Write truly and not care

In my post Losing the Plot a few months ago, I wrote that I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with my characters, ideas were coming at me from all directions, the words were flowing.

Well, now the words have stopped flowing. It’s more like squeezing drops of blood. I’m stuck, stalled, lost. With so few words coming out, there’s plenty of room for self-doubt to come in.

What am I doing? This story is too dark. It’s far more psychological study than thriller. There’s no crime-fiction-style murder. My protagonist, Sidney, is not funny; she’s not Brigitte. Nobody’s going to like it.

I came across this letter on Letters of Note that Ernest Hemingway wrote in reply to F. Scott Fitzgerald asking for feedback on Tender is the Night, and the advice struck a chord with me. It’s from a book called Letters of Note. If you don’t feel like reading the whole letter, the takeaways (for me) are:

  • You cannot make characters do anything they would not do
  • Don’t worry about what people will think
  • Listen to advice from those you trust
  • Use your pain
  • Don’t drink too much (hard to believe Hemingway would say that, I know)
  • Write truly and not care about what the fate of it is
  • Make time for your friends
  • Go on and write

While I’m waiting for the words to return and for self-doubt to leave so I can ‘go on and write’, I’m going to read Tender is the Night to see if I can get what Hem was on about.

The big mystery

My eight-year-old wrote this and asked if I could publish it for her. I think it’s pretty good.

The big mystery

The darker plans were showing
The stars were falling
The day was coming
The shells on the beach were shining
The wind went upside down
The air was cold
Drip drop
The forest is smiling
The flowers are a mystery.

By Jaime D’Arcy

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The flowers are a mystery

Beer, Berettas and bonsai: Researching novels

Research for my first novel, Please Don’t Leave Me Here, involved sifting through 1990s newspapers on microfiche at the State Library, frequenting coffee shops in Degraves Street and drinking beer at featured pubs.

My second novel, Dead in the Water, required a lot more research. I stayed at the place where it’s set — Raymond Island, a tiny island in the Gippsland salt-water lakes system, with a population of about 540. There are plenty of koalas, but no shops or other businesses. If you run out of bread or milk [OK, wine], you have to catch the cable ferry across to Paynesville on the mainland for supplies. After the last ferry crossing between 11pm and midnight, there’s no way on or off. The perfect place to set a crime story!

Dead in the Water deals with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, so I spoke with a police psychologist and officers suffering PTSD. I also made friends with forensic scientists who told me more than I needed to know about dead bodies in water, DNA and gun shot wounds.

The hardest research was learning to shoot a gun. I wanted to write a shooting scene and, being a ‘method writer’, didn’t think I could do it without knowing how it really felt. So, I booked into a course at a pistol club.

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You can hear gunshots from the car park. Inside, people are lying on mats, shooting rifles at targets on the range. I go the wrong way and end up in the bistro instead of the training room. You can relax and enjoy a drink in the lounge or licensed bar after shooting the crap out of stuff. There are taxidermied animals around the room and deer heads on the wall.

The training room is full of mostly young men. Anybody — who doesn’t have a police record — can do the handgun-shooting course. So how dangerous can it be? Our instructors enter the room — one has an arm in a sling; the other has a leg missing below the knee.

They teach us about the safety equipment required on the shooting range. Special earmuffs, because guns are louder than a jet engine and can cause permanent hearing damage. Safety glasses, because pieces of shrapnel can fly back and hit you in the eye. And be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards, because handgun ammunition contains some very hazardous materials like lead styphnate, which can cause heavy metal poisoning. That’s if you have any hands left: Never cross your thumbs behind the slide of a semiautomatic pistol (the slide is the thing on top that flies back from the recoil of the shot, forcing the empty round from the chamber out through the ejection port). Not because it might break your thumb, but because it could slice it right off. Excellent. I start to think maybe I don’t need that gun-shooting scene in my book after all.

shooting range

Relaxed on the shooting range. “Never cross your thumbs behind the slide …”

Out on the range, each shooter is allocated a shooting bay. Always make sure the gun is pointing in a safe direction, and the only safe direction is DOWNRANGE! (they shout a lot on the range). Be especially careful of turning around to talk to the person next to you because … [Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction — ‘I just shot Marvin in the face’? You get the picture]. There is a yellow safety line along the back of the bays, and a red line along the front. NEVER REACH ACROSS THE RED LINE! At this stage, my legs have started to shake and my mouth is very dry.

They said we’d have plenty of time to get the ‘feel’ of the guns before shooting at the targets. But I’m still getting to know my gun, and so not ready when the Range Officer commands ‘EYES AND EARS!’, a reminder to get your safety equipment on. Trying very hard to suppress a panic attack, I put on my earmuffs and safety glasses. ‘MOVE FORWARD. LOAD. FIRE!’

I have a go at shooting semiautomatic pistols of increasing calibre, my mantra the whole time: Never cross your thumbs behind the slide, never cross your thumbs behind the slide, never cross your thumbs behind the slide. Then I try some revolvers, including a Magnum (or was it a Beretta? — same name as a cop show from the 1980s), which has quite a kickback.

The cylinder on one of my revolvers seems to be stuck. I keep trying to pull the trigger, but it won’t work, so I hold up my hand. The Range Commander comes over to check what’s wrong. Lucky I asked for help because one of the rounds is stuck in a chamber and, had I kept trying to shoot, it could have caught fire and exploded in my hands. That’s enough for me. I donate my remaining ammo to the guy in the next bay who is enjoying himself far more than I am. I come away with my eyes, ears and thumbs intact, and enough details to write the gun-shooting scene.

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In my work in progress (working title: You Used to Love Me), my protagonist’s hobby is bonsai. I’m looking forward to a relaxing short course, researching the gentle art of bonsai. Careful with the trimming tools?

So, what do you write?

Look away now if you can’t stomach another piece about literary vs. genre fiction.

So, what do you write? This is the question I try to skirt around when somebody finds out I’m a writer. I usually say novels, or fiction. ‘But what genre?’ I’ve always felt like a fraud calling myself a crime writer and I used to say, ‘Literary thrillers’, or go off on a tangent about how my work is hard to categorise. Now, I just smile and say, ‘Psychological thrillers’, while gritting my teeth at the same time because I feel that’s not quite true, but I don’t have a better alternative. The response to this is often — down their nose — ‘Do you write under your own name?’

Before I was published, a writer friend warned me to be careful of falling between the stools of literary and genre fiction. At the time, I thought it wouldn’t be such a bad thing — something for everybody.

My first book was marketed as ‘A riveting psychological thriller’. In the UK, it had an ‘If you liked The Girl On The Train, you’ll love this’ sticker on the cover. The hashtag for the blog tour was #WifeOrKiller. Some reviews attacked the marketing instead of focusing on the book, which was perceived as more character study than ‘riveting psychological thriller’. One reviewer praised my writing but said the book was flawed as crime fiction as there weren’t enough suspects. The same reviewer said of a book that readers sometimes compare mine to — by an author marketed as literary — that it worked on all levels, including crime fiction [there was only ever one suspect in this story]. In defence of the marketing — my book had to be promoted as something and I’m not sure what else it could have been labelled. It’s a hard one to put in a box. I’m over the moon just to be published, and happy to be called anything [Well, almost anything — maybe not ‘chick lit’].

Marketing is interesting. I recently read an interview with Peggy Frew (author of Miles Franklin shortlisted Hope Farm) where she says that one commercial publisher wanted to make her books more ‘chick lit’ and less ‘literary fiction’. Hmm.

Some authors manage to balance comfortably between the two stools. Peter Temple comes to mind, but he is absolutely a crime writer following the classic structure and using every trope in the book. What sets him apart, I think, is his brilliant characterisation and stylish prose. Maybe Chris Womersly? Margaret Atwood, Cormack McCarthy … There must be millions of others. I haven’t read The Dry (Jane Harper) yet but, by all accounts, it’s up there with the best literary/crime.

Perhaps we should concentrate on writing stories that we’re passionate about, that are interesting and challenging to us, and try not to worry about what they will be labelled as and into which box they will be packaged.

Good writing — whether literary or genre — is good writing.

In [David] Mitchell’s words, “the novel’s the boss”, and arguments about marketing categories are not the writer’s concern.
Literature vs genre is a battle where both sides lose, Damien Walter, The Guardian, 20 Nov 2016

In case you were wondering exactly what happened to Eric Tucker …

It’s been exactly a year since PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME HERE was published in Australia. I thought I’d celebrate its birthday (and the shortlisting for best debut novel for both the Davitt and Ned Kelly awards🙂 ) by posting the ‘deleted scene’: my beloved Coroner’s inquest report. I wrote the Coroner’s report as a sort-of prologue, and it almost made it into the book (‘this close’) — it was cut during the final proofreading stage when it was decided that such a dry, bureaucratic piece of writing might not be the best opening for a novel.

STATE
CORONER
VICTORIA

CORONERS REGULATIONS 1996
Form 1

4th April 1997
Case No: 2418/94

RECORD OF INVESTIGATION INTO DEATH

I, BRONWYN WRIGHT, Coroner,

having investigated the death of ERIC ALAN TUCKER with Inquest held at Coronial Services Centre, South Melbourne on 27 June 1996

find that the identity of the deceased was ERIC ALAN TUCKER and that death occurred on 23 December 1994 at 1/49 Rathdowne Street, Carlton from

1 (a) HEAD INJURY
in the following circumstances:

Summary overview

On 23 December 1994, at approximately 10.40am the body of Eric Alan Tucker was discovered at 1/49 Rathdowne Street, Carlton by the apartment complex caretaker, Sean McMahon. The apartment door was open and the deceased had been covered with a blanket. There was wine and a small amount of broken glass on the carpet.

See Sean McMahon statement, Exhibit 2, dated 23/12/1994.

Detective Sergeant Sam Campbell was the first on the scene, having received a call from D24 while driving past the Rathdowne Street address. Uniformed officers and paramedics arrived half an hour later.

A neighbour claimed to have seen a young woman leaving the apartment at approximately 7.00am that morning.

While some neighbours reported seeing a woman, known to them as Brigitte Weaver, coming and going to and from the apartment; others, including Sean, could not verify seeing any other person aside from Eric at the apartment.

See Detective Sergeant Sam Campbell statement, Exhibit 10, dated 23/12/1994.

In the wake of the discovery of Eric’s body, Police Investigators, led by Detective Sergeant Sam Campbell, commenced trying to locate Brigitte in order to pursue their investigation into the circumstances in which Eric’s death occurred.

While initially a person of interest, Brigitte was excluded of involvement in the death. At the time of Eric’s death, Brigitte had been critically injured in a hit-and-run car accident in East Melbourne. Doctors at St Vincent’s Hospital operated, placed her on life-support and induced coma. On waking, she had no memory of Eric Tucker when questioned by Detective Sergeant Sam Campbell. This may have been due to amnesia caused by head trauma during the accident, or simply to the fact that she did not know Eric. Brigitte lived with her grandparents in North Fitzroy and there was no conclusive evidence of her having been at the Rathdowne Street apartment.

Sean, diagnosed with depression, committed suicide on 25 January 1995.

Police investigations found no further suspects in the Eric Tucker homicide case.

Background

Eric was born in Tasmania on 15 July 1949. He was an only child. His parents separated when he was 15 and the whereabouts of his father is unknown. Eric left home at the age of 16 and found employment at a musicians’ booking agency in Melbourne. He married his first wife, Margaret, at 20 and they had two children. He married his second wife, Michelle, at 27. They moved to Sydney and had another child.

Eric was a successful concert promoter with his own business, Tucker Touring. His work colleagues described him as entrepreneurial; a respected business and family man.

At the time of his death, Eric was 45 years old. His place of residence was Sydney, where he lived with Michelle Tucker. He also rented the Rathdowne Street apartment where he stayed when in Melbourne. Neighbours said he kept to himself, was rarely at the apartment and had few visitors. There was confusion as to whether or not a woman was also living at the Rathdowne Street address. However, there was no evidence to support any persons aside from Eric residing at the apartment.

History of violence

The relationship between Eric and Margaret Tucker featured a clearly documented history of family violence. This included physical and verbal abuse and controlling behaviour perpetrated by Eric against Margaret.

On 11 December 1975, Margaret Tucker obtained an interim- intervention order against Eric. The application stated that on 30 November 1975, after she requested a divorce, Eric had physically assaulted her, leaving her with a fractured nose and bruising to the face, head and body. The application also set out other instances of physical violence to Margaret and her young children that Margaret stated had occurred in the months preceding this event. The order was revoked on the return date for the hearing on 15 January 1976.

On 28 May 1976, Eric and Margaret were divorced. On 18 August 1976, Eric remarried.

Further, friends and family members of Eric’s second wife, Michelle, claimed Eric was abusive and threatening to her. However, no incidents were ever reported to the police.

Both Margaret and Michelle were excluded as persons of interest in the investigation.

Events preceding Eric’s death

On 16 December 1994, Eric was managing the concert tour of rock band Death Rowe. The tour was about to commence when the lead singer, Calvin Rowe, was detected by security staff at Melbourne Airport to be carrying cocaine. Police arrested Calvin for drug possession, and Eric made arrangements to immediately cancel the tour.

After being questioned and cleared of any involvement in the incident, Eric returned to 1/49 Rathdowne Street, Carlton at around midnight.

Eric made one phone call to his wife and several calls to work colleagues including, friend, Ian Willcox. Ian said Eric sounded optimistic and was planning the next concert tour. Several calls were made to Eric’s mobile phone and to the landline, but there is no evidence of any person having seen Eric leave the apartment between 17 December and the time of his death. No phone calls were answered after 7.30pm on 22 December 1994.

Cause of death

Dr Simon Marks, Forensic Pathologist at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, attended the scene of the incident. Due to the blood stain and bone fragments on the carpet, and the absence of blood spatter elsewhere, Dr Marks provided his opinion that Eric had been covered with a blanket at the time of death and the cause of death was head injury from multiple blows inflicted by a person or persons with a heavy, blunt object. Dr Marks estimated the duration of the post mortem interval as approximately one hour prior to being discovered.

On 24 December 1994 at 1.00am, Dr Marks performed an autopsy. He attributed the cause of death to intracerebral haemorrhage secondary to skull fracture. Dr Marks also noted significant bruising in the groin area.

Toxicology analysis of body fluids disclosed the presence of benzoylmethylecgonine, tetrahydrocannabinol and alcohol. No evidence of any significant natural disease process was present.

Due to the severity of injury, Eric was not considered suitable for visual identification. Eric’s identity was established by way of dental records examination.

See Exhibit 50, statement dated 24/12/1994 adopted at transcript.

Investigation

Victoria Police Homicide Squad attended the scene and conducted the investigation into Eric’s death. Detective Sergeant Sam Campbell of the Homicide Squad was in charge of the investigation.

An extensive search of Eric’s Rathdowne Street premises and the vicinity on 23 December 1994 did not locate a murder weapon.

During the investigation, Detective Sergeant Sam Campbell was accused by Senior Constable Colin Moore, who also attended the scene, of evidence tampering and falsifying reports. An independent police investigation cleared Detective Sergeant Sam Campbell of all allegations.

Senior Constable Colin Moore died on 15 March 1996 from a gunshot wound while cleaning his service revolver. His death was ruled as accidental.

Detective Sergeant Sam Campbell prepared the Inquest brief and gave evidence at the Inquest of the investigations undertaken in an endeavour to get as much information as possible about how Eric died, and of the search for the person or persons who may have been involved.

See Exhibit 56 Inquest brief.

Findings

Having considered all of the evidence and the inferences that can properly be drawn therefrom, and having directed myself in regard to the standard of proof, I make the following findings:

Eric Tucker was killed unlawfully by person or persons unknown.

There is insufficient evidence to establish which person or persons were responsible for the unlawful killing of Eric Tucker. There are no witnesses to the killing known at this time.

This then concludes my findings.

Finally I would like to thank Police Investigators and others so involved, as well as counsel and instructing solicitors, for their assistance. I would encourage the State of Victoria to continue with its efforts to bring justice to those responsible for the death of Eric Tucker.

Dated at Melbourne on this 4th day of April 1997.

BRONWYN WRIGHT,
Coroner.

Losing the plot

Since my last post about plotting for pantsers, I’ve been travelling slowly and steadily along my well-planned and carefully built road (in case you didn’t already know, I love metaphors). I’ve been sticking to the map and taking no short cuts.

I’ve been polishing my writing as I go, not moving on until it was as perfect as I could get it. Maybe I’ll only need to write one more draft, I thought. This is the way to write a novel — why didn’t I do the other two like this?

And then I reached the first big turnoff, around 20K words in. Here, my characters started going wild — heading off in all sorts of unexpected sub-directions, doing stuff I hadn’t planned, picking up other characters along the way. I can’t write fast enough to keep up with them.

The writing’s rough, a lot of it in point-form; there are big gaps, blue place-holder text, and highlighting with notes in square brackets reminding me to ‘fix this later’. I’m working all over the shop now — on the middle at the same time as the ending, and then adding bits to the start, and here, there and everywhere — the ideas are coming at me from all directions. My manuscript looks like a complete dog’s breakfast. It’s going to need many more drafts.

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E.L. Doctorow (also a fan of metaphors and similes) said:  ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way’.

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This is a dangerous place to be. You don’t want to break down out here, where you could lose control of your story and get hopelessly lost. I’m pretty sure it will be OK, though, because I still have my trusty map. I know which turnoffs to make and by when, and I know the final destination — none of these things change much, no matter what my characters do. [Doctorow also said: Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. Ahem …] However, what happens in between, I don’t really know. Sure, the process would be faster and less painstaking if I planned these in-between bits better. I would waste less time and make fewer mistakes exploring dead ends and characters that don’t make the final draft. But for me, the thrill is in the exploration of the unknown, the joy in the discovery of the unexpected, the magic in the unearthing of things I never thought I could imagine. This is the reason why I write.

The P word

I confess to being a pantser who really wants to be a plotter. There are terrific books around about plotting — mostly written by screen writers — including Screenplay by Syd Field, Story by Robert McKee and Save The Cat by Blake Snyder. I really want to read them, and one day I will get around to it.

In the meantime, I follow a very simple, foolproof🙂 method for planning my stories. [Just in case you’re somewhere out there reading this, Graeme Simsion, look away now!] It’s pretty much the same thing they’re teaching my daughter in grade Prep-2: you’ve got to have a beginning, a middle and an ending. Act one, act two and act three. Syd Field says: set-up, confrontation and resolution.

Close to the start of your beginning (set-up) you need to have an inciting incident — the event that kicks off the whole story (Cinderella’s invitation to the ball; the three little pigs refuse to give in to the wolf’s demands; a giant shark kills a swimmer on Amity beach). Towards the end of your beginning you need to have a plot point — another incident, which changes the direction of the story and propels it into the middle (confrontation).

Towards the end of your middle (confrontation), you need to have another plot point, which again changes the story direction just before your ending (resolution).

Your ending (resolution) should contain a climax — the highest point of tension, the big moment your story’s been building up to the whole time (Cinderella tries on the glass slipper; the third little pig confronts the wolf; water-phobic Sheriff Brody faces the giant killer shark). The climax should be related to the inciting incident.

Too easy? I wish.

plotting notes

I find Syd Field’s Paradigm Worksheet helpful for planning my beginning, middle and ending.

Once I have my story foundation in place, I like to use Nigel Watts’s eight point story arc as a tool for building up the structure.

Watts’s eight points are:
1. Stasis
2. Trigger
3. The quest
4. Surprise
5. Critical choice
6. Climax
7. Reversal
8. Resolution

You could read Watts’s book, or take a look at this Daily Writing Tips post, which explains the basics of the eight point story structure.

The Hero’s Journey is another narrative outline worth googling or reading about.

Once I’m pretty sure the story-house I’ve built is not going to fall over (and even if it does, I can always make repairs, additions or renovations), I start writing. From here, I let my characters take the car (mixing metaphors, I know!) and drive the story where it wants to go, and I adjust the plot accordingly. For me, character is as important as — if not more important than — plot.

Some wise words from Graeme Simsion, plot guru: Plotting vs Pantsing — Why I’m a Plotter | Graeme Simsion

And finally, my favourite storytelling rules:
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