Writer and Author

Tag: Fantasy

The Flow of the Narrative

I was watching The Last Seduction with the Husband last night. It’s one of my favourite films.  Afterwards we were jokingly wondering if this might have been the film that gave Sharon Collins the idea for her ill-judged bit of online retail.  It’s doubtful. The similarities between fact and fiction are slim, to say the least, but it’s a joke we always make. After all, if Sharon had simply been one of my characters then she probably would have been influenced by one of my favourite films, I could have made her influenced by anything I wanted.

It might seem like an obvious distinction between fiction and non-fiction but it’s one that it’s all too easy to blur in the writing. Writing a book is completely different from writing a piece for a newspaper or a post for this blog about the trial while it’s going on. It’s an opportunity to stand back and look at how the story flows, to find the rhythm at it’s heart. It doesn’t feel any different telling a true story or making one up once I get down to writing. The research and planning stages might be different but once the story starts to pick up speed it’s always a question of following the narrative flow. It’s the same with characters. Whether I’m replaying in memory words and actions I know happened, that have been proved in front of a court of law, or allowing the characters to block out their own movements in the theatre of my imagination, it all comes out much the same.

I’ve remarked here before about how strange it feels seeing “characters” in the flesh when a case comes back to court. Something happens when you’ve spent weeks in front of the screen with a subject. In a way it becomes part of you, as do the dramatis personae.  You can get rather possessive. With recent cases the problem’s academic. They’re live stories that will continue to develop outside the scope of my book. But today I’m more concerned with the flow of the story itself.

Why does it seem amusing that Sharon Collins might have been influenced by The Last Seduction? Because it works with the story. It underlines her mixed attempts to be a real life femme fatale by contrasting with a great fictional example.  When I was writing Devil in the Red Dress I used to listen to the Last Seduction soundtrack (a great noirish jazz affair) and my movie viewing tended to revolve around Bogart and Bacall or the Coen Brothers. While I couldn’t do anything with the facts of the case or the words of the witnesses, the underlying beat to that one was most definitely Hollywood Noir with a rather comic edge.

I’m not one of those writers who has to work in silence. I’ve been a journalist for too long for surrounding babble to worry me that much but given the choice I’d rather have my choice of music than Sky News and radio bulletins. So far each book has had it’s own mp3 playlist on my laptop. Devil was smoky jazz, Death on the Hill was written to an accompaniment of mainly French pop and this new one appears to be insisting on passionate instrumentals of Irish or Russian origin. When I was working on my novel I had a different playlist for each character – it helped to keep them solid while I was still working them out.  Whatever it’s content though the playlists all serve the same purpose. They’re a shortcut to the narrative flow. A way of getting to where I need to go.

At the moment, because I’m at an early stage of writing, I’m still feeling for that rhythm but I know it’s there. I think that narrative flows through life like an underground stream. We all instinctively know what works and what doesn’t, based on the facts before us and our knowledge of our fellow man. It’s that same knowledge that can lead a jury to a verdict or make a novel feel like it isn’t working. It’s that gut feeling that creates archetypes and truisms.  There’s a rhythm that undercuts everything and any story has to fall into step or at least be damn good at syncopation.  I’m not talking about the simple stuff that we’d always like to be true – boy gets girl, good always triumphs and evil gets it’s just deserts. It’s just real life. They’re basic rules that always affect the story no matter what you write – true crime or crime fiction, chick lit or fantasy.

At the moment I’m working on something where hearing that rhythm feels more important than ever. I don’t have the benefit of observing my characters and I can’t make them up. If I get them wrong I’m doing a disservice to a story that has, after all, already unfolded.  It’s rather different from anything I’ve ever done.  But I think I’ve found the melody at last, enough for me to follow until the narrative flow catches me and the story takes hold.

The Work Has Begun!

I’ve been trying to get down the first scene of the new book for the past week and a half.  The blank page is always a little scary but I think I was thrown by starting something so completely new.  My characters were waiting in the wings ready to start the action and I knew where that action was going to take them but the opening sentences I’d tried up until today just didn’t set the scene I wanted to set.

So I fell back on that old reliable – a change of scene.  This morning I packed myself up and headed into town determined to banish the blank page and make a dent in Chapter 1.  I love writing at my desk at home, surrounded by all the the junk that I like to think are prompts when the muse is stubbornly absent.  I’ve had the desk since I was school and it’s always been a little oasis where I know I can work.  This summer when, for various reasons, I couldn’t work there to finish my last book I spent a week going absolutely distracted as I got used to my new surroundings.

But sometimes the old familiars just don’t work.  It’s nice to have the luxury of a writing space at home but as a journalist I’m used to working wherever there’s desk space if a deadline is looming.  With fiction I’m a little more picky, I have bolt holes that I know will always have a condusive atmosphere to get me over a hump, where I can sit undisturbed and write, preferably with a handy plug socket for when the laptop battery starts to die.

When I headed into town today though, none of the usual haunts appealed.  This new book is very different to the fantasy I’ve written up to now (that’s in terms of fiction…not journalism) The character who tells this story had his own demands and I ended up in Starbucks upstairs in BT2 on Grafton Street. As I said before, I tend to be a little bit method when I’m working on a new character.

Normally the clatter of the ladies-who-lunch and the students from Trinity yattering over their lattes would keep me at bay unless there was a particularly pressing deadline.  Today though it was what was needed and the words soon started filling the page.  By the time I’d finished my non-fat latte (well, when in Rome and all that) I had 1100 words of an opening.

It’s only a first draft and will probably go through numerous permutations before I’m happy with it but there is no longer a blank page and the story is suddenly a concrete thing, a real “work in progress”.

Which reminds me.  Having written two books using Word I decided to try out some dedicated writing software this time round.  I’ve been using Word all my working life and it’s second nature but negotiating your way around a100,000 word manuscript can be a bit cumbersome to say the least.  I’ve also been caught on numerous occasions when my computer crashed when I had been caught up in the flow of a scene and hadn’t saved.  Even with Autosave I’d usually lose the last paragraph at least.

I use Twitter a lot these days and it’s a great place to keep up with the more techie things that are going on in the world.  It hadn’t occured to me that software existed for writers – I’d heard of programmes that helped you plot a novel that seem to be marketed to all those desperate to write the next generic blockbuster but a programme that simply existed because writers aren’t necessarily best suited for the standard office word processing programmes.

I decided to investigate and found PageFour.  There are a lot of these programmes out there these days but I’m happy with this one.  You write directly in the programme and your work is saved as an Rich Text document.  This means that your formatting will show up in whatever programme you export to when it’s time to print or send it off (in my case this will be the old reliable, Word).  There are all kinds of handy little features like a search for words you over use and an easily accessible word count.  But the big thing I like about it is that whenever the programme shuts down, whether you’ve closed it or it or the computer have crashed, your work is intact.  When you open the programme again it’s there down to the last letter.

I’m using a trial version at the moment but I think I’ll be getting a license.  I don’t normally plug stuff here but I’m surprised at how handy the programme is so I thought I’d share.  I won’t be ditching Word, it’s what I use for journalism after all, but it sometimes pays to be open minded.

OK sales pitch over and I’m heading back to my chapter but it’s a good feeling to know that I’ve finally made a start and the new book is underway.  Now the real work begins.

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