolam and Alun Armstrong quit.

NewTricks

The writing here is wonderful. A favourite scene is where wrinkly computer whizz Brian Lane is barred from investigating a case and ordered to keep away, but his two middle-aged compatriots conspire to sneak him into the hotel just the same – as blokes do!

Their feisty boss DS Sandra Pullman discovers they’ve been smuggling bits of their breakfast into his room, and when she discovers one of the guys bringing a cup of tea in to him, erupts into Krakatoa mode. After giving them a protracted and emphatic piece of her mind about how she’s dealing with a bunch of children, she sweeps out. As she slams the door behind her, Brian Lane turns to Bolam’s character and whispers in a line timed to perfection: Did you bring any milk?

As with criminal plots, comedy works best when given an unexpected twist . . .

Maureen has always had a good eye for TV drama, and earlier this year steered me towards Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley.

Sadly I, along with many other viewers, struggled with the sound of this production, and had to really concentrate – and often replay scenes to catch what was going on. Maureen appears blessed with bat-like hearing, as she heard every word and couldn’t understand my protests.

Us lesser mortals really did struggle to keep up.

ear

But it’s an ill wind . . . so when Bev Morriss DOES make it onto TV, this new way of doing cop drama may be no bad thing.

Let’s imagine the script . . .

Bev was right, the frenzied attack HAD taken place in the East Midlands – and the main witness sitting across from her was nervous and sweaty; she’d obviously given up her Pilates membership for Lent some years back and hadn’t renewed, taking the fitness to fatness route by dialling in to the pizza and kebab programme.

The large tattoo on her upper arm glistened as the sun shone through the crack of the interview room window, beads of moisture had formed on her brow and top lip.

This was obviously the gal who’d put the Leicester in cholesterol.

Bev re-established eye contact and said: One last time, Leanne, who was with you that night? 

Well, if you must know, cozzer – it was Mmmpphhmmwrrdy . . .   

Plot lines? Character development? Why knock yourself out if no one’s able to hear it?!

Hey! Thanks to trendy TV production, crime writing just got easy . . . !

 

 

 

CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING

The piece I wrote back in February about my Mr Chips seemed to resonate with you. Brief recap is that after a gap of fifty years, I’d made contact and emailed the wonderful man who taught me English.  I’d long wanted to thank him for instilling in me a love of words.

Well, since then I’ve been able to thank Michael Scarborough in person.  We met last month over lunch (ironically, no chips) and didn’t stop talking the entire time.

Mr Chips and me

If I look happy here it’s because I was and still am. It meant more than I can say to see ‘Mr Scarborough’ again, hear his voice and learn about some of the amazing twists and turns his life has taken. We still have SO much to catch-up on and plan to meet again soon.

Anyway before we said goodbye, I sort of turned the tables and gave my teacher homework. I asked if he’d write a guest post giving his take on being an inspirational Mr Chips.

Here it is . . . I hope you enjoy.

MR CHIPS RESPONDS

A school student may remember an individual teacher but a teacher will have some difficulty remembering a lifetime of students. So to be contacted after fifty odd years by a student and to have some memory of them, and to identify them on an old school photograph, had something intriguing about it. So it was when Maureen got in touch.

old school

Fifty years: my mind could scarcely grasp what life the young pupil I had known might have had, and she might wonder how much of that young English teacher would have survived the fifty years. A meeting would be very interesting.

For myself, Graham Balfour school was a formative experience. It was my first job and in a new school, in a new building, with only a headteacher, two members of staff, a secretary, a caretaker and some forty or so pupils. This encouraged an opportunity for innovation and curriculum adventure and, perhaps because I was educated in the immediate post war years, I wanted change and to put the regimented desks, ink and chalk monitors, the canings and tedious rote learning well behind. Certainly that was my determination. Earlier in life, for a year, I had been a pupil in a very poor secondary modern school and, even at the age of eleven, I had been shocked to see how so many young people were written off as failures, as ‘thickies’. In reality, the failure was not of the pupils but of the system.

If I trawl through my memory of the school there are too many hours of classroom teaching to identify one single lesson as special and there would be something grossly unfair about identifying this pupil as being inspiring,  this one as thoroughly dull or one other as an incorrigible but lovable rogue. But there are two experiences to which my mind has returned many times over the last fifty years.

It was a day in mid October 1962, ultimatum deadline day of the Cuban Missile crisis, when we could not know whether by mid-afternoon the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union would be resolved by a soviet back-down or by nuclear war. I was teaching in an upper room in the school as the clock moved towards the deadline time and I remember so clearly looking across the young faces and wondering just what sort of world we had built for them, what sort of world they might make for their generation. We had to do better than this.

Fierce blizzard

The potential of young people is too often underestimated and unrecognised and I recall vividly one experience where young pupils were to inspire me. A group of pupils and I were on a three day trek in the Peak District. On a high ridge above Castleton the weather suddenly changed and we were caught in freezing winds and a fierce blizzard of snow. Very quickly our spirits took a battering and I became deeply concerned that we were inadequately clothed and that for some it might be impossible to reach our destination safely. Two of the lads approached me, nudged me to one side and one whispered, ‘Come on, let’s get them moving’. With their help, I did.

Lessons were learnt at Graham Balfour not just by pupils but by me. There can be no multiple choice questioning or tick box assessment that can measure the learning there is in experiences like that for both teacher and young person alike.

Donkey travels

I moved from the Stafford school to a College of Education which had radical new ideas about how the excitement of learning might best be nurtured in students. Can I imagine now, in our over-tested and over-structured education system, a college that would give its students a term’s freedom to plan and execute their own adventurous curriculum however creative, however outrageous. Drama, caving, canal ventures, fossil-hunting, art expeditions and even travels with a donkey; they all happened and they all encouraged the awareness that learning can be personally initiated and not merely received and regurgitated. It was an exciting time. It was the sixties.

But how was it that for my final years of employment I worked on educational television for schools?

I suppose I must go back to my own childhood and a father who made it clear that reading anything other than classic works of English literature was to show serious signs of academic weakness. I did, clandestinely of course, read Famous Five books and Biggles’ stories under the bedclothes and The Beano, The Wizard and The Eagle under the desk. There was a value in these publications as well as popularity. Later I could see that if young pupils watched and responded to such television programmes as Dad’s Army, Star Trek or Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, then we should not turn our back on those programmes in English teaching. After a period of research into this at a northern university I was offered the television job and as well as being involved in programme making and support resources. I spent many hours working with young people and their teachers to discover how out-of-school reading could be something more than the target of easy and prejudiced criticism.

Triggered thoughts

In the mid nineteen-fifties the editor of a Derby newspaper had given me a full page spread under the headline: Why so angry young man?  Yes, some of my opinions were angry and naive, some rather silly, some I might even regret today, but I applaud that editor for recognising that the views of young people should not be seen as just the ramblings of difficult adolescents. That opportunity and the angry criticism from some readers gave me the confidence and the challenge I needed to keep me writing.

Hearing from Maureen after all these years has triggered these meandering thoughts and, because of the media and writing parallels in our careers, I’m interested  to learn much more about how she has tackled using words and shaping narratives. I have never written novels but for fourteen years I wrote and broadcast a fortnightly Letter from England to a chain of American radio stations so, for both of us, writing has been a satisfying and important part of our lives.

http://www.krab.fm/KRAB-Programs-other.html#Scarborough

Crime writing is not a genre which I have ever explored, perhaps because my literary prejudices get in the way, but that is precisely why the contact with Maureen feels rewarding: she can take on the task of educating me.

 

Postscript from me . . .

I’m delighted to say I’ve already started the task. I gave Michael a copy of my second book Dead Old which he’s now read. Next time we meet, I’ll be asking questions on the text!

re-branded bev covers

WRITE ON OR WRESTLE WITH?

I’m talking words – get them right or get them down? I ask because recently I spent rather too much time playing Oscar Wilde’s Comma. You recall his dilemma?

oscar

Unlike Oscar, I tinkered with more than the odd comma. I tussled with an entire sequence.

As in . . .

I’m about halfway through writing the the next book in my Bev Morriss crime series. The deadline’s the end of June. As per, I aim to hit a daily daily word count but last month several days went by when no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the words down.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I could. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of words but not les mots justes – they just weren’t singing off the page. To misquote Eric Morecambe, it was a case of all the right words but not necessarily in the right order. Or maybe they were the wrong words in the wrong order.

Whatever, they just didn’t work.

snoopy better

I rewrote the sequence countless times, spent ages reworking, fine-tuning and still it didn’t read, look or sound right. A lot of writers do this, of course. It’s certainly the way I work but not to the extent I had to recently.  And that’s the operative phrase: had to. 

As an author, I’ve never been able to move on to the next passage, even paragraph, until I’m as happy as I can be with the one I’m writing. I know it’s down to the years I spent in TV journalism.

tv report

Every news story I covered, I had to edit, edit and edit until it was right. It had to come in at the correct length and it had to come in on time. Only then could I let it go and move on. I’ve been a fiction writer for fifteen years now and constantly editing is still the way I work.

But, is it the best way?

Since my Oscar experience, I’ve been giving it some serious thought. Was the later version of the passage I’d struggled with for hours and hours really that much sharper? Did the first version not have a fresher feel? Did it not flow equally as well, if not – whisper it – even a little better?  Had I been over-thinking, over-writing? I was certainly overwrought.

Out of interest, I asked a writer friend to cast an eye over both versions. We’re in almost daily touch and share highs and lows (meaning, keep each other sane) and she was well aware I’d been having a hard time. Anyway, I asked her verdict.

Before revealing it, here are two slightly shorter versions of the passages she read.  Bear in mind they’re both early drafts and neither will make it to the book.

 1

‘They live in Bourneville, gaffer. I’m heading out there now with, Tyler.’ Kay Henderson had barely been able to string two words together on the phone. Bev knew a face-to-face would be more effective and if her instinct was on the money, quicker in the long run. She had an inkling the Henderson girl had paid a heavy price for shooting her mouth off. The ultimate. If that was the case, they needed the mother to open up, soon as.

         Having collared Mac in the car park, she’d brought him up to speed as they walked back to the motor. She’d badly needed his chauffeuring services, so she could do some serious detecting en route via the phone. Now she’d accrued a bit more info, she’d just put Powell in the picture.

          ‘So you’re saying this Gemma bird’s got form?’ The DI sounded a tad sceptical; probably thought she was going out of her way to miss the early brief.  But when did the blond ever listen properly? 

          ‘I’m saying if it’s who I think it is she made a false accusation a few years ago that landed a guy in court.’ Bev was still waiting for Terry, a mate on the West Mercia force, to get back with confirmation of the girl’s identity. In the meantime, she was scrolling on-line newspaper reports to refresh her memory. She and Tel had discussed the case in the run-up to the trial and she was ninety per cent sure she’d heard him mention the name, Gemma.

        The Gemma in question had a habit of telling fairy stories. Quite the serial offender. Little Miss Anonymous in the media had got off lightly but the same couldn’t be said for the teacher she targeted. He’d very nearly been sent down before the truth – make that the fantasies – came to light.

2

Could rush hour traffic get any louder?

          ‘Bristol did you say, Morriss?’

          Frowning, Bev clamped the handset tighter to her ear.  ‘No, gaffer, Bourneville. It’s where the family live.’             

        Moira Henderson had barely been able to string two words together on the phone. Bev knew a face-to-face would be more productive and if her instinct was on the money, getting out there now would be a damn sight quicker in the long run. As she’d tried telling Powell – she had an inkling the daughter had paid big time for shooting her mouth off. Either way they needed to get the mother talking, soon as.

           ‘Are you saying this Gemma bird’s got form?’ Powell sounded a tad sceptical; probably thought she’d do anything to avoid the early brief. Her and Mac both. She’d collared him in the car park before he even set foot in the nick. Mac was doing the driving honours while Bev did some homework on the phone.       

          ‘I’m saying if it’s who I think it is she made a false accusation a few years ago that landed a guy in court.’

         The case had been West Mercia’s baby; Bev was still matey with one of the detectives who’d been on the inquiry. She’d messaged Tel the sixty-nine thousand dollar question, and was waiting for an answer. Tel had been well hacked off when the trial collapsed, called the girl all the names under the sun, including – if Bev recalled rightly – Gemma Henderson. 

        ‘And you’re thinking this Aiden bloke’s waited till now for payback?’ Powell sniffed. ‘Sounds pretty unlikely to me.’

          ‘You might be right, gaffer.’ Always a first time.  ‘Won’t know till we’ve checked, will we?’

    What Bev did know was that the Gemma she had in mind had a habit of telling fairy stories.  Little Miss Anonymous in the media had got off lightly considering she’d spun a web of lies. Unlike the guy she’d vilified. Apart from having his reputation shredded, Aiden Manners had very nearly lost his liberty before the truth – and fantasies – came to light.

 

So which version did my author friend prefer? The first. Her thinking? That it had the edge in pace and focus. I have to say neither version really did it for me, and I agonised a while more until feeling happy enough to move on. Still I found it an interesting experiment, hardly scientific, but it certainly made me question further the way I work.

edit

The bottom line is – I know I won’t change. Probably, can’t. Not least because other factors come into play.  I feel if a sequence is wrong it can have a knock-on effect on the next and the next and so on. Plus I’d hate to get to the end of a book knowing there are sections that aren’t right and that serious work’s needed to fix them.

Not, I hasten to add, that I’m ever completely happy with a book when it’s finished. Is any author? I fine-tooth comb the script several times, editing and tightening yet again.  But when it’s ready to go to my editor, at least I know that – as far as I can – I’ll have hit the right notes in just about the right order.

Until the edit comes back.

To finish – two of my favourite quotes on writing.

 

And as for Mr Hemingway’s words . . . I couldn’t put it better myself.

rewrite

BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I . . .

Didn’t sit down and weep. I spent hours chatting to someone I’d never before met. And, no, I’m not in the habit of foisting conversation and copious cups of coffee on the unwary stranger.

I knew this person, but only through social media and her blog. We’d exchanged emails and messages, commented on each other’s posts and pictures but being e-friends is no guarantee that people will click – pun intended – in the real world. Who’s to say we wouldn’t take an instant dislike to each other and run screaming to the nearest exit?

Needless to say that didn’t happen.

grand central

We met at Grand Central in Birmingham. I was already ensconced in Carluccio’s waiting for her train to get in from the East Midlands.

Our profile pics can’t be too ancient as we recognised each other straight away. What’s more I’m delighted to say we hit it off from the word, go. Word being the operative, well, word.

From the moment Elaine Aldred spoke it was obvious that, like me, she’s passionate about the written word. We bonded over books: writing them, reading them, reviewing them. Coffee-d out, we moved on to lunch; discussion spilled over into publishing, authors we admire (or not), the editing process and just about every aspect of crime writing: fictional detectives, favourite characters, cracking plots to dialogue that sings off the page.

elaine aldred

Elaine’s genre is more difficult to categorise but leans towards science fiction. At the moment she’s fitting in fiction writing around an academic career and to coin a phrase: I don’t know how she does it.

Already armed with a BA in Creative and Professional Writing from the University of Nottingham, she’s currently completing a doctorate in education also from Nottingham and still finds time – among a host of other things – to produce a really excellent blog.

Not surprisingly the strange alliances blog explores different styles of writing. Elaine also crafts detailed and intelligent book reviews and author interviews. It really is worth checking out:

https://strangealliances.wordpress.com/about/

When we went our separate ways Elaine was off to – what else? – a book launch. On the way home, I immersed myself in serious research on the number 50 bus: people-watching and shameless eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations.

Which brings us neatly back to meeting people we don’t ‘really’ know . . .

Without social media Elaine and I would probably never have connected. So thank you Facebook for bringing us together. I went away that day feeling I’d made a real friend and let’s face it – there are few better ways to spend free time than drinking coffee and talking books with a committed bibliophile.

Unless, of course, it’s rendezvousing over a glass or two of vino in Grand Central New York?

World_USA_New_York_Grand_Central_Terminal_018858_

What do you say, Elaine? Next time?