Guernsey Literary Festival 2018

Another year, another Guernsey Literary Festival. On Thursday 10th May I’ll be introducing Duncan Barrett in the Festival Hub. Duncan is the author of a number of non-fiction books including GI Brides and Sugar Girls both based on first hand interviews. His latest project is Hitler’s British Isles, for which he spent three months in the Channel Islands interviewing survivors of the German Occupation 1940-1945 and their children.

 

 

It is a timely subject, considering that I’m typing this on Liberation Day; May 9th, the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Guernsey.

The book is not yet published, so I’ve not had chance to read or review it, so I’m looking forward to talking to Duncan and hearing about his project in front of an audience of Guernsey Literary enthusiasts.

Duncan Barret at United Agents

Later we will be hearing Philip Eastwood talk about the life and legacy of Desmond Bagley, ahead of an exhibition at the Priaulx Library of books, objects and annotated manuscripts. Philip has been collating an archive of Bagley material, which will be deposited at the Priaulx, complementing the archive already established at the Howard Gotleib Archival Research Centre in Boston.

I’ve been working with Philip over the past few months to set up a blue plaque to Bagley and his wife Joan at their former home in Castel Hill – but that’s a story for another day.

The Bagley Brief

 

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New Year, New Novel

A New Year’s Day tradition for me has been to start a new novel, or kick-start one that has been slumbering as a few chapters in rough draft. A couple of hundred words will do.

This year I got ahead of myself. With the opening three or four chapters of ‘AW’ already in mind, I put down the first page three days ago.

NRT is done, as far as it can be before the next round of editorial comments come back. In the attached photo I am pondering potential titles for the book. Meantime the challenge is to write the follow-up. Not necessarily a sequel, mind. Who is saying that any of the lead characters survived? Perhaps their story arcs are complete.

What I’ve done is start plotting two follow-up books, using the same style and tone. Both are contemporary mysteries. Why two? Firstly because I have two ideas rattling around in my head that I want to explore. Also, although starting a story is easy, there is not always a middle to explore or a neat ending to be reached. Most real-world mysteries are solved extremely quickly or drag on for years in a mess of loose ends and inadequate evidence.

An author’s chat group ’10 Minute Novelists’ carried a story by one writer on how he uses whiteboards for plotting. To date I’d used ‘plot spiders’ scrawled on A4 paper, but this seemed like a great idea so whilst I was out Christmas shopping, I bought two.

The story with code name ‘AW’ hit a plot snag when I was two-thirds the way down that first page. A new whiteboard hung on my study wall is where I’m now planning my way around it. Perhaps the problem I hit as an author can simply be passed to the characters to solve? Meanwhile, I have both beginning and end in mind for the story code name ‘DC’  but need to think out a middle to tie both together.

So I’m daydreaming and doodling through post-Christmas television, starting to ‘remember’ the stories that have not been written yet. The chart on my whiteboard grows more complex, and I’ve opened two folders on my computers where the first ideas are taking root.

2018 is going to be an exciting year.

 

 

A Writer’s Year

January is a hectic time at Guernsey Museum, as we turn around all the temporary exhibition spaces in three weeks. For me it means checking and proofing all the wall text, and numerous press releases. New Year’s Day is also when I like to pitch into the new book – NRT in the case of 2017

 

In an ideal world I’d skip February. It is a miserable month whose only redeeming feature is its brevity. I escaped to Barbados and hand-wrote some major plot twists of my new novel by the pool.

 

March saw the splendid Alderney Literary Festival, where I talked about ‘Glint” and signed a few copies. Mixing with the other authors of historical fiction/ non-fic/ biography was the highpoint though.

 

By April the literary year was hotting up, and I was off to Edinburgh for the annual conference of the Crime Writers’ Association. As usual it included talks by ex-coppers and criminologists on real-life cases; grim stuff like the ‘World’s End Murders’.

May saw both Bristol Crimefest (where I didn’t speak but met plenty of old friends) and the Guernsey Literary Festival (where I did both). I also interviewed Clare MackIntosh on her new book ‘I See You’; great fun, and only the second time I’d done a panel interview.

 

June’s big excitement was an emergency flight to Alderney to rescue what we could of an Iron Age burial ground sliced through by a JCB. Two days’ frantic work produced a wealth of finds that would keep us busy beyond the end of the year.

I was also back in Alderney in July, working ahead of a micro-excavator within the Nunnery Roman Fort. Enough evidence was uncovered to tempt me back in 2018.

 

It was my third visit to the Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate in July. The last two had been blisteringly hot, but this time Yorkshire was grey and rainy. By now NRT was into its fourth draft, ready to start talking confidently about it to my crime-writing colleagues and send it to my erstwhile editor for a critique.

 

 

 

 

In late August, I went on holiday leaving Draft 5 in the hands of beta readers. I got off the Rock and headed for the wide open spaces of Wyoming, chalking up something over 2,000 miles in a fortnight. Plenty of iconic sites, but the ‘Great American Eclipse’ was an experience never to be forgotten; in Guernsey, Wyoming of all places.

Writing from a small island comes with its own challenges; 100 miles of water separates me from the mainland’s literary conventions, book fairs and library readings. In 2017 I took as many opportunities I could to combine a trip to the UK with a little literary interaction. September offered  a chance to drop into the small but perfectly formed ‘Morecambe  and Vice’ (“bring me some crime”).

 

The big October highlight was of course the CWA Daggers Awards Dinner, the Oscars of the crime-writing world. It was lovely sitting on the ‘New Blood’ table meeting the hopeful nominees and the eventual winner; I imagine we’ll hear more from all of them.

 

November was the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai, which features strongly in ‘Glint of Light on Broken Glass’. I engaged in a month of subtle promotion of the book on Facebook, and by nudging local shops. Interest in the battle in Guernsey had been minimal three years ago, but via a programme of lectures, museum displays, parades and living history events it was pushed into the forefront of Guernsey’s year.

So we came to December. NRT was finished, the final polish to Draft 7 being hammered out on my mother’s dining room table when I should have been socialising. Having discussed the idea the previous Christmas with London agent Annette Crossland. I sent off the manuscript and in a hectic couple of weeks I was signed up with A for Authors agency. Here we are celebrating at the CWA Christmas party. A pretty good end to 2017.

And the follow-up to NRT? The first page will go down on New Year’s Day. I’m also working on an artistic biography, our ‘Roman Guernsey’ book may finally see the light of day and ‘The Story of Guernsey’ will be published in German.  A Merry Christmas and successful New Year to fellow writers, readers and friends everywhere.

Don’t Fear the Editor

 

So the draft NRT is back from beta-readers. The lovely things the trio said about the book were great, causing big beams of joy on my writerly face. The criticisms gave pause for thought. No, I’m not sharing – only the final version sees the light of day. What happens at beta-read stays at beta-read.

At first read-through an editorial critique of a draft can be daunting. Okay I take some comments with a pinch of salt, others can be easily adapted, but where there is a consensus saying essentially the same thing, those aspects need to be addressed. That means a lot more work on a story that already felt finished. I’ve asked a trio of people for opinions, and I have them. If there are faults, best address them now as literary agents and publishers take no prisoners.

A novel is like a cats’ cradle in that if you tweak one part, the rest trembles. More extensive structural editing is more akin to a game of Jenga; pull out the wrong block and the whole thing falls in a heap. Experimentally I deleted a whole scene, because I wanted to kill someone (not the editor, but the central character in the scene who would have been dead two days in the revised plot). Yep, that was the Jenga scene and whole chunks of plot blocks started to tumble down. Hastily I re-inserted it.

To get to Draft 5 has taken me 9 months and it feels heart-wrenching to start unpicking and rewriting. This is where the author takes over from a person who simply wants to write a book – some people I’ve met would have simply published Draft 5 as an e-book or KDP. It is not like starting again, though, and once I had that list of a dozen ‘must do’ edits morale soon spiked back up again.

The good news is that I have 85,000 words of pretty decent prose, a plot with beginning middle and end, a full set of characters and some near-perfect scenes that don’t need a jot of editing. Best of all, 85k is short of the 100k that a modern mystery should aim for. I have 15,000 words of headroom to develop that character, flesh out that subplot, and twist the middle a little more. The key danger to avoid is killing the cracking pace with 15,000 words of flab simply to tick the editors’ boxes. I was once asked simply to ‘make the book thicker so it looks better on a library shelf’­– that’s not the territory I’m in anymore.

So, draft 6 is underway. I’ve opened the bonnet, pulled out a few creaking parts and reached for the spares box. They say that the first page of your novel is never the first page when it finally comes to print, and with NRT that looks like being true. Rather than slipping into a gently escalating crisis, the lead character is now there on page 1, line 1 – and she’s in deep trouble.

Arsenic and Old Ale

Whodrunkit?

Theakston Old Peculier have been sponsoring the UK’s biggest crime writing festival since the dawn of time (or so their PR goes). This was my third encounter with the crime-loving crowd packed (literally) into the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, venue famously of Agatha Christie’s mysterious flight in 1926.

Lee Child’s approach to writing intrigued me – he said he ‘never changed anything’, writing from start to finish without the waves of re-editing and drafts that some of us authors do. The audience wanted to quiz him on his reaction to Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, but his stated view was that his book was complete – the film did not affect the book.

Crime writer panels asserted that the reader has an expectation that ‘order will be restored’ at the end of the novel, but there is a growing appreciation that ‘justice’ is not always served. The messiness of the real-life crime / resolution was freely bypassed by many writers.

Ian Rankin in conversation

Ian Rankin acknowledges the complexity of the work surrounding Rebus’ investigations but drops just enough hints that this other work is going on elsewhere to allow his detective to pursue the case. As much as we strive for accuracy, we know there are false aspects to many crime stories that require the suspension of disbelief. Former US prosecutor Alafair Burke says she ‘corrects’ the reader’s perceptions by allowing characters to make asides about the unusual aspects of the case; the protagonists know as well as we do that this is not routine police/legal work.

The ‘Dark Side’ panel considered the use of supernatural elements in crime fiction, with a consensus that ‘magic’ should not be used to cheat the reader but it was fair game for characters to believe in the supernatural and act as though it was real. It was acknowledged that even ‘realistic’ procedural police stories contain a great deal of fiction. The demands especially of TV shift our detectives away from reality. This led nicely to the historical panel ‘Ashes to Ashes’ discussing the limits of research. Essentially, if an author is unable to establish a historical fact it is unlikely that readers can either.

Ideas flowed in the panels, in the bar, in the fringe drinks parties and the beer tent. It was

difficult indeed to find slots in which to eat. One author proposed that she would not plan her novels ahead, so that twists sprung naturally and surprised her as much as the protagonists.

Steve Mosby suggested keeping a ‘Bad Ideas’ file, on the grounds you might one day need them. There was tension between the idea of keeping a character running from book to book in a series, or burning them up in a standalone novel leaving them broken.

To cap it all came the late night panel ‘Where The Bodies Are Buried’, a free-for all loosely chaired by Sarah Millican with Mark Billingham, Val McDermid and Lee Child. Head buzzing with ideas (and wine) I can’t even start to re-hash the crime-tinged jokes. However, one uncanny fact was that a certain US politician raised his orange-tinged head in almost every panel during the weekend. Everyone agreed we live in strange times – perfect for crime and thriller writers!

 

 

 

Rubber Duck Moment

Okay, I admit it. My work-in-progress contains a rubber duck moment. Codename NRT, the novel has a very short timeframe. There is no chance to get to know the characters before they are plunged into the mystery on page 1. Thumbnails must suffice until enough pages have been peppered with hints and clues from their mode of dress, their speech, the background information they let free with and straight prose description. I’ve avoided ‘plot bricks’ as far as I can; those clumsy speeches where someone says ‘But Sally, you are my sister!’

Key pieces of a character’s history should fall out in natural dialogue, challenge and argument.  We as readers are new acquaintances of these people, and within the story come the subtle enquiries new acquaintances make – are you married, do you have any children? If not asked directly people often go for the opening, ‘So you actually worked for NASA?’ This explains the character’s hint of a Transatlantic accent and allows a lead in to how she ended up in the USA and why she came back. We already know she’s scarily smart. Police procedurals are allowed to be more blunt: ‘Exactly what is your relationship to the deceased?’

 Drink is great. In their cups, people often spill their life story. Not always in a coherent fashion, not always honestly and rarely in chronological order but it tumbles out. ‘I was drinking this stuff when I met him in that night club.’

 A point came in NRT where there were still many unanswered questions about character A. She keeps her own council, we never meet her friends or her family or her workmates; all these are usual vehicles for allowing us to expand our understanding of the person underneath. We often see a character at work, we see the interaction with Mum/Sister/Boyfriend and they naturally ask about her day, or remind her of some upcoming appointment. Not so with A. So I needed a rubber duck moment to allow her to open up, drop enough facts about her past to allow us to piece together the last clues to her motivation.

 The classic scene has our grizzled hero explain that the reason he’s hard-bitten and avoids company is because his father threw away his rubber duck when he was six. He never trusted anyone else again, never wanted to be a father himself, never cared for family. Movies often use this vehicle, some well, some clumsily. Unlike novels, a thriller only has moments to create thumbnail characters. Female thriller heroes/villains/femmes fatales often need such a moment to explain why their behaviour is abberant – an abusive relationship, a lost child, an ugly assault, bloody men obstructing their path to the top. By their nature males can often get away with violent, obsessive or antisocial behaviour without needing deep psychological analysis of how they got there.

 So two of my characters come together in bar, tired, jaded at the end of their tether. J is chatty, needing company. She gets very little out of A beyond single-line responses, but is enough for us to finally understand A’s life choices.

‘Do you want to call your people?’

‘I don’t have any people.’

‘Mum?’

‘Died having my sister.’

‘So you’ve a sister?’

‘She died too. It was very Victorian.’

Mother, sister and next her father are dealt with in a few words each. We already know why she quit NASA and are getting to understand how she came to work there in the first place. It is not purely a rubber duck moment though; by using the past, I lead into hints and undercurrents of what is to come. This woman has no family and no ties; but does she have a plan?

 

The Character Edit

Keen-eyed readers of my facebook page will have noticed the word count ticking upwards on my new thriller codenamed “NRT”. Draft 3 is only a few words short of the 80,000 mark and more or less done. I call Draft 3 “Animate”. By the end of Draft 2 I had a beginning, middle and an end. I had a full set of major characters, a fully functioning plot and a fair number of twists. Draft 3 is where I flesh it all out, developing the scenes, planting the clues and turning loose ends into blind alleys. The last remnants of Draft 1’s flow of consciousness have been tidied up and I’m working on the English, the grammar and the action sequences. There’s no point in writing a nail-biting chase scene in Draft 1 if your plot turns out not to need it.

Up to Draft 3 I stay excited, as my original ideas are changing and characters start to drive the story themselves. I know them by now, pretty certain how they will react to a crisis and what they will do next. Draft 4 signals the start of the polishing process, craft takes over from inspiration.

Draft 4 is the ‘Character Edit’, which aims to turn them from cyphers to people; someone you might have met at work, chatted to at a party or overheard on the train. Someone you will feel for when they bleed and miss (if) they die. I step back and decide how many key characters I have. ‘Glint’ had three viewpoint characters, and everyone else made up the supporting cast. George, Edith and Artie needed deep back stories and a definite arc, but everyone else was merely passing through and their details would be polished in the ‘Continuity Edit’.

NRT presents a different challenge. There are five main characters, but the timeframe of the story is the shortest I’ve ever attempted. This leaves relatively little space for developing the backstory without resorting to ‘rubber duck’ speeches (“the reason I hate men is because my Daddy threw away my rubber duck”). It also compresses that character arc. If there is no time to ‘develop’, can they at least ‘learn lessons fast’? There’s no mucking about. We meet H at the top of page 1 and by the end of the second paragraph we know her problem. J is introduced a paragraph later and we immediately learn who C and D are too. Four of five key players are on the pitch before the reader turns the first page.

Starting Thursday I’m going to read through NRT taking just the scenes of one character, as if this were a single viewpoint novel just about them. This way I achieve continuity of dialogue, action, emotions, motivation and indeed clothing. The character’s viewpoint must also be heard – it can’t all be about her, what about my problems? Imagine NRT is a film script, and woman A is being played by a major star. Her agent is standing next to me saying ‘Give her more lines. Give her that joke.’ Or indeed ‘She’s not taking her clothes off for no good reason.’ For the next two weeks I’ll be an advocate for each of my five leads. The word count may pump up a little more as I flesh them out, but that’s not the prime objective. Five strong but fallible people are ready to be launched into the mayhem I have prepared.

After that, it’s off to my editor for her initial thoughts. More drafts will surely follow.

 

Poor Decisions

In the paper the other week, a defence advocate explained that her client had made some ‘poor decisions’ in her life. We might say that committing a crime is the ultimate poor decision, so at the core of our crime novels are villains who have not just acted badly, but thought things out badly too.

All around us, we see friends and acquaintances make decisions we think poor. That seventh pint of beer when its work the next day, that seventh baby they can’t possibly afford, that suicidaly frank email to the boss. Indeed we characterise people as having ‘poor judgement’ or ‘a poor choice in men’, assuming if we were in the same position we would have acted differently. Much of the time we don’t stop and analyse what we are doing deeply enough to spot our errors in advance.

First up, most decisions are trivial. Shall I go to the shops now, or in ten minutes? Shall I talk to that workmate who looks lost over on the other side of the bar? Then the butterfly flaps its wings and the decision no longer becomes trivial. By delaying for ten minutes, I am hit by a bus crossing the road. By talking to that workmate I find my life partner.

Two soldiers leap out of a trench – one breaks left and makes it to safety, the other breaks right and is killed by a stray bullet.  Here small decisions lead to an outcome that could not have been predicted because we did not have enough information. Some people call it ‘luck’, but ‘luck’ is a shorthand for not having sufficient data and the ability to analyse it. If we had known the exact moment the enemy soldier fired his rifle, applied the laws of ballistics, adjusted for gravity, wind direction, the angle of the shot, the symmetry of the bullet, the precise amount of propellant in the cartridge and the range to the unfortunate target we could have given that soldier enough information to tell him to break left, or delay his move for half a second. The roulette ball follows the laws of physics as do the balls tumbling in the National Lottery bucket. It is said that ‘people make their own luck’ and to an extent this is true: analysing the information you have reduces that uncertainty we lazily call luck.

Analyse your own life and think how many REAL decisions have you made for which you were aware of the consequences. Then think how many of your big decisions were ‘no brainers’: do I marry the person I love? Do I take this promotion? Do I buy this dream house? We are not gambling, there is no ‘luck’ involved. We use hindsight to judge, and more often than not base it on the outcome not the starting conditions

The outcome of a decision does not determine whether it was good or bad. We often criticise politicians for taking the wrong decisions (although ‘wrong’ can be a matter of opinion). The fact  David Cameron lost the Brexit referendum does not in itself mean it was a poor decision; the poor decision was acting without enough information and without planning for the downside consequences. It was a gamble. A man who stakes £10,000 on a 100-1 bet and wins did not make a ‘good’ decision either; he knew the most likely consequence would be he would lose his money but he acted against this data.

So what of our criminals? Many impulse crimes are committed by people who are daft, drunk, drugged up or desperate. The consequences of their actions never occur to them, so they are not taking ‘poor decisions’, as they are  barely taking a conscious decision at all. Moving up to the career criminal brings us closer to the gambler. He knows there is a risk of getting caught, being imprisoned or even killed. However he minimises this risk in his calculations, being over-confident in his ability and just not understanding how ‘trusting to luck’ (ignoring facts outside his knowledge) will be his undoing sooner or later. This is poor decision-making at its worst. Stupid criminals are hard to empathise with.

Finally we have the literary criminal, the one we like to write about and read about. He is not stupid, although possibly psychologically damaged. He takes decisions which in his world appear good, possibly even no-brainers. He might be a gambler, but playing for very high stakes where calm calculation suggests his risk of being caught is small relative to the reward. The criminal may have no choice, or face unenviable options whichever decision he takes. We might feel sorry for his dilemma, and if written well enough even take his side.

Good decisions versus poor decisions are at the core of my new novel. You might decide that  I should be writing Draft 2, and not this blog…

The 3/4 Point

How many times have I been watching a film and two-thirds the way through thought ‘finish it now!’. Likewise when reading books, a point often comes where I feel the author is spinning the story out, or we are anticipating the  denouement so why another red herring? Some books feel simply too long at this point. I may not be the only author who struggles around the 3/4 mark.

The 3/4 point is the hardest part of a book for me to write. Say chapters 22 to 26 of a 30 chapter book. Starting a book is easy, and the first three to six chapters simply flow. By then I will have an end in mind, and sometimes draft the last half dozen pages so I know where I’m headed. I like a midpoint break, a high point, a crisis, a game-changer which will naturally grow from the character’s actions in the first half. In some of my books I even have a ‘part 2’. I did this in Glint of light on Broken Glass partly to avoid war-weariness in 1916, skipping most of a year where my characters’ lives went on much the same from week to week. So I can work my beginning-of-novel towards that midpoint break.

By this point of the book, key characters, setting, backstory, plot are all established. Moving off from the midpoint is fine, as the reader will be at home with a fully fledged cast, belief suspended, calibrated for the period and style, and immersed in the story. Then comes the 3/4 point. Here the mystery needs to start making sense, without giving away the ending. Characters need to start dropping away so there is not still a cast of dozens cluttering the denoument. Red herrings need to be recognised and real clues appreciated at last. I also need to set up the final sequences – the chase, the fight, the revelation, disillusion or whatever. Characters’ motivations must become clear and their arcs concluded. Loose ends must be tied, and if they are left loose this must be a deliberate conceit of the author not carelessness.

So the 3/4 point is a problem. Introducing new characters is annoying, as the reader will know they are less important that the ones we’ve been rooting for. A shift of scene might be disconcerting unless it fits the style of the plot, such as the Road Movie format of When the Dust Settles or Lady in the Lake.  Action sequences or sex scenes or ‘another murder’ can feel like gratuitous padding unless something is resolved – a threat is eliminated or a key twist revealed. Information dumping is even more forbidden now than in the first quarter – this is the wrong time to discover our hero has a forgotten sister or still has a bullet lodged in his back from the war. It is also no time for purple prose as we’ve set the mood already and the reader will become impatient.

Our characters need to be moving inexorably towards that ending, which should still retain at least some surprise if not a twist as such. I’m at that point now in NRT, 50,000 words into draft 1, an end already written about 10,000 words ahead. Don’t pad, don’t give away the end, drop those minor characters, expose the red herrings, raise the stakes, set up that finale.

Deep breath, here we go…

 

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