Twas the Festival of Writing last weekend, with a hey and ho and a hey nonny nonny.
My highlights? Everything, really. It’s just like a great big bale of fun and passion and intensity squished down into a weekend-sized pellet and washed down with a bottle of wine. (Or two, if you write crime thrillers. Or three, if you’re an agent.)
If you came, then it was lovely to see you. If you didn’t, pshaw! Come next year, and we can be friends anyway.
I’ll probably have a few Festival-related missives to send, but I’ll start with the one about the head in the bag.
I was giving a workshop on how to build a crime novel, using my own This Thing of Darkness as an exemplar. The basic thrust of the class was how to build your novel up, bone by bone, and how you don’t always begin that process from the most logical starting point. In my TToD, for example, I knew I wanted a denouement at sea – Fiona Griffiths on a fishing trawler in a storm – but that’s all I knew. I didn’t know the crime. I didn’t know anything about the solution. I didn’t have anything else really nailed down.
And then: I built from there. I hauled my big structural milestones into place until I was confident I had a layout that could sustain a crime novel. (The twist in that little tale of triumph? Simply that at one point I had a 130,000 word novel that felt long and boring. Whoops. I talked a bit about how I solved that issue too.)
But then I threw the crime-novel problem over to the class. I wanted us to build a novel then and there, to get some sense of what could and couldn’t work.
To start with, I asked for an opening crime to launch our novel - the inciting incident, in effect. One person suggested a dead student. Apparent suicide. Whisky and pill bottle. Yadda, yadda.
Now that’s a perfectly fine opening thought. And, to be clear, this was suggested ad lib, on the basis of precisely zero planning. The student setting was suggested by our own university surroundings. And, OK, we all know books that start much like that.
There’s nothing there to suggest an angle. Nothing unique. Nothing pressing. Nothing to make an agent (or an editor or a supermarket book browser) say, “Oh wow. Want to know more.”
Now that can be OK. My first Fiona Griffiths novel had a crime so boring I can hardly remember it myself. (People trafficking. A couple of people bumped off as possible informers. All very 1.01 in terms of crime premise.)
But that first book of mine had something extravagantly memorable – it just wasn’t the crime. It had to do with Fiona herself; her past, her illness, her family background. And that’s fine. You need one golden line for an elevator pitch. That’s all. The element you care to emphasise can be anything at all.
But still. Because we were building a crime novel in class, I drew attention to the basic dullness of that setup crime. A dead student? Looks like a suicide but we all know it wasn’t? I wanted to do better.
And boom! I was running the class with an agent, Tom Witcomb at Blake Friedman, and he piped up with an alternative crime:
- Romantic dinner for two in Paris. Young Man proposes to His Beloved.
- His Beloved, tearfully, says no.
- Young Man, heart-broken, walks the streets of Paris, filling the Seine with his tears.
- He gathers his belongings, heads to the Gare Du Nord, and prepares for a life of loneliness and despair
- At the station, he’s pulled aside by a guard. He’s asked to open his bag. And there, blankly staring and still softly dripping, is the head of His Beloved.
I hope you can see the instant improvement here. That premise is basically all set up for a book that sells to an agent, a publisher and a supermarket buyer.
Yes: a million questions remain unanswered, but the basic sell is instant, strong and memorable. You can pretty much imagine the cover already. (“He proposed. She refused. And someone killed her.” “The must-read thriller that everyone’s talking about.”)
Of course, a good premise is thirty good pages, nothing more. There’s a lot more to be done to complete a plausible novel. Some thoughts:
Who tells this novel? Tom W saw the Parisian detective as the central character. Personally, I think this is beautifully designed to be a proper psychological thriller with Young Man as the narrator. Done that way, the book would be a did-he or didn’t-he story the whole way through, with the reader changing their minds about five times through the book.
Who did kill the Beloved? A criminal gang? Some shadow from her dark past? Probably. But the marriage proposal had to be causally linked to her death. So the Beloved would still be alive if Young Man hadn’t proposed. You can’t just have the death as a random accident.
Climax and Denouement. For me, the Parisian setting is important, not just a throwaway starter. So the climax probably needs a Parisian, or at least a French, setting. One delegate suggested we have a battle on top of the Eiffel Tower with some bad guy being hurled to his death. That’s probably a bit comedic, in all honesty, but the basic thought process is spot on.
The hard part of this book is going to be knitting together the Beloved’s dark past with the head in the bag. I mean, yes, you could imagine scenarios where bad guys want to kill the Beloved. But why don’t the bad guys just drop Beloved into the river? Why go to all the trouble of sticking a head into Young Man’s hand luggage?
You will need to find an answer to that question that’s plausible enough to carry the book. Not real, true-to-life plausible, perhaps, but something that gets you over the line. (In my The Dead House, I had a basic plausibility issue with my crime. I don’t think the crime I dealt with has ever or would ever happen, but I probably did just enough to get away with it in fictional terms. That’s all you need.)
I’ve talked about all this in the context of crime, but the same kind of thinking applies no matter what your genre. Some strong selling line. Some good unity of concept and tightness of execution. Lots of trial and error when it comes to developing a given starting point.
That’s plotting. That’s writing. And it’s hard! But it’s fun.
What about you? How do you construct a novel? Do you start with an inciting incident? WIth an elevator pitch? With something random? And what do you do from there? Tell all.
Oh yes, and I'm going to run a completely free webinar or two this autumn. Just tell me what you'd like me to talk about and I'll put my thnking cap on. No subject excluded, except possibly Brexit.