Well I’m sitting here, looking at the blizzard in my garden, and thinking about the much sunnier day I spent at last July’s Creative Thursday, run as part of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.
It was my second time at the event, and I thought it was much improved. Instead of a series of lectures, the sessions were workshop style, with plenty of short writing exercises for us to get our teeth into.
Joseph Finder talked to us about creating suspense and tension. We looked at passages from novels by William Goldman (The Marathon Man), Ken Follett (Eye of the Needle), and Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs) to see how these authors had created and maintained suspense. Techniques such as denial, internal discourse, false alarms, and a heightened sense of awareness created by the use of mundane detail.
Later on in the day, Stuart MacBride and Allan Guthrie steered us through a highly entertaining workshop on character, narrative and voice. Allan shared with us his skeleton hook formula – a useful tool for working out exactly what your own crime novel’s about. It went something like this:
Set in (TIME/LOCATION), (TITLE OF NOVEL), is a (WORD COUNT) (GENRE/SUBGENRE) about (PROTAGONIST), a (FLAW) (OCCUPATION). When (A MAJOR EVENT OCCURS), he has to overcome (THE MAIN OBSTACLE) in order to accomplish (THE ULTIMATE GOAL) or else there will be (TERRIBLE CONSEQUENCES).
Stuart talked about the importance of using ALL the senses when writing, and I must admit I’m guilty of forgetting that as well as seeing and hearing things, we also touch, taste, and smell things.
I came away from the day determined to insert some of this advice into my own writing. Cue Zoe Sharp, creator of the fantastically energetic Charlie Fox series. She’d been asked to come up with the first line of a crime writing competition for the Lancashire Libraries Service, a first line which went:
“I always swore, if ever I came back to Lancashire again, I’d kill him.”
With the Creative Thursday workshops fresh in my mind, I wrote my story accordingly, inserting suspense, tension, and lots of smelling and tasting, as well as seeing and hearing! I told the tale of DI Jack Dawson, sitting on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border on a dark, wet night, waiting for the man who’d murdered his daughter. He had revenge on his mind, and not much else. I sent my story off, feeling fairly hopeful that what I’d written was, for once, worth reading.
A couple of months later, I received a letter inviting me to an evening with the competition’s judges – Zoe Sharp, Neil White and Nick Oldham – culminating in the announcement of the competition winner. It was great listening to each of the judges talk about their writing lives – their routines and inspirations – and to hear that sometimes they find it just as hard work to type one word after another as I do.
I received a commendation for my short story that night. It meant so much to me – for someone to validate what I spend so much of my free (and not so free) time doing. It justified all those evenings I spend at my laptop in the kitchen, whilst family life goes on in the lounge without me. After the presentation, Neil White asked me what else I was working on, and urged me to continue writing, and I honestly think that they were the most fantastic words anyone has ever said to me. Writing is not just what I do. It’s what I am.
P.S. It’s taken me seven hours just to write this short blog entry – in between clearing snow off the driveway, making sure the rabbit doesn’t freeze, and dealing with my four year old daughter – but it’s the stolen moments that add up, so I keep plugging away, in the hope that one day all those stolen moments will add up to one completed novel!