Tag Archives: crime novel

Opening Chapters and Prologues

This is the latest of my weekly updates on the redrafting of what will be my debut novel, ‘Safe Hands’. You can find the story so far in this previous post.

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The beginning of your book is the start of a journey

This week was all about revising my opening chapter. Like many of you reading this, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about whether my book now starts in the right place. During the messy first draft, it’s best not to dwell on it too much, and it’s certainly not worth worrying about. However, as I push my draft on towards completion, it’s now something that needs to be addressed.

In addition to the dreaded FIRST CHAPTER CONUNDRUM, I’ve also toyed with the idea of a prologue. I know, I know, it’s a dirty word in some literary circles. I may be deluding myself, but to my mind, what I currently have isn’t actually a prologue. It’s a single tone-setting paragraph, with no historical context and will have a single word title: OPENING. And that is literally what it is . . . an opening to the book, an a description of the opening of a vault. What it does do, is give the reader an immediate sense of tone and a practical description of what my protagonist, Mickey Blake, can do – namely, crack a safe with only his bare hands and an acute sense of touch.

I made more revisions to the first chapter too, adding in a reference to a phone call that Mickey has just concluded as the novel begins. It sets the context for how he feels in the opening scene, but as the reader is left in the dark as to the specifics of the conversation, it raises a question and, I hope, provides the first ‘hook’ of the story.

I wanted to start the story in media res – come in late, get out early as the adage goes – and I think beginning the story with Mickey’s first meeting of potential antagonist, Parker, is a good way to do it.

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Dialogue scenes should be realistic

After making the revisions, I took the piece to Phoenix Writers, the critique group I belong to, and got lots of useful feedback – particularly on the dialogue in my scene. It was clear that it’s currently a little too testosterone-fueled and needs to be paced better. In places it suffers from ‘ping-pong’ syndrome, with characters simply delivering one complete monologue after another, with few interruptions or pauses. I should know better. In my own ‘Big Screen Writing’ workshop, I advise ‘break it up’. Real conversations are fragmented and often nothing more than a series of interruptions – especially when there is conflict in a scene. Armed with the invaluable feedback of the group, I will be redrafting the chapter this week.

Dialogue tweaks aside, however, the group seemed satisfied with where I’ve chosen to start the story and they loved the OPENING section, so it seems I can at least put that issue to bed for the time being.

In addition to redrafting the beginning of the first chapter, this week I’ll be adding in some additional narrative elements brought about by my structural work. A new minor character and scene will be added and the current end section of the novel will be almost entirely discarded! Stay tuned.

What about you? Where do you stand on the whole ‘Prologue/No Prologue’ debate? Are you confident your story begins in the right place? Have any tips you want to share? Drop me a line in the comments below – I’d love to hear how you’re doing.

While you’re here, you might also want to check out the latest bonus episode of Joined Up Writing, the weekly writing podcast I host. This week, Matt Johnson talks about authenticity in Crime Fiction.

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My Debut Novel, ‘Safe Hands’ – The Story So Far

I have mentioned my debut novel from time to time on this blog, but it’s been a while so in preparation for my upcoming weekly updates, I thought it might be an idea to bring you up to speed with what it is and where I am.

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“Cracking a safe doesn’t mean dynamite. No oxecetyline torch. And definitely no fucking stethoscope. It’s laying your hands on cold steel, feeling the tingle in your fingertips, caressing out each part of the combination.” – MICKEY BLAKE, SAFE HANDS.

Told in first person, ‘Safe Hands’ is a crime novel about an ageing safe-cracker, Mickey Blake.  For the sake of his dying wife and a son that hates his guts, Mickey is forced out of retirement to rob a run down casino in Skegness. Between Chinese and Russian gangsters and a crooked undercover cop . . . it’s going to be a tough week.

How it came together . . .

What began as a short story, has wound up being a messy first draft of over a hundred thousand words, with a few too many plot complications, an under-used character or two and some obvious structural issues. The good news is the rewrite is underway and I’m beginning to see the wood for the trees. Using Scrivener has meant that I can easily move around my scenes and chapters and anything I ‘throw away’ can be saved for another project or re-used somewhere else in the book.

I completed the first draft back in the spring of 2017. Since then, I’ve transferred my chapters onto index cards. Yes, it’s a little ‘old school’ and I could do this digitally in Scrivener, but I wanted to employ techniques learned from my experience in scriptwriting and doing it the old fashioned way has necessitated a much deeper analysis of my story. Structural issues became obvious and the inconsistency of my antagonist stood out as something that needed to be resolved. On that last point, I decided to write a character monologue from the perspective of my antagonist. It was a rambling couple of thousand words but left me in no doubt as to who my character was and what he really wants. It also created at least one new plot development that will definitely improve the story.

This week . . .

This week I’ve written a new scene between Mickey and his wife and have re-written a number of later scenes in the book. The plan for the coming week will be to introduce a new sub-plot that arose from the character work I’ve been doing with my antagonist.

I’ll report back on my progress next week, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear how you’re progressing with your own WIP. At what stage of the process are you? Have you discovered new techniques? Perhaps you are struggling and would like some help? In this week’s episode of The Joined Up Writing Podcast, ex-policeman and now writer, Matt Johnson has lots of help and inspiration for new writers.

As always, I’d love to hear from you, so do leave a comment below.

Why you should write a logline for your novel

Save The Cat by Blake Snyder - a screen writing book that you can apply to your novel
Save The Cat by Blake Snyder – a screenwriting book you can apply to your novel

Following on from my previous post where I came out (of the novel-writing closet), I thought I would tell you a little more about the novel and share a tip I picked up from reading Save The Cat – a brilliant book about Screenwriting. It’s author, Blake Snyder, believes the one killer question you need to answer before you even begin to write is . . .

WHAT IS IT?

Think about it. You mention to your friend that you’re writing a book. Their first question?

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Cue a couple of minutes of you umming and erring, scrabbling around for way to explain this great story waiting to burst out of your head. After the first thirty seconds your friend – no matter how polite – will start to get that faraway look in their eye. The look that says ‘I wonder what I can have for tea tonight?’ or ‘Did I put the bins out?’. You fail to capture, let alone hold their attention, because you haven’t really stopped to answer that single question:

WHAT IS IT?

The best way to do that? Come up with a logline. That’s a screenwriting term, but it’s just another way of saying ‘elevator pitch’ – a concise one or two lines that capture the essence of your story. It needs to give a sense of who, what and where this story is. Is it obvious in what genre you’re writing? Snyder also thinks it should have at least a whiff or irony about it and perhaps even some kind of time frame.

Drafting loglines in Scrivener
Drafting loglines in Scrivener

Hmm. It’s harder than it sounds. I sat down (after already having written more than twenty thousand words of my story) and began to see if I could boil it down to two sentences. My first effort was something like this:

‘Mickey Blake, an aging safe cracker and mastermind behind one of the crimes of the century, returns to the UK after 18 years on the run. Forced out of retirement for the sake of his dying wife, Mickey must outwit local gangsters and an undercover copper to stay alive long enough to pull off one last job.’

It’s not terrible. It includes some important elements of the story and it gives a vague description of my protagonist, but it feels too long. I tried two or three more iterations – mainly changing word order and including the additional detail of an estranged son – but it still didn’t sing, didn’t say where the story was set and didn’t really reflect Mickey’s personality. So, after a lot of refining, here’s what I’ve settled on. For now . . .

‘For the sake of his dying wife and a son that hates his guts, acid-tongued safe cracker, Mickey Blake is forced out of retirement to rob a rundown casino in Skegness. He’s got one week to do it and all that stands in his way are a few old scores, two local gangsters and an undercover cop.’

Better? I think so. It has a similar word count to my first attempt, but has more information, gives a sense of who Mickey is and reveals my setting . . . Skegness! Yes, Skegness. For those unfamiliar with it, Skeggy (as it’s known locally) is a seaside town on the East coast of England and these days is probably most famous for being home to a large Butlins holiday resort. I think revealing that location and the part about ‘a son that hates his guts’ provides the ironic whiff I was looking for. I’ve also squeezed in the ‘one week’ time frame and created a mental image of some of the challenges he’s going to face.

I actually think it would work as a ‘one-liner’ – the first sentence does most of the work. Having this ‘one-liner’ has already helped me to focus and means I will at least have a chance at articulating my story the next time someone asks me what I’m spending all my spare time on.

I’m going to be posting regular updates along my novel-writing journey, so let me know which parts of the process you are most interested in and subscribe to the blog to keep up to date. I would love to hear your opinions on my logline and whether you’re intrigued to find out more about the story. So why not give it a try – write a logline for your novel or next short story – and let me know how you get on in the comments below. Alternatively, tweet me.