This is what happens: you get your notebooks ready, and your pens. You dig out all the scraps of paper you jotted down notes on over the last six months or so. You read them carefully and get yourself back into the 1930s, maybe put on a little Al Bowlly to create the mood. Then you carefully read all your other little bits and pieces – the entry in your journal that you wrote two months ago talking about how excited you were to start your new book. You’ve been playing around on Canva creating a book cover, then you killed half an hour here and there creating mock-ups promos on Book Brush.
And then it happens. There’s a slight breeze in your office, the curtain stirs, the pages of your notebook riffle at the corners. You hear a sound. You hold your breath listening hard. Yes, you hear it, softly at first but growing louder, more insistent.
It’s the siren song of the Other WIP – like the other woman/man in a romantic relationship – it’s sole purpose is to try to seduce you away from your current WIP with the promise that you will be happier with them, and trying to lure you away from your ‘one-true-love-WIP’, who, it says, doesn’t understand you and isn’t fulfilling your needs.
It’s hard to resist the call when it comes. Every little argument you raise up in rebuttal it knocks down flat with tempting scenes you could write, or snappy names for the characters you are refusing to bring to life. You hear snippets on the TV or the radio and the siren says, ‘Oh that would work very nicely in chapter 7, where…’ Or potential cover images throw themselves in your path every time you have to quickly pop over to Pixabay or Shutterstock. Everywhere you look the universe seems to scream out in favour of the Other WIP, and no matter how often you say the magic formula: ‘It’s not your time. You’re not until June and July!’ the words grow weaker and less convincing every time you utter them. You refuse to look at the little pile of notebooks lying ready for your attention later in the year. Oh dear, there’s a fine film of dust on them. You feel a twinge of guilt.
Oh how pretty, how fresh, how alluring the promise of the new story is. How bright the ideas are. The promise of ‘happy ever after’ is there, and the story vows it will be everything you’ve ever wanted to write.
As you glance back metaphorically over your shoulder at the sulking form of your Current WIP, you can only see the problems: the plot holes, the saggy bits where it won’t quite gel, where the characters do whatever they like, or they won’t do anything at all. You see all those repeated actions, once so sweet and appealing, now just irritating. It feels as though you’ve been writing this book for years instead of just a few months. You tell yourself you’re just tired, and that if you work through this bit, things will be easier, more fulfilling.
But then it calls you again…
How do you choose? Stay on the straight and narrow road, sticking to discipline and your (slightly vague and woolly) plan? Or go for a joyous run ‘off-piste’ – pantsing it from morning to night? Yes, you know you’ll regret it come revision time, and you’ve got no first draft to revise, but there’s a tiny suspicion lurking in the back of your mind that maybe it could actually be worth it.
I think I may have written about this topic before, but I feel it’s one of the most under-estimated skills any writer can have. (Persistence, I mean, not repeating yourself, I do that all the time. Actually that is useful too, for helping me to remember things through repetition…)What is persistence?
To me persistence means a dogged determination to the point of stubbornness to keep going, overcome resistance in yourself and the world around you, to press on towards a goal you have no tangible proof you will ever reach. It means turning your back on discouragement, detractors, self-doubt (which most writers have in abundance?, laziness, weariness, even pain and illness to MAKE yourself achieve something specific or reach a certain goal.
Why is persistence a useful tool to have in your arsenal? What does it contribute to your life or work?
is character-building – you come to realise you are capable of more than you may have believed initially.
is prioritising – you realise that the most important things in life don’t come without you working hard for them.
you learn to persevere, and build resilience and inner strength.
you learn to trust yourself and believe in yourself.
you come to value the results of your hard work.
when times are tough, you have previous experience to draw on to get you through.
How to be persistent:
Eat well, sleep well, take care of yourself, allow yourself down-time.
Develop a routine. Routines can enhance creativity, rather than block it or stifle it. A routine means you are mentally prepared at a certain time to undertake a specific task. that means half the work is done already!!
Keep a journal to record your feelings, even the negative ones. Allow yourself to rant or wail if need be. Don’t forget to record your successes, though, as these will keep you going during tough times when you feel like nothing is working.
Talk to people who understand and support you. You don’t need to be alone in the middle of your struggle.
Set manageable goals, even if it means doing a larger number of smaller tasks rather than a few big tasks. Breaking a large task or goal into small pieces is the key approach. By chipping away at a large task bit by bit you will make progress – it may not be easy to see the results right away but it is easier to work this way in the long haul, and achieving many small goals is excellent for your confidence. This is also a great way to talk yourself into tackling what feels like an impossible or overwhelming job.
Don’t listen to your negative thoughts. Learn to recognise then ignore your inner critic who tells you things like: ‘this is a waste of time’, ‘you’ll never be good enough’, or ‘it’s too hard for you’, and that old favourite, ‘not everyone is destined to succeed’. This is probably the hardest thing to overcome, and really requires you to laugh at the inner voice or negative thought and say ‘so what, I’m going to do it anyway.’
Roll up your sleeves, grit your teeth, and get on with it. Don’t wait until you are ‘in the mood’ or feel inspiration strike. Nine times out of ten, inspiration waits for you to make the first move. Show the universe – and yourself – that you are going to do this.
Reward yourself and feel proud of your achievements. And don’t whatever you do, punish yourself if you feel you have fallen short of your goal. Remember too that pride in a job well done is not a sensation that you necessarily get right away. If you have been engaged for a long time on a demanding project, it can take quite a while to recover, then feel a sense of satisfaction. Be patient, be kind to yourself.
Basically persistence is being super stubborn, and refusing to give in or back down. Find what you want to do and do everything in your power to do it.
Just remember, you can do anything you set your mind to, but it takes action, perseverance, and facing your fears.
I’m in love with the idea of the closed or walled community.
Whether it is the hallowed halls of the much-loved country house of so many murder mysteries, or Brother Cadfael’s cloistered world, or a virtual closed community such as Miss Marple’s village with its familiar cottages, vicarage, post office, farms and manor houses, or Poirot’s Art Deco mansionette, with neighbours above and below, people you rarely glimpse and often only hear, or to take things a step further, your suspect or your victim could join a coach tour as in Judith Cranswick’s murder mysteries, or cruise on an ocean liner as in Dawn Brookes’ mysteries, or perhaps holiday on an island cut off from mainland, or a flee to a secret commune hidden away in the mountains, living a simple life a century behind the rest of the world. A mystery could be set in a submarine, or a plane, a train, in a hospital ward, on a space station, almost anywhere where there is a limit to how people get in and out of the place.
All these can be viewed as closed communities, separate from the wider world, with no one to turn to but themselves. As such they are excellent settings for a crime novel. This way you can limit and isolate a small group of suspects. ‘It must have been one of us.’
You’d think that with a small number of suspects, say a maximum of ten or twelve, you’d be stuck for ideas, but a number of that size, compared to, say, a group of four, actually gives quite a lot of alternatives, yet it’s not such a huge number as to be too big for readers to get to grips with. Is there anything worse as a reader than muddling the characters and forgetting who is married to who or who did or said that crucial thing which led to that big scene? So it’s got to be easy to keep track of the suspects.
All too often characters are not even remotely who or what they claim to be. In fact we as a reader more or less depend on that being the case. That’s the fun of it, after all. Secrets can be recently acquired or buried (sometimes literally) in the dim and distant past. A young couple who get on well, who seem devoted in every way. How do we really know that they are a couple? Maybe they are cousins? Or even brother and sister—oooh! What if one of them is already married to someone else?
But for me, without doubt, the best type of closed community to have is one where your story is set in the past.
If you situate a story back in the past, to before identity documents and proof-of-life searches, to a time before healthcare records, driving licenses, the internet, mobile phones, credit checks and credit cards, ATMs, CCTV and ANPR, it immediately becomes a hundred times more difficult to keep track of a person’s comings and goings. There’s a reason why there were so many bigamous marriages two hundred, or even just one hundred years ago. You wouldn’t have to travel very far to find a place where no one knew you at all. Even just the next county would be today’s equivalent of moving to the other side of the world.
You could be whoever you said you were. Who was to know any different?
In some ways it could be quite freeing: no more mistakes to hover over your shoulder like Banquo’s ghost. A goodbye to unhealthy relationships, or domineering friendship groups, toxic working environment or sad memories. Hello to bigamy, escaping justice and living the high life. If things happen to get too hot, simply up sticks and move on. A quick change in appearance, and you’re a whole different person, and no one any the wiser.
But this made it very difficult to bring someone to justice: only a parish register would contain the bare essentials of a person’s life: their date of birth/Christening, their marriage, or that of their parents. School or work records, but these wouldn’t usually have a photo or a detailed physical description. There might be the odd police record for those who had crossed paths with the authorities, but those minor obstacles aside, all you really had left was anecdotal evidence.
Of course, some people who commit crimes are not very good at keeping their head down and getting on with their new life, and making the most of the chance of a new start. Old habits resurface, and the crime is committed again, making detection a real possibility. By contrast, though, a person of reasonable intelligence, often incredibly devious or someone who was simply content to lay low and not draw attention to themselves, could reasonably expect to get away with most of the guilty secrets of their past.
But no doubt, they always looked over their shoulder, to make sure no one was watching them.
Hats for fun/frolics – we need to bring these back!
My stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. You might think that’s a bit odd for someone who writes cosy mysteries, and you’d be right. Very often in a cosy mystery, you meet a collection of characters who tend to be caricatures, almost, of ‘typical’ people you might meet in the situation where the crime occurs, and it is the story – the plot – that is of primary importance. I’m not saying that my minor characters are fully realised, well-rounded and recognisable individuals, but I try.
The problem for me is that my books usually have a vast range of characters in them (and FYI it’s a nightmare and a half trying to think of names for them all) so there’s not always the space in the story to give everyone their own life without totally confusing the reader. It can be hard for me, let alone the reader, to keep track of everyone. With Night and Day: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 1 I put in a character list à la old-school mysteries, thinking that would be helpful to readers (having been castigated for not putting one in) but I got even more complaints about that. So in the end it was just easier to leave it out.
And I’ve tried to create complex, realistic people as my main characters. They have faults and flaws. It is not my intention to write a book where the main characters don’t grow or change, or are completely perfect. I want them to mess up – and my main characters do that big-time. I want them to be relatable.
In my Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, I have two detectives who are the ‘main’ protagonists, Dottie herself and Inspector Hardy, with a supporting cast of around a dozen other ‘regulars’. Then each story has its own characters on top of that. My protagonists are not the isolated individuals of many books in my genre–no brooding detective all alone with their ghosts for me. No, mine both have a family who pop in and out, often the source of useful information or connections, or just serving as a distraction or to illustrate some aspect of the character of my main people. In addition, they also have careers and are involved with work colleagues who again cannot be overlooked all the time.
And then as I say, each mystery requires its own cast of players–the numbers are rising! Making people really stand out can be a challenge. There are reasons for this.
Obviously the first reason is me. I have only a limited experience of life. I think that’s the same for most of us. We always, consciously or unconsciously, bring our own life experiences, attitudes and beliefs, and our flaws and strengths with us when we create anything. It’s been said that authors put something–sometimes quite a lot-of themselves into what they create. How can they not? So I try to compensate for this by doing a lot of research, and by trying to create people who are not much like me. I’m not sure how well I succeed with that.
But I don’t like to read books where the detective is perfect. I’m bored by protagonists who are perfect, who always behave the right way, say the right thing, do the right thing, who think clearly at all times and never get confused, puzzled or befuddled, who don’t lash out, or say the wrong thing, or believe liars or cheats. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And then have to live with the consequences.
In addition to that, I’d like to think the characters grow. I’ve lost track of how many detective series I’ve stopped bothering with because I couldn’t deal with the fact that the protagonists never ever learn from their mistakes, or keep on acting in an implausible or unprofessional manner despite twenty years as a police inspector etc. Because in real life we do learn, most of the time, don’t we? Or we try to.
My character Cressida in the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy grows a little. As the trilogy goes on, she travels from being a designer-label obsessed airhead to being a caring mother and family-oriented person who doesn’t mind seaside staycations as that brings a lot of fun to all the family. Okay, she does still love a nice outfit, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life. And yes, she is still a bit manipulative, but she genuinely cares about the people close to her. which is why she gets into the messes she gets into, trying to help people by getting rid of some of the–ahem–nuisances in their lives. Oh yes, she is still a mass-murdering monster – but a nice one.
In my stand-alone novel, Easy Living, the main character Jane goes from a rose-tinted truth-denying outlook to recognising and facing up to the truth about her relationship – and it hurts her a great deal to come to terms with that. It’s a good thing she has three close – though dead – friends who are determined to stick by her side every step of the way.
Someone recently sent me a personal message on Facebook to outline all the things she disliked about my work. We’re not friends. I hadn’t explicitly invited her to give me any career pointers or to advise me on my work. I say ‘explicitly’ because in a sense, by publishing my books, I have invited a certain level of criticism. And I do believe that we should have free speech and that people should be able to say what they think. I don’t believe in censorship that tells people what they are allowed or not allowed to say or think.
However, part of me wonders what this woman intended to achieve with her message. I admit I don’t really understand why she did it. Did she think I’d immediately promise to rewrite all my books her way? Or that I’d stop writing? Or that I’d learn some kind of valuable lesson from her and turn my life around? Or did she want her money back? An apology? If I have ever disliked a book, I’ve just not read any more by that author. No writer can be all things to all people, and a writing style I like may not appeal to someone else. I’ve never contacted someone directly to tell them I hate their work.
To that person, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. It’s perfectly fine that you have an opinion. I don’t plan to contact you to explain myself.
Does Dottie grow? I believe she does. When we meet her in book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries, Night and Day, she is very young (19) and is mainly interested in having fun and going dancing. She’s a teenager, after all, and from a well-to-do, privileged background. She works from choice, not necessity, and can please herself entirely with what she does all day.
After two years of stumbling over corpses, she becomes more confident, more caring towards others. She becomes a business-woman and has to learn, almost from scratch, how to run her business. Added to that, as she grows up and goes out into the world around her, she is trying to understand life and human experience, is losing her childlike idealisation of people. Not only was the world of Britain in the 1930s light-years away from life in our era, it was also a time of massive sweeping changes. I like to think Dottie stays true to herself: she passionately believes in working hard, doing the right thing, helping people and giving support to those who need it. She is terminally nosy and always wants to understand what’s going on in people’s lives. In that respect, I believe she is relatable and ‘realistic’, hopefully sympathetic.
Obviously, I’ve only been writing for a few years. I published Criss Cross in 2013, and had only completed six full-length novels before that. So I consider myself still very much a learning writer. One day I hope to be an excellent writer. Until then I plan to grow and learn, and I hope my characters will do the same.
Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran. (rock not included)
Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran.
We all know that one, don’t we? Though I usually get rugged and ragged back to front. I have to remind myself that whilst a rascal can be rugged or ragged, a rock can pretty much only be rugged.
As we learned in junior school, alliteration is putting together words with the same initial letter. In the case of the above phrase, R, the pirate’s favourite letter. This repetition is the foundation of our childhood tongue-twisters. English is not the only language to have these:
Schnecken erschrecken, wenn sie an Schnecken schlecken, weil zum Schrecken vieler Schnecken Schnecken nicht schmecken.(translation: Snails are shocked when they lick snails because to the surprise of many snails, snails don’t taste good).
Der Grabengräber gräbt die Gräben. Der Grubengräber gräbt die Gruben. Graben Grabengräber Gruben? Graben Grubengräber Gräben? Nein! Grabengräber graben Gräben. Grubengräber graben Gruben.(translation: The gravedigger digs graves. The ditchdigger digs ditches. Do ditchdiggers dig graves? Do gravediggers dig ditches? No! Gravediggers dig graves. Ditchdiggers dig ditches.)
So now you know! Feel free to use these at virtual-parties, to amaze and impress your friends.
Amuse your cat with a large repertoire of tongue-twisters in various languages…
Alliteration can be a useful literary device when writing, and like most literary devices, it is used to make the reader feel, view or interpret your writing in a particular way by creating a mood or appearance. But use it sparingly. The problem with any literary device, is that all too easily it can draw attention away from what you’re writing and turn the focus to how you’re writing. This will distract your reader from your story in the same way you can sometimes fail to see the puppet-show because you’re focusing on the strings. Having spent all that time gently leading the reader to suspend disbelief, you don’t want to ruin things by breaking the spell now.
Here are a few more literary devices:
Sibilance is the repeated use of an S sound, or a hissing sound. You put together words with lots of S, SH and soft C sounds: Sid’s silly scented snake slithered smoothly across the shiny façade. Unlike with Alliteration, the repeated sounds don’t have to be confined to the beginning of the word.
Assonance is the repeated use of vowel sounds: cut jug, heed beat, or the same or similar consonants with different vowels: jiggle juggle, dilly-dally.
Consonance is the repetition of matching consonant sounds: ruthless cutthroats, repeated reports. It can quickly descend into Alliteration if only the initial letter(s) are repeated!
”A soldier’s life is terrible hard,’ said Alice.’
These are used to create a certain mood, or an attitude, or making the reader see a character or setting in a particular way. These can also imbue your writing with a poetic or lyrical quality. You might want your readers mesmerised by a particular scene if you are going to follow it with something spectacular: the calm before the storm effect. Think of movies where there is a soft love scene before the hero goes into battle.
In fact most poetry contains one or more of these devices. Think ofWordworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, with all the repeated Ls, the Hs, the Ds, the long vowels of wandered, lonely and cloud. Or Buckingham Palace by A A Milne, with its repeated lines and rhyming words.
Or in this, one of my favourite short poems, there is a clever mixture of all these devices – see if you can spot them!
Song by Christina Rosetti
When I am dead, my dearest
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
These literary devices can have a unifying effect, making all parts fit together with a repetition of shared letters and sounds, or by ensuring the reader remembers certain sounds or words. But like all good things, in prose it needs to be used in moderation. Don’t make your writing just a collection of tongue-twisters!
Hold everything! EBook NOW available to pre-order (paperback will be released at the same time)
This is an update on the progress of Dottie Manderson book 6 – The Spy Within. Like most of my posts about new books – it begins with an apology. I know, I know in a rash moment of optimism and craziness I said ‘coming Summer 2020’. Even as I said it, my fingers were crossed and I was telling myself, ‘But Summer can be any time between June or August, right?’
But you know, guys, look at what the rest of 2020 has been like. I’ve got a good excuse, haven’t I? Probably the best I’ve had so far. Therefore I’m pleased – though slightly worried – to announce that I plan to release The Spy Within ‘some time’ in October this year. That’s not long! (Note to me: Oh heck, that’s really not long! Argh!) I’m sorry it’s late, but it’s been a tough one. I know I say that about all of them.
To begin with, for some reason it was really, really long. I waffled far more than usual. So I’ve had a lot of tightening up to do. And I had too many strands of plot to juggle. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor). I’ve therefore had to cut loads out, constantly asking myself, ‘Yes that’s fine, but does it really tell us anything new?’ ‘How does it get us further forward?’ It’s quite hard to cut out a scene you love but which deep in your heart, you know serves no purpose at all. I have a document which is all outtakes. Not as funny as the ones you see on TV, that’s for sure, and getting longer every day.
The Spy Within is another crossroads story. Dottie is faced with some new and demanding situations, and of course uses her genuine love of people to find out the truth behind certain rumours and to ferret out answers to help William. We are going to find out a bit more about William’s background, meet a couple more of his family, enjoy quite a few afternoon teas (always high on my list of priorities), and finally the Mantle will come together, a year after the case in which it first featured. (The Mantle of God: Dottie Manderson mysteries: book 2.)
If you are Team Gervase, get ready for some hard truths to be revealed. And – hint, hint – to see your fave wiped off the slate. Sorry about that. Sorry not sorry. Haha.
If you are Team William, get ready for things to finally start going your way. (Less of a hint, more of a massive nudge.) You might need chocolate, wine or your preferred indulgence/support for emotional scenes.
Chapter One is the only part of the book fully revised and currently not surrounded by warning signs, men in hard hats, and scaffolding, and if you’re bored enough tempted, you can read it here. Hope you like it.
Writers are known for doing a lot of research, aren’t they? Or perhaps it depends on the kind of thing they write. It’s probably possible to write a book and not need to do much research at all.
Some writers seem to do tons of research, and they make sure that you, the reader, get to read all of it. ALL. OF. IT. They present it to you like a magician pulling a bunny out of a hat. This is called an information dump. Throwing all your research in this way can be tedious, and will slow down the pace of the story drastically. I mean, yes, it’s nice to offer these insights or explanations to your reader, but I don’t think it’s a good plan to completely exhaust your reader, overwhelming them with information so they feel like they’re cramming for an exam.
Do I really need to know the source of the leather used to make the hero’s shoes, or the style of the traditional hand-stitching that finished them off? I mean, unless that pushes the plot forward, I seriously doubt it’s something I need to know to enable me to enjoy the book. I skip all this type of stuff in books—there’s not enough time in my day or patience in my soul to read about the handstitchedness of a chap’s shoes. I doubt I even need to be told the hero is wearing shoes—I think it’s pretty much taken as read that he or she is wearing shoes, don’t you? Unless you’re the author or Kinky Boots or some other shoe-related plot, I don’t think it’s useful or helpful.
I don’t do a lot of research for my novels. Well, that’s not strictly true. If it’s something that interests me, I can waste hours on it, but if I’m purely trying to find out about something ‘ordinary’ then I can take it or leave it. I nip in, check the fact, and nip out again. Then I try to drip-feed it into the story if relevant–a little here, a little there.
As a writer mainly of murder mysteries, I know more than I really need to about methods of killing, about the human body after death, about the psychology of a killer—those are the things that intrigue me. My search history on my computer is enough to make a grown man blanch. But I try not to crowbar it all into my story except where it’s relevant.
As my main character in the Dottie books is ‘involved’ in the fashion industry, and because of personal interest, I spend quite a lot of time researching styles, technology relating to fabric production, and the mechanics of getting a frock to a customer from drawing board to shop assistant. And I’ll admit, quite a bit of this does get put into the book: readers have told me they enjoy the clothing details.
A lot of my research is conducted online, of course, as so much of everything is done these days. But any time I go out, I look for architectural features or cultural ideas that could come in useful in a book. I take photos of everything when I go out. (Or used to, back in the day when going out was a thing we all could do).
I’ve got tons of books too, on fashion history, cultural history, domestic and social history, and even on forensics.
For my research into designer brands—I’m not a designer brand kind of girl—for my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy, I basically scanned Harrods website and selected the most expensive (insert item of choice here) I could find on their pages and awarded it to my protagonist. But those books have been around for the best part of ten years now, so may well be a bit out of date.
So if you plan to write a book and need to do some research, or if like me you are simply really nosy, here are my top favourites for online research:
Google maps – you can look around any town, not just in the UK but many other countries. Fancy a stroll around the streets of southern France? No problem. Want to drive through Warsaw? Easy peasy. Get a feel for the places you write about and see the real life layout (even if from two years ago) of your location. You can also get an approximate journey time and route all laid out for you. I love the internet!
Timeanddate.com – create yourself a printable or downloadable calendar from 1926. Or any other year from history. Want to know when there was a full moon in the Victorian era? No problem. Was Easter Sunday in 1958 in March or April? When was sunset or sunrise on a particular day? It’s all here. Super useful.
Wikipedia – yes everything seems to be on Wiki – but use with caution and try to verify the information here on other sites too, to ensure accuracy.
Want old street maps of London? Try maps-of-london.com
You can also get loads of useful information from police websites, every police service has them.
Newspapers online – so much useful material there.
The Victoria and Albert museum has a wonderful website. And no doubt other museums have, too. We’re all online nowadays, aren’t we?
Britainexplorer.com has information on interesting places. I used it to find out about a particular country house with priestholes or secret passages.
Another time, I needed to know about everyday life in Britain in the 1930s, and researched telephones. Now we take a phone for granted, but in the 30s they were still pretty new and very much the preserve of the well-to-do. This blog post from italktelecom.com was very helpful
But if you take away anything from this, I hope it is, it’s easy to find out information you need, but use it carefully, don’t overwhelm your reader with information that is perhaps interesting to you but not actually needed.
Sorry, it’s a ridiculously long post this week. It’s a remodel of a post I did for good author friend Emma Baird back in August of 2017:
I love rewriting.
There, I’ve said it. I think I could be the only person in the history of the world who actually enjoys rewriting. In fact, I like it a lot more than writing the first draft. I hate that bit. Okay, maybe not hate. I love the thrill of writing the first 50 pages or so, when it’s all fresh and exciting, and the story begins to unfold on the page. I love, love love that.
But… sooner or later I always hit the first-draft wall. I know it’s partly because I don’t plot, so I get suddenly overwhelmed with two issues: ‘This is rubbish’ and ‘I’m lost and don’t know where I’m going’. I’m a pantser, so sue me, I hate to plot. But it makes the initial experience of writing a draft rather an emotional, rivers-deep-mountains-high kind of affair. But… rewriting, oh that is a whole new thing. I LOVE rewriting. You are free from the ‘burden’ of creating and, you can step back from your work, examine it carefully, and then you can begin to polish and tidy.
This is my favourite quote by any writer. It inspired me so much in the 80s and 90s when I knew I wanted to be a writer, but didn’t know how to be a writer. Mary Wibberley was a writer for Mills and Boon, so her book was aimed at writers of romance, and that’s why she was setting that word count of 56,000 words as an aim. For many years, as I tried to learn how to write, I would not relax and have confidence in myself until I had reached that 56,000 word point: when I reached that, I knew I could finish the book, even if it ended up being twice that length.
The point Mary was making was this: Don’t try to revise as you go. I know there are always a few people that system works for, but trust me, it’s not for most people. You get so bogged down in the detail that you never progress. You can spend your whole life perfecting chapter one and never move on.
Write the whole book, from beginning to end, always looking forwards, pressing on till you reach that glorious, astounding moment when you type: ‘The End’. If you can’t remember the names and places mentioned earlier in the story, just do what I do and put a massive X in its place. Or a note to yourself highlighted in bright yellow, so you can’t miss it as you scroll down the page. Or refer to a list of names and places you create as you go along.
It’s so much easier to revise a whole book. Like creating a sculpture, you’ve got that solid block to chip away at. You know where the story is going. You know the shape of it.
After finishing your first draft, don’t immediately start revisions. Unless you are on the clock and the deadline is almost on you, put the book away for as long as you can. This is the perfect time to write another book. Yes, really! Especially if you intend to write a series. Leave your first draft for at least a few weeks, ideally a few months, or even a year. You will need to approach it next time around with a degree of detachment to get out of writer mode and into rewriter or editor mode.
So you’re ready to start.
Read it. Don’t write anything. Don’t type, don’t tweak, fiddle, twiddle or jiggle. Just read the whole story through from beginning to end. You are trying to get an overview. Become a reader.
Then, later, go through it again but read it – as much as possible – out loud. I know that can be difficult to manage but it really will help you find some problems you otherwise will not notice. This time, make notes on how you feel about the book. Does the plot progress logically? (unless an illogical plot is essential to your story!) Do you have that sensation of tripping up as you read—a bit like when you miss a stair and think you’re falling—that’s when there’s a problem, usually a plot problem. Your spidey-senses will show it to you. Try to pinpoint what it was that made you feel like that. Put a sticky note on the page, or if you’re reading a computer file, highlight the section, or bookmark it, or make a new note in the Track Changes section.
If you’re frustrated by not being able to make changes as you spot them, or worried you might forget, again, make notes in the Track Changes feature of Word, or pencil notes in the margin, or use sticky notes if working with a paper copy. Just don’t change the body of the book yet. Hopefully after rereading the whole book, you will be able to see the strengths and weaknesses of your draft. You will see what needs to go. If not, give it to a trusted friend or writing pal to read. Ask them to be honest and not just pat you on the back. Rewriting can feel very much like ‘fixing problems’ or putting right things that are wrong. This can be quite demoralising. Don’t get into this mind set of ‘It’s no good, I’m no good’. Everyone has –or should have–a terrible first draft. Remember, you’re polishing, refining. Think of rough diamonds compared with the final polished article. You’re putting flesh on a flexible framework. It’s all good.
Save your file in its original state, then copy it and rename it. Rename as ‘final version’ or ‘second draft’ or something like that. If it goes to pot, you’ve still got your original first draft if you need it. (You won’t… but it’s like a security blanket.) Start tinkering.
Start with the easy stuff like typos, clarity, and grammar.
Then check consistency of character description and behaviour; the names and personal details of all characters; check place-names are correct and consistent throughout. Work with your timeline – is it clear when the events of the book take place. Is it dark at the right time, or have you got someone outside and seeing perfectly clearly at ten o’clock at night in winter? Weekends, summer-time, these can give characters different routines to the one for weekdays.
Then move on to point of view. With POV, consistency is everything. If you’re writing anything other than an omniscient third person viewpoint, then there will be things your characters cannot know until it is revealed to them. Make sure you’ve nailed that.
Next, check for all those words you overuse. For me, that’s words like So, And and Also. A friend of mine uses Thus in almost every paragraph… it’s really annoying. Check how often your characters do the same thing: mine are always gasping, sighing, biting their lips or tossing back their hair. They also glare a good deal. I’m rationing myself with all these overused expressions.
If you use unusual words to describe something, don’t repeat them more than once because unusual words stick in the reader’s mind and break the spell: the worst possible offence you can commit as a writer of fiction is to pull your reader out of the book and into the real world where they are a reader, not a character in your story. You want them to read your book, not remember they have laundry to do. Make less use of unusual words such as coterie or Schadenfreude, words that really stand out from the page. Find synonyms for words you need to repeat, so they seem less noticeably repeaty. (I know that’s a word, don’t nag me about it.) If you use cliches—please don’t—but if you absolutely must, do it just once, don’t repeat them.
Check hyphenation, apostrophe use, adverbs and speech tags. I don’t agree with the ‘never use adverbs, they’re evil’ approach, but do use them sparingly. (See what I did there?) Keep metaphors and especially similes to a minimum, unless writing poetry, they are also irritating, and often amount to little more than another cliche. Don’t use fussy speech tags: he responded, she retorted, they exclaimed, etc. Once in a while is fine, but to begin with, you don’t need to tag every speech, just enough so the reader can keep track of who said what. The word ‘said’, 90% of the time, is the best speech tag there is, it’s invisible, the reader ignores it.
Never, ever use the word ejaculate to mean exclaim. We don’t live in the world of the Famous Five anymore, if indeed we ever did. You just can’t do it without making your reader burst out laughing or become highly offended.
Check your tense scenes or action scenes for long, meandering sentences that slow the reader down and take forever to read, or have to be reread to try to figure out the meaning. Check slow, reflective, emotional or romantic scenes for accidentally humorous clangers, or break-neck short sentences that rush the reader too quickly through the text.
Read it again. And again. Tweak as you go, now, but remember some changes will have a knock-on effect and need to be addressed multiple times throughout the book, so don’t forget to change every instance of a word throughout the book, not just once. Be cautious with using find/replace as some words will be a syllable in a longer word. If you change his to hers, for example, using ‘replace all’, you will end up with words like machersmo instead of machismo and other similarly hilarious but disastrous typos. Now pass the draft to your close friends/beta-readers/book group, for your first round of feedback.
Then—I hate to say it—you need to do it all again. I read somewhere that if you don’t hate your book by the time it is published, you haven’t done enough work on it, and believe me I’ve come so, so close to hating a couple of my books. Your book is not ready for your editor or proofreader until you are absolutely convinced that it’s perfect. Trust me, it won’t be. But it’ll be pretty close. As an editor, there’s nothing more heartbreaking than getting a script that is little more than a first draft. It’s like seeing a neglected, unloved child. So show your baby some love.
When you make your first sale, it will feel like it was worth every minute.
These days we aren’t as shocked as we once were when someone drops the F-bomb. I think we’ve just got used to what we usually refer to as bad language.
I’m in danger of lapsing into one of those scenes so typical of the older generation: You know them. The sort of thing that starts with an old bat saying, ‘When I was young…’ But there’s no denying it was a different world. Do you remember how the newspaper used to headline such things as ‘The Filth and The Fury’? That was when the Daily Mirror blasted the Sex Pistols for their language in 1977? Or what about the infamous December 1976 Bill Grundy interview where the interviewer goaded Johnny Rotten into using the F-word on TV ‘for only the third time in the history of British Television’. You could hear pearls being clutched for miles around. There was public outrage. Or so we are told. Middle-aged people all over the country shook their heads over the decline of social morals and called for national service to come back. I privately thought, so what? But I then was a teenager, and I think most teens probably thought the same. Does anyone remember Mary Whitehouse and her campaign to clean up Britain? She wanted to rid the country of filth. She said references to sex were ‘dirty’, and bad language was disgusting. (She was perfectly lampooned in an episode of the detective TV series, Endeavour.)
And yes, I know that naughty words are as old as the Ark. No doubt some of them sprang from that time. Can you imagine trying to herd a bunch of animals into a boat and getting poo on your foot or a slobbery tongue in your face and NOT swearing? I know I would have had a few choice words to say. Probably, ‘Stop mucking about you idiots, and get on the f-ing boat, I’m getting wet here.’
‘Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs!’ exclaimed Marcus in surprise. ‘Oi, Marcus, what you on about?’ Burt and Harry wanted to know.
Chaucer and Shakespeare used their own versions of our modern insults and foul words, and paved the way for colourful terms to enter everyday English. These greatly enriched our approach to incidents, frustrations, injuries, and annoyances that require relief through a vigorous use of very expressive language. Because apparently, studies have shown that swearing relieves stress and enables us to cope in stressful situations. I know it helps me.
I should just add, in Britain we call it swearing. That is using bad language. Not making an oath in a court. That’s a whole different kind of swearing. No, I’m talking here about what in America, is often called cursing. But you could call it blaspheming (possibly), using expletives, foul language, or as we say in Britain ‘Effing and Blinding’, (a euphemism for saying Fuck and Bloody), the term for this is using a ‘minced oath’ or ‘minced words’ – to take a profanity and adapt it to render it less offensive. We use this in everyday speech when we say of someone ‘They don’t mince their words’, which basically means, they are extremely forthright in what they say, usually offensively so. Some examples of minced oaths: Feck, Blooming/Flipping Heck, Oh Shoot, Darn it, etc.
‘Well hush my mouth.’
While we’re discussing the differences between the US and the UK, let me just say this: Bloody was not traditionally a mild swear-word. I’ve seen blog posts and social media stuff where they ‘define’ certain English words and they always say ‘Bloody’ in England is the same as ‘Damn’ in America. That’s just not true. It used to be the third worst word you could say when I was a kid, and its use would certainly bring a very stiff penalty in terms of punishment both at home and at school. It’s not mild. Or rather, it’s only mild in comparison with the F-bomb and C-word. It used to be fairly normal to have one’s mouth washed out with soap if using these words. It would make you vomit – obviously – and was definitely a very unpleasant experience designed to make you think twice about using bad language again. Usually the threat of it was enough to make you reconsider your choice of
Tibbles had hoped his new owner would have a little more class. But no, the same old F-words morning, noon, and night.
Now in my contemporary trilogy, the Friendship Can Be Murder books, there’s a fair bit of this kind of bad language. We see it in society, it’s used all around us. And it’s used as much by the well-to-do, like my ‘heroine’, Cressida Barker-Powell, as by people from other walks of life. So my contemporary books had to reflect the world they are set in, for me at least, to make the characters seem more real, more natural and believable.
But when it came to writing my 1930s murder mysteries, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, that was a whole different bag of fish. Or is that a different kettle of cats??? Because the Dottie Manderson books are far more polite, more traditional, almost qualifying for the ‘clean’ subgenre of the mystery or romance categories.
Now I know—I guess we all know—that the kind of language we hear today all around us, was not all that different back then in the 1930s. But there were several provisos: it was not ‘ladylike’ to use bad language; there was still the strong paternalistic, protective culture of ‘Ladies’ present’, which meant, guys, mind your language; and then there was a much stronger emphasis on politeness, being conventional, being acceptable and so on. Bad language in public in particular was far less common and just not socially acceptable.
‘Pardon my French.’
So in my Dottie books, I stick with tried and trusted old favourites such as ‘blast’, ‘bother’, (my mother’s favourite; Oh botheration!’), ‘Good Lord’: you couldn’t say Good God except in cases of sincere anxiety or shock as it was believed to be, ‘taking the name of the Lord in vain’. Or there are always My Goodness, and What on Earth… to fall back on. I love some of the very mild exclamations of that era, such as ‘Well I’ll eat my hat’ or ‘Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs’ – completely meaningless and bizarre words! Only very occasionally do I permit a gentleman to say Bloody in a moment of anger. Even then, he’ll usually apologise. There is virtually no use of the now almost universal OMG, or the long form Oh My God. These days we have a relatively new popular phrase ‘Shut the front door’, which is a minced version of the surprised, often disbelieving retort, ‘Shut the fuck up’.
With the recent translations of Night and Day into French and German, there had to be some discussion about the ‘levels’ or severity of naughty words. It was quite difficult to explain some of the euphemisms we use, or to find an acceptable and era-appropriate equivalent. I also had to apologise for our use of ‘Pardon my French’ which is a term we use to apologise for using bad language. Sorry, sorry, sorry, to French-speaking people everywhere.
As always, to observe our language (bad) from the outside, was absolutely fascinating for me.
Like all stories, mysteries are told by narrators. Even mysteries told in the third person have a narrator, though the story is usually told by an omniscient narrator with a kind of ‘bird’s eye view’ of the story and its characters. But if you are reading a mystery written in the first person, the ‘I’ of the story is your narrator, and in this very intimate world of the first-person narrator, you as a reader need to be on your guard because the main mission in the life of the first-person narrator is to pull the wool over your eyes!
This is very often how the author introduces red herrings. As the reader, you get drawn into the world of the first-person narrator, he or she seems nice, they explain things to you and tell you what the other characters are like or about their secrets. They are your feet, eyes and ears as you step into the story and begin to explore the fictional world of the book.
Or maybe they are really horrid, but either way, they unfold to you the plot of the story as they see it and it all seems very plausible. You are drawn inside and it is only at the end, you realise that they missed out crucial information or disguised themselves or presented events in a rather biased manner, with the deliberate intention of thwarting your attempt to solve the mystery all by yourself.
Maybe they are seeking to divert suspicion from themselves, or even if you know what they did and how they did it, it is important for the first-person narrator that you sympathise, even condone their actions and approve their motives. They deceive you with half-truths, half-lies or even simply accidental misinterpretation. The bumbling narrator is in many ways the worst. They disarm you with their apparent incompetence, they admit to being forgetful, or unsure of their facts, and all the time—all the time—they are deliberately drawing you into a sticky web of their own creation and you cannot escape until you read the words, ‘The End’.
They might throw you off the scent by seeming to reveal some great truth. They admit to some minor sin in order to distract you from your hunt for clues. Their very openness, the revelation of their intimate thoughts, feelings and actions actually conceals greater guilt—the guilt of deception. Even worse, the author actually uses them to control your reaction to the story and how information is revealed to you. Can you believe it? So often in an apparent display of ‘fairness’, they will actually allow the narrator’s flaw to be revealed early on in the story, in the hope that you will have forgotten it by the time the story reaches its denouement. The author manipulates your sympathy, forcing you to acquit the narrator of wrongdoing as you stand in the place of the judge and jury to examine the action of the story. The author actually laughs as they write those lines that will trap you then surprise you. He he he.
Now that you know this, you are forearmed, and will be on the lookout for these artful devices.
Here below are a few noted novels with unreliable narrators: (sorry to spoil that for you…)
I also tried this with my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy.
Agatha Christie’s infamous The Murder of Roger Ackroyd