Today, I want to say that it’s fine to improve your own work no matter when it was written or published.
‘The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge’ is my age-gap, MM romance-thriller set on the side of a Derbyshire fell in bad weather and was released in January 2018.
In terms of Kindle sales, this is my 4th best-selling title. In terms of page reads through Kindle Unlimited, it’s the 7th, and in terms of income, it’s the 6th. Above it are the first four Clearwater novels and ‘Guardians of the Poor.’
The ‘Barrenmoor Ridge’ blurb begins thus:
Following the death of his lover, mountaineer John Hamilton lives an isolated existence high on wild Fellborough peak. When he rescues 19-year-old Gary Taylor from the mountain, John can't accept that the boy may be the answer to his heartache. Gary is seventeen years his junior, confused, and being pursued by criminals.
A while ago, my PA suggested I did some tidying up on ‘The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge,’ particularly the first few chapters. This was one of my first novels, and I was then, as I am now, still learning the craft.
The other day, I thought I’d drop into it, improve what I can, and eventually, have a second edition which is the same, but more polished.
I had actually started this task some time ago but got no further than the first half a page, because the Larkspur Mysteries series came along.
This morning, I took a look at what I’d done to ‘Barrenmoor’ then, and compared it to the original. Yes, well, ah-hem… there’s certainly some confusion in the opening scene; confusion around whose point of view we are experiencing the story from. It was meant to be John, the main character, but some of the time, it’s as if his friend, Sally, is the lead so that needed addressing. I think, when I was writing it, I wrote one version from her point of view and one from his and ended up mixing the two. It’s fine to use more than one point of view as long as you write in blocks (i.e. don’t change POV every other line) or put in a line break, or use some other technique that makes the switching obvious. I hadn’t done this; I’d bounced back and forth.
Here’s an example; the first 141 words of the original, which starts from John’s point of view, but swiftly changes to someone else (in italics):
John Hamilton was refusing a job at Everest base camp when he caught sight of the youth who was about to change his life. He was also ripping a piece of toast in half with his teeth while reaching for his pint mug of tea. The woman sitting opposite him in the Pot Hole, the climbers' café in Inglestone, was none too impressed that he had left their conversation hanging but assumed that John was considering her offer. After she had watched his confused expression for long enough, she leant across and pushed the piece of toast into his open mouth. 'It's an easy answer, John,' she said, smiling at his reaction. 'And you've got baked beans in your moustache.' John finally returned his gaze to her. 'What?' he said, his body at the table, his mind still across the room.
Looking closer, I also have a problem with the second sentence, because
it starts with ‘He’, and I now try and avoid doing that as it sounds weak, and
because it’s weak, it’s vague, and we might be talking about the younger man across the room. Who is eating toast and drinking tea? Both of them?
My changes come next, and although they are not yet perfect, they are an improvement. Here are what are now the first 144 words.
That, to me, is better because, a) it stays as John’s point of view, therefore, b) it flows better, and c) it’s a little more intriguing. Does John know this younger man? (His mind remained with who he had just seen.) There is also the added attraction of naming his companion, Sally, rather than calling her ‘the woman’ as if he didn’t know who she was. I’ve also cut the detail about the café name and location, because that’s not vital and we’ll come to learn that information later. You’ll note I have left the opening line more or less intact. I rather like the way it mixes Everest Base Camp, refusing a job there, a younger man, a moment between two main characters, and ‘who would change his life,’ setting up what’s to come. I changed ‘youth’ to ‘younger man’ because it sounds less patronising.
The point of this is to highlight that it’s fine to return to an older work and improve it. We learn as we go, and because you can change your Amazon-uploaded files at any time, yet still keep the ISBN number and details, you can improve your work whenever you want. (As long as you don’t substantially change the story or title; in that case, you would need a new ISBN and would have to publish it as if it were a new book.) Revising those 141 words took me about half an hour, and I’m still not 100% happy, but I’ll continue when I can, and improve my ‘number five’ best seller bit by bit when I have time.
(Note from PA, “I love this opening, far more readable and the intrigue seed is planted leaving me wanting more. Bravo.”)
It’s a sad fact that many first-time writers will say, ‘I finished writing my book last night,’ when what they mean is, they finished writing a first draft. I’ve seen it myself, when someone has sought me out, and asked me to look at their publication, proudly showing it off, cover and all, printed and bound, and in their hand, and they’ve asked for my opinion. I used to tell them what they wanted to hear, but now I say, ‘Do you want my honest opinion, or do you want me just to say, it’s lovely?’
Most of the time, when someone asks you what you think of their work, they are asking for approval. They don’t want you to say how you think it could be improved, because they think it’s already perfect.
This happened last year: I was sitting outside our local bar as I often do in the summer afternoons, and someone I vaguely know bounded up with the first copy of his book under his arm. Knowing I make a living out of writing, he asked me to tell him what I thought. Honestly? Yes, please. He was one of the genuine ones. He wanted me to pull it apart so he could take it back to the people he’d paid to publish it and get them to make changes, so I knew I could be direct. I didn’t read all of it, only had a glance through, and seeing it had been printed in a sans serif font was enough for me. But, based on what I saw, here is a list of some of the things to avoid, look out for, be wary of and do when self-publishing. As usual, these are my opinions, and other writers will have a different view.
What happens after you’ve written your first draft?
Answer: You write a second, and third, and fourth, and as many as it takes to make it perfect.
Never pay to have your book published
You don’t need to. There’s no guarantee the people you pay thousands to will keep their end of the bargain. It’s vanity publishing, and often, they only put out what you put in. If you present an unfinished manuscript, or one that needs editing, they might say they will edit, but often, they don’t. It comes out with typos and all. If someone other than you wants to publish your work, they should be paying you. It’s as simple as that.
There’s a draft in here
‘I finished writing my book!’ Translates as, ‘I’ve written a first draft, and it’s perfect. It says everything I want it to say. I’ve reread it twice and not had to change a thing…’
Nothing is ever finished the first time around. Or as Hemmingway said,
‘The first draft of anything is shit.’
Here’s my list of drafts:
1st Don’t get it right, get it written. Bash it out, put the words down, tell yourself the story, make notes on the side as you go. Scribble reminders to include XYZ, number your files in order but give them POC titles. I.e., the Larkspur Legacy currently has 49 chapter files with file names such as: 20 Meanwhile, Silas at Larkspur, and 44 In house Dalston on way. This makes it easier to nip back and make changes or check facts.
2nd Read it through chapter file by chapter file. A POC, in my terminology, is a Point Of Chapter. Each chapter should do something otherwise it’s shoe leather, a term borrowed from screenwriting, where you write a scene just to fill in time. (You and the reader wander around aimlessly.) I’m not talking descriptions and atmosphere, they are essential, but someone having a conversation for the sake of it, or a scene that doesn’t advance plot or character, or in my case, mystery, that’s shoe leather.
Also, while in what I call draft two, the first readthrough, I cut out repetition. I have this thing where I get characters to tell each other or the reader their backstory or something they know, so that when I get to those parts in draft two, I can say ‘We know this.’ I make sure it’s been covered or mentioned, and then cut it out. It’s like dropping ‘remembrals’ along the path and then kicking them out of the way when you take the same route again.
Draft 2a. At this stage, I give what I have to my beta reader (husband) to read for story consistency. Does it make sense? Anything leap out as wrong? Any repetition? Anything that made you say, What the…? That kind of thing. It’s a structure read, if you like. I’m always pleased if I overhear him sniffing back tears, or laughing aloud, or calling me names when he gets a surprise, always so encouraging.
3rd This is when, having gone from 100,000 words to 95,000 words of your draft, you know you need to cut another 5,000. Why? My story is perfect as it is. No, it’s probably not. We’re very good at defending our own work, some authors call their books their babies (eek!), but that’s not the relationship you should be having with them. You command them, not the other way around. So, “If in doubt, cut it out,” as our family doctor used to say.
Also, at this time, I perform an in-depth edit for grammar, punctuation, passive Vs active sentences, sentence length, word repetition… the technical side of the craft. To assist me, I use Pro Writing Aid, and Grammarly plug-ins, but ultimately, the style is up to you, so you can ignore their advice if you want. (I never use Microsoft’s grammar checker, and I’ve not explored their ‘editor’ yet, because I use those other tools.)
You may repeat the draft-three surgery as many times as you see fit, but let’s say you’re happy with your MS after draft three. What next?
4th Draft four, of course. Some people say you should rewrite the entire thing from scratch, and yes, if you are a masochist, you can do that. If I’m not happy with a chapter or part of, I will take it out, discard the whole 4,000 words or whatever, and completely rewrite them. If I feel one of my novels needs completely rewriting, then I will probably throw the whole lot away and write something else. Clearly, the idea I’d had didn’t work, so why flog the proverbial?
Draft four can be a rewrite or a reread, but it’s usually the time when I put all files together and read the entire MS as one. While I am doing that, I check for typos.
TIP: Put the MS into one word doc, and as soon as you see a typo, run a search and find for that typo to ensure you haven’t done it again. Repeat this process before you send it to your proof reader, to cover anything you may have added in while editing.
Bonus TIP: I have a sheet of paper on which I wrote my most common typos. Some of them look like this: Wrote/write. Mr Lord/My Lord. Form/from. Sails/Silas. Desert/Dessert?
Time to let it go
By which I mean, let it go to a professional proof reader and/or editor if you work with an editor and we all should. If only we could afford it.
While you are paying to have the MS checked for typos, incontinences, spelling errors etc., there are other things to be doing. Hiring a professional artist to produce the perfect cover. Paying for illustrations or maps, if necessary. Working on the blurb and publicity releases. Starting the publicity ball rolling. Beginning the next novel…
Then, when the MS comes back, you need to read it again to approve the proofing, and that’s your last chance to make any changes. If you do, be careful not to add back in any other errors.
Then, it’s a case of having the MS laid out, uploading it to where you’re going to sell it, getting it publicised, and sitting back waiting for the money to come rolling in. It’s unlikely it will, so start the process again with a better story, and learn from any mistakes you made while writing book one.
Then, when you present your published book to people, you can do so knowing you have at least done your best to make it as perfect as perfect can be. Hopefully, the person you show it to won’t do what I did when that chap I was talking about showed me his ‘baby.’ Scream at the sans serif font, gasp at the overuse of exclamation marks, point out the various ways he’d spelt the same word, put double line breaks between paragraphs, and used “ ” instead of ‘ ’ (Apparently, double quotes for speech is American, and single is a British thing.)
Looking at other sources, we also discover that the term refers to the strongest piece of circumstantial evidence, as opposed to direct evidence, and the phrase, or one very like it, was coined by Sir Arthur Connan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of Gloria Scott. In 1893, he used the words, smoking pistol, which was much more in keeping with his time and characters than ‘gun.’ The gun version seems to have come about in the 1970s, and may first have been used during the Watergate affair, because reports referred to one of Nixon’s tapes (June 23rd, 1972) as ‘the Smoking Gun’ tape, perhaps borrowing from Connan Doyle.
Examples of the Smoking Gun
Watch any of today’s action thriller films, and you will see examples of the smoking gun. The best ones are those which turn out to be something that’s been staring us in the face all this time, and when you realise, you say, ‘Oh, of course!’ At least, those are my favourite times, and I’m now trying to think of a classic one… The trouble is, they are also plot spoilers, so I can’t even give you an example from any of my books, in case you’ve not read them all. (And if not, why not? Lol.)
An example which is not a plot spoiler, might be: You walk into a room to find the last chocolate biscuit has been snaffled away, and your young child protesting his innocence… with chocolate all over his face. (That’s circumstantial evidence. ‘Real’ evidence would be him holding the last piece of the biscuit.)
How to use a Smoking Gun
I like to use the device as a twist, a revelation, or a key to unlock a mystery, but you have to be careful how you go about it. In one of my stories, I was aware from the start that I was going to rely on the smoking gun as the final ‘Ah ah!’ moment towards the end of the book. I had that in mind before I even began writing. Therefore, I was able to write the novel with that moment in mind, and made sure I laid the path to the smoking gun revelation with care.
Why? Because, when writing a smoking gun scene, you can’t reveal something that has never been there.
It’s like the classic error in dodgy thrillers and mystery plays, particularly those written by children to present to weary parents on a Saturday afternoon. Our hero battles the evil villain but is trapped, so he whips a magic potion from his pocket, throws it in the villain’s face, makes his escape and, ‘Curtain!’ Or, as happened in a play I once saw: The final showdown was taking place, the leading lady was about to be slaughtered in Act Two. The drawing room one afternoon in late spring, when our hero said, ‘There has to be a revolver here somewhere…’, dived into a bathroom cabinet, pulled out a gun and shot the baddie.
The message there being, always foreshadow your twists, handy escape implements and smoking guns. By the way, why were drawing room thrillers always set among chintz covered furniture in late spring? I worked on several back in the 80s, and never thought to ask. Nor did I think to ask how the character knew that particular cabinet would contain a gun, because a gun had never been mentioned. I also never found out why there was a bathroom cabinet in a drawing room.
Of course, where you want to avoid falling into the trap of ‘handy ways out of a crisis’ and ‘smoking guns that have not been foreshadowed,’ the opposite is true. There’s an old writers’ maxim that says,
‘If you’re going to show the reader a gun, you’d better damn well use it.’
Imagine if the hero, or detective, or both in one character, is halfway through an interview when he says, ‘That’s a very interesting sketch, Mr Snoot. Not everyone owns an original Da Vinci.’ How disappointed or bewildered (or both) are you going to feel when, after ploughing through the rest of the novel, you’re left wondering what the Da Vinci reference was all about?
A writer must make sure to justify prominent props, characters, and any suspicions put in the reader’s mind. Unless, that is, you are purposely intending to mislead your reader.
Something About Fish
Yes, you can mislead the reader, that’s allowed, and it’s called a red herring. However, my advice would be to make sure you don’t leave your red herrings to go off. Always tie them up, and hang them in the smokehouse, but don’t leave them there to rot. By which I mean, make sure your characters and readers know that was a red herring.
An aside. The term, red herring, may date from the late 17th century, when a publication suggested ways to train hounds to follow a scent trail. Herrings, when smoked and reddened, are particularly whiffy, and irresistible to hunting dogs. (More successful than other fish and dead cats, apparently.) The expression, as it relates to crime novels, became a widely used idiom in the 19th century, but if you try and look up exactly when, you will find many different theories. Most of them, I suspect, will be red herrings.
Back to the Smoking Gun
Apart from to offer my thoughts on this plot device, the reason I am posting this day, is because I am at the part in my current mystery where the smoking gun has just made its appearance. Actually, it’s been there since the book before, and throughout this one, as I peppered in references to it, but now, it’s just taken centre stage in the first draft. I’m not going to tell you what it is or even give you a clue, because that would spoil ‘The Larkspur Legacy’ for you. All I will say is, if you can wait until the end of March, and read the longest novel I have yet written, you will find out.
There will be an update on ‘Legacy’ in my Wednesday work in progress blog, by when, I hope, I shall be announcing that the first draft is finished.
As you might know, I’m currently working on ‘The Larkspur Legacy’, the last in the Larkspur Mystery series.
If you have read ‘Starting with Secrets’, you will know that book comes before ‘Legacy’ and concerns a treasure hunt in four pieces based on the four points of a compass. In ‘Secrets’, the characters chased three out of four clues because I thought having four story-lines running simultaneously might be complicated, and now, writing ‘Legacy’ with all four stories in action, I find I was right.
It’s not the weaving of the four plots that needs careful handling and consideration, but the way the stories are told. I love a good, interwoven plot line or four, where each thread has to be tied off neatly so my story doesn’t get knotted. What I am having to be aware of is who is telling the story, and in ‘Legacy’, I have four main characters seeing the story from four points of view (POV). So, the question is, how do you handle that?
One Character POV
Many stories are told with one main character (MC) as the central character. We follow his/her path from a normal world, through a series of trials and a character-development arc, to a twist, a change, a crisis and a climax. (Use the search box for earlier posts about story and character development.) That’s the classic hero’s journey kind of storytelling, but in ‘Legacy’, I am not telling one person’s story. What I am doing, is bringing to an end a series of 17 books through a device that uses characters and information from as long ago as the Clearwater prequel, Banyak & Fecks, and taking us right up to date and the previous Larkspur mystery, ‘Starting with Secrets.’
I decided I couldn’t write a four-story epic like ‘Legacy’ with one main character involved in each one of the four through-lines, simply because no-one can be in four places at the same time. However, what I could do, was have one of my main characters ‘lead’ each storyline and write it from his point of view, keeping one protagonist (in this case, Archer, Lord Clearwater), and one antagonist who has a band of other villains under his command.
Thus, what we have are four stories woven together, all playing their part in the success or failure of one overarching story (the treasure hunt), and all coming about because of one protagonist. Easy right?
Actually, yes. I’m loving it, but I have to keep my eye on the ball, particularly when it comes to who is experiencing the story, and as I just explained, that is not one character, but four.
Five actually, or maybe it’s six…
Know Your Throughlines
Without giving anything away, I can tell you that the action plot of ‘Legacy’ looks something like this:
Overarching plot of discovering the secret and finding the treasure based on four points of the compass.
South: a team chasing down the answer to the south clue
North: a team chasing down the answer to the north clue
East: Ditto but the east clue
West: you get the picture
The villain’s story, because we need to know that side of things too
Within those six storylines, we must have the emotional side of the story, so that the reader is engaged emotionally and is not reading a Clive Cussler action-adventure story.*
So, among the six listed above, I also have:
The ‘heart’ of the story; the friendship story if you like
The tying up of previous loose ends, love stories, histories, etc.
The villain’s motivation explained
The tying up of other threads begun in earlier books in the series
Giving those that deserve it a happy ending (or not)
(* I love Clive Cussler adventure stories, btw.)
With those charted on my map that will lead me through ‘The Larkspur Legacy’, I set about writing the story… stories… while keeping everything and everyone focused on the final outcome: success for Lord Clearwater, and happiness (or not) for his band of friends, crew and academy men.
This is where, when you are writing from more than one character’s point of view, you need to remember who is seeing the story unfold.
General Narrator VS Character POV
Many authors write with their own voice as the narrator, and that’s fine. The narrator is an omnipresent observer relaying the events back to you, the reader. I always wonder, though, how this narrator knows what’s inside the characters’ heads and hearts, and I often find the telling of the emotional side of stories is muted because of this approach. That, like everything else I write here, is only my opinion.
Some authors, and I am thinking of John Steinbeck here, take on the voice of a character who lives in the world of the story but is not actually in the story. That works better for me, and I find my writing flows best when I am writing in the first person, as I do in one of the stories within ‘Legacy.’
Some of my books have taken two characters’ points of view, and others have taken more, but only now and then. ‘Banyak & Fecks’ for example, is told in four parts: Andrej, from his POV, Silas, from his, then the Andrej & Silas, and Banyak & Fecks sections which are variously from both points of view. In other books, we might find a chapter from a minor character’s point of view, as we do at the start of ‘Artful Deception’ which opens with a man called Henry Beddington, the concierge of the National Gallery. That’s fine too; we need to keep our readers informed and entertained, and if we have to change from one place to another, we might need to change from one character’s POV to another.
Beware: it’s not a good idea to have a new lead character and point of view in every single chapter or section thereof.
For ‘Legacy’, I have gone down the multi-character point-of-view narration style. It’s still my voice overall, but even though we read from a 3rd person, omnipresent narration in all but the 1st person sections, I am aware that I am describing things from a character’s POV and not my own.
I am trying to say, when making more than one character your main character, always be aware of who that character is, and make sure his/her reactions to and observations of what happens are character appropriate. Fine, but there’s more. I also try and ensure my style of narration reflects the main character of the chapter.
Let me try and illustrate what I am saying.
Again, without giving anything away, here is how I am approaching this multi-character point-of-view style in ‘Legacy.’ Here are a few examples of how I am trying to change my narrator’s voice to reflect the attitudes of the main characters of each of my storylines. These are first-draft, unedited sections, so please forgive any clumsiness.
1)Action at Larkspur Hall is seen from Silas’ point of view, therefore the first thing we get is a cosey scene of two lovers in bed. The writing style is mostly straightforward, to reflect Silas’ character, and when writing, I find myself ‘thinking Irish.’
‘This is an outrage!’
Silas rolled over to find his lover sitting up in bed, his reading spectacles teetering on the end of his nose and his face red with rage. Archer’s knuckles were white as he gripped a newspaper, and his coffee sat steamless on the bed tray. Silas hadn’t heard Nancarrow come in, deliver the coffee and pour, nor had he woken when the butler drew the curtains revealing a grey sky…
2) Action pertaining to the ‘heart’ of the story (the good fortune of the academy men, friendship, the changes Clearwater has enabled in his men, the more emotional side of things). This is mainly seen from Dalston Blaze’s point of view, he being the first Larkspur Academy man we met in ‘Guardians of the Poor.’
The workhouse. A previous life of tedium, cold and hunger. An existence he wouldn’t wish on anyone, and yet, had it not been for a house fire and an unknowing public, he wouldn’t have been taken to the Hackney spike. There, if it hadn’t been for a kind matron and his ability to draw, he would never have met Joe, but if he hadn’t met Joe, he may not have fallen prey to Skaggot. His life had been shaped by a chain of coincidences, and the only one among them that felt inevitable was meeting Joe.
3) 1st person narrative is written by Bertie Tucker in diary form. He’s a pretty rough character underneath, been at sea since he was seven, and not greatly educated, but he’s been asked to keep a diary. In this brief section, he’s trying on clothes with an Italian sailor called Mario. The style is completely different to a) give readers a rest and a smile, and b) bring them into the action, because 1st person is more direct.
I got me boots and trousers off, and was in my drawers going through the shirts when I found one I thought might fit him. So, I turned back to hand it over and he’s standing there naked as the day he was born. Or, more like, the day he was carved out of marble, because his body (darker skin than me) showed me every single muscle.
‘What you doing naked?’ I said, and should have looked away, but being me, I couldn’t resist a gander. Just a quick one, you understand, but enough for him to see what I were doing.
‘No underwear,’ he said. ‘Lost it in a bet.’
Bloody hell. This great big peg dangling about dark as you like, and a couple of buoys you could hitch a few lobster pots to and never lose them in a storm, and… I mean, where’s a man to look?
4) The descriptive, darker side of villains. When we switch to the baddies and what they are up to, I have, as I have done before, slipped into Tripp’s mind, but in some cases, as in the example below, I have become a general narrator as if I and the reader were floating around in the fetid atmosphere of the villain’s lair.
To Tripp’s left stood the letter table, a relic of a fortunate past once lived, where industrious staff had placed the box for posting, and the deliveries from cheerful men wishing Fareham’s household a good day. Now, it was nothing but another shape in the gloom, whose usefulness had faded like the writing on the envelopes that once might have waited there. What remained was an opener. A long, steel blade which, unlike Tripp, had meaning. It was within his reach, and it would do its work with speed, but it was not work Tripp could currently allow. No matter how vile his master, he needed the earl. Perhaps, once Clearwater was dead, so could the earl be, for Tripp had nothing to live for after his revenge was done.
5) Others, and so on. Other parts of the story are seen through the eyes of other characters, such as Frank Andino, and when he’s on stage as the MC, I am aware that he’s a blunt speaker. Not only is this reflected in the dialogue, but it’s also shown in the ‘black stuff’, the narration, as if we were in his mind.
The sauntering young Greek became a confident Englishman as Frank entered the foyer, hands out of pockets, guidebook under his arm. His hat doffed to the sleepy old lady behind the counter, he mounted the stairs with grace until the turn, and then bolted the rest of the way to their room. Two open suitcases, Jimmy’s spare jacket on a hanger, Frank’s trousers off the floor, two bottles from the table, one bloody boot? Where’s the other one, malaka…? Both in the case, case shut, other case shut, quick check. All there. Fuck off out of here.
How Many Voices Tell Your Story?
To bring this to a close, I repeat: How Many Voices Tell Your Story? I answer my own question by saying, as many as it takes, but be careful. Ensure your narration fits the main character as well as your characters’ dialogue suits them, and don’t be afraid to transport your reader from one place to another at the turn of a page. However, remember your overarching through-line, your character arcs and your plot.
Hey, thiswriting thing is meant to be fun, isn’t it?
I have just written the denouement for ‘Speaking In Silence’, and it’s prompted me to talk about the subject and what I learnt from the process of writing the novel.
All my novels tie up at the end, but they don’t always come with a classic denouement. The closest I came was in ‘Unspeakable Acts’, the third Clearwater novel, where James Wright explains the villain’s motivation and method. ‘Speaking In Silence’ is slightly different to other mysteries I’ve written because it’s more of a ‘What are they doing?’ mystery for the reader, who won’t know what until the climax, and won’t know how until the last scene, the denouement.
What is a Denouement?
The word is borrowed from the French and originates in Latin, as this snippet from Etymonline tells us:
1752, from French dénouement “an untying” (of plot), from dénouer “untie” (Old French desnouer) from des- “un-, out” + nouer “to tie, knot,” from Latin nodus “a knot,” from PIE root *ned- “to bind, tie.”
[PIE = The roots of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language are basic parts of words that carry a lexical meaning, so-called morphemes.]
In other words, denouement means to untie a knot. In literary terms, it means the final part of a play, film, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved. Or, as the dictionary also states: the outcome of a situation, when something is decided or made clear.
In other-other words, it’s that bit at the end of an Agatha Christie when Poirot stands in the drawing room and tells the assembled characters who did it and how. Of course, the technique is used in all forms of literature and creative writing, and doesn’t have to pertain to a crime story. The denouement of Romeo and Juliet happens after the two main characters are dead, for example, even though we all saw how they died.
What to Consider When Writing a Denouement
The following is based on my experience. There are plenty of free writing-advice websites that will give their own views, but having just looked at a few, they are very similar to what I worked out for myself.
Keep notes as you write towards the end
First of all, as I wrote my way through the first draft of Speaking In Silence, I made a note every time a character was seen to do something with no explanation; every time I dropped in a question mark for the reader if you like. This was to make sure I didn’t leave any knots still tied at the end. I do this with every novel, and it’s a good way to avoid the trap of ‘I’ll remember that for sure’, only to say later, ‘What was it I had to remember?’
The notes also help me see if I have given too much away to the reader, and if I need to take out anything too obvious. Thinking about ‘Silence’, I’m worried the reader will catch on to what’s happening well before the end, and so the climax won’t be a surprise. (It doesn’t have to be. I’ve found readers are as happy to say, ‘I didn’t see that coming’ as they are to have proved themselves right.)
Don’t Witter on for too Long
Says he… My denouement happens in dialogue, and I’m not sure if that’s the done thing or not, but it’s what I have done. The chapter is currently 4,000 words long, but it’s not all explanation. Some of it is character thoughts, reactions and other story matters, and the explanation of how they did it comes from four characters, not one, so there is more than one voice, and more than one point of view. They are explaining themselves to Lord Clearwater, so we are in his head, and when I felt the others were being too detailed, I had him slow them down because I imagined that’s what the reader would also be thinking.
I was conscious of not repeating what the reader already knew. They would have seen X do this and that, and the idea of the denouement isn’t to go back and relive the action, it’s to explain the reason for the action. Yes, you have to place the explanation in context, but that can be done in a few words. Also, once something has been explained, there’s no need to repeat the explanation from another character’s point of view. In my scene, with four people untying the knots, I made sure they all contributed, but they only contributed something new or added a detail that cleared up another question mark.
Show Not Tell
That old chestnut again. Think about that Agatha Christie scene when Poirot has everyone in the drawing room, the dining car or wherever, and you’ll see he does a lot of talking. Now think film, and you’ll notice there are flashbacks showing the action. That’s one way of giving the explanation, but it’s a filmic one. The way to present a ‘show’ denouement is to write a scene where the action unknots the rope, rather than dialogue doing it for you. It’s not easy, and in my opinion, some stories require a dialogue explanation. If I had written the ‘how they did it’ into the action during the book, there would be no deepening mystery. If I had written the ‘how they did it’ into the climax, it would have cluttered up the pace. The only way I could make it work in ‘Silence’ was to have the four characters tell Clearwater — who knows what they have done — exactly how they did it.
Keep to the Rules
Although it’s right at the end of the book, my denouement still keeps to the rules of character arc and development, scene structure, location, description and pace. It’s not just one long dialogue of this-then-that. There is some character-created humour, we come away with the sense that a particular character has changed, and we know where we are (Clearwater’s drawing room with the footman coming and going). As well as all that, the scene ends with a great big question mark which will lead us into the next instalment. Not exactly a cliff-hanger because the reader knows the answer to the question, but the characters don’t.
Other Advice Answered
I pulled a few random tips of denouement writing off the internet. I’ve justified my ending against them.
Keep it short. Each part of my explanation is short, but there are a lot of things to explain, and that, I did on purpose.
The denouement validates the story. I always aim for this (see the end of ‘Fallen Splendour’ for my favourite story validation). The denouement validates what has changed for a character or a situation.
Convey a new normal. I have left the reader knowing a particular character will now be better off, and one will be worse off. That is their new normal.
Characters’ futures. Similar to the new normal; the conflicts have been resolved, and normalcy returns to the characters, although that normalcy might/should be changed. I’ve also put in a question mark, and the denouement is followed by a short epilogue which takes us towards the next story.
Denouement is an essential conclusion to plotted conflict, while the epilogue is an optional afterward in which the author shows readers how characters have fared after the events chronicled in the work.
In ‘Speaking In Silence’, the epilogue concerns the villain and leads us into the next story. I now have a completed first draft and can set about rewriting the whole thing and improving it, all the while, aiming towards that all important denouement.
‘Speaking in Silence’ should be ready by July, and you can keep up to date with its progress on my weekly Wednesday WIP blog.
In showbiz, they say, ‘It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.’ When writing a novel, I say, it’s how you start and finish.
While standing in the bookshop or browsing through Amazon, many people will pick up a book and look at the cover first. If the cover and title grab them, they will then read the back blurb. If that intrigues them, they will read the first line, and if that appeals, they may read the first page. After your cover, title and blurb, your first page is the most important part of your book, so today’s blog is about what a first page should do. You can expand that to the first couple of pages or the first chapter, but really, what the first page should do is grab the reader and drag them into the story.
Before we get into an examination of what’s on your first page, I wanted to have a look at some opening sentences, just to make a point:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
And the point is, it’s not only the first chapter or page which should engage, the very first line should too. When I wrote the first line of The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge, I wanted to sum up the entire story, set the background and inspire the reader to look forward. This is what I came up with:
John Hamilton was refusing a job at Everest base camp when he caught sight of the youth who would change his life.
Barrenmoor Ridge is about a mountaineer coming to terms with the death of his lover while rescuing a younger man from a mountain and falling back in love. The first page opens halfway through a scene, as all good scenes should, they say. Having just written that, I thought I’d examine some of my other opening lines to see whether I followed my own advice.
Andrej waited until the darkest hour before he untied his wrists with his teeth, and freed his feet from the knots.
You can see, there’s something of a formula, but not always. The opening for ‘Other People’s Dreams’, my first novel, is an advertisement:
Do you want to live out my dream?
One yacht, a thousand islands and all the time in the world.
36-year-old guy with the money and the fantasy seeks four fit, young, gay lads to crew his boat in the Greek islands. (No experience necessary)
You must be trustworthy, attractive, loyal, adventurous, uninhibited and free from June through to September with no ties.
All expenses and living allowance paid in return.
Certain strings attached.
Write with photo to Jake, Box No. 2006
The first sentence in your novel is as important as all the others, but is usually the first one someone will read before deciding whether to buy a book. Grab ’em from the start and hold ’em until the end. But before they even reach the end of chapter one, they need to get past the first page…
Meanwhile, on the First Page
One Stop For Writers (OSFW) released a guide, ‘How to Craft a Winning First Page’ (see the image), and I am using that as a guide while I examine the openings of two of my novels. The details of each section are on the image, but below, I’m comparing what OSFA suggests against what I did. Bear in mind, I hadn’t read this advice or any like it when I wrote the two novels I’m going to look at, The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge (2018), and Deviant Desire (2019).
The notes on the image expand the OSFW advice, but in summary, it suggests five things a first page should do:
Start in the right spot – begin just before a major event in the main character’s life
Show – basically, don’t start with too much backstory (plenty of time for that later)
Tighten up – don’t be wordy, don’t drag it out (plenty of time for that later too)
Raise a question – create intrigue
Build empathy – make the reader like the MC
How do my two examples compare?
The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge
Here’s the opening line:
John Hamilton was refusing a job at Everest base camp when he caught sight of the youth who would change his life.
Start in the right spot. Catching sight of the impact character (Gary) is the catalyst for the love story that follows. We also enter the story halfway through a discussion. That’s a common trick used by Shakespeare among many others. Other good ways to open are on a journey in progress, with an argument, with a bang, or right in the middle of some action. When I wrote Banyak & Fecks, I originally started with Andrej (Fecks) standing over the ruins of his burnt-out home and remembering his childhood. That section is still in the first chapter, but it was too slow for an opening. Now we start with him escaping from a camp, stealing back his knife, and running from certain death. A little more grabbing than a character feeling sorry for himself.
But I digress…
Show. I.e., trimming down the backstory. My Barrenmoor Ridge first page contains lines such as, ‘You were talking about another base camp season,’ he said, showing us that John has worked at Everest base camp before, he’s got something to do with mountaineering, and a discussion has happened before we arrived. Showing, not telling, is something that confuses many aspiring authors, and it can be a hard one to get your head around. I tell plot and action all the time, because sometimes you have to, but I always aim to show things like emotion and feeling. Rather than saying ‘he felt sad’, or ‘John was angry,’ show John crying or kicking over a chair and shouting. The reader will imagine more and thus, be drawn further into the story and character. In Barrenmoor Ridge, John is distracted and not concentrating, and he’s shaking because of something or someone he’s just seen.
Tighten up. There are two paragraphs on my first page that tell us where we are, what’s going on, and give us some atmosphere. We are in the climbers’ café in Inglestone, where cigarette smoke hung in the clammy air mixed with the blue fog of over-fried food. That’s enough to set the scene. We don’t need too many other details of the café beyond the tablecloths and plastic bottles of sauce.
Raise a question. Hopefully, the opening line, John’s trembling hand and a couple of other things raise questions. Who did he just see? Why is he trembling? Why is he refusing a job? How will his life change?
Build empathy. In the opening scene/page, John is doing what most of us have done: meeting with someone in a café and having breakfast. It’s what in screenwriting terms they call ‘the normal world.’ However, the second character tells him, ‘Not just any season,’ she said. ‘Possibly your last. You’re not getting any younger.’ So, we now know he’s getting on a bit, it’s a special opportunity, and he’s done it before. Over the page, we learn that John is getting over the death of his lover, so hopefully, that builds more empathy.
Having just reread that opening, I know I could have done better for a variety of reasons, but, in my defence, it was only my second novel as Jackson, and I was still building my style. A year later, I wrote what was to be a standalone novel based around the Jack the Ripper murders (although in an area of London called ‘Greychurch’ where the Ripper was killing rent boys). Deviant Desire then became the first in an ongoing series of Victorian mysteries, but that wasn’t my original intention. Had it been, I probably would have begun the story in exactly the same way.
Silas Hawkins was searching for coins in an East End gutter when a man four miles distant and ten years older sealed his fate.
Can you see the similarities between that and Barrenmoor? Yeah, well, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Start in the right spot. That opening line tells us that the catalyst is on its way; Silas’ life is about to change because of what someone else is doing off stage. The first paragraph goes on to say that even if Silas knew what was to become of him, he wouldn’t have been bothered, because Silas wasn’t the kind of youth to shy from a challenge, not even one that might threaten his life. (Ooh, something dangerous is coming…)
Show. This is about cutting out too much backstory, remember? Well, there isn’t any on the first page, but there is plenty in later chapters. Although this opening is ‘wordy’ in that it is descriptive, that is to set the atmosphere of an October night in London’s East End in 1888. You can’t write about the Ripper and not have atmosphere. Thus, I get a bit Dickensian while making the reader want to know more about Silas’ past:
“In these times, hunger was a keener motivator than sense. It drove need, need drove experience, and in the four years since he had turned his first trick, experience had prepared him for the dangers of life.”
There is some backstory there, four years since he had turned his first trick, but I didn’t really go into detail about those four years until nine books later when I wrote the prequel, Banyak & Fecks, and the story in which those four years come back to haunt Silas, Negative Exposure.
Tighten up. I refer you to the section above about atmosphere. However, the story starts with a bold statement that tells us something major is about to happen to this man who is searching through rubbish leftover at a market hoping to find food. He’s hungry, cold, and he ‘turns tricks.’ We also learn a bit about his character while reading what I hope is suitable and descriptive prose.
Raise a question. As with Barrenmoor, the questions arise from the opening sentence. Who is Silas Hawkins? Why is he searching for coins? Who is the man four miles distant? Why should he change someone’s life? Is the ‘ten years older’ relevant? Will we get an older/younger romance? Later on the page, we learn he’s been turning tricks and we might wonder why, how, and will we get to know more about that?
Build empathy. If you don’t feel sorry for a gamin (street urchin) rooting through trash so he can live, shivering, prostituting himself even during the time of the Ripper and generally not having a pleasant life, then you need to work on your empathy skills. Joking aside, it’s the writer’s job to make the reader feel empathy. Hence, phrases on this page such as Every night on the grimy, gaslit streets was dangerous, and every unlit customer a potential killer, but the threat of starvation gnawed harder than the fear of violence.
A Few Last Words About the First Words
There is a practise in the film script writing world to do with how you introduce a character and how you say goodbye to them. It’s a case of first impressions count, but so do last ones, and the same applies to novel writing. I’m not necessarily talking about the main character here; the rule applies to all characters and to the novel itself. How you meet an entire story is as important as how you meet the MC and others, but so is how you leave it.
Take from the attached advice from One Stop For Writers what you will, but I am going to end with an ending.
In Deviant Desire, we meet Silas on that grimy street, and we leave him 300 pages and one adventure later somewhere entirely different. As for the story, it starts thus:
Silas Hawkins was searching for coins in an East End gutter when a man four miles distant and ten years older sealed his fate.
By the time I got to the end, I decided it was to be an ongoing series, thus, it ends with a different character whose name I have omitted so as not to spoil the story for you.
Revenge was not something [he] thought he would ever contemplate, but he found the idea of it suited him and, as he ordered an ale, he turned his mind to a variety of ways it might be exacted.
Continued in part two, Twisted Tracks
Remember, it’s about how you start and how you finish. It’s about how you introduce your reader to your story, how they leave the story and how the story leaves them. The mark of good storytelling comes when a reader finishes a book wanting to know what happens next to the people in it. This means they have connected with the characters and their world and don’t want the journey to end. The mark of a good first page is to do the same in reverse: to make your reader want to take the journey in the first place.
You can join me on my writer’s journey by tuning into my regular Wednesday work in progress blog. Currently, we’re journeying through Speaking In Silence, the Larkspur Mysteries book five.
Or, in my case, two bibles, and we’re not talking religious texts. We’re talking about notebooks. Today, I thought I’d take you through my author’s bible. In other words, how I keep track of characters, places, descriptions and facts when writing a long and ongoing series. The photos show my two main notebooks, with brief explanations as to what you are looking at.
In the Beginning…
I have a chest in which I keep my original notes. I started this collection about two years BC (that’s Before Clearwater), and the papers are now yellowing, and the writing is fading. I used to make notes about the stories I was writing on pieces of scrap A4 paper, usually the backs of drafts I’d had printed, and among them is a list of most commonly mistyped words. I use that to check the full manuscript when I reach the end of a draft; words like form and from, for example. But these notes are not my author’s bible, that is a leather-bound, blank page notebook Neil bought me for Christmas 2018, and just after I’d written ‘Curious Moonlight’, I decided to start keeping my story thoughts in it. The first few pages concern a Gormenghast type story I was thinking of writing, and the only thing not now crossed out is a list of names: Anthem, the choirmaster, Pook, a serving boy, Tripp, a footman, and Archie with no job, but whose name means ‘genuine and bold.’
The beginning. As you can see, the Clearwater Series started in January 2019, and the first book was originally titled Deviant Lamplight, then Deviant Devotion and finally, Deviant Desire because the other two ideas were, frankly, terrible.
And therein lies the beginning of the Clearwater Mysteries. ‘A brethren of seven…’ was among my first notes, and I carried that idea over to the Clearwater crew: Archer, Silas, Fecker, James, Thomas… Well, a brethren of five that later becomes seven with Jasper and Billy, and then eight with Mrs Norwood, and so on until I now have a cast of thousands.
So, with 11 Clearwater books and, now, four Larkspur novels, how do I keep track of the details, and why?
Why is Easy
If you read a book and the character has blue eyes in chapter one, but brown eyes in chapter ten… If Larkspur Hall was in Bodmin one moment, and near Bodmin the next, or if Silas’ mother came from Dublin in one book and somewhere else in another… You see where I am going with this? It’s easy, as an author, to think I’ll remember that, and not write things down. Later, say two or three full novels later, you think, Ah yes, I remember I had to remember that, but what was it…? And then, you spend half a day searching your copy of the novel you thought the fact was in, only not to find it, and end up rewriting your section to avoid having to mention the important fact.
Keeping concise but accurate notes about the world you are inventing is safer all-round, even though you think, It’s my world, I won’t forget that.
How is Another Matter
Every author has their own way of keeping a record, notes, the author’s bible, as it’s commonly known. Some hire people to do it for them, to read the entire series and make notes on everything. Some people do this because they are fans, others, to earn money. I do it as I go, but I don’t do it in any structured way, by which I mean, my bible doesn’t have an index. I do, though, know roughly where to find things, and failing that, I flick through the pages.
Once I knew Deviant Desire was going to lead to a second book, I decided to use my new leather notebook to keep my facts, and started with Archer.
Archer’s notes updated over time.
These two pages contain the basics about my main character. His full name, titles, date of birth and other unchangeable facts like where and when he went to school and his physical description. Over the page, we have a double-page spread about Silas, including the date he and Archer met, and how old he is. Then comes Andrej (Fecker), Thomas, ‘East End and other characters’, minor characters not seen, other locations, a glossary, the list of murders, places and dates (from Deviant Desire), and a page of random notes.
After a blank page comes the name Sam Wright… Crossed out and replaced by Jim… Crossed out and finally replaced by James Joseph Wright, messenger, 25 years old (born Jan 10th 1863), started at post office aged 14, not 100% attractive (sorry, Jimmy), Fecker’s nickname for him Tato (daddy), and ‘James writes with a pen (book 9).’
Moving through the book, I find lists of dates as to when things happened, who works at the house next door, a page listing servants’ wages in 1888, and a rough plan of the ground floor of Clearwater House.
Clearwater House. My first attempt at a layout to help me picture how to get from one room to another, to improve consistency.
As you might have gathered by now, I keep the notes according to the book I am writing at the time. I stop now and then, usually after completing a book, to add to the previous pages and make other notes and lists about the world, not about the stories; that’s a separate matter. For the Clearwater series, I kept story notes in a separate notebook, jotting down ideas and points to answer, clues to solve and how, and story details, then later, I put the pertinent ones in the bible. If I filled the pages of the leather book with story notes, there would be so many things crossed out, it would make the book messy and even harder to read than it is.
Moving on, we next find a page outlining the characters’ skills, because, at that time, I was comparing them to superheroes – not in the stories, but in my head. So Archer was Iron Man and skilled in combat, money, and status. James (Captain America), communications, fitness, strength. Fecker (Thor), strength, loyalty, transport. Thomas (J.A.R.V.I.S.), Logic, cool head, planning… And so on.
For ‘Twisted Tracks’, I drew a map of the railway route I’d invented. Book three’s notes include a page of villains, and who was dead by then, and book four outlines who was on the board of the Clearwater Foundation. Also in the Fallen Splendour section are notes such as ‘Silas wears Curzon cologne’, and ‘Fanny… crossed out, Sarah… crossed out… Mrs Norwood, 40s, James’ old schoolteacher.’
Book five is set at Larkspur Hall, and as that was the first time we’d been there in detail, there’s a list of servants, places on the estate, ‘A patchwork of a property,’ ‘Ruined church from Dissolution’, and ‘abbey given in 1538,’ which is a worry as I am sure I’ve said it was another date in another book.
You see, even though you keep notes, you don’t always use them. I know I once messed up on the address of Clearwater House saying, in one book, it was in Bucks Avenue and then in another that it was in Bucks Row. (Bucks Row was a site of a Jack the Ripper murder.) I was able to go back and change that later, but I am sure there are other minor inconsistencies caused by ‘I remember that, no need to look it up.’
Occasionally, I paste things into the bible, such as this note, written on the back of receipt.
Romanian. Gabriel’s translation and some of my notes about pronunciation.
I was sitting at our local café one day and was joined by a Romanian friend. That was handy because I was writing ‘Bitter Bloodline’, which features a Romanian villain, and although I’d used Google translate, I wanted to be sure the most important sentence in the book was correct. Gabriel, my Romanian mate, wrote it down for me, and then I told him we were talking about Transylvania in 1889. He rewrote it, because the language would have been slightly different, and that’s what that note is all about.
What Else Should Be in the Bible?
I don’t want to bore you with details of every page of my book, but apart from those things mentioned above, it also contains pages titled:
Height, Hair & Build (brief character references)
Skills (again, but with more characters)
Archers’ family tree by three generations
Notes about Larkspur Hall
A calendar of character’s birthdays (Harvey, a minor character, June 2nd, Jasper Blackwood, 1st August, Silas, 21st October, etc.) These minor facts are useful to know and use because they add depth to stories, even if it’s only a mention.
A calendar of years of birth. Archer 1859, Thomas 1861, Fecker, probably 1865 but no-one really knows.
A rough map of the area around Clearwater House
Extended family tree for The Clearwater Inheritance
Who’s Who at Larkspur Hall, March 1890
The guest list for Archer’s 31st birthday party
Ages. Character’s ages through the years and some other major events. This makes it so much easier to remember how old people are. If you look closely, you’ll see that Fecker started renting in 1883 when he was 16, though he may have been older, and James started at the post office (PO) in 1877. You never know when such trivia will come in useful.
And so on and so on until we hit a page on which I have (badly) drawn three standing stones and the title The Larkspur Mysteries, June 2021, and underlined it in red as if it were school homework.
I’m now a two-bible household. I keep the leather notebook going, and still add to previous pages, while using up more to give the same basic details of the new characters from the Larkspur Mysteries. However, when I started this second series, I decided to use a large, lined book that a friend had made for me. The cover is decorated with the titles of the books from the Clearwater Mysteries, but I am using the book as a bible/notebook for the Larkspur Series.
Big book. Notes on the viscountcy of Larkspur from 1541 to the present day (1891), for ‘Seeing Through Shadows.’
That’s one example of how I am creating the Larkspur bible alongside the Clearwater bible. I’m not repeating facts from the first to the second, but I am adding facts from the second to relevant places in the first. I’m also using it to outline the stories, track the timeline, create character arcs, and make story notes. The Clearwater bible remains my go-to place for the basics, but now, using the larger Larkspur book, I can keep all my story notes in one, lovely to write on, set of pages and not the old trunk.
I hope you found the above interesting. If I have a final point to make about why authors should keep a bible, it’s this:
When you create a fictional world, you are the Creator. You are omnipotent and expected to know all, see all, and care for all you have created. Unless you really are the Creator, it’s unlikely you will store every fabulous fact in your memory, so if in doubt, write it down.
Notebooks yet to be used, except for the green one which I used when writing the Saddling series as James Collins.
As for me, I have plenty more notebooks waiting to be filled…
Should you write from the villain’s point of view?
That’s a question I asked myself when I was writing ‘Agents of the Truth’, and although I’d written from a villain’s point of view before, this time, doing so brought up a tricky question. There are no story/plot/twist spoilers in this post, and I refer to the villain as ‘he’ for ease of reading/writing. It might be a she or a they. You will only find out when you read the book.
Narrating From the Villain’s Pont Of View
Mythcreants.com have a very useful article on when to narrate a villain’s point of view which brings up some very good points and considerations on this subject. For example, the author of the post first asks why?
Why put the reader in the mind of the baddy? On the plus side, it’s a way to bring in more of a threat, you can explain to the reader why the villain is doing what he/she is doing, and you can show the reader what is going on ‘off stage’ while the protagonist is going about his business.
There are, however, pitfalls to doing this, and writing as the bad guy needs to be handled carefully. The advice is not to make him over the top, don’t make him too demented or else he won’t be believable, don’t make him ‘cold’ or cliché, and don’t give too much away. Don’t make him too sympathetic.
I think back to my favourite villain of all time, Dracula. In Bram Stoker’s masterpiece, we never hear from his point of view except when he is talking as reported by someone else; we never read his diaries or journals as we do with the other main characters, and yet we know a) what he is up to, b) what he plans to do, and c) how evil he is.
Writing from a villain’s point of view (POV) can be a very useful tool for an author. It can do several things.
1 Put the reader in the baddy’s mind and explain motivation
2 Build tension and increase the threat
3 Make your reader more sympathetic to the bad guy, thereby making the character more real and believable.
4 Explain conflict backstory
But, there is also a danger that being with the villain for a while can move the story away from the hero’s journey, give too much away, distract from the plot, and slow things down. So, all villain POV scenes must be handled with care.
How I Write From the Villain’s Point of View
The first time I put myself and my reader into the mind of the anti-hero was in ‘Deviant Desire’, and even back then, I knew not to give too much away. I described someone taking opium and plotting… something, I wrote of his hatred and his motivation, and I set the scene in a dark, dismal place physically to reflect the killer’s frame of mind emotionally. I didn’t, however, give away his name or too many of his intentions. To have done so would have spoilt the story for the reader and ruined the most important twist.
Three years and 14 books later, I wrote a different villain into ‘Agents of the Truth’, and I kept to my rules. We meet the villain in a dark and unpleasant place (so we associate him with darkness in the classic good Vs evil style), we hear him talking to himself, and we learn what has driven him to his course of action. We also, perhaps, feel a little sorry for him, and I think making your villain sympathetic to a point is not a bad thing. We’ve all been driven to do bad things, some worse than others, and it’s good to challenge your reader with the thoughts, ‘What if it was me? What would drive me to do this? What happened to him/her to make them do it? That could have been me.’ It makes a connection between reader and character, and that, I hope, makes the bad guy more realistic and thus, more of a threat.
By the time we meet the evil one in ‘Agents’, we think we know who he is – even so, I didn’t mention his name, thereby leaving the reader a little room for doubt. What I did do, though, was make it clear what the villain was planning. Not in great detail, but in just enough so we knew more than the main characters. Apart from the obvious, my villain has a flaw; indecision. We think we know what he is going to do, but we don’t know to whom, and thus, the anti-hero’s indecision helps build tension.
As the story progresses, we discover the when and where of the danger, even though the hero doesn’t, and again, this helps build tension as we drive towards the climax.
Knowing More Than the Hero
There is a technical term for this, and I just went to my stock of screenplay writing books to look up the phrase, only to find I couldn’t find it. It’s one of those things you think ‘I’ll remember that’ and never do, but if you read Aronson’s ‘The 21st Century Screenplay’, or McKee’s ‘Story’, you will eventually find it. It’s a film technique where the viewer gets to see something the protagonist doesn’t, so we know something more than he does. (‘Elevating the viewer’ or something similar.)
How many times have you watched a film and wanted to say, ‘Don’t do it!’ because the obvious outcome has been set up and you know what’s coming? Well, that’s called… the something I can’t remember, but you know what I mean. It’s a kind of foreshadowing, but one that’s specific to the relationship between hero, anti-hero and viewer or reader. By using this technique, you are elevating the reader’s knowledge above that of the hero, and used well, that can be a great way to heighten tension.
What you can also do is mislead your reader by making them think the villain is going to do X, when in fact, they end up doing Y. That will give you a twist, but that twist has to be logical and foreshadowed. It’s the point in a story when you know something bad or twisty is on its way and you prepare by clutching the sofa cushions, or drawing the blanket up to your eyes in readiness, and then… Oh! I didn’t see that coming. Then you think, Actually, I did, but the clues to it were subtly hidden behind the obvious. If they weren’t, then your reaction is likely to be, What a load of rubbish, because you have been misled for the sake of it.
I don’t mislead my readers, but I might misdirect them on the path to a more fulfilling surprise, and letting them into the villain’s mind can help do this.
My point here is that it’s fine to tell you reader things the hero doesn’t know, but don’t go too far and spoil the twist.
Adding Depth to Your Storytelling Via the Villain
Let me take you back to my English A Level class, one afternoon in the late spring of 1981. Mrs Purvis is taking us through Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’, and we are examining a passage set on the polo field in Chandrapore, India in the 1920s.
Forster describes the ball being knocked about on the polo field, the British men charging about on horses, the grass on which they play, and the field running into the distance where it meets the (mainly Indian) spectators, because the British Raj folk are in the better-equipped tents. From there, the description takes us beyond the fields to the foothills and thence, to the mountains rising above, and above even them, the sky, until the view reaches its zenith with the sun.
‘Do you see how Forester was making us consider the levels of society?’ Mrs Purvis asks. ‘He is showing us the strata of the Raj, and the caste system. The lower caste being the field trampled underfoot, the class divisions above it, the mountains as the rising hierarchy of the Raj, and behind it, the sky and an even greater power, God.’
‘Miss?’ A rather bored eighteen-year-old raises his hand. ‘Ain’t he just talking about a game of polo?’
(I was more interested in the gay subtext of the novel, the closest thing you could get to MM romance in my youth after ‘Maurice.’)
What’s That Got to do With Writing Your villain?
Symbolism, dear boy! As Mrs Purvis might have proclaimed.
Symbolism is a great tool when writing any kind of fiction, and we can use it like Forster — who may well have consciously written his layered scene to symbolise the caste system in India in the 1920s, but who, I suspect, did it without thinking because he was that good.
I remember that English lesson well (there was something to do with the servant, Aziz, putting a stud into Mr Fielding’s collar that represented repressed homosexual desire, or… whatever), and it came back to me when writing ‘Agents of the Truth.’
There is a point in the novel when the reader knows more than the hero, and there’s a point a little way after that when the hero knows as much as us, and we are set up for the climax. We still don’t know the who, but we know the where and when, and so does our hero, but he is delayed. (Another useful tension-building device.) The villain, however, is not delayed and gets a head start.
At this point, I could have just written ‘He got on a train’, but I wanted to add another tension building device, albeit a more subtle one, and I wanted to be more literary. So, I wrote the following passage and, I have to tell you, I didn’t realise what I’d done until later when I reread the entire chapter.
Here’s an excerpt from ‘Agents of the Truth.’ As screenplay writers would say, it marks the entry to Act Four of the story, when everything has been set up, we know what’s coming but not how it’s going to play out. We’ve just had the ‘point of no return’ scene, the music has changed, and we’re off into the climax, sofa cushions at the ready.
‘Yeah, but, Miss, it’s just a rat and a cat, ain’t it?’
‘No, dear boy, it is symbolism reflecting the villain’s intensions.’
And, it only works because we have spent some time in the mind of our villain and narrated from the villain’s point of view.
Agents of the Truth is the third novel in The Larkspur Mysteries, and the stories are best read in order.
The Larkspur Mysteries follow on from The Clearwater Mysteries series. Both feature gay main characters, and are set at a time when homosexuality was illegal. They are a combination of MM/romance, mystery and bromance, and are inspired by historical fact.
Book Four in the series is currently in the typewriter, and you can read about its progress on my Work In Progress blog here every Wednesday.
Today, I thought I’d take a step away from writing about my writing to write about my blogging. Blogging is, of course, another way of writing, so I suppose I am still writing about writing, only, in this case, I am writing about my blog writing. Rather, blogs, plural as I have two.
Let me start off by saying that I am writing this blog in the way that I approach most of my blogging and a great deal of my writing. Simply put, I am making it up as I go along. I tend to write from a stream of consciousness angle. Starting with an idea, in today’s case, a suggestion from my PA, Jenine, I sit at the PC with an empty page and start writing. I write what is on my mind and develop from there.
I also tend to do that when writing my books; start with an idea, imagine a scene, and then let it flow. In the case of novel writing, I then do a lot of editing work as I go over the first draft, and I also pop backwards and forwards through a manuscript while writing it to keep facts consistent and make sure I have remembered the clues correctly.
I take the same approach with blog writing, but the only editing I do is when I have finished. Then, I use a couple of writer tools to help keep me in check. Grammarly is one, and Pro Writing Aid is the other.
The danger of this unplanned approach is that I often drift from one point to the next and forget what I was talking about. Still, that’s how I blog, that’s how it goes, and that’s how this blog is going to go.
When Did Blogging Start?
You know me, I like to discover the derivations of words, and for that, I tend to use the online dictionary by typing, for example, ‘Blog derivation’ or ‘Blog meaning’ in a search string and finding the dictionary page for that word. [See the image.]
Blog, the noun, is a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group, that is written in an informal or conversational style.
To blog, the verb, is to add new material to or regularly update a blog.
Blog, the word, derives as a truncation of the word Weblog, or web-log, I guess, rather than ‘we blog’, and it’s been around since 1900.
Except it hasn’t.
One of the functions of that online dictionary is showing you where a word was first recorded in print, and I use that part of it a great deal. When writing the Clearwater books set in the late 19th century, for example, I often pause after writing a word and think, ‘Did that word exist then?’ A quick check will tell me when it first appeared in print, and although that’s not 100% accurate as a guide to spoken usage, it’s a help. Only this week, I paused after writing the word ‘paperwork’ and wondered if a solicitor in 1890 would use such a word? The answer? No. That word didn’t start to appear in print until the 1940s, so I changed it to documentation.
As for ‘blog’, I was surprised to find that my online resource suggested it was in use between 1910 and 1940. If you look at the image (left), the graph, you can see there’s a bump at that time, before the word took off in the late 1990s. I checked that out via Google Books, and it turned out that the source of this unlikely information was a misprint. Rather, a miss-read by some computerised scanner. The word it was reading was an abbreviation of Building, printed as BLDG in various directories, and the scanner was mistaking the D for an O.
The lesson? Always double-check your research.
What Do I Get Out of a blog?
Well, for a start, I didn’t realise ‘documentation’ wasn’t in use in 1890 either. Not until I started talking about it just now and went to check. I’d used it in yesterday’s first draft of a Clearwater chapter, thinking ‘It must be okay’, and was going to leave it there. Now, when I return to that chapter, I will change it to ‘documents’ because ‘documentation’ wasn’t used until the 20th century. You see? Blogging helps my work.
It also gives me a legitimate reason to ramble on like I am doing now, sometimes get things off my chest, and, at other times, publicise my latest book. I always hope it brings me closer to my readers and them closer to me. That is why I prefer this freestyle, stream of consciousness approach.
Paid to Blog?
I have been, and let me tell you, it can be arduous and soul-destroying. A few years ago, I fell upon a travel site that wanted stories for their posts based on personal travel experiences. Wonderful, I thought. I’ve been to a few places, I’ll chat about them. Simple.
These kinds of sites need you to be SEO targeted and keyword rich (I loath such jargon). They needed you to include keywords in H Tags, and upload images with no ALT text, hit a particular word count, supply your own images, and stick to stringent guidelines while being creative. Woe betides anyone who falls foul of this creative cagery.
Cagery being a word I just invented. I think. (He makes a quick check online. Did you mean Calgary? No, I didn’t. Checks real dictionary and discovers ‘cage’ comes between caftan and cagoule, which is an interesting costume challenge, but the word cagery doesn’t exist, not even in the sense of ‘constraint’, which is what I meant.)
I think my point here is that these ‘earn a fortune by blogging’ websites are only suitable for those who can churn out the required words within strict rules, and I’m not one of them. I did do it, for a while at least, but it was too structured for me, and I was only being paid $40.00 for what turned out to be about six hours’ work for 600 words. I’d rather write a novel of 90,000 words and be paid nothing for my time than 600 words to someone else’s formula.
But, yes, it is possible to make money out of blogging. I used to have Google Adsense links where a programme adds adverts to your pages and if anyone clicks on one, you get $0.0002, or something, but another pet hate of mine are blogs and sites that are advert-stuffed, so that get rich quick scheme didn’t last long.
Any money I make from my two blogs comes from the sales of my own books generated from my own links and publicity.
My Blogs Are My Conversation
Me outside a cafe
I think that’s obvious from the way I am rambling on as if you and I were sat outside a café having a chat, I’d had a glass of wine, and my usual staid and quiet tongue was well loosened. I use these pages to chat to you, and thus, myself, and often, in doing so, ideas spring to mind. Sometimes, I put up a less chatty, more planned blog, and although this process takes more time, it often offers more help in developing my books. For example, last October, while writing ‘Banyak & Fecks’, I undertook a lot of research into Male Sex Workers in Victorian London, the ways of the workhouse and the poverty of the East End in the 1880s. These subjects formed the background to the story (and others in the series). I decided to blog about that research, and in doing so, had to examine documents and, thus, discover extra facts, which then went into the novel. So, blogging about novel writing can feed into that writing, and vice versa.
Writing a blog also helps me think about the stories and the characters. I’ve done a couple of interviews with characters, one A Character Interview With James Wright, you can find if you follow that link. James is one of the central characters in the Clearwater series, and in answering questions set by Jenine, I had to think deeper than what comes out of my head, and that helped develop a deeper understanding of the man I was creating.
As Jenine put in the list of ideas she sent me for this post, I could also mention that writing a regular blog ‘Allows your PA to boss you around.’ That’s a good thing for both of us, because it stops me from being lazy, and it makes her feel like she’s doing something useful.
I hope you have gathered by now that I also like to put humour into my blogging.
I also put an awful lot of typos because I write as I think, and even my editing software doesn’t pick up everything. For example, before I changed it, the above sentence read, ‘I also like to put hummus into my blogging’, and on more than one occasion, I have written things like, ‘You must see this bog’, and ‘The main character is a cuntess.’ (I now have a heap of personalised corrections in Word auto-correct.)
And As For The Other Blog?
I have been mentioning my two blogs, this being one of them. The other, I have had on the go since about 2005. It started out as a website where I could publicise my husband’s photo shop on the Greek island of Symi. Later, it developed into a site where I could also talk about the books I was writing about living on a Greek island. Later still, when we closed the shop, I continued the blog because it had gained a huge following, and my mother liked to know what I was up to. It went from being a once-a-month update to a weekly one to a seven day a week chat and is now a five day per week chat about me, my life, my writing and day to day living on a Greek island. I also sound off about Brexit and ruffle a few feathers from time to time, and Neil and I post photos five times per week.
So, if you can stand this kind of ‘train of thought’ style, want to know what I, personally and as James, my real name, is up to here on Symi, Greece, then bookmark Symi Dream (symidream.com) where you can find me chatting about everything and nothing.
And so, thank you for listening to me thus far. I am going now, as I must turn my attention back to Clearwater 10, ‘The Clearwater Inheritance’, which is now up to a worrying 120,000 words in 1st draft form and still not reached its climax. This may well turn out to be a story in two parts. Either that, or I will have to chop out many interesting and fun scenes that are not 100% on-story, but which do contain elements of the mystery, and rework the whole thing. If I do, I may then publish the cut scenes separately or give them away for free in my newsletter, and if I do that, then I will make sure that I have not cut out any necessary plot points or clues.
Maybe I’ll just treat everyone to a very long Clearwater, like a Downton Abbey Christmas special and have done with it.
One thing’s for sure. As the writing of the book and its publication continue, I will be blogging about it.
Over the New Year, I took a break from writing The Clearwater Mysteries and wrote ‘The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge.’ I’m not sure why it decided to pop out just then, but it did. I wrote the novel, ‘The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge’ a couple of years ago, and for a reason I’ve yet to fathom, it did better than any of my previous releases. It still does well, I am pleased to say, and maybe it was that which inspired me to write ‘The Students…’
This novel took me back in memory to the age of seventeen/eighteen, and to the issue of what we’d now call bromance. I wanted to explore the idea of when a bromance is something more, but neither party has the way with all to admit they want the friendship to develop further because they fear rejection. The strength of young, male friendships, the intensity of them, and how it is easy to confuse platonic love of a friend for something deeper, is a theme that runs through many of my novels. Or, if not ‘easy to confuse’ then difficult to separate the feelings of being mates from the feelings of being in love and what that can lead to; self-denial, lost love, missed opportunities…
In ‘The Students…’ Liam and Casper are the two main characters, and they are pictured on the front cover. Casper is the dark-haired, Greek/English man and Liam is the blond one, both musically brilliant, both suffering doubts in their own way. They take off on a camping trip which Liam has designed because he wants to have Casper on his own to make his ‘confession’, i.e., come out. He has chosen to visit Inglestone (or, Ingleton as it is in real life) and walk up Fellborough (Ingleborough) one of the three peaks. He is also there to see the famous Ribblehead Viaduct for reason of his own which don’t become apparent until the end. However, bad weather gets in the way and leads to a life or death emergency towards the top of the fell. That’s where the characters from ‘The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge’ come in…
John Hamilton and Gary Taylor from ‘The Mentor…’ appear in this story as the mentors of the two younger men, and as ‘The Students…’ is set two years after the first book, their lives have moved on a pace. So, if you enjoyed the first book, ‘The Mentor…’ you can continue John and Gary’s lives in this, the second in the series. You will find drama, action, adventure, mountain rescue, rock climbing, some laughs and plenty of sweet moments during the story, and who knows, there may even be a third instalment in the future.
For now, though, I am back to The Clearwater Mysteries, my most successful venture to date, and I am working on part six, with a working title of ‘Artful Deception.’ There will be more about that in due course. Meanwhile, look out for news of a blog tour for ‘The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge’, and check out my Facebook Page for more information. If you do go to the page, please give it a like, and if you do read any of the books, please give them a review.
I’ll leave you with the first review of ‘The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge’ which, when I read it, completely made my day.
What a beautiful novel… A perfect sequel to The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge. This novel tells a story of 2 people discovering more about themselves and discovering more about each other. It’s touching, exciting, filled with adventure, and will take you on the most incredible journey. The characters are so well developed it’s like you’ve known them for a long time. Re-introducing John and Gary from the first novel was such a nice treat. This novel is highly recommended. Another beautiful novel by Mr. Jackson Marsh.
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