ALAN SHAW – WHEN A CHARACTER REFUSES… (Blog Post Revisited)

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Before going back to it in the first week of January I’d last worked on The Shrewsbury Murders for a couple of hours on 23 December. It was hardly creative writing; more a stop-start exercise on a chapter that should have been easy but was now proving stubborn.

What bothered me most was the fact I knew exactly what I wanted it to achieve but I kept hesitating. All I needed to do for the plot was introduce an old cottage in Wales and the mother of Cassie, one of the main characters. Cassie’s mom Penelope was to be something of a forlorn figure, very unwell and plotted to die in the not too distant future. She was late 40s; pale countenance; lonely and overall sad. Like her antecedents she’d known a lot of men but ultimately none had wanted to stay with her.

The cottage came easily enough; I’d actually toured a former mine manager’s cottage during a trip to Wales in August and taken photographs. And I knew what Penelope would look like and pretty much what she’d say. But when I began to write her the oddest thing happened: the image I had kept being replaced by someone vivacious; unlucky, but still hoping for the best. And this person was in robust health with a sense of humour and a hard edge to her. I suddenly had great trouble describing her per the original plan. I could almost feel her behind me hissing ‘I’m not like that!’

So strong was this impression that I decided on impulse to write her in the new unplotted way to see what happened. I’ve had similar things before but only with major characters, and doubtless all other writers have too. I set about it and for the first time that day the words flowed well and the figure behind me relaxed. She’d become attractive, vivacious, and her ‘victim’ aspect had changed to that of someone who realised most of her issues were her own fault. She was also feisty and just a bit sexy. She was definitely not going to die of a ‘wasting disease’ as my plot overview intended.

I discovered she smoked rollups and enjoyed Mike Ambrose’s  cocktails so much she took his recipe for Dry Martinis. She also now had good rapport with Cassie who treated her more as an older pal than a somewhat estranged sick mother. She somehow got herself invited to Shrewsbury where the murders are taking place. The chapter also acquired a ghost that scares Mike but which she is matter of fact and almost humorous about. All this rolled off Microsoft Word as if I’d planned every detail. I felt I’d done the character justice but then realised it was ridiculous to write her this way when it tore up a chunk of plotting and removed rationale for what would happen a couple of chapters further in.

I’m not the most disciplined writer in the world but I’ve plotted Murders carefully and had no reason to interfere with a perfectly acceptable scenario. Writing the novel as planned wasn’t easy so why on earth make it harder at this relatively late stage? Much easier to stick to the original plot: credible in context and providing a neat way to reveal the cottage’s dark secret.

It was very late and I decided to stop and revise it tomorrow. I was annoyed with myself for wasting two hours or so for the pleasure of giving myself unnecessary grief. I had no idea why I’d done it and went to bed feeling distinctly low.

Early Sunday morning I fed the cats, chopped logs for kindle, emptied bins and suddenly had an idea whereby I could give the unwanted section a piece of additional business that would make the overall plot far creepier than my original. But I would still be left with a major structural problem. ‘Don’t be tempted’ I thought, but soon found myself putting the new words into last night’s unwanted section just to see how it read.

Like the other unwelcome words it read well. Nevertheless if I seriously considered keeping it I’d need a clear explanation for the new activities the chapter now contained. The ghost would be difficult but matters preceding it even more so. Again I just wanted to go with the original plot, but there was Penelope reappearing, wagging her finger and insisting she would not be merely an empty vessel; she had as much right to come to life as anyone else in the book.

I gave myself an hour to sort it out or go with plan A. By noon I still couldn’t square it but the new sections remained unchanged. I had no idea why and once again retired in confusion. We had lunch, watched a football match, went for a long walk, lit the fire, washed up; all the usual stuff. By six I was back at the desk and doing more research. If I kept the new stuff I had to find a way to justify the additional Mike / Cassie / Penelope activity and find a credible place for Pen later in the book.

An hour later I had it, and excitedly wrote it out in pencil on scrap paper. I slept better that night; did the final changes Monday morning and now have my cantankerous and rebellious Chapter 10 in the main draft. I’m happy and believe Penelope is too.

I still have no idea how it all happened and just hope none of the other characters decides to rebel. But I am sure, despite the risks of judging your own work, that what I have now is more interesting, varied and a better read than what I would have had originally.

So thanks, Pen: you’ve earned the right to grow wings and take a more permanent place in The Shrewsbury Murders.

I just wish I knew how.

 

THAT ELUSIVE FEELGOOD FACTOR by Alan Shaw

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I’ve often moaned and groaned about not getting much time to actually write because of real life getting in the way [along the lines of Woody Allen’s comment: ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans’].

This year, after months of intense on/off negotiation we bought a Victorian pile [Vp] that needed lots doing to it, only some of which we were aware of at the time. Much has been achieved, often involving visits by skilled folk plying their trade morning, noon, and night. We are on first name terms with all of them and have even speculated about annual reunions if indeed we ever cease to see them on a regular basis. There is more work to come although thankfully the worst may now be over. [The last time I thought that though there was a storm that night and much interesting gutter renewal work sprang into view.]

What with this and the social networking – which I enjoy – writing the follow up to Project Overkill is like one of those New Year Resolutions to quit smoking, drinking, and to exercise every day. You know; more wish list than declaration of serious intent.

The thing is I started to feel that even though I had my excuses lined up like ducks I still felt I was letting the side down. I felt bad about my lack of progress. Scratching around for a solution I had the brainwave of taking the writing where Ruby wasn’t allowed to take her love [Kenny Rogers’ Ruby; not Ms JS-C’s]. So I put it on the iPad and headed to town.

This began quite successfully but I would soon get caught up in the ongoing needs of Vp. ‘Can you come and move the car so they can fit the van round the back?’ ‘They need another spirit level and I’ve no idea where ours is.’ ‘You’ve got the cheque book and we need it now!’

This of course highlighted the fact that I wasn’t really playing the game by not being there. It wasn’t as if I was completing something where the final cut would be auctioned to an array of anxious publishers and the millions forthcoming would satisfy even Vp’s insatiable needs. No; I had to do the right thing and so again became home-based.

Despite all these fabulous reasons my conscience – never something unduly troubling – began to pace around my head and stopping to glare – in exactly the same way I imagine Ms JS-C to be doing because this copy is a bit late. Desperate measures were called for and I began a new regime of what one day I shall patent as ‘The Vampiric Approach to Completing Your Novel’. Put simply this involves freshening up late at night then working through with whatever legal stimulants you can find until you either finish or fall asleep at the desk.

I’ve certainly managed the former often enough but by using this method I have now recast and changed the thrust of a chapter that was somehow managing to scamper about in all the wrong directions, and I recommend it as a useful port of last resort.

The best thing though was the feeling of sheer elation afterwards. The weekend was full of Remembrance Day associated activity and despite fatigue I plunged into it with relish. My only mistakes were four double brandies after the Regimental Dinner and ordering an expensive and probably unnecessary new tie. But the Feelgood factor was with me throughout. Without my late night sojourn it wouldnt’ve have been.

Next time – provided Ms JS-C allows me on her boards again – I’ll be banging on about the importance of book covers and how being sure I know best represented pride going before a fall.