What I did then Vs what I’d do now.
‘Times have changed, and we’ve often rewound the clock…’The opening lines of ‘Anything Goes’, and the starting place for today’s blog.
Not only have times changed, but so has my writing. It has changed greatly from when I wrote ‘Other People’s Dreams’ in 1996 to now, when I am writing ‘Starting with Secrets’, my 35th novel. I thought it would be interesting to look at how I write 26 years after beginning my career. Reading what I have already published is not something I do very often, because I always think ‘I wish I’d written that better,’ and that causes regret. However, it is a useful exercise as long as you turn the ‘I wish I had…’ into ‘The next time, I will…’ and learn from your own naïveté.
The more I have written, the more I have learnt to write better.
Let’s start by improving that.
The more I write, the better I get.
I don’t like the word ‘better’ or ‘get’ come to that, and ‘come to that’ is not necessary.
The more accurate I become? The more literary? The more I improve?
The more I write, the more improved my writing becomes…
You know what I am trying to say. Like a fine wine, a writer improves with age, as long as he continues to write, criticize his own work, and learn from his experience. The first novel I wrote is called ‘Other People’s Dreams,’ a line from a song by Janis Ian that has always resonated with me.
Other People’s Dreams
I began writing this novel while on holiday on Symi, Greece in 1996. When I returned home, I read parts of it to my flatmate and, as all new writers do, I thought it was the best thing since The Catcher in the Rye. It wasn’t, but my flatmate was encouraging, offered positive advice (he was a published journalist), and most of all, encouraged me to finish it, and then rewrite it. I rewrote it several times, and then put it away, and it didn’t see the publishing light of day until some years later.
The story opens with an advertisement. A thirty-six-year-old man is looking for four handsome young men to crew his yacht in the Greek islands. It’s a perfect summer job opportunity, but there are ‘Certain strings attached.’ That’s the hook, and I liked the way it set up the premise and a little mystery.
Then, we have a section of a screenplay in which there is an accident at sea. That’s unexplained, and we have another hook.
Then we have a flashback which sets up a third hook as we wonder what that story is all about, and it’s not until after that’s done that the present-day story starts.
Blimey. These days, I wouldn’t write so many introductions.
In the next chapter, we meet one of the four young men who will form the crew. This scene sets up people’s reactions to the advertisement, the ‘present day’ to separate the action from the flashback, and a character called John. Fine.
Then, we jump to a swimming pool, and we meet Mick, another of the four, and a character who doesn’t know where he’s going or what he’s doing. He will become the impact character when we finally meet the anti-hero.
Which we do in chapter four. Yippee! We finally feel the story is settling down, and then we’re hit with the job applications. These are presented as snippets of letters, and the chapter gives us more of an insight into our anti-hero, Jake, and another of the boys who will be the third to join the crew. It’s a neat device, and I still use letters in my novels as they make the stories feel more real. Letter writing is also a good way of putting across a character’s inner thoughts. I am using the device in ‘Starting with Secrets.’
As ‘Other People’s Dreams’ progresses, we meet the fourth character, and the first act comes to an end when Jake has selected his four men, and they are about to set off to Greece. Meanwhile, the flashback story has also reached its act one ending as the man in the past meets the object of his lust, a Greek lad called Andreas.
Looking back at the book now, it’s interesting to see that I must have had a natural feel for the four-act structure even though I knew nothing about it. There’s a turning point halfway through both stories (the flashback and the present day), and both lead to a crisis and then a climax and resolution. It’s at the climax that we know for sure how the two stories and the screenplay relate, though most readers would have worked that out along the way.
When I sent OPD to a publisher, and they sent it to their readers for an opinion, I received some positive criticism with the rejection. Although the readers found the characters ‘well drawn, especially the Greek man, Nikos, their final decision was ‘Almost but not quite’, which I think should be the title of my autobiography. I wasn’t disappointed, but took the critique on board and was actually quite buoyed by it. So much so, that I looked for an agent and found one. She took OPD to read, and I was so thrilled, I immediately began a second book.
This was a dreadful thing full of dodgy sex and a murder mystery. Set in the street in which I lived in Brighton, it was titled ‘Neighbourhood Watch.’ Although it was never published, it did turn up on some gay adult sites, because I licenced it as filler content along with some erotic short stories. This, by the way, was years later, and as far as I know, it might still be out there. I sent ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ to the agent, she read it, had a heart attack, and emigrated to Spain.
Almost but not quite…
Dreams Vs Secrets
Looking back at OPD and the way it is written, I can see plenty of things I would not do now, and I don’t just mean the structure of the opening. When examining your own past work, it’s important to look at everything from characterisation to the old ‘show and tell’ mystery, to the sentences themselves. I do this on every rewrite of every book, and there are now particular things I look out for and try to avoid.
Here are some examples of what I did in older novels that I try not to do in the newer ones. Some are necessary, some are unavoidable, but the fewer I have of them, the better I feel. (The more satisfied I feel, damn it!)
Starting a sentence with ‘He…’
At some point in my writing past, I noticed I often started sentences with He. He heard no engine, no unnatural noise, just the animals. That’s telling not showing. We know who we are reading about, we’re in his point of view, so why not write, The silence of a dead engine was the canvas on which goats and sheep painted their bleating. Well, it’s a bit naff, but I am thinking off the top of my head. Starting a sentence with He is fine now and then, but in some passages of my early books, I do it all the time. It’s a cop-out. He saw… He knew… He felt… These, to my mind, are all telling and thus, robbing the reader of the chance to experience the atmosphere.
This is why I have a proof reader. My punctuation, I notice, is based on how I speak, and is not always grammatically correct. I have to admit, now I use a proof reader, I don’t bother dithering over whether my punctuation is 100% accurate, because I know someone else will sort it out. However, I do know what to avoid. The other day, someone showed me the first proof of their first book, and with great excitement, asked me what I thought. I opened it at random and leapt in shock. The whole thing was in a sans serif font, Ariel or something. That’s a no-no, because serif fonts like Times New Roman are much easier on the eye when reading large blocks of text. Sans serif is fine on web pages like the one you are reading now, but, in my opinion, they should be kept out of print books.
Another thing this chap had done was hammer out exclamation marks as if they were the three-million rivets on the Titanic! I mean, one or two in a novel is fine, but eight or nine on each page! I mean, that’s overkill! Exclamation marks add emphasis for sure! But they also add an upturn in your reading voice! And if every sentence is exclaimed, the reading suffers from hiccups! And repetition! You see what I mean?!
?! is even worse, and try to avoid starting sentences with And and But. Although it can be argued it’s a style thing, there’s always a better way to start a sentence than with a conjunction.
Again, my proof reader comes into play when I write discreet but mean discrete. The same applies to practice and practise, and several others. However, thanks to her notes, I now know to check certain words to ensure I have the verb rather than the noun, or the adjective rather than the verb. I also know what my most common typos are, and I keep a list of them so I can run a search/find on the full manuscript and change form to from and fro to for, etc.
Something I do a great deal of when writing a first draft is remind myself that I have already said that. I will state a fact the reader needs to know, and then I’ll state it again from someone else’s point of view later, and probably, do it a third time. This is a subconscious thing in the first draft, and I do it because I am unsure if I’ve mentioned the fact before. Either that, or I repeat it so the reader knows a different character knows the fact. I reckon a reader only needs to be told once, so, in the second draft, I consciously look for such repetitions and ask myself, ‘Do we know this already?’ Very often the answer is yes, so I take it out. An exception might be if a vital fact or clue is mentioned in chapter one and comes into play again in chapter thirty; then, it’s acceptable to remind the reader, but it must be done subtly.
Every chapter must have a point, and I keep a list I call POC. Point Of Chapter. As long as the plot or character details I want known come across, then the chapter has a point. That’s one thing, but another is the shoe leather scene, as they call it in screenplay writing. These are scenes to be avoided and, in some screenplays, they are there because the writer needs to present 90 pages and only has 87. A chapter only needs to be as long as it needs to be, you don’t have to aim for 3,000 or 4,000 words. In fact, it is better to vary the length of chapters as it is to vary the length of sentences. If your chapter feels too short, don’t bung in any old description or, worse, repetition just to make it longer. I used to do this, but now as I reread, I think to myself, ‘Do we need this?’ ‘What’s the point of this paragraph?’ ‘We’ve been here before.’ ‘We’ve done this…’ Ad infinitum
And Finally, Cyril
I am in danger of wittering on ad infinitum, so I will stop there. The point of this post has been to highlight how a writer can, and must, learn from his or her own writing. The above is simply an early morning reflection on what I have to say about the subject, and I hope you found it of use. To finish with, and just for fun, I want to give a few lines from both ‘Other People’s Dreams’ (1996) and ‘Starting with Secrets’ (2022, first draft). Both sections are from towards the beginning of the novels. See if you can spot the differences.
Other People’s Dreams
There was no doubt about it, the older man in the red trunks was flirting. This was the second time he had walked slowly past the lifeguard station, staring up and looking for a moment too long. Mick caught his eye again and immediately looked away, tiring of the attention. Not only was he working, he was simply not interested.
He had become used to the admiring glances of the men and women whose lives he guarded for six hours a day; there was no more novelty to it.
Starting with Secrets
[Character name]* tore the page from the newspaper, and threw the rest into the coal scuttle to use as kindling. Beyond the window, a sickly glow of yellow light coloured the overhanging fug, through which came the sound of clatter-carts and costermongers calling their wares, the sharp cackle of the prostitute and the crash and roar of warring couples. A policeman’s whistle pierced the night, and boots thudded on the cobbled street, chased by others and accompanied by shouts. Slops cascaded from the room above to catch a child unawares, resulting in screams and foul language, and soon after, came the threatening tread of a father mounting the stairs to seek revenge.
* I removed the name because it might have been a spoiler
Other People’s Dreams is on sale here.
Starting with Secrets should be ready for publication by the end of October. It will be the sixth book in the Larkspur Mystery series.