December 2018 Newsletter

You can sign up here to receive my monthly newsletter direct into your inbox each month...Read more


Five Times Editing Saved My Life

Tidying up my PC lately, I found a folder full of half-edited manuscripts. The pages were a mess of tracked changes and microscopic comments in the margins. Most were broad, structural edits; big problems that need sorting before we were able to focus on the details of grammar and style. After the structural edit comes a closer line edit (style, facts, grammar, consistency), then the copy edit (like the line edit, but even more focused), and finally the proof read (world-class pedantry). The book is refined at each stage of the process: if the proof-reading is a straining through fine muslin cloth, then the structural edit is a big steel colander.

I’ve often heard it said that an editor likes to put their stamp on a book. That’s never been my experience. Mine have simply wanted each book to be the best version of itself. The editing process is like a live masterclass in how to rewrite a book. At the time, I learned the lesson in the moment and didn’t analyse it. Years later, it’s easy to distil exactly what those lessons were. Here are five times a new and expert pair of eyes made me a better writer.

If you like this then sign up to my newsletter for a free short story!

 

The Burning Air I

My third novel’s first narrator is Sophie, who is sent compromising photographs of her husband while she’s in labour with their fourth child. An early draft contained a whole chapter devoted to the progression of Sophie’s contractions and subsequent waterbirth. My first reader’s verdict was that it was an interesting account of my own daughter’s birth, but what the hell was it doing in my novel? She was right: I was being indulgent. If I wanted to talk about childbirth that badly I should have blogged it. Sophie’s birth scene was only 900 words long, but it was a digression at the point where I could least afford it. Those first few pages are crucial. Bore your readers here and you lose them forever. In the edit, I cut the chapter at the point where Sophie’s water’s broke. The next chapter picked up ten months later, nobody was confused and nobody had to put the book down to look up the word ‘meconium’.

Lesson learned: Write the book for your readers, not yourself. If your story can survive without this chapter, cut it.

The Burning Air II

Around the halfway mark, my teenage narrator’s beloved but barking mad mother dies suddenly. In my original version, and for reasons which now escape me, I had them dragging her corpse onto a bus and trying to pay her fare across town. My editor and her assistant gently told me that instead of the high drama I was going for, this scene looked a bit…silly. Better, they said, to cut the scene at the moment the body is discovered; the power lies in my narrator’s silent realisation that their only friend is gone. You are, after all, writing a psychological thriller and not Night of the Living Dead.

Lesson learned: Most thrillers skirt the preposterous or sensational at some point. But there’s a fine line between high drama and unintentional humour. Don’t cross it.

The Poison Tree

My first novel originally began with what is now Chapter 2: Karen collects her partner Rex from prison after he’s served a ten-stretch for double murder. Together with their daughter Alice they visit their old house in Highgate, the place where ‘everything happened.’ Early feedback suggested that it felt like the opening to a quiet, literary novel rather than an exciting thriller. My agent’s suggestion was simple but ingenious: I transplanted chapter 25 - where Karen receives a midnight phone call, then drives in a panic through freezing fog – to the front of the book and called it a prologue. Now the book promised the kind of peril it went on to deliver.

Lesson Learned: Those first pages establish an unspoken contract with your reader. Let them know what kind of book they can expect. In this case, excitement upfront meant readers stayed with me through the quieter first chapters because they knew they’d come back to this scene.

The Ties That Bind

Every writer has a ‘book about a writer’ in them and this is mine. Journalist Luke wants to write a true-crime classic and is convinced that the unsolved murder, in 1967, of a Brighton gangster is the story that will make his name. When he’s researching the book, he makes a mistake that threatens his life. My original ending framed the book that had gone before it not as a novel but as a true story published under a novelist’s name. The conversation I had with my agent went a bit like this: Agent: (with her customary tact): ‘I do have some reservations about the self-conscious bookishness of those final pages.’ Me: ‘Do you mean it’s bit wanky?’ Agent: ‘Yes.’ She was right. I’ve since read this twist in half a dozen books, and it’s always felt a little forced.

Lesson learned. Clever twists are not obligatory, and in the wrong place they do more harm than good.

Stone Mothers

Most of my books have got longer in the editing: not a great thing when they’re already tipping 100k words in their first draft. This time, though, I lost FOUR WHOLE CHAPTERS. The book is set in an old Victorian asylum. We see the building converted to luxury flats in the present day, derelict and as a working hospital. It spanned more decades than anything I’d written before and while I knew that years would have to be skimmed, I felt strongly that I should check in on one of my characters from time to time: that the more readers knew about this person, the more they would care. They were little vignettes that were fun to write, but the book could survive without them. (Can you see a pattern here?) In acknowledging how hard it would be to kill these darlings, my editor showed me she had the book’s best interests at heart. A good editor will leave the knife on the table, and let you do the rest. Those culled chapters are still on my hard drive, like deleted scenes from a DVD. I might post them here one day.

Lesson Learned: Don’t spoon-feed your readers. Trusting them to fill in the blanks between scenes shows respect. Also, write a book they can actually hold without spraining their wrists.

Sign up to my monthly newsletter for a chance to win a copy of The Binding by Bridget Collins

What I’ve Learned Writing Six Books (and counting)

  jessica fletcher

New writers often ask me: does it get easier after the first book? And of course in some ways it does. Doing something difficult once gives you confidence and permission to do it again. But ask a novelist who’s published 22 books which was the hardest to write and I bet she’ll answer, ‘Number 23’.

Each book brings new challenges. Some are obvious: you can’t use the same plot twist twice, for example. Themes, now that I have a solid backlist, are emerging. I cannot, it seems, leave the 1990s alone, or make peace with the fact that I am no longer nineteen. In the zombie procession of dead and dying mothers shuffling through my books, I have written and rewritten my twin greatest fears: of not being able to mother my daughters: of losing my own mother. I'm aware of the thin line between familiarity and repetition.

Research is increasingly an issue. ‘Write about what you know’ gets old pretty quickly when you’re essentially a suburban mum. To challenge myself, as well as keep readers entertained, I need something – setting, backdrop, crime – to change every time.

I’m about to publish my sixth book, and deep into my seventh. Here’s what it has been like for me.

                   Book One: The Poison Tree                       

 poison cover

I wish I had known, when writing this novel, what a beautiful experience it was, but there you go; you can’t pop your cherry twice. I’d wanted to write fiction my whole life. By 2007, this ambition was beginning to coalesce; I’d done a couple of short courses and joined a writing group but still had no more than a handful of sketches to show. Then, in 2008, I got pregnant and the biological deadline galvanised me. I flipped my usual work routine: treating the novel as my day job, scratching a couple of hours’ journalism in the evening (and yes, the financial fallout was as you’d expect). But six months later, I had a book. It was only 60,000 words long, and it would change before being accepted, but it was a book.

At the time, I was the usual mess of doubt and worry that I was about to make my family homeless through what is essentially vanity. Now I look back and realise what a treat it was, what a joyous rush of instinct and naivety. A lifetime’s love of books, my own internal library, welled up and bubbled over onto my page. It was as smooth as laying an egg. There was almost no research involved. I remember agonising for weeks over a plot turn that now seems almost laughably simple.

This book was very good to me and I still love the characters and the story. I do twitch to go through it with a red pen. After years of disciplined journalism, the freedom to really write went to my head and it’s overwritten in places. The foreshadowing is pretty heavy-handed. And – since I appear to be in the confessional here – there are a handful of places where I rewrote scenes because my characters didn’t seem enough like people from a novel. I know now, of course, that the goal is the opposite.

 

Book Two: The Sick Rose

sick rose cover

I wrote this book in a bubble. A two-book deal had given me relative financial security, validation and encouragement. Crucially, though, I still hadn’t been published. Never been reviewed; never woken up at 2am and fired up my laptop to check my Amazon ranking. Also I wasn’t on Twitter yet.

Like The Poison Tree, The Sick Rose - about a troubled older woman’s affair with a vulnerable 19-year-old - used a then-and-now structure but with an added layer of complexity as the to-and-fro had two narrators. It was a step up in terms of structure.

It’s set partly in a ruined Elizabethan castle, so for the first time I had to research. I read widely and obsessively about the massively sexy area of heritage gardens, specialising in Tudor parterres. Almost none of it ended up on the page, but my learning leaks between the lines.

Louisa and Paul, my narrators, were good to me. I want to deliver the best-written, most convincing suspense I can, and this inevitably means tension between what the plot needs and what the character wants. Most of my work is about finding the sweet spot where you can be true to both, and I hope I always get there in the end but some fight harder than others. Paul Seaforth, a geeky, oversensitive and horny 19-year-old from a rough estate in estuary Essex remains my favourite of my characters, not because he’s the most magnetic but because he served me so well. I never felt I was making anyone in The Sick Rose act out of character for the sake of the story.

 

Book Three: The Burning Air

burning air cover

This bloody, sodding book. I’ve never cried because of something I’ve written, but there was a moment, a year into this novel, when I burst into tears of frustration.

Before I started The Burning Air, my then American editor said she wanted to see the first third before making an offer on it. So I wrote 25,000 words of pure suspense. It was a story about an extended family gathering in their deserted country house for Bonfire Night. This first act finished with a baby being kidnapped, and the family realising that the night’s events had their roots in family secrets. I wrote it in real-time, 24-style, merrily littering it with clues and red herrings, with no idea how I was going to resolve it. I was Houdini closing the padlocks without an exit plan.

I wrote maybe 90,000 words of convoluted, melodramatic backstory before paring it down to a ‘mere’ 40,000 that bridged the link between a past slight and the present-day revenge. I sailed months past my deadline.

In the end, I pulled it off. Five years later, I still get emails about the twist that comes halfway through the book. Half congratulate me on sleight of hand. The rest complain that they thought one thing but it turned out to be quite another, thus spectacularly missing the point of suspense. More insightful readers ask me whether I the twist is needless showing off. The honest answer is: a bit. It’s gratuitous in that the plot still holds without it. Actually, the twist came almost by default. I left a certain detail blank to keep my options open, then realised I had an opportunity to have some fun with the reader.

Most importantly, The Burning Air was the book that taught me never to give up. Had I experienced this level of self-doubt with a first novel, I probably would have abandoned it. If I can rescue this, I can see anything through to the end. I vowed after writing it though that I would never write like this again, coming up with a great high-concept opening that was torture to execute. It is with a heavy heart that I refer to you my notes on Book Seven, below.

 

Book Four: The Ties That Bind

ties cover

I wrote this book on the rebound from the claustrophobic, very domestic, very female nature of The Burning Air, and, if I’m honest, my actual life. The result was Luke, a gay male journalist investigating the unsolved murder of a gangster in 1960s Brighton. The Ties That Bind (its working title was Ransomed Soul, which I still prefer) opens with him tied up in a cellar: who put him there? His possessive ex, Jem, or Joss Grand, the ‘reformed’ career criminal whose past Luke’s been raking over? Influenced by Graham Greene and Jake Arnott, it’s the closest thing to pure crime fiction I have ever written: still not a procedural but an investigation, with evidence and a paper trail, long scenes of interrogation and confession. There are only two women in it. There are no flashbacks. It is the most straightforward of my original books and was the easiest to write.

It has made me wonder whether the easier a book was to write, the less readers love it. The sales figures were pretty... sobering. The lessons I learned from this book were about publishing rather than writing Ties is a good book and contains some of my most disciplined writing, but it's subtly different to my backlist, harder to market as a crossover between women's fiction and crime. I knew when I wrote it that I was dipping a toe in new waters and getting something out of my system but I didn't consider that in going off-brand I would make it harder for my publishers to sell. The lesson I took was to go back to what I know and love - and do - best. But first I took a little detour to Dorset.

 

Book Five: Broadchurch 

broadchurch

A weird little privilege, this project. Only a handful of novelists have adapted a TV drama for the page. This book is a bit like Paul McGann playing Dr Who. There will always be some people who don’t believe it counts. Broadchurch is not my work, and yet it is. I loved writing this book, and not only for the lazy reason that the heavy lifting of the plot and the characterisation was done for me, and done to perfection.

My job as a novelist was to read the characters’ minds and set their thoughts on the page. Finding the right words is my favourite part of writing. Watching Olivia Colman, David Tennant, Jodie Whittaker act was like taking dictation. Broadchurch was a masterclass in character. The arc of Series 1, while compelling, is more linear than my own storytelling style; the magic is in the people and the place as well as the plot. My brief was to write up: find language that did the stunning photography and performances justice. I’m proud of the result, not least because I made showrunner Chris Chibnall cry, which was only fair after he’d done the same to millions of viewers.

 

Book Six: He Said/She Said

hsss cover

This, my current book, feels like a debut in some ways. Since The Ties That Bind was published, Broadchurch, and a second child, and a teaching job had happened so He Said/She Said had the luxury of a long gestation period. I was in the mood, and had the energy, for something big and ambitious.

For the first time research could not be taken lightly. The plot of He Said/She Said turns on two very different technicalities. Firstly, it happens over the course of several total solar eclipses, and I loved learning about the phenomenon and the people who travel the world to witness it.

More importantly, it’s courtroom drama about a rape trial, and points of law cannot be fudged. The challenge here was to highlight the mechanics and the frustrations of our justice system in a way that served the story. Laura is the prosecution's star witness: when I realised she wouldn’t be allowed to see the victim’s testimony in case it prejudiced her own, I had my head in my hands. How could I write a serious novel about the horrors of victim cross-examination if we couldn’t get into the courtroom? In the end I had to take my own advice. I often tell my students that the problem is the solution. When we can’t see the victim, Laura’s own doubt is allowed to spiral, and along with it the reader’s. That lack became a driving force.

In other ways, He Said/She Said was back to basics. Broadchurch had reminded me of the importance of character. I re-read old favourites by Chris Cleave, Lesley Glaister, David Nicholls, Maggie O’Farrell and new favourites Susie Steiner and Sarah Stovell where to close the book feels like saying goodbye to a friend. I loved Kit and Laura. I don’t know why I put them through all that.

I also feel a hard-won sense of ownership and authorship with this book. I've said before that Barbara Vine, Daphne du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith hugely inspired my work and they still do, but I don't consciously measure myself against them like I did in the beginning. Anxiety of influence has been something I have gradually shrugged off over six books. This, at last, is all mine.

 

                Book Seven

blank book

Is it tempting fate to include here a book that isn’t finished yet? The deadline for my seventh novel was last week. Present ambitions are to complete it this decade.

It’s set in a former Victorian asylum, the action starting in the present day and leaping backwards over sixty years. The structure of the novel - three acts, each set thirty years apart - was part of the idea. It begins when a Woman With A Past enters what is now a luxury apartment carved from the old women’s wing. The first few chapters flew out of me, mystery and menace on every page, building to an impossible climax. Then I had to find a way to maintain that suspense writing scenes from 1988 and 1958 without sacrificing momentum. Clearly my experience with The Burning Air has taught me nothing.

For the last ten months, I’ve been camped out in the Wellcome Library in London researching the way psychiatry has historically treated women. Spoiler: the system hasn’t been stacked in their favour. The problem for me is focus. Every long-dead case study in these dry textbooks is a novel waiting to be written. Consequently, I feel like I’m writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Every time I learn something new, I find myself writing another doomed scene that is more about me showcasing my new knowledge of outdated psychiatric processes than it is about furthering the plot.

Or is it? I said I’d learned nothing from The Burning Air but that’s not true. I feel patience rather than panic this time. I’m trusting myself, and the process. One of these scenes will be the right one. It feels close, now. I won't finish it when I had hoped to, but abandoning it doesn't cross my mind.

And when I do complete it? Book eight, and beyond, with all the excitement and challenges they will bring. I know that it doesn't get easier, but I also know that I - and my readers - would be bored if it did.

Read the first few chapters of He Said/She Said here

 


You Couldn't Make It Up! On Plausibility

 

Implausible.

meldrew

It’s not a word any writer wants to hear about their book. But with the market increasingly competitive, everyone wants their novel to be the high-concept book that everyone’s talking about. The bar for original, compelling, outlandish plots is getting higher by the year - as is the risk of pushing the boundaries of credibility.

Writers have incredibly wild and fertile imaginations. There's an urban myth - or is it? - that after 9/11 the US government hired a round table of top crime novelists and asked them to imagine worst-case-scenario terror attacks, so that the US security and emergency services could come up with strategies to counter them.

 

Fantastic but improbable books springboard from the news all the time. Emma Donohoe’s book and now film Room was partly inspired by the monstrous real-life case in Germany of  Josef Fritzl who imprisoned his daughters in a  cellar for years, impregnating them and raising his own children/grandchildren in squalid captivity.

 

room

 

At a literary festival last year I had a heated exchange with a reader over SJ Watson’s smash hit Before I Go To Sleep, in which a woman wakes up every morning with her memory wiped clean. The reader insisted this could never happen in real life. I knew that the author was inspired by a rare but very real neurological disorder; obviously, being a novelist, Watson took a germ of truth and ran with it, but, as I told the reader, ‘It is literally based in fact. Papers were written about it and everything.’ Her eyes narrowed to slits. ‘How convenient,’ she said, before walking off, presumably to harangue a fantasy writer about the lack of orcs and wizards in her neighbourhood.

 

You don’t need to look very far to find hard-to-believe news stories. The following stories are convoluted, far-fetched and in some cases ridiculous – all the qualities serious novelists try to avoid.

 

A woman turns up at her own funeral, wreaking revenge on the husband who paid to have her killed.

Noela Rukundo

A troubled young woman is jailed after posing as a man to seduce her best friend, blindfolding her and penetrating her with a prosthetic penis.

gayle newland

 

A man fakes his own death in a canoe accident to claim life insurance. He lets his sons believe he is dead. Really, he’s living in a single room near Hartlepool. This real-life scam had such a compelling narrative it was turned into a TV drama.

canoe man bernard hill

 

And it’s always worth dragging this one from the archives: Pop star runs over his own head, with his own car, after overdosing on baked potatoes.

brian

 

The people in the above stories are hardly from crime-fiction central casting (although anyone who's seen the Stay Another Day video will surely agree that Brian Harvey ought to have been arrested by the Fashion Police). They aren’t spies, maverick police officers or troubled forensic pathologists. They are the kind of people you meet every day.

This is why I love writing psychological thrillers. Everyone, no matter how benign their exterior, is psychologically complex. We all have monsters coiled within. It’s the darkness behind the twitching net curtain, the monster in the baskets-only queue in Waitrose, that I love to shine a light on.

 

So given that truth is stranger than fiction, how can authors make their novels plausible? When readers talk about implausibility they don’t usually mean, ‘I don’t believe this could happen.’ The mean, ‘I don’t believe this character would act that way.’ That’s why the author must do a convincing job of laying the groundwork to show that this thing could happen to this person, in this place, at this time; not only that it could, but that it’s inevitable. The more unlikely the premise, the harder the writer must work. It all comes down to character. What does your protagonist want so badly that they would act like this? What happened to make them that way? What are they running from? What are they chasing? Once you’ve nailed motive, it’s time to use all the other tools at your disposal. Foreshadowing to seed the darkness in this character. Misdirection to make us look the other way while it’s all happening. Do this right, and readers won’t ever say your book is implausible. They’ll be too busy turning the pages.