GETTING MY LIFE BACK

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Last Sunday I handed over what I fervently hope is the final version of The Shrewsbury Murders. The place was a pub called The Coach & Horses and the time was the start of Happy Hour.

No coincidence, that. After working on it all the previous week I was satisfied I’d done all I could. And boy, did I need a drink.

My editor Mike, a self-confessed pedant, asked whether I’d changed it much, or just worked through his suggestions from the first time he’d seen it. He’s a Cambridge man, and these dialogues always make me feel like the errant schoolboy who’s late with his homework.

“Well, I took nearly all your suggestions on board Mike. Particularly when you’d written things like NO VERB IN THIS SENTENCE! Or, THIS IS NOT OLD ENGLISH!

He nodded. He really did print those and several other pithy bits of advice in various parts of the MS.

“Much change in the word-count?”

“Yes: about seven thousand more.”

Silence while he swallowed, and then:

“SEVEN THOUSAND?”

This was said in disbelief, as though rather than producing something of 95,000 words I was giving him a tome a bit longer than War and Peace.

“Yes. I just wasn’t happy with some of Books 1 and 3. I’ve added to Book 2 as well.”

[TSM is divided in to three sections; each called a ‘Book’.]

“So I’ve got to read the whole thing again?”

“Well, be good if you could.”

I grasped at a straw:

“And thanks for redrafting the old English verse in Book 3; makes a big difference.”

This did little to calm him, and rapidly I caught Susie’s eye and signalled for two more.

An hour and a few beers later waters were calmer. He asked me if I’d done a blurb to help publicise it. I hadn’t, but have now. Proving I sometimes do not shrink from shameless self-promotion here it is:

     ‘The Shrewsbury Murders’ is the second novel in the Mike Ambrose trilogy that begins with ‘Project Overkill’.

     Near the end of the 10th century a famous Archbishop is finally laid to rest in Glastonbury, England. A few private possessions are buried with him. Later, when his body is being relocated to Canterbury some of these artefacts are stolen.

     In the late 16th century two friends meet in an ale house in London. They decide to embark on a journey together. As a result they make a life changing discovery, and later become bitter enemies.

     In Whitechapel, London a series of five brutal murders begins in August 1888. They are perpetrated by a murderer known as Jack the Ripper, who is never identified or caught. He is afterwards regarded as the first serial killer. Inexplicably his crimes endure in the public consciousness up to the present day.

     In Wales, following a German air raid in 1941the lives of each generation of a family line are marred by severe bouts of depression and dread. 

     In Shrewsbury in December 2011 Mike Ambrose, his partner Marcia and their close friend Claire Osbourn are hosting a Christmas party. An inexplicable occurrence at the end of it stays in Mike’s mind.

     One day they encounter Cassie, an almost penniless young woman who desperately wants to work. They believe in her and decide to help.

     Months afterwards a series of gruesome murders begins in Shrewsbury. The killer leaves a note signed ‘Jack the Ripper’. Incredibly, there are reasons to believe it may indeed be the same man.

     But that is impossible!

     Amidst the ensuing terror, happily fuelled by press, radio, and television Mike and those closest to him are themselves threatened, and have no alternative but to take matters in to their own hands.

     In doing so, they stumble on to a secret even more chilling than the murders themselves.

So there it is, and thank you for reading. It may be that Ms. J. S-C is congratulating herself on getting the world exclusive, but I doubt it. I’d still love to know whether it whets anyone’s appetite though.

But the very best thing about finishing TSM is the feeling of getting my life back. Waking up Monday morning felt like being on holiday. It still does. Once again there is time for tweets, Facebook, Tomb Raider, and best of all reading books by other people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ELUSIVE PLOT…

Don’t worry: this isn’t about me losing an allotment; it’s far more important than that. As background I’m currently at the getting my breath back stage with my new book The Shrewsbury Murders.

TSMcatalog

 

At the beginning of July I was at last satisfied with my own final edit and turned it over to a professional.

From phone conversations so far he’s liking it and I’ll certainly be making the changes he’s suggesting. Mainly they cover the need to set more historical atmosphere when it takes place long in the past, especially when outside the UK. He even noticed that in one part I’ve used nineteenth century words but more in a way they’d be used now! I’m still wondering how I missed this; I need sometimes to think more about the moment and less about dogged plot advancement.

Normally I tell him everything but on this occasion left out that I radically changed the main plot almost when I was on the last page. I’m not exactly ashamed of this but it has the ring of really bad planning and I knew I’d plotted it very carefully. So what, I wondered, was the reason?

I’ll give out no spoilers I hope but the original plot centred on the replication of a notorious series of 19th century murders in modern-day Shrewsbury. Most of the original planning focused on how to do this credibly. In addition I worked at how to get suspense into the modern setting.

There’s a problem here that I’d sum up as the temptation to write the same murders twice but with different characters. First I just didn’t want to do that; second it would be short changing the reader by taking an easy way out.

To avoid it I constructed a present day plot that begins as a fresh story that gradually and only at the margins introduces the new series of murders. It has its own dynamics and slowly starts bringing the whole thing together.

It was important of course to write some credible victims.

At a party late last year I got asked quite a lot about the first book and what I was doing now.  I said I was after victims, so’s to speak, and how useful it would be to get a few real potted histories.

To my surprise and delight some volunteers emerged when word got round and I found myself chatting in turn with about half a dozen guests. They were incredibly helpful and provided a range of personal information I could never have just dreamt up, and knew I could use despite of course protecting identities. And they wanted me to use it; some of them reminding me as the night progressed!

Now I had what I was looking for I pulled together various fragments and came up with my literary victims. I did not use everything I was told because the context often did not require it. I did so once though and I’m wondering whether those concerned will recognise themselves in the composite character. I think I’m quite happy if they do as long as no-one else does either.

The flow of the book improved with my confidence that thanks to the kindness of others I could now write far more credibly.

All went well until I had only about a thousand words to go. At that point I began to feel dissatisfied with what was coming out despite it being per the plan. It wasn’t that I was struggling with what came next; more that I was reluctant to write it.

I had no idea why, so continued but with a few different scenarios. One is a lengthy river trip sequence that replaces what would just have been a house party. I liked it for what it was but still nursed this curious sense of anxiety about the planned conclusion of the book.

I got to the last chapter and wrote a couple of scraps of dialogue that rang feeble, almost as if we’d come all this way to a very predictable destination. Maybe we’d changed buses a couple of times for variety but they still had the same number on the front.

I stopped and wondered what to do. My one inflexible rule is to produce a book that I’d want to read myself. This one hit the spot for much of its length but by no means all of it.

I’m not a natural sharer on such occasions but would have happily shared this if I could think of a way. But I’d pretty much need to get someone to read the whole thing. And that wouldn’t really work either because I needed to know why I was unhappy before I could do anything about it.

I don’t have a Fortress of Solitude and wouldn’t use it if I did. Instead I put everything away and had a couple of days not touching the book itself but just mulling things over while I did other things. I walked a bit in town, stopped for coffee, chatted, all the usual stuff. At one point I remembered I’d promised to deliver the MS within a fortnight and wondered whether I’d get anywhere close. Worse still, would it get shelved?

I didn’t want to even think of that. But I determined not to get neurotic, and not to give up hope.

I was still thinking when I went to sleep two nights later. Next morning, waking very early, I felt I was on to something.  I made coffee, grabbed a pencil and wrote it all down before I had a chance to forget it. I went back to bed, couldn’t sleep, got up and started the rewrite.

The real plot isn’t about the re-enactment of the murders at all, although they are an essential component. It’s actually about the reason the original murders remain so well known and notorious after more than a century. That is far more mysterious as an enduring mystery, and what better way to discover the reason than via a present day replication?

Relief surged: the rewrite was almost a pleasure and I delivered it a week later. But I’d love to know how, when I’d been living with the thing for about two years, I missed what my own book was really about.

Comments and any shared similar experience are welcome: I’d like to hear someone say it’s happened to them too.

What I was careful not to change was descriptions based on the information my kind party victims gave me. Not forgiving oneself is one thing; letting down a whole group of new friends would be quite another.

The cover image also remains unchanged and is attached to this blog. The text of the letter is taken from the novel.