crime fiction

Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer

Alex Lomax is the only private detective on Mars, scraping a living under the protective dome of New Klondike. Like all the best fictional private detectives he’s got a nice line in wisecracks, an eye for the ladies and a reputation that precedes him. New Klondike likewise is a typical frontier town full of fossil-hunters determined to strike it rich, people on the run, corrupt cops. And a writer in residence.

I’m sorry to say I hadn’t heard of Robert J Sawyer before this novel, or maybe the name just hadn’t sunk in – it seems he’s won a whole mantelpiece full of awards over the last few years – but I’ll be looking out for more of his work. Red Planet Blues was an assured romp through a twisty plot full of double-crossing, kidnap, murder and mistaken identity. It all starts with what seems like a simple missing person case, but then Lomax starts to uncover things that might be best left undisturbed. Like the truth about what happened to the men who first found fossils on Mars and started the fortune-hunting rush. All this in low gravity, with the added complication of essentially immortal transfers (people rich enough to upload their mind into custom-built and largely indestructible android bodies).

The novel is handled with wry humour, but it has its share of grit and science. If you like your Chandler and Hammett but aren’t averse to some future-set extra-terrestrial fiction, I would recommend reading Red Planet Blues.

First draft excitement

Pretend you’re interested for a moment while I share the excitement of having completed the first draft of Sunrise over Centrified City (the SF noir novel I began during NaNoWriMo). I wrote the final scene this evening and am now bathed in mild elation tinged with regret. The thing about finishing a long piece is, you have to leave behind some characters you’ve come to know deeply. Although as OneMonkey pointed out, it won’t be for long – I’ll need to start typing up (having written it longhand) and then re-drafting in a couple of months. In the meantime I’m marvelling at the accessibility of this achievement. In January I worked on the novel on only 3 Sundays and a Saturday, and produced a total of 10,000 words. Doesn’t that sound so easy to fit around other commitments and general life stuff? I don’t know whether to be inspired, or disappointed that I don’t manage this kind of output more often. However I end up feeling about it, this is only the beginning. The real work begins when I start plugging all the plot-holes with the rewrite, and I can see that taking me all the way to November and the next NaNoWriMo.

MOOCs, autodidacts and organisation

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned I’d signed up for a free online university course. I’ve now done the first week’s work, haven’t touched the second yet despite it being available since Monday (I need to get more organised. Again) and I’m enjoying it so far. It’s what’s known as a MOOC (massive open online course) and is an introduction to forensic science, partly chosen because I thought it might be useful for crime-writing – apparently I’m not the only one, as the MOOC Twitter feed claims well-known crime author Stuart MacBride has also signed up for it (Stuart MacBride is one of those authors whose name seems to crop up everywhere but I’ve never actually read any of his stuff. I’m back on James Ellroy at the moment – White Jazz, not quite as gruesome as The Big Nowhere but neither is it as compellingly written and I keep coming close to putting it aside and moving on to something more pleasant).

Regular readers will perhaps recall that I’m a fan of lifelong learning, autodidacts, and acquiring knowledge with no immediate purpose other than to entertain or broaden the mind. So, while the MOOC was partly about adding flavour to crime-writing it was also largely about doing a MOOC to see what they’re all about. As the name suggests these courses are open i.e. free (and often with no prerequisites), and they’re online so it doesn’t matter if you can’t make a regular commitment on a Tuesday afternoon, or don’t live near a good bus route, you can do the lot in your own home (or the local library if you’re lucky enough to still have one) whenever it’s convenient.

Coincidentally, this week The Guardian has begun a series on MOOCs, trying to get to the bottom of what and who they’re for. Some people seem to think MOOCs herald the end of universities as we know them, or at least will be a game-changer. Personally, I’m not so sure they’re even direct competition, certainly not to undergraduate degrees. It strikes me that at least at the moment, when most of the open courses aren’t credit-bearing, what they’re actually replacing is all that recreational education that FE colleges ran out of funding for, or that’s being squeezed out of university lifelong learning departments in favour of access courses (stepping stones for mature students to go do a degree). With all the recent arguments about tuition fees seeming to revolve around the idea that universities are some kind of employment training centre conveying no benefits other than the increased likelihood of a well-paid job, I think we need MOOCs in a big way. You might want to check them out while they’re still free.

It’s that month again

Ridiculous challenge warning: I’m taking part in NaNoWriMo again.

NaNoWriMo, for those who don’t yet know (and really, it’s getting harder to avoid) stands for National Novel-Writing Month. Except it’s international, and some people seem to write a collection of short stories instead. Anyway the point is you write 50,000 words during November and hope that enough of them will be good enough that you can call it the first draft. I’ve taken part once before, in 2011 (though I have also done the now defunct ScriptFrenzy which left me with a decent graphic novel script and a radio play I could have written better when I was twelve), when I wrote just over 22,000 words that I wouldn’t otherwise have got round to. For me, NaNoWriMo is an excuse to tackle something big that I’d normally put off ‘for when I’ve got more time’. This time it’s an idea from over a year ago, and I’ve spent October writing 60-odd pages of notes (filling up one of my Wallace and Gromit notebooks and getting a fair way through the next) on character, setting, plot. I’ve got street-plans, sketch-maps, a diagram of the main character’s apartment, and her family tree. I’ve still got a fuzzy grey spot where the main business of the plot should be though.

My tools of choice this November

My tools of choice this November

For reasons of expediency I’m writing this novel longhand, thus adding hours to the total project time with the need to type up eventually, and frustrating OneMonkey every time I stop after a couple of paragraphs and quickly count the words I’ve just written. However, it does mean that if all I need is an A6 notebook and a biro (usually one I’ve picked up for free somewhere along the way) I can write on the train, for five minutes before dinner, at the interval in the theatre (and inevitably there are 2 or 3 things I want to see this month). On Day 1 this seemed to work brilliantly and I wrote far more than I expected. Day 2, however, when I was at home all day with little to do except write, my relative lack of wordcount completely cancelled out the achievements of Day 1. Lashing rain, thunder and lightning, scarily strong winds – you’d have thought it would have been the perfect day for curling up with a notebook and retreating to another world. Maybe the problem is that the other world is bone-penetratingly cold and in the grip of an energy crisis, full of corrupt officials and with not much hope in sight at the moment. Yes, not only am I attempting a detective novel this time, it’s a sci-fi detective novel. OneMonkey asked if it was going to be as good as Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch; no, I replied (still haven’t got the hang of this self-promotion lark). Not interested then, he said with a grin. I guess I’d better go get writing and aim a bit higher.

The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy

A crime novel a little off the beaten track for me, but I enjoyed the film LA Confidential, so when I saw that novel plus a couple of Ellroy’s others in a charity shop, I thought I’d give them a go.

The Big Nowhere is not for the faint-hearted, though I did appreciate as I read it that some events were put across in a couple of matter of fact sentences, when in a more salacious setting they could have been lingered over in awful detail. Even so, there’s a fair bit of violence, some nasty murders and a couple of forensic scenes, not to mention bizarre sex crimes. I kept marvelling at the fact I was still reading, but the power of the writing and characterisation was such that I had to know how it all worked out, I had to know who was responsible for what.

Set in the first days of 1950 in Los Angeles, The Big Nowhere follows a murder investigation seemingly linked to gay men, and an investigation into Communist activity in the motion picture industry, at a time when being gay or being Communist were about equally likely to turn you into a pariah. This is the scuzzy underside of the city, rife with corruption and blackmail, victims no-one cares about, and rivalry between city and county police. It seems there are no good guys or bad guys, only bent cops and gangsters with half an eye on justice. Sometimes they’re the same person.

It’s a complicated novel, the pieces of the puzzles so intricate that I occasionally had to re-read to make sure I’d got it straight before I moved on. On the whole it had an urgent tension to it that kept me reading, but every so often the police procedural aspect of it slowed me down (lists of names, licence numbers, addresses that people read out over the phone to each other, for instance) but I’m not sure how else you’d be able to do it so that the reader sees the information and can put two and two together at the same time as the character. It has a gritty, dirty feel to it, and was depressing in places but I like the fact that it didn’t have a neat uplifting ending with all loose ends tied. Once I’ve cleansed my palate with something uproariously funny, I’ll be back for more of Ellroy’s harsh urban style.

Ultra-short crime

There’s only a couple of days left to enter CrimeFest’s Flashbang competition, it’s open till midnight on Friday 1st March. I haven’t yet come up with a 150-word crime story I’m happy with, but I did enjoy reading the winning entries from last year, particularly the clever approach of the winner, Iain Rowan. Frankly it’s enough to make all my efforts feel a bit lame, but there is still time for inspiration to hit.

Weather reporting

Elmore Leonard apparently said you should never write about the weather. With pared-down crime writing you might think that makes good sense, and it can’t have done him any harm, but don’t underestimate the effects of the weather.

Maybe it’s just because I’m British, and the twists and turns of the weather are discussed at great length daily, not least by me. I think in any piece of writing the weather can play a part – though I’m not saying every piece of writing should dwell on it, or even mention it.

Think of a place you know well. I’ll take the street I live on, a street I walk down every weekday morning, and back up ten hours later. It has as many different moods as there are cloud configurations over the valley.

  • A crisp October morning with breath faintly visible in the sunlight.
  • A foggy November teatime, the streetlights doing nothing but tint small patches of fog orange.
  • Blue-cast January, silent snowflakes settling slowly on covered paths.
  • Muggy August, clouds gathering in late afternoon as the storm promises cool relief.

In each of those cases the street looks and feels different: open and light or closed in, safe or full of hidden dangers, familiar and comfortable or eerie and unsettling. That in turn affects my mood, so imagine what it can do for your characters.

For crime writing the weather has added benefits. Loud wind or rain can muffle thuds or shouts: either nothing is heard at all or witness reports are confused. Bad weather of any kind keeps people indoors, or walking with heads down, either way they’re not witnessing anything. Snow holds tracks (cars, feet, dragged bodies), rain makes mud which does the same. Heat shortens tempers and makes people lazy. And all that’s before you get to the ‘why was he only wearing a thin jumper when he claimed to have walked all the way across town? He’d freeze.’

Monet kept painting Rouen cathedral at different times of day in different weather. Those paintings are all of the same building but they’re by no means the same picture.

Friends and connections

Friend D (otherwise known as David Lear of Firestone Books) has been interviewed over at Teresa Stenson’s blog, which you may be interested in not just because he’s a long-standing friend of mine (though really, that makes him instantly fascinating to you all, doesn’t it?) but because he’s looking for submissions of (genre) novels and – get this – short story collections. I won’t be submitting, to avoid accusations of nepotism (if he accepted it) or uncomfortable silences over dinner (if he didn’t), but if I wasn’t in this position I’d be looking into it because next to no-one accepts story collections as far as I can tell.


Detective novel as history lesson

As a follow-up to my post in January about the detective novel as geography lesson, I thought I’d point out an article in last week’s Guardian, which my dad has steered me in the direction of. Mark Lawson, it seems, has made a series for Radio 4 about post-war European history as seen in the pages of detective novels. I haven’t listened to it yet, but it does sound interesting and the article mentions a few names I haven’t come across before and should probably go in search of. As Lawson points out, possessions and circumstances are particularly important in crime novels and they serve to catalogue the changing norms in society.
The Guardian also seems to have noticed the existence of NaNoWriMo, which of course starts tomorrow. I won’t be taking part this year (still sorting out those short stories from my mad March experiment) but good luck to all participants and we’ll see you on the other side.

Time off for good (writing) behaviour

I’m halfway through a 10-day break from work, and as usual not getting half of what I wanted to do done. I’ve been wittering away and writing bits and pieces at the Telegraph Short Story Club. I’ve been entering writing competitions and submitting to magazines (and, gratifyingly, I’ve had a ‘you made it through to the next round of consideration’ email already, which has given me a much-needed boost). I’ve been reading a very good book (fantasy noir) which I’ll probably tell you about when I’ve reached the final page. I’ve also been reading books on writing.

Yet again, I’ve borrowed Writing Crime Fiction by Janet Laurence from my local library to try and get to grips with some technicalities for the second detective novel, which stalled in May at about 42,000 words. However, I’ve also just finished reading (also from the local library) Writers’ and Artists’ Guide to How to Write, by Harry Bingham, which is a great chunk of a book intended for novelists and writers of narrative non-fiction. While very little of it specifically deals with crime writing, most of its advice is widely applicable and it goes into various aspects of the craft in depth, some of which I haven’t seen tackled elsewhere. It’s all very readable and between How to Write, and Writing Crime Fiction, I feel like I’m equipped to tackle the stalled novel and get it back on track. We shall see.

In between all of that (and buying a new shed) I’ve dipped into a couple of short story collections, from which I’d like to recommend a few (all from the 1980s, I think, unless I’ve noted otherwise). They’re all what you’d call ‘literary’ and I hadn’t read anything by any of the authors before so I can’t say how representative they are, but if you enjoy reading a well-written (non-genre) short story they’re worth checking out, and if you’re trying to write one, they’re invaluable.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, is about a small group of US soldiers in Vietnam. Its central event is the death of one of this group, but it circles around it, and shows us characters and circumstances largely via lists of what each man carries with him. The lists cover tangible items, but also the intangible: bandages, and shameful memories; rations, and fear.

Bullet in the Brain, by Tobias Wolff is essentially about someone getting shot dead, but it explores the man’s surprising final memories and the contrast between his youthful potential and the man he became.

A Father’s Story, by Andre Dubus contains pages of slow, atmospheric description. What will a principled man do or forsake because of his love for his daughter, even if (especially if?) he wasn’t around as she was growing up?

A Rose for Emily, by William Faulkner (1930) has a most unexpected denouement. It’s written in such a way as to draw the reader in as part of an intimate circle and it seems like it’s going to be a straightforward, almost cosy, provincial vignette – the death of a reclusive spinster in a small town and what that reveals of her life. It takes a strange turn, though.

The Last National Service Man by Reginald Hill

Tankie Trotter is the last National Service man. He never liked the idea of being conscripted, and he showed it in none too subtle ways. But time spent in the glasshouse doesn’t count towards his two years’ service, so here he is, several years later, with a grudge against anyone who can be blamed for having a hand in this wasting of long years of his life. Chief among them is one Andrew Dalziel, brash Chief Inspector in the Midyorkshire Police, who kept handing Tankie back to the army when he went AWOL.

If Dalziel had to be taken hostage, it’s a fair bet he wouldn’t have chosen to be accompanied by newly arrived, wet behind the ears university graduate DC Peter Pascoe, who isn’t even a Yorkshireman. These things rarely come down to choice though, and their loss is our gain as we watch the first hours of a lasting partnership that seems like it can’t possibly get off the ground.

I’m not sure this 1994 novella is still available (I picked it up second-hand) but anyone who has enjoyed Dalziel and Pascoe would be well-advised to seek out a copy. It’s not a conventional mystery or detective story but it does involve crime and psychology and is by turns (or at the same time, in places) tense and amusing. Beyond that, it’s a wonderful character study of colleagues who might not be as mismatched as either of them thinks at first.

The Barbarous Coast by Ross Macdonald

If you haven’t encountered Lew Archer yet, think Philip Marlowe with a less terse and more poetic turn of phrase. Ross Macdonald’s private eye also works in California and the 1956 novel The Barbarous Coast sees him taking on a case in Malibu that starts out as a simple request for a bodyguard. It’s quickly replaced by the search for a naive Canadian sports reporter’s errant young wife, believed to have returned to her Californian roots. Even that doesn’t remain Archer’s focus for long, and he follows a trail to the filthy underbelly of Hollywood, where the glamour cracks apart to reveal blackmail and murder. Dreams turn rotten with age, and cops turn rotten with money, and all the while Lew Archer does his best to remain unsullied and serve up justice when even the good guys are asking what’s the point.

One thing I particularly liked about The Barbarous Coast was the almost total absence of police, except as shadowy figures in the past, or offstage characters who Archer hands evidence to. Until this felt so refreshing, I hadn’t noticed how often private detectives run up against obstructive policemen, or work around the activities of the police department, trying to stay one step ahead. Because the police aren’t interested in the justice Archer is looking for, he has free rein and over a couple of very long days his determination allows him to gather the evidence he needs.

The novel does use a sneaky ploy that, depending how much of a murder mystery purist you are, you may find irritating. However, because I spotted it before Archer did, I didn’t feel tricked and I was prepared to forgive his slow realisation on the grounds that he was tired and overworked. With its sad portrayal of love gone sour, and the exploitation of vulnerable people, this is not a light-hearted read but I found it gripping and satisfying, and I’d recommend it to readers of the flawed American dream (F Scott Fitzgerald perhaps?) as well as lovers of classic noir.

Reginald Hill: worth celebrating

In case anyone who enjoys crime fiction hasn’t noticed, the Crime Writing Month blog has a whole host of articles on Reginald Hill’s life and work this month, along with reviews of some of his books and memories from those who knew him. I came across it via an article by Martin Edwards on Reginald Hill’s short stories. Although I’m well aware of the Dalziel and Pascoe series, and know about (though haven’t sampled) his Joe Sixsmith series and some of his stand alone novels, I didn’t realise Hill was a writer of short stories as well. I took this as a cue to search some out and I’ll report back (possibly) once I’ve read my newly acquired copy of There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union.

Catch up, round up, warm up

So, I missed a Wednesday posting again. It’s been hot, I’ve been lounging around eating ice cream – trying to type at the same time would be asking for trouble.

In no particular order, a quick round-up of things I’ve heard about, read or seen recently…

After the event, I read this Guardian article and found out about the first UK flash fiction day, which took place last Wednesday. That would have been a good excuse to write some flash (I’m concentrating on detective novels at the moment), and no doubt plenty of people used it as such, but I haven’t had a chance to search around for the products of the day yet.

There’s a new crime-writing flash competition, 1000 words maximum, which might be a suitable challenge for those of us who like that sort of thing. I’ve written a crime short story before, but it was about 3 times that long and it still felt pretty brief.

Speaking of challenges, OneMonkey is a devotee of the xkcd comic strip and drew my attention to a particular cartoon about twitter posts and creativity from constraints. He suggested that, as well as haiku, I could try writing exercises based on alphabetical order of words as in the cartoon, or even based on length of words. It’s a thought, and one worth sharing – it’s unlikely to produce anything you’d want to release into the world, but as a means of getting the brain firing on a slow morning it has its merits.

Also in The Guardian, I heard about Neil Gaiman giving a speech at a university, so I wandered on over to Mr Gaiman’s journal and found a link to the transcript as well as the video. It’s a pep-talk for students who’ve just finished arts degrees of one form or another, but it contains sound advice for aspiring (or succeeding) writers, like never do it just for the money (which I agree with, but is probably easier to stick to when you’re already making a living). Oh, and he won an award for his episode of Doctor Who, which is only right and proper (you may recall I was quite thrilled with it when I watched it a year ago).

That concludes that, now I’m going to go off and pretend I’m a crime writer so I can redraft my unfortunately-not-shortlisted-for the-debut-dagger detective novel in the right mindset.

The Judas Goat by Robert B Parker

This 1978 novel features Parker’s Boston private eye Spenser but it’s not what I was expecting from what I’ve encountered previously.

I’ve read and enjoyed other Spenser novels but I wasn’t as keen on this one. To my mind it didn’t read like a private eye story so much as an international action thriller, set as it is in London and Montreal with brief stints in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, chasing a group of young terrorists. I could almost picture the film adaptation in my head as I read it, there seemed to be a lot in the way of blond moustaches, flamboyant shirts and being hard, and what with the London section it did make me think of some kind of Alistair MacLean episode of the Sweeney. It didn’t help that at a distance of thirty-odd years, Spenser’s friend Hawk comes across as a black American stereotype: the drawling, slick-dressing ladies’ man.

I read it to the end – it’s not very long, after all (about 170 pages in my Penguin edition) – but I wouldn’t recommend it to fans of the private eye novel looking for a way in to Parker. If 1970s action-packed thrillers are your thing, you might have more luck with it.

Mindstar Rising by Peter F Hamilton

Mindstar Rising was Peter F Hamilton’s first novel, and the first in the Greg Mandel series, first published in 1993. It’s set in England in the not-too-distant future, post sea-level rise, post credit crash, post Socialist Republic. Post civil war.

Greg Mandel is an ex-army officer, with army-supplied implants which release neurohormones to enhance natural empathy. It allows him to read moods easily, detecting guilt, fear etc from the most poker-faced opponent, though to some he’s just a psychic freak. It seems like a natural move to set up a private detective agency, and when a high-profile company hires him to help unearth a saboteur, Greg looks like he’s about to get a serious reputation-boost.

Nothing is ever that simple, though, and before long he’s caught in a web of industrial espionage, politics, and personal vendettas, involving the ultra-rich, street gangs, and lone hackers. Who can you trust, and what happens when you and those around you start placing too much faith in your psychic abilities? Unexpected alliances form, and help comes from unlikely places when mistakes are made.

The tension builds nicely through the novel; I was practically biting my nails for the last 40 or 50 pages. Although Greg’s a private detective, the central part of the story isn’t so much him working out what’s going on (I’m not sure I even quite followed the logic of what had apparently happened, it was a bit convoluted) as how he deals with it and what the consequences of the investigation are. There are some interesting characters in there, not least Greg himself, who of course is a man with a shadowy past which eventually comes to light. The setting is well-described, it feels believable and is given a kind of concrete reality by mention of turning off the B557 (or whatever it may be) to some small market town (how I do love the fact that it’s set around Rutland).

If you enjoyed Neuromancer, or Mad Max, or V for Vendetta, there may be something in this novel for you; or if you like your sci-fi a little grubby around the edges, and are cynical about politics in general.

Detective novel as geography lesson

Many people class detective novels as trashy, throwaway fiction; ok for passing the time in hospital or on a long journey, but adding nothing to the reader’s life or intellectual development. I won’t get into an argument here about doing the Times crossword vs solving fictional crime before the end of the book, and I won’t try and persuade anyone of the elegance of prose in, say, a Ross Macdonald or Stephen Dobyns novel. However, I will try and show how culturally enlightening it can be to have wide-ranging tastes in crime fiction.

Proust and a handful of nineteenth-century Russians aside, in my family the most-read works in translation are undoubtedly detective novels. From Simenon’s Maigret to Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano via Henning Mankell, my dad and I have travelled the world on the back of a crime novelist’s pen. OneMonkey’s dad has been watching French, Swedish, and Danish crime series on TV recently, now dismissing the British adaptation of Wallander as second-rate, and barely stomaching the first episode of an American remake of one of the other Scandinavian series. Would he even be tempted by a subtitled European sitcom? Unlikely.

Crime fiction more than any other genre seems to be rooted in a sense of place, more often than not a real place. Read enough of them and you too can walk the streets of 1990s LA with Robert Crais or 1930s San Francisco with Dashiell Hammett, the deserted canyons of 1940s California with Raymond Chandler or the backstreets of Paris with Georges Simenon. While the settings are often fictionalised versions of a real town, or even a fictional town placed within a real area, some writers do use real locations quite faithfully, which is where the modern miracle of Google maps comes in.

Noting that Saratoga Springs was a real place while reading a Charlie Bradshaw book by Stephen Dobyns, I looked it up on a map. That gave me a sense of where it was, and how far from Albany and other locations sometimes mentioned in the books, and is as far as I would have been able to go in the past. Enter Google and its street views. I can walk down the main street following Charlie from the pool to his mother’s hotel, or see the race track entrance as Victor sees it. I can immerse myself in the town and its make-up. Of course I’m not expecting all the streets that Dobyns mentions to be real, I’m not even expecting him not to take liberties and make the town hall visible from a street where actually all you’d see is the looming library. However, that extra element, beyond his descriptions, of seeing the width of the streets, the trees, the age and style of buildings, the jostling of old and new – it’s certainly more entertaining than any Geography lesson I had at school. I don’t think I’d use a detective novel as a guide book to a foreign city, but they can open up an easy doorway to a different world.

In short: the art of the synopsis

This is not going to be an expert how-to article on writing a killer synopsis. If I could write an article like that, I could write a good synopsis and I’d have cracked this novelling lark and be off living the high life somewhere. Or living the same life I’ve got now, with the warm glow that comes from seeing your book in a shop occasionally. However, I have just finished the synopsis for my CWA debut dagger entry (what am I going to blog about once I’ve sent it off on Saturday?), and I can share a few insights.

First I’ll point to places I’ve used for reference: the debut dagger advice itself, a page I found a while ago when I was trying to put together a synopsis for the unpublished (and commercially infeasible) serial novel Wasted Years, and a page which is largely directed at romance novelists but has lots of advice that seems transferable.

Writing a synopsis should be so simple. It’s short (1000 words maximum for the debut dagger), you don’t have to know exactly how the cunning twist comes about in all its detail, and all you have to do is say what your novel’s about. I found it very helpful to follow the advice from Marg Gilks and do a short chapter summary. Every week or so I went back and skim-read the chapters I’d written since the last summarising session, and wrote in a document kept purely for this purpose a few sentences outlining main plot points. Since this is a detective novel I made sure I wrote down key facts that had been discovered or relayed, so I could keep up with who knew what. This has been useful during the writing itself, never mind the synopsis – you can’t have a big revelation if you glance down your summary and remind yourself that he knew that 3 chapters ago.

So organisation seems crucial for writing a synopsis. The other main ingredient is of course editing, and the amount you have to do for this might even make you reasonably good at it. Even the brief chapter summaries probably add up to something substantial, and certainly my version with the who knows what when element is far too detailed for a synopsis. This is a good test of how ruthless you can be, you will cut out entire subplots, characters and probably some of your neatest summing-up phrases. Not only are you trying to convey the plot but you’re also supposed to convey something of the flavour or style of the book, which is the bit I found hardest, my early drafts were the right length but more like dry bullet points than a flowing abbreviated tale.

My main breakthrough came when I realised (not just knew that this was said to be so, but really realised) that the person reading the synopsis doesn’t know how accurate you’re being – if you’re cutting corners, using sleight of hand, oversimplifying, it doesn’t matter. As long as the synopsis itself makes sense, which is where OneMonkey (or your personal equivalent) comes in – having someone else read it is invaluable and it’s not like it’s going to take them long. The detached eye will not only pick up on the usual typos etc, but on points at which the ruthless editing has chopped the linking sentence, the first appearance of someone you refer to familiarly later on, or the only other plot point that made what you wrote in paragraph 3 make sense.

In short, then:

Get organised. Get good at editing. Get yourself a friend who’s not afraid to ask why on earth Theodore would be so bothered about dropping his apple pie.

November ended a few days ago

NaNoWriMo resulted in just over 23,000 words of detective novel, so no winner’s certificate but I’m still counting this as a win of sorts, and so should you if your NaNo activity didn’t make the 50,000 but did get you writing. As well as 2 days selling comics, which I’d planned for, I was ill for a while so in all I had 10 days where I didn’t write a single word. I’ve kept up my habit of lunchtime writing, and I’ve now conclusively shown I can write lots, regularly, without becoming a total stranger to OneMonkey. I am feeling rather pleased with myself.

I lost track of time a bit towards the end of the month, where I was frantically making up for the lost days. So I never got round to blogging last weekend, and I missed 2 short story deadlines right at the start of December, which I’m really kicking myself for – the story submissions have been almost non-existent while I’ve been concentrating on detective novels.

And now we’re counting down to Christmas; I’m limbering up for full-on bah humbug mode, and in the meantime I’m filling up on mince pies and dry roasted peanuts. And planning the long writing sessions I’m hoping to get in over the Christmas break. We’re due our first snow tomorrow, though it’s already been sleeting, but instead of worrying about the rose trees I haven’t planted yet, I’ll focus on the prospect of getting stuck at home – I have a cupboard full of mince pies and teabags, a laptop and a head-full of ideas. Sounds like heaven.

One last thing: my detective story is now up on the Comets and Criminals website if you’d like to check that out.

Those who don’t want to know the NaNo score, look away now

This is turning out to be ScriptFrenzy all over again… But hey, there’s only one (two at the most) more of these NaNoWriMo posts to go, so grit your teeth and it’ll all be over soon.

As this post goes out, I will actually be at (or on my way to – I haven’t set the time yet) the Thought Bubble comic convention in Leeds. With luck, I will be selling comics, but at the very least I’ll be with friends in interesting surroundings and I should be able to find some new comics to get interested in (these events can get expensive).

Where does this leave my frantic novelling, I hear you ask (look, just pretend you asked). It pretty much wipes out two days, but since one of the aforementioned friends is also in the midst of NaNo frenzy, we may goad each other into amazing literary feats on Saturday evening. My total should be at around 16,000 words by Friday night (Friday night itself being scratched out due to the Damned gig – got to get your priorities right) so fingers crossed for a decent total by the end of the month.

I’m enjoying NaNo – after ScriptFrenzy I thought I probably would. I’m taking it slow and steady, not worrying too much about the final total as long as what I’ve got is usable, and it’s taking me down some interesting avenues. I’ve already uncovered a weird antagonism between two secondary characters that needs exploring further, and I may even have got the wrong murderer (how can the author get it wrong?). Very much an enjoyable Sunday drive rather than a satnav-planned A to B dash.

Best of luck for the second half of the month to all those participating, further apologies to anyone who’s being neglected (more than usual). Back to the fray.