Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A Timely Talk: Leigh Russell on How to Keep Readers Turning the Page

Venue: The Society of Authors, 84 Drayton Gardens, London SW10 9SB.

How to Keep Readers Turning the Page

Exploring techniques for sustaining a reader’s interest

Hosted by Leigh Russell
Dates: Tuesday 23 October or Wednesday 24 October
Time: 11am - 4.30pm

About Leigh Russell

Leigh Russell is the author of a bestselling series of crime thrillers Cut Short (2009), Road Closed (2010) Dead End (2011) and Death Bed (2012). Stop Dead will be published in 2013. Cut Short sold out six times in it first year and was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association New Blood Dagger Award for best first novel. Leigh’s subsequent books sold equally fast and all went on to become international bestsellers, in the Top 50 Bestsellers List on amazon and the Top 50 Bestsellers Chart for WH Smith’s Travel. Leigh’s work has been very well reviewed including in The Times (UK) and the New York Journal of Books (US). Leigh is an experienced teacher of creative writing.

This  newsletter item caught my eye just  as I thought about signing up for NaNaWriMo, 'National Novel Writing Month', starting on November 1st. (Later blogs will be about that) . I've been to one of Leigh's talks in the past, so decided to give it ago. There's always something new to learn, I think, and I wasn't disappointed.

Topics covered included:  setting; characters; plots; pace; planning and editing. This summary is a poor representation of the amount of information and I’ve left out many names of masters of the genre, although they were frequently menioned. Main points were demonstrated with examples that Leigh read from her own books. We also did two very interesting writing exercises to illustrate how to change the pace and how to create a character.

Crime fiction is an excellent example for ‘popular’ fiction because the reader needs are always foregrounded. Crime stories ask a question or questions at the start of the narrative journey and by the end the reader expects an answer, but the trick is not just to grab the readers’ attention but to keep them reading. The tropes and conventions of the crime novel –for instance, a potential victim walking down a deserted street at night - were discussed, along with skill of subverting expectations to keep readers interested.  

Authenticity is important in a crime novel because by making the setting authentic the reader is led to accept the unusual or even bizarre happenings that will occur.  Events need to be rooted in fact, and aspects such as police procedures need to be accurate. Leigh said she’d found official bodies helpful,  especially since awareness of public image is high. When approached by email, experts were always co-operative.

It’s in the nature of crime novels to require planning and various methods of structuring were touched on, such as moveable post-it notes, plotting as for a theatrical play, the ‘snowflake’ method, mind-maps, linear forms that include a time-line or calendar, and chapter lists. Planning, says Leigh, can be done away from the desk – pondering how to dispose of a dead body while standing in a check-out queue is the norm for a crime-writer. Thinking about writing, according to Leigh, is often the most creative and important part – the writing itself mere ‘secretarial’.

It’s important to vary the pace in a crime story; too much excitement becomes unbelievable. The ‘saggy middle’ must be avoided, perhaps by bringing forward the climax of a sub-plot. Agatha Christie famously claimed that when she wrote one of her novels she didn’t herself know until the end who was the killer,  but that would be the exception. Clues and false trails need to be laid down in advance.  

The theatre is a good training ground for crime writing (|I was pleased to hear) because everything is so dramatic; it mimics  crime fiction’s need to keep the reader excited .The success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, for instance, was down not so much to the quality of the writing as to the ‘hook’ in every chapter. Writers for weekly papers, such as Dickens, recognised the important of having a ‘cliff-hanger’ at the end of every episode

Creating believable characters can be achieved in a number of ways, such as creating a ‘backstory’ or dossier for the main one. It’s practical in case of need for changes later but not necessary for minor characters. Writing a series is good because a writer can build on a detective’s existing fan base.

When planning a series, it’s important to think about a main detective with his/her strengths and flaws. How to disguise the villain can be a crucial point - the charming psychopath, for instance.   Methods of showing characters include behaviour, dialogue, appearance and interaction; they can also be introduced through police interrogation or gossip from the other characters.

Motivation raised questions about what kind of person became a killer – whether temporarily motivated, as in someone crazed with grief, or possessing the more entrenched traits of a psychopathic serial killer.
Other topics rising from questions were covered, such as how to find an agent, dealing with rejection, editing, deadlines and self-motivation. The current challenges for the publishing industry in the ‘post-literate’ age and the rise of e-books were keenly debated.
Part of the pleasure of attending a study day at Drayton Gardens is the chance to meet and talk to other writers, to hear their input in discussion and  to engage in conversation in the lunch break.  During lunch I discussed Hitchcock’s films with one member, South African novels with another and how to find a Director for a children’s musical with a third. (If anyone can help, please get in touch)


Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Original and Best :The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Some members of the library  crime reading group were  put off  by the length of this book. For me and others Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone  was such an enjoyable read that length wasn't a problem - except when it came to carrying it, of course.
What Hitchcock called the 'McGuffin' or catalyst  for the story - the disappearance of a precious gem and the search for it - was  the least important aspect. Modern crime stories, it's true, tend to involve serial killers rather than theft of jewellery but a writers of the past relied less on sensation and more on character and plot.  
The main strengths of this, the first 'English detective story' , published in 1868, lie in its atmosphere and structure. Starting on a remote coastal region where the turn of the tide causes the phenomenon of 'shivering sands' , in a country house inhabited by two women who are unusually spirited for the Victorian era, and a pair of suitors for the daughter's hand, makes for a sense of intrigue.  Three Indian gents and their boy assistant hovering in the vicinity add an exotic and authentic edge to this tale of a gem taken first from a temple during the last days of empire and left as a legacy to the heroine, to be presented on her 18th birthday.
The aspect that I found most enjoyable was the author's use of so many different 'voices' to tell the story of the investigation and outcome. Just as the narrators have their own agendas and points of view  they are also different enough to entertain and offer new insights as the story progresses. The romance aspect is particularly intriguing as characters change their opinions of one another in the light of new evidence.  
Wilkie Collins was a close friend of Dickens - The Moonstone first appeared as episodes in Dicken's magazine 'Household Words.'  While  weekly keep-'em-reading  nature of the publishing media accounts for the eventful narrative , the influnce of Dickens on the characterisation is also very clear.