Tag Archives: novel writing

Parker and why we love an anti-hero

I’ve always been a fan of reading Crime Fiction but, aside from a couple of humorous short stories, was never inspired to write in that genre. I loved Rankin’s Rebus, Connelly’s Bosch and, of course Mr Sherlock Holmes himself, but writing a police procedural or following the investigations of a lone detective just didn’t appeal to me.  Everything changed when, a couple of years ago, a tweet caught my eye – from comedy writer Graham Linehan – waxing lyrical about ‘The Parker Novels’.

 

thehunternovel
Richard Stark’s debut ‘Parker’ Novel

Who is Parker?

Well, for a start, he really isn’t ‘The Good Guy’ – in any sense of the word. Unlike Rebus et al, he’s on the wrong side of the law, a ruthless single-minded criminal always looking for the next big score. He is the creation of the ‘Crime Writer’s Crime Writer’, Donald E Westlake, writing under his pseudonym of Richard Stark. Parker is merciless, amoral and has a complete lack of empathy, but like most anti-heroes, he does have his own strict code – a set of rules as inflexible as he is. There’s a full run-down of those rules on the 50 Years of Parker website, but the gist is that he is the ultimate professional. The job is everything. Killing a man is the last resort – but only because it tends to bring unwanted interest from The Law. He is totally loyal to his colleagues right up until the point they try to double-cross him, at which point they become his mortal enemy. Revenge is a recurring theme throughout the novels and the stories are littered with the bodies of those who thought they could betray Parker and live to tell the tale.

Any redeeming features?

Even for an anti-hero, Parker’s redeeming qualities are pretty thin on the ground. Yet Stark created a protagonist that readers found compelling and addictive – there are 24 Parker novels and at least three film adaptations.

For one thing, Parker gets things done. He makes things happen and that alone is an attractive trait for a main character. He’s decisive and straightforward. If you’re looking for some existential angst or emotional hand-wringing, look elsewhere. That’s not to say that Stark doesn’t put his main character into some sticky situations. Parker spends most of his time against the ropes and railing against the huge faceless criminal organisation called The Syndicate. In the opening chapters of his first caper, ‘The Hunter’ he is betrayed and left for dead. In a cast of low-life, disloyal undesirables, Parker stands out because he lives his life to such a strict set of rules. He’s almost monastic in his dedication. And, most importantly, he is very, very good at what he does. In fact, he’s the best and that’s irrestible to a reader. Throw in the fact that Parker is always the smartest guy in the room, able to cut anyone down to size with his deadpan wit, and it’s easy to see why he’s such an enduring figure.

He doesn’t have the vulnerability that so many other anti-heroes often exhibit, but his greatest strength – his ‘code’ – is also his biggest flaw. That unwillingness to bend, to double-cross the other guy first – is often where his problems begin.

My Inspiration

Stark’s prose is terse, tight and full of wit and after only a few pages of The Hunter, I was hooked. This was the type of character I wanted to write. A remorseless, unapologetic bad guy that everyone loves. The man that can walk into a room and say or do anything he damn pleases. And so, my leading man, Mickey Blake, was born.

Like Parker, Mickey is a career criminal, but is very much in the British villain mould. Unlike Stark’s man, by the time we meet Mickey at the beginning of my novel, he has plenty of vulnerability lurking beneath a tough, sarcastic exterior. In any given situation, he will choose the most inappropriate comment, just to score a cheap point, get a laugh or gain the advantage over whichever ne’erdowell he’s faced with.

In Stark’s novels, Parker’s stories unfold in third person point of view, but I wanted my readers to really get under Mickey’s skin and into his head as he’s forced out of retirement for the sake of his dying wife and an estranged son that hates his guts. That meant choosing a first person perspective and it’s been fun ‘being’ Mickey during the months I’ve been working on my first draft.

I couldn’t and wouldn’t try to emulate Richard Stark’s style, but I do hope that in Mickey Blake, I can create a British anti-hero that can at least hold his own with Parker – The Man With The Getaway Face.

Who is your favourite anti-hero? Or maybe you prefer the good guys? Drop me a line in the comments below and let me know your favourite Crime books too.

Stuck on your WIP? Skip to the end . . .

Stuck on your WIP? Things getting a little like wading through treacle? My advice? Skip to the end! That’s exactly what I’ve been doing after a long spell of procrastination and self-doubt.

Last time I gave you any kind of update, I was still in the honeymoon period of writing my second novel. 25,000 words in. The beginning of the relationship, when everything is exciting and new. Almost a year later, and I’m closing in on 90,000 words, and as we all know, with so much water under the bridge, you have to work a bit harder to keep the magic alive.

Loose-fitting pants . . .

As mentioned in my previous post, I’m a Plantser – I like to have a rough idea of where I’m going but don’t like to spend days and weeks planning every minute detail. These loose-fitting pants have served me well for the current novel (working title: Safe Hands) but, as usual, a couple of unexpected plot events took me by surprise and before I knew it, I’d created several loose ends and was tying myself up in knots. Although I had a vague idea of where I wanted to end up, with every new chapter, I felt I was drifting off course. My output slowed and eventually dried up completely. Anyone familiar with my posts will know that stopping to think for too long kills my momentum and gives rise to the dreaded Self-Doubt. So many times I forget to take my own advice – see Write or Die post from 2014.

Speaking of ‘Skip To The End’ – get to the point!

So, just at the moment I was ready to quit, I remembered my own advice and that of writing friends – WRITE THE ENDING FIRST. As my novel takes place over a week, building toward a heist that my protagonist and his cohorts have been planning, I decided to move directly to the day of the big job and just . . . WRITE. It was slow at first, but as I continued to raise the stakes, the words began to flow freely and without censure (a direct quote from writing friend Maria Smith) and I finally stopped worrying and clung to the fact that I’m writing a first draft. It’s meant to be terrible. The next stage will be editing and I can’t get to that stage unless I actually have something to edit.

The End is Nigh (honestly)

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because I had similar issues with my first novel (still consigned to First Draft Hell). But this is different. It’s a weird feeling. I know I’m tantalisingly close to finishing the first draft, but for once I feel calm and positive about the novel I know this ugly first draft will become. What about you? Do you have to wrestle with self-doubt on a daily basis – ‘of course we do,’ you reply, ‘we’re WRITERS!’ So how do you deal with it? What are your tips for pushing on through to the bitter end? How do you tackle all those plot complications you’ve created along the way? Or maybe you are a planner and merely scoff at all this talk of losing the plot? Let me know in the comments below or join the conversation on Twitter.

Writing a Novel – Are you a Pantser or a Plotter? I’m a PLANTSER!

Scrivener's Cork Board Feature can help you to see the shape of your novel
Scrivener’s Cork Board Feature can help you to see the shape of your novel

Are you a ‘Pantser’ or a ‘Plotter’?

It’s a question we writers seem to be obsessed with. It turns up on countless websites, forums and in many of our author interviews over at The Joined Up Writing Podcast. In case you somehow missed it, a ‘Pantser’ is someone who writes without any real plan – by the seat of their pants – and a ‘Plotter’, well, guess what? They like to plot everything in detail and have a clear road map of where they’re going.

So, what am I?

My innate impatience and lack of organisation probably means I’m naturally inclined to wing it – just start writing and hope for the best – but over the years I have come to realise I do need some kind of idea of where I’m going.

I’ve talked in previous posts about my experience with Nanowrimo. The first sixty thousand words flowed consistently because I had spent the last week of October writing a chapter plan. This was really only a skeleton outline that consisted of nothing more than one or two sentences of what I wanted to happen in each chapter. Once I got going, I got complacent. This novel-writing lark is easy, I thought, as I hurtled towards the end of my chapter plan. A week later I ran out of track, at which point the writing became a lot more tricky.

Hmm. Ok. Never one to miss out on a learning opportunity, I bought a couple of books on outlining and decided that my next novel would be PROPERLY OUTLINED. Real, detailed, three act-type stuff. Character notes, beat sheets, back stories, the lot. I spent months plotting a novel about ‘The secret KGB past of misanthropic Russian psychic, Tsurly Guiger, catches up with him when plucky aspiring journalist, Alyson Peabody discovers him hiding in Leicester.’ (Yes, I just used the logline technique mentioned in my last post!).

It’s a novel I still intend to write but, for me, spending that long trying to plot the story without writing more than the first two chapters almost killed my enthusiasm for the story. The characters needed at least a few chapters to come to life on the page, to find their feet, so that I could run with their story.

So . . . pure ‘pantsing’ doesn’t work for me and I can’t spend weeks and months plotting. What’s a man to do? Like all writing advice . . . you have to find what works for you. My current crime novel is a product of my new approach – ‘Plantsing’.

‘Plantsing’ you say?

Sounds like you just took ‘Pantsing’ and ‘Plot’ and awkwardly glued them together. Yes, that’s right – deal with it. Anyway, here’s how it’s been working for me.

You may recall this project originally started life as a short story. Then a novella, until finally it grew legs and I knew there was a book in it. The first few chapters flowed easily as my protagonist, Mickey, drove the plot with his singular personality and wit. However, once I knew the story was opening out in to something much longer, I realised I had to make sure that every time I sat down to work (my morning ritual, of which I’ll write about in another post) I had a good idea of what to write. My solution was to use the power of Scrivener and create a few chapters in my binder. Then write at least a couple of sentences on their index cards (like the ones you can see below). I have tried to make sure that I always have at least four chapters ‘planned’ ahead in this way. EDIT: As pointed out by Misa Buckley on Twitter – you may want to work like this and have no wish to use Scrivener. It’s perfectly possible to do the same thing using your preferred software and usual outlining methods. It’s just that, I feel, Scrivener makes it much easier to do.

You can break your work down in to scenes, chapters or any other chunks you fancy
You can break your work down in to scenes, chapters or any other chunks you fancy

What if I don’t know what the next chapter is?

No problem. Because Scrivener lets you create separate documents and drag them wherever you want, you have complete flexibility. Only know the final chapter or scene? Fine – create a document, outline it with a few sentences and write it whenever you like. Know that your main character is going to sleep with a barmaid in a couple of chapters time, but not sure how he gets there? No worries – skip ahead and write that scene. Outline the bits you know – just make sure you always have something to come back to and that you have enough direction to keep the structure of your story intact.

It’s ‘Plantsing’ and it works for me. What works for you? How do you get through that first draft without writing yourself down a blind alley or boring yourself to death? Share your thoughts below, subscribe to the blog and follow me on Twitter – I would love to chat.

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.

It’s a NOVEL – there, I said it!

My WIP Progress as of 24th October 2015
My WIP Progress as of 24th October 2015

Listeners to the Joined Up Writing Podcast may have heard me talking about my latest WIP – ‘a crime story’ is the way I have been describing it. And that’s exactly what it started out as – a short story. After a few thousand words I started occasionally using the word ‘Novella’ and today, in an email to a writing friend, I unintentionally confessed . . . I’m writing another novel!

Yes, another novel, because this will be my second. You may recall I typed ‘THE END’ on the first draft of ‘Let Sleeping Gods Lie’ a few months ago and I have been outlining another project on and off for over a year. Only thing is . . . that’s not the project I’m working on! This is a seat of the pants, first person POV crime novel and I’m just coming up on 22,000 words. I’m slightly in love with my protagonist and so far he is the engine for my plot. I have a vague sense of the end game, but I’m deliberately only outlining a few chapters ahead. This ensures I always have something to write, but that I don’t lock myself in to a story that becomes purely driven by plot instead of character.

My other breakthrough? Scrivener!

Yes, I’ve finally cracked it and have found a way to use it that really works for me. I’ll do a separate Scrivener post in the future, but my epiphany came after watching a short video from Joanna Penn. You will need to subscribe to her free mailing list to get access to it, but I really recommend that you do. It’s one of the first links I received from her and it really was as simple as seeing how she uses the software to write her novels. I also got loads of useful info from All Things From My Brain which has a great Scrivener Quick Tips series here.

I’m not going to make any more rash promises about blogging weekly or anything, but I am going to try to give regular updates on my progress, share some of my process and also give you a bit of a sense of what I’m working on. So, there will be word count updates, character insights, research topics and anything else I think fellow readers and writers will find interesting.

It would be great to spark up a few conversations with other novelists, but also fans of crime fiction so drop me a line in the comments and follow me on Twitter as I would love to hear from you. Perhaps you have some professional expertise in one of the areas I’m looking at for my research? In particular, I want to pick your brain if you have knowledge of how British undercover policing works or if you know any retired safe crackers?! No? Well, it was worth a try.

In my next post I’ll give you a little more detail around what I’m working on, as well as my early attempts at writing a log line for the book. Yes, I know that’s a script writing term – but I’ve been reading books about Screenwriting and it all helps.

So, get ready to follow what I’m sure will be a bumpy journey to the end of my first draft. I’ll need help – are you with me?

Finishing my First Draft – The End of The Beginning

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”          – Winston Churchill, 1942.

Let’s skip forward a few decades. Wednesday May 29th, 2015. The day I finally typed ‘The End’ on the manuscript of the first draft of my first novel.

Picture the scene: On typing the final letter of that final word, I printed out the last page, placing it carefully on top of the perfect stack of paper beside me. The early morning light shone through my window, illuminating the hallowed manuscript. I looked at the items on the desk – a cigarette, a single match with which to light it and a bottle of the finest champagne . . . wait a minute, I’m confusing my life with Paul Sheldon from ‘Misery’.

Here’s what really went down . . .

You may remember from an earlier post, I have been wading through the quagmire that was the climax of my novel, Let Sleeping Gods Lie. Months and then years slipped by as I fought to satisfactorily tie up all the loose ends I had created for myself, without losing faith in the entire story. Let’s just skip to the after-dinner coffee and say I failed to do that. I had a stark choice – ditch the whole thing mid sentence and put the 80,000 plus words on ice, plough on indefinitely or fudge a solution that’s somewhere between the two.

I always did have a sweet tooth . . . The Fudge

So . . . after taking counsel from a couple of writing buddies, I did ‘end’ the novel. Satisfactorily? No. The story has more holes than a mole-infested lawn. However, I did give a brief summary of what needs to happen and to whom so that the story reaches the original denouement I had in mind. It was nothing more than a few paragraphs, written synopsis-style, but it means my story is more or less complete. More importantly it means I can put that all important first novel behind me and move on to Book Two (more on that in a future post).

In a recent interview we did for Joined Up Writing Podcast, I asked author Daniel Ribot for his best advice to aspiring novelists. His words of wisdom were simple: Come up with 3 ideas for a book . . . . and write the worst one! His reasoning was based on bitter experience. The first novel you actually complete has a good chance of being terrible – or mediocre at best. I now realise that the best way to learn is to fail.

So what went wrong?

In essence, my outlining process was thinner than Victoria Beckham. I had a basic and incomplete chapter plan married to a dysfunctional seven-point plot outline, which gave birth to a wayward, unmanageable novel-child. I’ll quit this metaphor while I’m ahead.

Anyway. Despite that, I still love the premise of my story, along with the protagonist and villain(s) of the piece. There are loads of scenes and even whole chapters that I’m still really proud of and I’ve been writing long enough to know that nothing is wasted.

The End of The Beginning

So, my beginning has come to an end and it’s time to move on to the next phase of my novel writing journey – Book Two. I hope you will join me and follow the inevitable ups and downs, and I’ll be sure to keep you posted on the blog.

What have been your experiences with that difficult First Draft? What have you learned? I hope this post has given faith to those of you who have struggled and I wish you the best with your novels – be it the first, the second, the third . . . oh you get the idea.

The Novel Dilemma – When should you quit your WIP?

wayne kelly with hard days write book
I have some hard decisions to make

I have a dilemma and I need your advice. I have a 79,000 word WIP and I think I’m on the verge of abandoning it for the foreseeable future. Here’s why:

In November 2012, as part of Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), I wrote almost 56,000 words of my novel, Let Sleeping Gods Lie. In the two and a half years since I took part in Nanowrimo, I have only added a measly 24,000 new words and the book sits unfinished on my hard drive. 24,000 painful words. Words that I dragged out in fits and starts, between bouts of confusion and self-doubt.

Good intentions

The first 60,000 words were a breeze. High on the adrenalin and story-buzz that comes with Nanowrimo and the ’50k-in-a-month’ target, I pumped out prose like a man possessed. With hindsight I now realise it wasn’t only the thrill of the competition that drove my productivity. You see, before I started my Nanowrimo challenge I managed to put together a very rough outline of the novel I planned to write. It was a little vague in places (particularly the climax of the story) but I did have a chapter plan. Unfortunately, that chapter plan only took me so far – to Chapter 43, to be precise – and take a guess how many words I had written at that point? That’s right – about 60,000.

Initially I barely gave it a thought. My train was about to leave the track and head off in to the wilderness. So what? I always thought of myself as a ‘pantser’ anyway. More fun that way. More creative. Unpredictable. EXCITING! So I ploughed on blindly, in to the undergrowth. With each new chapter I moved further away from where I knew I should be heading. I discovered new plot holes. No matter, I thought, I’ll just go around them. Just keep going – the mantra of the first draft. So I did, until the story got so convoluted, so full of new characters and sub-plots that I would have to stop for months at a time, just to ponder how I could get out of each narrative straightjacket I had written myself in to.

When the going gets tough . . .

I spent more time away from the book, dashing off short stories, pondering a new idea for a novel, and all the time my WIP was taunting – You’ll never finish! So, just shy of 80,000 words, I’ve ground to a halt. My faith in the story lies in tatters, my resolve scattered in the wind of self-doubt. It’s inaccurate to even call the novel my WIP – it hasn’t really been ‘a work in progress‘ for some time.

I have discovered the hard way that I’m not a hardened ‘pantser’. Sure, I can fly by the seat of my pants during a scene – inventing dialogue and being surprised by the actions of a character – but I need to have a plan and some kind of final destination to keep me on track.

Decisions, decisions . . .

Now, I feel I have a three choices. Firstly, I can press on, write through the pain and get to the end of the draft, even if that means the story makes no sense. Or I could go back to the now infamous Chapter 43, finish my chapter plan, outline the novel to a satisfying conclusion and put aside the last 25,000 words to begin writing again. Or . . . and here’s the crunch question . . . shall I just draw a line under the whole project, quit and move on to the new idea that I have been considering for several months?

Having read K.M Weiland’s excellent ‘Outlining Your Novel’, I feel better prepared to start something new, but before I can move on I think I need closure on Let Sleeping Gods Lie – ironically, I need to let it lie. For a long time I thought the only way I could get that closure was to finish the first draft. Now, I’m not so sure. Time is at a premium. Shall I just cut my losses and admit defeat? See those 80,000 words as a learning experience?

I am taking a few days to make my final decision, but would love to hear your thoughts and advice. Have you had a similar experience? Are you battling with a WIP? Is there ever an excuse to quit? Comment below or tweet me @Mrkelly2u.