Sunday, 29 April 2018

The Write Path

How do writers write? What's their process?

It's a question that's always fascinated me and it's led to me reading any number of books on the subject ... William Strunk Jr and E B White's The Elements of Style, Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, David Quantick's How to be a Writer and How to Write Everything, William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade ... I've read them all and many more. You can learn an awful lot from such books. You can learn a lot too from being a voracious reader and by analysing how the authors you love do what they do. However, the one thing that you have to discover for yourself is how you plough your own furrow; you have to find the writing method that suits you. And you can only do that by writing.

My first published novel, A Murder To Die For, is a comedy murder mystery. And, as a tribute to my late father, I've incorporated extracts from his unfinished first novel within the body of mine (see my previous blogpost for the full story). Dad only completed the first few chapters of his novel before he died. However, he spent several years beforehand plotting and researching it. Admittedly, in those far off pre-internet days, such things took a little longer but, knowing Dad as I did, he would not have written a single word of his book before he had every wrinkle ironed out. He was meticulous that way. And it seems that lots of writers do the same; they work everything out before they type the first word of Page One. A good friend of mine has been going through this plotting process for at least two years for his first novel and he recently shared some photos with me of his plot notes.

I'm sure it all makes perfect sense to him. However, it wouldn't work for me.

What I've discovered, after some 35 years of writing, is that I don't work like that. Yes, I make notes and I have piles of notebooks and sketchpads that are evidence of that fact. Some date back to the late 1970s and they are all bulging with ideas, thoughts, press clippings, doodles, snippets of dialogue, character sketches and useful facts. But you won't find any kind of a plot contained inside any of them. Let me explain why.

I bought a typewriter with my first ever wage packet in 1977 (partly because my handwriting is so abysmal) and I used it to write short stories and scripts. And then in 1981, when I was 20, I wrote my first novel. Thankfully, I kept the manuscript and I read it recently. And it was awful. And so was the novel that came after it. And the next. And the next. However, by the time I'd written my fifth and sixth novels, they'd started to get better. Like any skill, be it juggling or playing golf, your ability improves the more you do it.

Writing a book is hard work. And the hardest thing about writing a book is nailing your first draft to the paper; the long and often arduous job of starting at Page One and continuing until you've written something like 80-120,000 words. The arrival of word processors in the mid-1980s made the process a damned sight easier, it must be said. But, more importantly for me, word processing allowed me to develop a way of working that took the hard work out of the process. My method, quite simply, is to get writing as soon as I can. Naturally, I don't start until I have a pretty good idea of the story I want to tell but, at the start, the idea might be quite simple and undeveloped. The idea for A Murder To Die For, for example, was to have a murder take place at a murder mystery convention where everyone is dressed the same way and then to set the police against the murder mystery fans in a race to solve the crime. Hilarity ensues! I had a few ideas for characters and a few action sequences in my head. I also had a bunch of settings in mind, mostly based on real locations in and around where I live on the South Buckinghamshire/ Oxfordshire border. But that was all. Now, I could have spent months developing my characters, plotting out the course of the various plot strings, and researching content. But I didn't. I sat down and started writing. I got a rythmn going. And as I did so, magical things started to happen ... new plot ideas would occur to me while others would be excised or replaced ... the relationships between the characters started to evolve ... a complex and complete novel began to emerge almost as if it was appearing out of thin air. It felt creative and organic. And it was fun every minute of every hour of every day. The writing didn't feel like a chore; I couldn't wait to get to the keyboard.

That's how I like to write; I literally feel my way through the plot. I fly by the seat of my pants - I'm a Pantser not a Plotter - and it works for me. The alternative method of plotting it all out beforehand and then having to face the physical task of 'writing up my notes' just seems too mechanistic to me. It sounds like hard work. And I can't help but wonder whether, if Dad had just got on with the writing instead of agonising over the details, he'd have written more than just four chapters before his untimely passing. I really wish he had.

The hardest part of being a writer is that first draft. But once you have that completed, the fun can really begin. Re-drafting, editing and re-writing is an utter joy. It can sometimes mean making some drastic changes - for example, I realised very early in my second draft that I had too many police characters so I had to drop some of them, and a whole plot strand, and merge two cops into one to streamline the story - but it was worth doing and the book was so much better for it. By not minutely plotting things beforehand I was left with some blunders and a few plot holes. But re-drafting can easily fix that. I also sent my first drafts out to critical readers, all friends and/or colleagues who know me well enough to tell me if something is wrong or doesn't work. And they always do. By the fifth draft, I was feeling pretty happy with the novel. And no part of the process had felt like hard work.

I did a count up recently and discovered that I have written or part-written 18 novels, nearly one every two years for the past 35 years. None were submitted for publication before A Murder To Die For but now that I feel confident that my novel writing is good enough, I'm going to be looking to get a few more published. My plan over the next few years is to write one new novel a year. But I'm also going to re-visit those 18 unpublished novels - although the earliest ones are piss-poor they have some great ideas and plotlines - and treat them as first drafts. They can all be brought bang up-to-date with my current level of ability. I couldn't even consider that kind of commitment if all I had was 18 plot outlines and mountains of notes.

So maybe there is some method in my madness after all?

Saturday, 14 April 2018

A mystery within a mystery within a mystery

In 1991 my father Michael died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of just 51. It knocked friends and family for six, especially as he’d been so fit and healthy. At the time I was working as a cop in London but I immediately set off back to my native Cornwall to offer my mother what comfort and help that I could. It was the start of a literary journey that I have only recently finished. A few weeks later, Mum asked me to sort through Dad’s personal papers and floppy discs to see if there was anything of his that I might find useful. She knew that I had aspirations as an author and Dad had been the same. Having just retired from an exemplary 30 year career as a police detective specialising in homicide, he had been planning to carve out a second career as a professional writer. He’d already had quite a few features and articles published, mostly in country living or Cornish interest magazines, and Mum had just treated him to a fancy new-fangled word processor. Sadly, he’d hardly got any use from it.

I knew that Dad had started writing a murder mystery called The Chief Constable Regrets. He had investigated plenty of real homicides and had a wealth of experience to draw upon. He was also something of an amateur local historian and had thoroughly researched the setting for his novel – post-war Cornwall in 1919. However, he appeared to have only got as far as writing the first three chapters of the book, and what notes he’d left behind related solely to the characters and the regiment. There were barely any notes about the plot but, from the scant amount of material I have, I’ve inferred that it revolved around a group of soldiers from the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry who return from the Great War to take up their farming lives when, unexpectedly, someone starts to kill them off one by one. Dad’s notes didn’t reveal ‘whodunnit’. Nor was there any indication of how each murder would happen. Most frustratingly, there was no motive recorded either. Was the murderer someone with a grudge? Maybe they were left for dead by their platoon? Or the killer was a German soldier? Or maybe it was someone suffering from PTSD? The fact is, I don’t know. And that’s why, despite it being suggested to me many times, I have never tried to finish Dad’s novel. After all, how would I possibly be doing it justice if I got his plot completely wrong?

Two decades passed. I completed my 30 years as a police officer and launched into a new one as a writer. My first few published books came out, all non-fiction. I then found my way into TV and radio and became of the writers of the TV show QI and its sister show on BBC Radio 4, The Museum of Curiosity. I also contributed to the QI books and annuals. But deep down, just like my Dad, I wanted to write stories. And more than that; I wanted to write funny stories.

As I wrote about in my previous blog post, Britain has a great tradition of comic novel writing. We produced Jerome K Jerome, George and Weedon Grossmith, Stephen Potter, Sellar and Yeatman, Frank Richards, Willans and Searle and the glorious P G Wodehouse. The baton then passed to humorists like Richard Gordon, George Macdonald Fraser, John Mortimer, Stella Gibbons, David Nobbs, Sue Townsend, B S Johnson, Helen Fielding, Michael Frayn and the late, great Tom Sharpe. But these days it’s hard to find comedy that’s written for a general readership although people like John Niven, Jonathan Coe and Ben Elton are doing their best. It is more commonly found as a subsection of other genres. There is comedy a-plenty in children's fiction and Rom Coms abound, for example. And, thanks to people like Douglas Adams, Jasper Fforde, Tom Holt and Terry Pratchett there are chuckles a-plenty to be had among the wizards and aliens too. I wanted to write a comedy murder mystery. Admittedly, such things are thin on the ground but they do exist: Mike Ripley’s Angel series, or Simon Brett’s Charles Paris books, for example. Crime comedy is more commonly found in TV shows like Jonathan Creek, Monk, Diagnosis Murder and others like them.

The first element in the mix was my own love of classic crime fiction. I thoroughly enjoy a good whodunit and I’ve read almost everything written by the likes of Christie, Marsh, Allingham, Sayers and Conan Doyle. I also like TV whodunits … but not cop shows. Like many police officers – or ex-police officer as I am now – I find them difficult to watch because everything is overly-dramatic, the procedures are all wrong and I find it impossible to suspend my disbelief if the programme makers try to sell it as ‘real-life’ when I know that it isn’t even close. But classic TV murder mystery is a different thing altogether. It doesn’t pretend to be real. It’s delightfully silly and set in a world far-removed from reality; a world of poisons, elaborate alibis and ridiculous mechanisms. And beyond Poirot and Marple there are shows set in the 20th century that have that same silliness to them as well, such as Murder She Wrote, Columbo, Jonathan Creek and Midsomer Murders. The latter, with its fa├žade of cop show, is deliciously bonkers at times; any script that features someone being staked out on their croquet lawn and then being bludgeoned to death by having their wine collection hurled at them by a replica Roman trebuchet has my vote any day.

The second element in my mind-mix came from visiting a number of fan conventions, most notably Comicon in San Diego, where the fans dress up in costume – cosplayers – and are almost rabidly passionate about their show/film/book/author of choice. The third element was my own knowledge and experience of being a police officer. When these three elements came together - murder mystery, cosplaying fandom, my policing experience – with my desire to write a comic novel, I suddenly realised that I had the perfect setting. What better place for a murder than a crime fiction convention? It was too good an idea to pass up and, after some seven months of research and writing, I’d produced A Murder To Die For.

The novel is set at an annual event held in the little village of Nasely to celebrate its most famous resident, the late Golden Age crime fiction writer Agnes Crabbe. Crabbe’s greatest creation is sassy amateur sleuth Miss Millicent Cutter and most of the attendees – known as ‘Millies’ - at the event have turned up in dressed as her. So, when a grisly murder is committed, the police find themselves having to investigate a case where the victim, the witnesses and very possibly the perpetrator are all dressed much the same – even the men. And, to add their annoyance, they find themselves having to compete with the Millies and in-fighting and competition between various fan clubs. Much of the humour in the book comes from the clash of cultures between the efficient, business-like and procedurally driven modern police service and the hordes of murder mystery fans who believe that they too can solve the crime using skills honed by a lifetime of reading crime fiction. And this is where Dad once again re-enters the story.

One plotline in A Murder To Die For centres upon a particular Agnes Crabbe novel that may hold the key to why the murder happened. And as I wrote, it suddenly dawned on me just how similar Agnes Crabbe’s Swords Into Ploughshares was to what I knew of Dad’s plot for The Chief Constable regrets. Maybe it had been lurking in my subconscious for all that time? Maybe it was sheer chance. Either way, I realised that here was a golden opportunity to include some of Dad’s unfinished murder mystery novel within the body of my own. So that’s what I did. I still can’t quite believe how seamlessly the two books fitted together like nesting Russian dolls; a murder mystery inside a murder mystery in my murder mystery novel that’s set at a murder mystery festival.

This year marks the 27th anniversary of Dad’s untimely death and, at 56, I’m older now than he ever was. Losing him was a wake-up call to me to achieve as much as I can in the one life I have and I’ve tried to do just that. I’ve become the writer I wanted to be and, with A Murder To Die For, I’m now writing the kind of book I’ve always wanted to write. It’s been something of a comfort to take Dad along for the ride and, as a man who loved life and a damned good belly-laugh, I’d like to think that he’d have enjoyed the book.

There is a curious footnote to this story… When I discussed the idea of including some of Dad’s novel in my novel with my mother, I mentioned my frustration at not knowing the direction in which he intended his plot to go. ‘Isn’t it in his notebook?’ she said. ‘He was always writing things down in his notebook. He took it everywhere he went.’

I don’t have Dad’s notebook.

It’s therefore an intriguing thought that it may be lying at the bottom of some box in Mum’s attic. Or in one of my brothers’ attics – they inherited quite a lot of Dad’s stuff too, things like military memorabilia and his historical research materials. I’m going to have a look next time I’m back in Cornwall. It would be fantastic to find it and to finally find out what he’d intended to write. In the meantime, at least in some small way, I’m commemorating him by having him as my silent co-author. And I don’t have to pay him any royalties!

He’d have roared at that.

A Murder To Die For is available now in all good bookshops and online. It is available in paperback and e-book and willbe avaiable in audiobook (read by Rula Lenska) in July.

Monday, 2 April 2018

When Heroes Go Bad

I've been sorting through my ridiculously large book collection recently. And a few days ago I came across several art books by Rolf Harris. And I found myself in a quandary; do they stay or do they go?

Rolf Harris was one of my heroes. It's thanks to him, probably more than anyone else, that I engaged with art in the first place. From The Rolf Harris Show to Rolf's Cartoon Time and Rolf on Art to Star Portraits he made art accessible and inspired me to pick up almost anything and make art with it. So, of course, I bought his books on art and I bought the DVDs of his TV series and I learned from them.

But then Operation Yewtree revealed him to be a groper and child molester, I was devastated. Admiration quickly turned to loathing; there are few crimes more abhorrent that the ones he committed. Quite naturally, we are unlikely to ever see his TV shows again. Nor will we hear Two Little Boys or Tie Me Kangaroo Down or Jake the Peg on the radio. But do I ditch the books? And if I do, do I also have to excise all other evidence of Rolf Harris from my life? If I do, that's going to mean a clear-out of not only books and DVDs but also other references to him and other appearances.
For example, he appears on two of Kate Bush's albums. So do I throw away my copies of The Dreaming and Aerial too? And do I chuck out my well-preserved 1970s Rolf Harris Stylophone and stop listening to Bowie's Space Oddity because the instrument features on it?

Of course, I ended up discussing this subject at the pub with my mates and I asked what they would do in my circumstances. About 25% said to throw the books out. 50% said keep them as they won't earn Harris any more money and at least it shows that there was something good about him. The other 25% were undecided, which led on to a further discussion about 'cut-off points'. As one of them said: 'If they now found out that Bowie was a kiddie fiddler, would people throw away his albums? Of course they wouldn't. They'd just listen in secret because they love him too much and the music outweighs the crimes.' Am I doing the same thing because I find joy in work like this (below), even though the painter is a monster?

A couple of years ago, we saw a worldwide outpouring of grief and celebration to mark what would have been John Lennon's 75th birthday. There is no doubt that Lennon was a great talent, beloved by millions. But, away from the microphones and guitars, the real Lennon was no saint. He was a pathological liar and a monstrous hypocrite who mocked disabled people, emotionally abused his son Julian and who had a long history of violence against women, As he himself admitted in one of his final interviews (with Playboy) in 1980:

'I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved. That was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically - any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn't express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. I am not violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.' 

Domestic violence is surely no less vile than groping or sexually assaulting women - all are forms of violence. But The Beatles still get played on the radio and no one is putting their copies of Sergeant Pepper in the bin. And even some journalists who suggest that we shouldn't be idolising Lennon seem to pull their punches. Here's Paul Tamburro writing in Crave:

'The 'point' is that it is important, at least in my mind, to not encourage generation after generation to kneel at the altar of a celebrity who was guilty of some horrible crimes and offences. Yes, I still consider myself a fan of Lennon’s creative output. I do own plenty of Beatles records on vinyl. But there is a lot of evidence, along with quotes from Lennon himself, to suggest to me that to continue to remember this man in such an exclusively positive light smacks of insincerity in the information age, where we can all quite easily look this shit up and, unless we’re choosing to keep our blinkers firmly fixed onto the sides of our heads, conclude that he may have co-written ‘A Day in the Life’ but in other aspects of his life, he was a bit of a dick.'

I'd suggest that someone who regularly beats women and treats his son like a non-entity is more than just a 'bit of a dick'. But people don't want to give up their Beatles albums. Either the blinkers, as Tamburro says, are firmly fixed. Or they don't see violence against women and children as serious enough to boycott Lennon's work. Or, perhaps, they argue that they bought the records in good faith without knowing about what he did?

And, of course, it's not just Lennon. In recent years we've heard allegations of domestic violence against many other celebrities ... but their films and their music are still being played and bought. And how many people ditched their Judas Priest albums when drummer Dave Holland was convicted of child sex abuse? Do Lostprophets fans still listen to music featuring Ian Watkins, now serving 35 years for paedophile offences including the attempted rape of an 11 month old boy? How about msic by Jerry Lee Lewis who married his 13 year old cousin? And what about the output of producer Phil Spector, now a convicted murderer? Or Roman Polanski? You can, perhaps, see my dilemma.

I'm not trying to find excuses to keep my Rolf Harris art books. But I am trying to resolve a moral quandary. When does it become unacceptable to keep such things? Should there be a cut-off point at all? Should we get rid of everything produced by someone convicted of crimes of violence? Do I ditch the books but keep the Kate Bush albums? Is the fact that these things happened and can't be undone justification to keep things ... or is everything now tainted? Slavery happened. Racism is still happening. So should we ban the Carry On films where Bernie Bresslaw is blacked up as an African native and Kenneth Williams plays the Khazi of Kalabar with a faux Indian accent? Do I accept that, even though Rolf Harris is a shit of the first water and deserves to see out his days in a cell, some small bit of good has come from his life?

It's tricky isn't it? With utter monsters like Jimmy Savile, there's no argument that we should expunge him from the history books. But when your heroes turn to demons, where do you draw the line between 'He was a bastard but he produced some good stuff that we should keep' and 'He was a bastard and we should destroy everything that he produced'?

I'll admit that I don't know.