The question we all dread: Where do you get your inspiration?
Attend enough writers' conventions and festivals, or watch enough author interviews, and eventually, somebody in the audience will ask the dreaded question "Where do you get your inspiration from?" The question has, somewhat unfairly, become a bit of a cliché - often the sign of somebody new to these events. Seasoned veterans of such gatherings tend not to ask, instead trying to think of something a bit different. (If you think I am being somewhat snobbish and unfair, I mean no disrespect and place myself firmly in this category. I too eagerly awaited the answer to the infamous question - before eventually realising that it is one of the most tricky questions you can ask, and steering clear.) But when it, or similar queries are asked, the response from the panellists is often the same - a deep breath, a pursing of the lips, followed by the apparently gallant "why don't you start us off...", with the person they have successfully passed it over to trying not to glare.
So why is it so difficult? Well the thing is, inspiration rarely comes with an audit trail. Even informal conversations between groups of writers in the bar - away from the pressure of a stage, microphone and audience - will often show that we rarely know where our ideas come from. They just appear. And if we knew exactly where they did come from, we'd all be camping there, armed with a notepad and a Dictaphone. The question "Where do you get your inspiration from?" can be deceptively overwhelming. For a start, what is the questioner actually looking for? A general feel for what we are doing when the magic comes? A curiosity about what led to some specific choices that you have made? Or are they a writer themselves, perhaps seeking guidance on where they too can find and bottle some of that wondrous elixir?
That's not to say we can't necessarily relate the genesis of a specific idea - the theme for a book or an individual character may well be born of a particular event or person that we met or read about. For example, my daily commute once involved driving along a wide, flat, open road across the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens. Looking around me, the surrounding farmland seemed to stretch endlessly and on a quiet morning it was desolate and lonely. One day, the morning news bulletin on the radio was reporting on the arrest and conviction of a family that had enslaved vulnerable men for decades, forcing them to live in horrendous conditions on their remote farm and coercing them into working for nothing. At that moment, an idea was born. It percolated in my head for years, but I know with certainty that the seeds for one of my books were planted that morning.
Other ideas are more nebulous. One of the themes in Forgive Me Father concerns gambling addiction. I cannot tell you when my long-held, instinctive uneasiness with the general notion of gambling, and the industry that runs it, metamorphosed into something that I felt angry enough to write about. But eventually it did. So here is my advice: Questioners: Try and be more specific. Instead of asking "Where do you get your inspiration from?" try "Where did the idea for X come from?" That sort of closed question helps the author focus their thoughts and answer your question more satisfactorily.
Authors: Prepare some stock responses. If you have some generic answers that you can give eg "All my books are set in rural Ireland, because I grew up there and I know the people and the landscape..." that's terrific. If, like me, you would struggle to come up with something like that, then why not just pretend the question was more specific? "Where do you get your inspiration from?" "I started my career in research, and so when I came to write The Last Straw, I drew upon my years of working in academia..." If you are there to promote a specific book, then think about an answer that points back towards that book or perhaps another in the series.
But finally, let me try and answer that question myself. Ideas can strike anywhere, but as a writer of crime - and police procedurals in particular - there is one good source that has provided many a spark that has eventually grown into an idea. My partner and I watch a lot of true crime documentaries (perhaps too many...). As I watch them, I occasionally find myself jotting down an idea on my phone. But if you were to then read that one-line thought back, I defy you to work out how the programme I was watching led to it. Because it didn't, not really. Rather a stray comment or thought led to me thinking, "if that happened, then maybe this could happen. Which surely would mean this is possible and oooh, there's a thought, what if somebody decided to hide their tracks by using a..." And so there we have it. An answer that attempts to respond to the question that we all dread. Would it be satisfying or entertaining to an audience? Who knows? I'll let you be the judge.
So where do you get your inspiration from? Share your thoughts in the comments or on social media. All the best, Paul
To Bump Or Not To Bump Should You Kill Off A Character?
There can be few things more heart-breaking/satisfying/controversial* for the writer of a series to kill off a regular character. *Pick the most appropriate response.
Killing off a long-standing character happens regularly in TV soaps. The reasons for the decision can vary from the actor wishing to move on/being sacked for sexual impropriety, the character not engaging viewers, the story arc reaching a natural conclusion or the producers needing an excuse to get their flagging show on the front page of TV Quick. Most of those reasons don't apply to novelists, obviously, but there are still good reasons that a writer may decide that it is time to get rid of someone. There are also reasons why you should think carefully before doing it.
The Pros It proves that nobody is safe. One of the best TV dramas of the early 2000s was the BBC's Spooks. Not only was it full of lots of fun spy stuff and intrigue, they also made a very brave decision that stuck with me.
Spoiler Start - skip the next few lines if you've never watched the series!
The publicity for the first season centred largely on two of the main characters, Matthew McFadden's Tom and Lisa Faulkner's Helen. In the second episode, Helen is murdered, brutally, never to reappear. The series runners pulled a similar stunt for series eight, with Rupert Penry-Jones doing large amounts of publicity, only for his character to be killed off early in the first episode. Other series regulars also met grisly ends.
Spoiler End - it's safe to continue reading!
By killing off series regulars - with no warning - the writers sent a clear message. In Spooks nobody is safe; and when a character is in mortal peril, they might not make it. If you compare this to James Bond, we all know that ultimately, he will defeat the odds and save the day. His companion for that film might not make it to the end credits, but Bond will. In Spooks we really couldn't bank on that certainty.
It was incredibly powerful and it stuck with me. I wanted to recreate that feeling of genuine jeopardy in my series. Without giving anything away, there are major characters in the first books that are no longer in the later books. Hopefully, now when I place my creations in mortal danger the reader can't be sure if they will survive. I also place some of them in dreadful situations that may not be resolved happily. Not only do I want my readers to have the same response that my beta-reader Cheryl did when editing one of my books - she literally greeted me with "you bastard!" when she got to that part of the book - I also want my readers to find themselves thinking, "Is this all going to end badly? Because he's shown that he's a big enough git to do it!"
It's an opportunity to take the series in a new direction Killing off a series regular is like throwing a hand grenade into a crowded room. There will always be collateral damage. What will be the emotional impact on everyone left behind? Will that death have unforeseen repercussions, such as other team mates being blamed? Will it cause others to re-evaluate their priorities?
In literature, a number of really big authors have taken what seemed to be a very dangerous gamble and killed off a beloved character, often as a cliff-hanger at the end of the book. In fact one author even placed a hidden page on their website where they explained that yes, they had indeed killed that person and that no, they wouldn't be coming back. Another author killed the person that his hero loved most in the world and was the primary motivation for why they did what they did. It felt like a needlessly cruel ending to the series - until I looked online and saw that the next book was due out the following year. There was no way it could be a trick with the character not really dead, the series was continuing without them. In both of these cases I read the following books with a sense of trepidation, worrying that the author may have screwed up. In both of these cases, the series suddenly became turbo-charged; the fallout lead to the need for something of a reset for everyone and a wealth of new and exciting narrative opportunities.
It stops the series getting stale In neither of the previously mentioned series did I feel that things were getting stale. Which tells me that the author timed their bombshell just right; with hindsight, I can see that in their current configurations, the series' set-up might have started to get repetitive, and so I applaud their decision.
You can bring in fresh blood My series has a number of core and supporting characters that are there in every book. There is the team that work with Warren, and his family. By having characters leave, I am reflecting reality; death, promotion, illness etc. Warren has been in Middlesbury for several years now. It would be peculiar if nobody moved on. Every change brings opportunities. In Warren's investigative team, there are roles that will need to be filled. Do I do a straight substitution - character X leaves, to be replaced by character X version 2? Do I instead move an existing character into that role and use it as an opportunity to get to know them better? Do I rejig the whole set-up? What will new people bring to the ensemble? I have used the opportunity to bring in entirely new types of person, exploring different character traits.
Ambiguity - was the death final or does their shadow hang over the series? A character's apparent death, or disablement, doesn't have to be permanent. With enough foresight, you can write it so that they can return. But this may require planning. Somebody stabbed to death in front of loved ones is more tricky to bring back plausibly than somebody who drowns at sea, with their body never recovered. And what about that return? Will it be a surprise for characters and reader alike, or will their absence loom over the series? Are they really gone or not?
The Cons: It can really upset your readers! Readers become attached to characters, and there might be those that decide that with their favourite gone, there's no point continuing to read the series.
It can limit your future choices. You might have just scuppered your chances of writing a brilliant future story that the character was essential for. This is another reason why you need to think carefully before doing it. However, there can be ways around this. Flashbacks with the character, a short story released as a treat for readers, or even a prequel are potential options. Of course another option is to write the story about your character and then include their demise at the end. This is a potential double-whammy, as if the story is central to this person, then your readers will be especially invested when you bump them off at the end.
It may look desperate. Readers will forgive you if the next book in the series is really good, but killing the character off because you can't think of what else to do can be dangerous and readers aren't fools.
Their replacement isn't sufficiently different. Think carefully about how you will fill that void. If you just swap them for somebody almost identical, like trading your car every three years when its lease is up, then you may as well just have stuck with the original. Take the time to sketch out this new person fully. See it as an opportunity to bring something new to the series, not just a way of getting you out of a creative hole.
Of course, all of the above can be mitigated somewhat by careful planning. Killing off a character that you may have lived with for years can be heart-breaking and shouldn't be done on a whim - but do it right, and it may be one of the best decisions you ever make.
What do you think about killing off characters?
As always, feel free to comment here or on social media. Until next time, Paul.
If your books showed readers what detectives really did all day, no one would ever read them.
How many times have you seen a variant on that sentiment? Real-life detectives admitting that their day job is largely office-based and mostly dull.
If you were to write a story that truly documented the ins and outs of a murder investigation, it would consist mostly of teams of officers and support personnel staring at computer screens for hours on end, punctuated by team briefings. Interviews are largely conducted by detective constables and sergeants with specialist training, arrests are usually made by uniformed officers, many of the leads followed by the team are generated by the Artificial Intelligence that underpins the HOLMES2 case management system, and decisions about charging a suspect are made by the Crown Prosecution Service. Once the criminal is successfully apprehended and charged, there are months of work still to be done preparing for the upcoming trial.
If you watch one of the excellent fly-on-the-wall documentaries that follow a murder investigation from the emergency call through to trial and conviction or acquittal, one of the most striking things is just how long everything takes. Keep an eye on the timestamps that appear on screen periodically, and even in a relatively straight-forward case, you will see that the gathering of evidence prior to the suspect being charged or released can take months or years. Of course it is entirely possible to write a story that takes place over such a long time span, but if you write an ongoing series like I do, my detective and his team needs to solve a new mystery each book - which means that they need to have gone from murder to charging in the space of a few weeks or months; that way they have time to go through the pre-trial procedure etc (usually after I've finished the story), before discovering their next body on page one of the following year's novel!
That's not to denigrate what can be an immensely satisfying and rewarding career. Rather it a realistic description of what the job really entails. The same is true for any profession. TV series such as Educating Essex would have us believe that teachers spend most of their day teaching, and that lessons are non-stop teenage drama. In reality of course, teachers spend longer planning lessons, marking work, sitting in meetings, taking part in training, writing tests, making new resources, supervising detentions, doing break duty, running extra-curricular activities and swearing at their laptops than actually teaching. And much of that work is done in the hours before or after school, or at home in the evening or weekend. And most lessons, in my experience, are usually fairly low-key affairs. Sure there are some drama queens who like to disrupt everything (whether or not there is a camera to play up to) and there are fantastic lessons where the kids are dancing around with the teacher like something out of a Hollywood movie. But typically a well-taught lesson will have most of the kids on-task, most of the time. The atmosphere will be calm, professional and generally friendly and the teacher will be instructing, cajoling and admonishing in varying proportion. But that's boring telly!
The question is: How can we as writers weave a compelling story that is both realistic AND exciting? The aforementioned TV documentaries create a sense of pace by clever editing, deciding what to leave in and what to exclude, and how much detail the audience needs to actually see. As writers we can also do the same, and for fiction we have one big advantage that documentary makers don't - we can also use poetic licence to fudge what might really happen to make our story more enjoyable.
So what should you fudge? I once saw Lee Child give a talk, and he said that readers will accept one big implausibility (I paraphrase). For him it is that roughly once a year Reacher stumbles into a town that just happens to need an over-muscled stranger to solve a problem for them.
I ask my reader to accept that Warren Jones, a Detective Chief Inspector working in a small CID unit in a fictional market town, chases down suspects and interviews them himself. And that furthermore, he does so in Hertfordshire - a county whose police force merged all of its serious crime units with those from Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire so they could efficiently operate out of a single large HQ in Welwyn Garden City.
Unfortunately, I had already started writing The Last Straw when I found out about this consolidation, but for narrative purposes, I needed Warren to be part of a small team. He had to have some foot soldiers below him, and a senior officer directly above him and DCI seemed to fit that role. So I made Middlesbury a 'first response CID unit' - the location of my fictional town is geographically about as far from Welwyn as it is possible to be without crossing into the adjoining county, so they use local knowledge to deal with crimes on their patch, and call in additional personnel from Welwyn as necessary. The advantage of this fudge, is that Middlesbury CID is constantly under threat of closing; a useful source of narrative tension. I once asked a retired detective what he thought about my compromise and his response, accompanied by a shrug, was 'sounds like something we'd do.'
As to Warren Jones interviewing suspects - it is very unrealistic that an officer of his rank would do so. As Senior Investigating Officer, he would eventually visit the crime scene but long after it has been secured. He would lead briefings etc, but most of his time would be spent managing the highly-trained specialists that work for him. And he certainly wouldn't leg it after a serial killer into a darkened forest :-) . I'm certain it is possible to write a compelling story whose protagonist fits that criteria, but that's not the story I'm interested in telling. I want Warren to be the central character. So, like many of my peers, I break the rules.
So here are my thoughts and tips. Know the rules to break the rules Most readers (and in my experience, coppers) are pretty forgiving. They recognise that strict accuracy may need to be sacrificed to tell a good story. But you need to be careful which rules you bend or break, and which you should stick to. Day-to-day policing in England and Wales is covered by the Police And Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 (PACE 1984). It is an evolving piece of legislation, so double-check your facts are current for the time-period your story is set. It is a bit dry, but it is a gold-mine. You can easily find it online - in fact Wikipedia has a fairly good summary. The advantage of it is that it covers everything from arrest to charging, securing of evidence and the rules that police officers have to follow regarding searches and warrants etc. My advice, is that unless rule-breaking is a specific part of the story, follow this legislation. For example a custody or desk sergeant simply will not authorise your hero to detain a suspect without good justification, or to extend the legally-mandated 24 hour custody limits without the correct authorisation. This may seem arduous, but the good news is that these rules may improve your story - often authors are at their most creative when forced to work their way around a problem. The same goes for forensics. There are countless books, websites and documentaries that can help you write an authentic forensic scene. Make the effort - readers are forgiving but still discerning. A modern-day UK copper stomping all over a crime scene or using a pen and handkerchief to pick up a vital clue looks embarrassingly naïve these days. Follow the rules for your jurisdiction There are some excellent US-based documentaries out there, but they do things differently. It is common for a suspect to be interviewed without a lawyer present, and for the officers to be disappointed when they finally request one. In the UK, suspects are rarely interviewed without a solicitor (not a lawyer - use the correct language). In fact I was once told by a solicitor that he had seen officers shut down an interview and beg a suspect to take advantage of the free duty solicitor- it really is best for all concerned. If you are writing in the UK, don't forget that Scotland and Northern Ireland have slightly different rules and systems to England & Wales.
If you need to break a rule - consider meeting critics head on and explaining why. I explain (in the prose obviously), that Middlesbury is unique and that the approach of Warren's team is successful enough that they have been allowed to continue operating independently. I also make a point of mentioning at some point that Warren is probably the most senior officer in any force that still interviews - I've made it a plot point, with Warren sometimes questioning if he should still do it, junior officers keen to work in his team to observe him, or his peers expressing jealously that they spend all their days in the office. Do whatever sounds plausible.
Watch documentaries, not dramas for accuracy! Obvious really - if you are taking dramatic liberties, with a TV show that has itself taken liberties, then you are just playing Chinese Whispers.
Final Thought: Within reason, story comes first. If you were to nit pick everything to the nth degree, then some of most highly respected crime writers would fall short. Alas, you can't please everyone, so do your best and trust your instincts.
I hope this has been helpful. As always, feel free to comment here or on social media. All the best, Paul
Spend enough time hanging around on social media forums populated by writers, and pretty soon you'll come across some poor scribe moaning about receiving their edits. Your's truly has spent the past fortnight doing just that for this coming summer's release, DCI Warren Jones 7.
I've explored some of the ways in which you can trim your novel in previous posts (TuesdayTips 27, 28, 29 & 30) but I've never really explained what editing is, or what some of the different terms mean.
The process of editing varies between self-published writers and traditionally-published writers. Different publishing houses have different ways of doing things, and each writer will find their own way that works for them. There are also slightly different terms used to descibe the processes.
For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume that we are talking about what happens after you've typed 'The End' on your initial draft, read through it multiple times to polish it as best you can and are now satisfied that it is 'finished'. Traditionally, the manuscript would be submitted to the publisher (or sometimes your agent). If you are considering self-publishing, the following still applies, but I have addressed some of the specific issues towards the end.
Tip: ALWAYS start editing on a new version of your file. Storage is so cheap these days, that there is no excuse for not making multiple versions of a file (number them sequentially!). That way, if you realise that your changes don't work, you can just go back to an earlier version and start again.
The editing process can be largely divided into two different stages.
Structural Edits Terms may vary, but essentially, this is where an entirely new pair of eyes looks at your book and asks 'Does this work'? 'How can we make it better?' I am fortunate that none of my books have been rejected out of hand, but I still typically have plenty to do. For my publishing house, this feedback comes in the form of an editorial letter. Anyone who has ever seen marked schoolwork will be familiar with the format - it follows the sandwich model: Praise for what works. Ways to improve. A positive comment at the end.
The improvements in my editorial letters come in two parts: General structural comments. For example pacing - perhaps the middle part is a bit slow? Maybe the overall length could be shorter? Do I need so many interview scenes - could I instead have some take place 'off page' with the main points summarised later? Perhaps one character gets too much attention, whilst another is underserved? Do events take place in the best order? Should I space out the murders and the interviews, or perhaps bring them closer together to increase the tension?
I typically turn these suggestions into a list of actionable points, then read through the whole manuscript, and scribble notes on how to implement them as I go along. (I prefer paper and pen for this, but the comment function on Word can be used to great effect here). My notes are usually relatively vague - for example highlighting a whole section and writing 'shorten' or 'cut', or highlighting a paragraph or section and then finding where it needs to be moved to to improve pacing.
Tip: If you need to move a paragraph highlight it and then write a number in a circle next to it. Then find where you think it needs to go and draw that numbered circle in the margin. That way you won't get confused between different paragraphs and can find them easily when flicking through the manuscript.
Specific suggestions. These can range from small requests for clarification (page 265, is this the daughter speaking here or the mother?) to larger alterations (Page 341, I think you could cut this entire section - it doesn't add anything and slows the story down). Tip: Do these FIRST. Not only are they often low-hanging fruit, they frequently have page numbers attached - so do them before you move everything around and can't find what page they are now on!
Big tip: When making corrections to a printed manuscript in pen, try and use a colour that will stand out. But also place an asterisk in the margin next to the correction. It's easy to miss something as small as an added comma when flicking through the manuscript and transfering those corrections to the Word document.
Your manuscript may go through several rounds of structural edits. This is NOT a bad thing! An author and an editor are a team, and so as frustrating as it can be, stick in there!
Copy-editing/line-editing/proof-reading. Each of these terms has a specific meaning, and strictly speaking, they shouldn't be used interchangeably. In practise, this is where someone with a freakish attention to detail and obsessive knowledge of grammar, punctuation, spelling, correct word-usage and the pedantic requirements of publisher style-guides* goes through the final version of your manuscript with a finetooth comb. They are awesome! I have learned so much of the above from them over the years.
They are also the last line of defence between you and the reader. They are the person that (usually!) spots that the spelling of your main character's name has changed, that the suspect isn't wearing a tie at the beginning of the interview, but is wiping their spectacles on the end of it when the questioning gets difficult, informs you that the long, hot summer in your book was actually wet that year and that the radio station your hero listens to hadn't started broadcasting in 2002. Have I said how awesome they are?
If you are self-publishing, then you still need to do all this! If there is one thing you take from my rambling blog posts, it's that nobody can fully edit their own work. I submit all of my posts as evidence to support this claim.
Professional editors can be found online - I suggest joining writers groups on social media to see who is recommended; find one that specialises in your genre. Some editors will do a straightforward read-through and feedback, others may specialise in proof-reading, others may work as part of a small team that will work in partnership with you from that first completed draft to you uploading onto the Kindle Direct Publishing platform. There are also Manuscript Assessment Services or Critique services that can read through your story before you employ an editor to help you iron out any big issues.
Unfortunately, these services cost money; as the saying goes, you have to speculate to accumulate. Traditionally-published authors will see all these costs borne by their publisher. The downside of that is that the publisher takes a cut of the royalties. What works best for you will depend on your circumstances. I suggest getting a copy of the Writers and Artist Yearbook, it's full of really useful tips and tricks. But, please don't insult editors by trying to haggle with them or getting a freebie - they are skilled professionals, who do it to earn a living. You wouldn't argue with a plumber or an electrician or a gas-fitter, so don't push your luck with an editor. You may well think that editing your magnus opus will bring career-changing exposure for the person lucky enough to hitch themselves to your train - but most mortgage providers don't accept 'exposure credits' in lieu of cash.
Of course, no one is perfect. My books are 120,000 words long - I defy anyone to spot every error in a manuscript of that length. There are those that will airily proclaim on Facebook that the standard of proof-reading/proof-readers today is disgraceful; that authors 'who can't be bothered to proof-read deserve to burn in hell', and regard being a grammar Nazi as a public service. Dig a little deeper and you'll see that none of these keyboard warriors are themselves writers; as with all professions, we have to accept that there will always be those willing to stand on the sidelines and criticise us as we perform a job that they can't do.
Final thought: Ultimately, this is your story and it will be your name on the cover. Differences of opinion can and do occur with your editor. Don't be afraid; you are both professionals. I have taken to writing a short commentary alongside my editorial letter. In it I detail how I have implemented each suggestion, and justified why I may not have - sometimes I have a compromise. For example my editor may suggest that a section can be cut to improve pace. I have valid reasons that I feel it should stay, but have trimmed it down to make it more punchy.
Good luck! As always, feel free to comment here or on social media. Best wishes, Paul.
*Style Guides! These are an invaluable resource, but will also drive you mad! Many publishers have an in-house style guide that outlines their own preferences regarding spelling (s or z for example), capitalisation, punctuation, hyphenation, apostrophes etc. Be warned - it might not be exactly the same as what you were taught at school! It is the role of a proofreader/line editor to tweak your manuscript so it follows these guidelines, but I requested a copy of the HarperCollins guide, saving everyone time (and it has improved my spelling, punctuation and grammar no end!).