by Zoë Sharp
I’ve had several experiences recently that were very interesting for me as a writer.
The first one was going to a readers’ group meeting at a small local library in Knott End in Lancashire. The tremendously enthusiastic librarian, Anne Errington, had been unable to get enough copies of one of the Charlie Fox books for everyone in the group to read, so they’d all read different ones in the series, often out of order. This meant that they asked more than the usual kind of questions. They wanted to know a lot more about the character of Charlie herself, and her motivations, and whether I’d ever tell the story of what really happened to her in the army.
Something that came up was that many people assumed I’d already told that tale somewhere, and they simply hadn’t yet read the particular book in which it was contained in full. The experiences of Charlie’s past form an integral part of who she is now, and although the character has progressed, I’ve only ever referred to her army days as back story, dribbled in as a bit here and a bit there, in order not to bore either the readers, or myself.
I’m not even sure I ever want to tell that story over the course of an entire book. It’s a period in Charlie’s life when she is beaten and utterly defeated. I introduced the character and began the series at a later date, when she has clawed her way back up out of that defeat. And when her life is again threatened in a similar way, this time she reacts differently. Possibly in a way she would not have been able to respond, had she not suffered in the past.
Back story is a funny one to include, and if you have a series character who never changes, is there any need to include it at all? The late great Robert B Parker rarely alluded to past cases of his iconic PI, Spenser. In fact, the guy didn’t even age. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is very much the same. You’re told how Reacher acquired the scar on his stomach, from a Marine’s exploding jawbone back in his army days, but you’re not told what happened in the last book, and there really is no need for you to know this in order to enjoy the ride.
The second thing that happened was that I received an email from a student in Copenhagen, asking a specific question about a short story I wrote a little while ago called ‘Tell Me’. The story was written for a Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) anthology called I.D.: CRIMES OF IDENTITY and the whole thrust of the story was a conversation between a crime scene investigator and a victim, with the CSI trying to discover the background and history of the girl that has brought her to this point. The story was turned into a short film, and also included in a Danish school text book, which asked readers to interpret it in ways that, frankly, even I would have struggled to provide answers for.
Who or what does the girl symbolise?
Comment on the dialogue. How and where does the real dialogue take place? Where in the story is the truth behind the dialogue revealed to the reader?
Analyse the use of ‘tell’ throughout the story.
Comment on the theme of gender roles in the text.
OK, this is me sidling away quietly at this point, muttering, ‘But it was just a story …’
The third thing that happened was last night. I found a well-established writing group in Kendal, which is not quite as far as I’ve been travelling, and somewhat larger than the very small group I’ve been to over the last few months. The Kendal group asked for three or four people to email pieces round beforehand, and the purpose of the meeting was for everyone to be able to comment in detail on those pieces.
I sent in the first chapter of the new Charlie Fox book. I didn’t explain particularly who I was, or my writing experience, and I didn’t include any kind of introduction for the book or the character. It’s another flash-forward opening, which I’ve used previously, so it drops the reader straight into the thick of the action. I wanted gut reactions to the writing, without any preconceived ideas.
And when I attended last night’s meeting and we all introduced ourselves, it was a little like a group of addicts. ‘Hi, my name is Zoë and I write crime fiction.’ The only difference was that I didn’t get a round of applause for this shameful admission.
And the questions here were different again.
I’d mentioned the word ‘principal’ meaning someone my bodyguard main protagonist was previously tasked to protect. One person thought this might refer to the principal actor in a theatre company.
The action starts on a beach in Long Island, with Charlie and her boss, Parker, excavating a grave. I don’t pinpoint this, but because of the mentions of digging in hot sand and the vague military tone brought about by Charlie’s army background, someone else assumed the story was a thriller set in Iraq.
Several people thought Charlie was male.
The use of metric measurements threw someone else. They queried whether an American character would think in terms of 40mm plumbing pipe, sticking a metre out of the ground.
I realised that when I sent the initial chapter out, I should also have included the flap-copy synopsis, which I always have at the back of my mind when I write an opening for the book, because I’ve always written that bit first. I take my jumping off point for the story itself after that, because it has already explained who and what the character is, and where the book’s set. To me, it would seem very stilted in a first-person narrative to jump into an action scene and have to explain about her being a ‘her’ for a start, and a bodyguard, and being on Long Island. And I also realised that if this had been a short story, without that brief synopsis, I would have tackled it in a completely different way.
And, obviously, during the discussion I ‘fessed up to being already a published author. But right at the end, one of the organisers asked me why, in that case, I wanted to come to a writing group? It’s a good question, and I think a lot of it has to do with the way I write.
I don’t dash off a very rough first draft, then rewrite the whole thing again and again in order to polish and hone it. I edit furiously during the writing process. Therefore, by the time I finish what is, in effect, my first draft, it’s not too far off finished. In order to get it to that stage, I fiddle a lot as I go, often feeling that I can’t go forwards until I’ve got the bit I’m working on right. Having ongoing criticism – the harsher the better – is extremely useful to me in order to make minor course corrections as I go.
And this, having someone approach my characters cold, as it were, was an illuminating experience.
So, ‘Rati, when it comes to questions this week, take your pick. If you’re a writer, do you self-edit or just get the words down and worry about fixing them later? Have you ever had a question about your work that really made you stop and think, or that confused you completely?
And, regardless of writing or not, what’s the best piece of constructive or destructive criticism you’ve ever received?
This week’s Word of the Week is rident, meaning laughing or smiling radiantly, beaming.
If you’re a writer, do you self-edit or just get the words down and worry about fixing them later?
Iv’e always been a "self-editor." But that’s changing.
Have you ever had a question about your work that really made you stop and think, or that confused you completely?
The "stop and think" just happened within the last hour, as a matter of fact. One of our fellow "Rati has been reading a proposal I’m writing, and made a comment via-email which made me completely re-think the ending, and the character. And it’s going to be a much better book because of it. (Thank you again).
I self-edit as a go along. Then, when I think it’s right, I get a critique at one of our Chicago-North RWA meetings. That’s when I discover I missed lots of items that need to be fixed.
A good critique group is extremely valuable.
I edit edit edit edit edit edit edit as I go along. I will NOT move on to the next scene until the previous scene is, to my mind at least, the very best it can be. Until, to my mind at least, it is ready to go straight to the printing press.
Then, when I’m done, I’m done. Yes, I go back and do a final polish, but most of the grunt work is finished, and if I drop dead, at least I won’t have anything too embarrassing on the page.
It’s interesting what you said about Lee Child’s Reacher character and how Lee doesn’t have to refer back to the previous books. I’m currently reading Gone Tomorrow — which is terrific — and I’ve come to the conclusion that Lee is a genius for that very reason. Each Reacher story is, essentially, a standalone. And although I do see SOME change in Reacher over the years, if he changed TOO much, we’d probably be disappointed.
If you’re going to write a series, that’s certainly a great way to sustain it through several books and not have to worry about running out of backstory, etc. And it works beautifully — in Lee’s case, at least. I’m frankly envious.
As for the questionnaire about your story, I had to laugh out loud. I’m always amused when schools/teachers look for the deeper meaning in stories and movies. Maybe it’s there — who knows? But I think more often than not the author was simply writing a story to entertain.
I remember years ago, a very famous filmmaker — whose name unfortunately escapes me — once laughed about all the critics who analyzed his work looking for themes and symbolism and assigning him with specific motivations behind his work. He simply made a movie, he said. Nothing more, nothing less.
I like to get the first draft down, then go back and edit. I tend to see and hear the scenes as I’m writing them, and I try to go with the flow as much, and as quickly, as possible. I’m also a lousy typist, so there are a LOT of mistakes, and sometimes a first draft of a chapter is nothing but back and forth dialog, so that even I have to decode who said what later, when putting in attributions.
Be careful to make sure your new writing group is hip to the conventions of your writing. I belonged to a group for almost ten years and learned a lot, but finally had to leave because no one there really understood what i was trying to do, and kept trying to pull me back to the middle, safer, course. You’re starting with this group from a much more advanced position than I did, so it shouldn’t be as much of a concern, but I’d not worry about them not "getting" certain things if you know those who regularly read thrillers like yours will.
The most confusing question I’ve ever been asked about my writing came from a teacher via a student who was doing a book report on one of my YA novels. The question was about the "symbolic object" in the book and why I chose it. When I explained that there was no symbolic object in the book the student emailed back to tell me her teacher said I was wrong. As one of my friends pointed out, "I think you flunked your own book."
"Iv’e always been a "self-editor." But that’s changing."
I hate having to unpick stuff and try to restitch the old with the new, so I think I’d rather worry away at the original version to get it more or less right. But, I did more rewrites on the last book, thanks to detailed comments from my editor on the first draft I sent to her, so maybe I’m moving into a slightly more halfway house position.
"The "stop and think" just happened within the last hour, as a matter of fact. One of our fellow "Rati has been reading a proposal I’m writing, and made a comment via-email which made me completely re-think the ending, and the character. And it’s going to be a much better book because of it. (Thank you again)."
This sounds great – and I hope that one day it will be the subject of a more detailed blog …?
I agree completely about the value of a good critique group. This is why I was so pleased to get some really in-depth comments on my opening chapters. If nobody points out any possible pitfalls, you can’t make a value judgement on whether you think they are indeed pitfalls that you need to do something about.
Obviously, with any criticism, you have to apply the rule of thirds – one third you reject out of hand, one third you consider, and one third you follow absolutely. It’s just working out which third is which than can be the hard part …
"Then, when I’m done, I’m done. Yes, I go back and do a final polish, but most of the grunt work is finished, and if I drop dead, at least I won’t have anything too embarrassing on the page."
Oh Jeez, thanks for that – I hadn’t even considered the possibility for posthumous shame ;-]
Whether to develop a series character from book to book is an interesting problem, and one that crops up again and again. And yeah, GONE TOMORROW is a belter, isn’ it?
What an interesting experience with the group of writers, Zoe!
I am a rough first draft person. I do a lot of research for my novels (they have historical elements) and sometimes I get to points in the draft that I need to look-up answers to my own questions. Rather than stop the momentum, I make a note to research a particular detail, then push forward with the story. No one sees my first draft! I LOVE editing (sick, I know) so going back and shining the subsequent drafts makes me happy (most of the time!).
As for advice, Ernest Hemmingway: "“The first draft of anything is s**t”. Wish he had told that to me personally. 🙂
That’s very good advice, and it’s certainly something I’m bearing in mind. I certainly don’t veer towards the literary end of the writing spectrum, and I know I sometimes almost go into a shorthand style, with words missed out. Hence the copeditor’s comment (mentioned in my response to Louise’s blog on Tues) about the faults with my ‘verbs of utterance’. I would put a piece of dialogue and end it with ‘blah, blah," he dismissed’ which she desperately wanted to correct to ‘he said in a dismissive tone of voice’ If it’s not ambiguous, and you know from the context what the meaning is, why add in all those extra words?
But yes, I remember trying a critique group years ago who were very snooty about the kind of stuff I wrote. ‘Oh…genre fiction…’
I didn’t stay long.
"As one of my friends pointed out, "I think you flunked your own book.""
Oh, I LOVE that one. That’s a classic. Reminds me of one of my primary school teachers correcting me for spelling my mother’s name, Jillian, with a ‘J’, because it was only spelt with a ‘G’. I got so cross about being told something was wrong when I knew it wasn’t that it kind of set the tone for my attitude towards conventional education. I think I was about six.
Hm, all depends on your definition of ‘first draft’, I think. I actually had an email from my agent this morning because I’d mentioned that I was hoping to have the first draft of the new book to her by mid-March. ‘I am a bit concerned when you say “first draft” this is not YOUR first draft is it, but the first draft that we will see?!’ I had to hastily explain that yes, it was indeed the first draft that I felt was fit for her to see. Otherwise it just gets too confusing.
Basically, I think I like to have the plotholes sorted in the first finished draft, and then it’s time to do that shining you mentioned ;-]
I’m one of those "revise the whole damn thing nine times" writers. I envy you, Zoe.
And how interesting to ask a group to approach your writing cold like that. I did the same kind of "cold read" for Gillian Roberts once, on maybe the 14th or 15th Amanda Pepper book. "You haven’t told them she’s a teacher," I said. If someone was picking up her work for the first time, they would have been lost.
The best piece of advice I’ve ever received is "Finish the Book."
Ah, yes, very true re: first draft, Zoe. Perhaps I should have mentioned that "s**tty first draft" applied to me and the way I work. I envy you being able to write really good first drafts!
I don’t think I self-edit, but I probably do. I don’t worry about things on the first draft, is how I’d put it I guess. I turn off those lines for spelling and grammar and ‘the’ usually ends up spelled ‘teh’. But I do make sure the story makes SENSE.
I dive in blind. I’ve always hated outlines, so I go in with a clear picture of points A and Z and maybe M or Q, but I don’t have to have them. I figure out everything as I go along. But, as I go along, whenever I realize something’s happening that makes sense (but not with that one line I included earlier) I’ll go back and alter that one line. Or add in foreshadowing from various chapters ago. When I head in the wrong direction, it feels like running headfirst into a wall (which is different from just being stuck at a hard part, somehow) so I go back a few hundred words and try something else.
It includes all sorts of unnecessary scenes, because I’m learning backstory as I go along, so I’m often redundant. And I admit, I fall in love with my own words. So there’s no way it’s ready to go out on the first draft. But after some solid editing (where I simultaneously know I need to remove the unneeded scene and weep over doing so) it holds firm, because the plot is done on the first go.
As for destructive criticism? Well… the first query I ever wrote had people who didn’t know the story think the SF YA novel was erotica. I think I can actually see how, now that I have some distance. So, in essence: I know what I’m trying to say, others don’t, be very, VERY clear.
"I’m one of those "revise the whole damn thing nine times" writers. I envy you, Zoe."
Ah, but you are also an award-winning author, Louise, whereas I’ve only ever reached the ‘nominated’ stage … ;-]
Having people read the opening chapter completely cold was very interesting, I agree. And I learned a lot from it.
"Finish the Book" is great advice. As the screen saver on my laptop, I have the words:
GET ON WITH IT!
"Ah, yes, very true re: first draft, Zoe. Perhaps I should have mentioned that "s**tty first draft" applied to me and the way I work. I envy you being able to write really good first drafts!"
Whoa, there! Who said mine were any good?
I’ve found that summarising each chapter as I go tends to make the more obvious clangers stand out. I’ve just read through the summary so far and noticed a character introduce himself to another in one chapter, only for that second character to know amazing amounts about this apparent stranger two chapters later. A quick fix, fortunately.
And even with a broad outline, sometimes part of the story starts to push back at you so hard you know you’re trying to steer it in the wrong direction. As you say, you just have to back up a little and try a slightly different direction.
By the time I’ve finished a book, I have one folder called ‘Book’ (imaginative, huh?) and another called ‘Rubbish’, which is where I dump all those little cul-de-sacs.
I also go through and try and ruthlessly cut out the excess words, the unnecessary bits of introspection or navel gazing, and check to see if I can shift the chapter breaks to improve the hooks.
But I NEVER work with the grammar checker switched on. It has a nervous breakdown and sobs piteously at my fragmented sentences and I just can’t stand all that angst …
But I would LOVE to know what aspects of a SF YA novel could be mistaken for erotica. Reminds me of Allan Guthrie’s piece of bucolic erotica on Donna Moore’s panel at CrimeFest …
"Whoa, there! Who said mine were any good?"
If they’re anywhere close to the published drafts, I’m sure they’re very good indeed.
Darlene said, "As one of my friends pointed out, "I think you flunked your own book."
That completely cracked me up.
I’ve had people ask about symbolism of things I never intended, and some not see specific themes / symbolisms that I did. Mostly, though, I’m just telling a story about some people who have to deal with this conflict or suffer severely for it.
I’ve definitely had lots of times people have asked me questions that helped me shape the story into much better form. It’s one of the things I love about writers groups and friends, like the people here. They ask smart questions, and with a good heart.
I have done both the edit-as-I-go route as well as throw it all on the page and then go back and re-edit. The third Bobbie Faye book was probably the best synthesis of both methods because I had been thinking about that book for so long, I had a lot of it figured out before I wrote the first page.
The one I’m currently working on, though, is very much an edit as I go. (I say that now, because I want to delude myself that I won’t have nearly as much editing to do later.)
Oh, meant to add, that Robert Rodriguez heard or read about someone’s theory on the thematic reasons why there was a dog in his first film, El Mariachi. If I remember correctly, one theory held that the dog symbolized the transient condition of life, how we’re all just passing through while someone else held something like the dog was the symbol of love and potential acceptance that the characters were striving toward. He’d made the film for $7K in cash and some in-kind trading, and when he was asked about this thematic theory, he laughed and said (paraphrased), "Look, we were broke and we had to get the shots. There was a stray dog on the set and no one had time to chase him down and keep him out of the shots, so we just included him."
Sometimes a dog is just a dog.
"If they’re anywhere close to the published drafts, I’m sure they’re very good indeed."
Erm, you’re being nice to me … and it’s scaring me a little ;-]
"I’ve had people ask about symbolism of things I never intended, and some not see specific themes / symbolisms that I did. Mostly, though, I’m just telling a story about some people who have to deal with this conflict or suffer severely for it."
Yeah, I’m with you on that. Mostly I just want to tell a story and take the character on a journey, and for some reason I usually end up beating seven bells out of her. Hm, maybe that’s a metaphor for something …?
And every time I sit down to write, I’m determined that I’m going to be more organised this time. And, every time, I muddle through on a mix of outline, happy accident, planning, sweat, tears, horrible tantrums, and seat of the pants winging it. I think the uncertainty is all a part of my particular process.
Ah, sorry – last time I scrolled up, that second comment wasn’t there! Thank you for that – we’ve been trying to remember the quote and couldn’t get any further than: ‘Sometimes a something is just a something.’
Which is a bit hard to Google ;-]
Be scared, Zoe. Be VERY scared. And next time you lift that camera to your eye, don’t look behind you……….
P.S. I’ve read some of Toni’s work in progress and it’s AMAZING.
Promises, promises … ;-]
PPS – So have I – and yes it is ;-]
As always, a great post. Thank you.
I’ve been trying the write w/o the editor in the initial draft and my productivity is up. But I’m having a difficult time going back to do the editing now because I just want to write more stories.
But I do know that my first drafts do need work.
So . . .
I’m not stuck, but I’m in a very different place than I’ve been at other times in my career. I hope the editing comes soon and that I can "finish" and get my novel and short stories OUT of my office and on someone else’s desk!
Thank you ;-]
"I’ve been trying the write w/o the editor in the initial draft and my productivity is up. But I’m having a difficult time going back to do the editing now because I just want to write more stories."
I do sympathise because I find the problem with editing as I is that progress can feel very slow sometimes, but I know I find it more frustrating to go keep going back over the book after it’s done, so in the long run I’m happier spending the time while I’m actually working on the first draft, to try and get it right. Or more right than it might otherwise have been.
Good luck with getting that stuff out there!
It was Freud that said ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’
Ah-HA! That’s it, not a dog, a cigar,
So, remind me again, when is a dog a cigar …?
Wow, Rob & Zoë. Thank you. Wait… it wasn’t my turn for the bribe of the month again was… oh. damn.
Toni, you are entirely welcome – no bribes necessary. Can’t wait to read the whole thing ;-]
And here I thought I had an exclusive. Damn.
Hey Rob, I come after you, of course.
I knows my place … ;-]
I’m definitely a write first, edit later, though the more I write, the better I am at spotting my bugaboos – getting sentences out of proper order especially. Good editing from outside is crucial to me, but it’s not copyediting stuff as much as big picture issues. I have a critique group that’s been on a semi-hiatus, and I utilize beta readers to catch the egregious errors I can’t see.
But a critique group is tricky – in yours, the questions they asked, while important to think about, are definitely not things you really need to worry about. And therein lies the problem – knowing what’s crucial and what’s a function of writers without the proper background, or even lacking the imagination needed to get published.
Having been privileged enough to read an early draft of what became THE COLD ROOM, I can vouch for the fact that it came over as a very polished piece of work right from the start. And I was honoured that you were prepared to read FOURTH DAY in typescript form, to give me your input.
And I particularly made note of the questions that related to the fact that this particular group were not at all familiar with the character or the series set-up. They made other observations, too, about the voice and the pace, and the balance between thought and action and dialogue, that I found very instructive. But it brought it home to me how useful it is sometimes to have your work read by people who are coming to it completely cold.
Zoe said: "I muddle through on a mix of outline, happy accident, planning, sweat, tears, horrible tantrums, and seat of the pants winging it."
I’m too new at this to have a process yet, but I think that comes pretty close to describing it so far. I love hearing about the processes used by other writers. Some methods I’m pretty sure wouldn’t work for me, but others I think, Hey, that sounds interesting, maybe I should give it a try.
Right now (out of sheer desperation and concern that I’m going to end up being one of those "writers" who never finish a book) I’m using the "just finish it, damnit, you can fix it later" process.
I’ve just sat through 2 hours of business law lectures. My mind is overfull. Thank you Ms Sharp for the visual I just got via, ‘When is a dog a cigar.’ I have mind slippage…maybe spillage, now.
So far the best thing I am getting from this sujbect is lots of motives for crimes.
Sorry to answer this late – I finally called it a night at 1:30am this morning. I think the first thing you learn about process is … there isn’t one. It seems to be something I get asked a lot by people who want to write: "How do you go about it?" And there isn’t a set answer. They look a little disappointed when I say that, like I’m hiding the truth from the uninitiated, but it’s true. Everybody muddles through in their own way.
But yes, with the first one – just finish it. There’s time to develop a process of your own later ;-]
Sorry for being the cause of your brain spillage/slippage. Most of the time, mine is seems to be leaking slowly out of my ears ;-]
I hope you’re keeping a file somewhere with all those crime ideas!