A very happy new year to you and yours! I can’t believe we’re in 2021 already… but then, given how much of the previous year was effectively written off, perhaps it’s not all that surprising that it feels like this. I had debated whether to discuss THE VIRUS at all in this email, but the extent to which it’s consumed all our lives over the last year is such that not mentioning it would be a bit like refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the room. As I write this, Scotland, where I live, is about to go back into full lockdown, and I imagine there will be similar scenes around the world in the coming days and weeks. There’s not much that can be done to put a positive spin on the situation in which we find ourselves, though the roll-out of multiple vaccines does at least suggest that there’s finally some light at the end of the tunnel, even if it continues to be a long way off.
While much of the last year seemed to disappear into a dreary monotony of bad news and staring at the same four walls day in, day out, looking back on the last twelve months, I’ve been somewhat gratified to realise that I did manage to put my time to good use. Among my achievements, I started a new job (securing a permanent, salaried version of the role I’d freelanced for the previous five years) and launched my third novel, The Library Murders. The latter has met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, the pinnacle (so far) being a mention in Crime Time’s Best of the Year 2020 list.
Read on for an update on my two current works-in-progress.
On the Writing Desk: Without a Trace
In November, I took part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month), starting the first draft of my latest stand-alone novel, Without a Trace. The goal for NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words by the end of November. I managed 90,656, and completed the draft just under a week later, coming in at a healthy 102,790 words. By a significant margin, this is the fastest I’ve ever completed a first draft (for The Library Murders, the bulk of which was written during NaNoWriMo 2018, I managed about 60,000 words in four weeks) – though oddly enough, I spent a large chunk of the writing process convinced I’d been slaving away at it for a lot longer than I actually had. Perhaps that’s down to how feverishly intense those five weeks were, banging out an average of more than 3,000 words a day while still holding down a day job – or perhaps it’s because I actually original began the draft several weeks earlier, only to scrap it when I realised my existing notes weren’t anything like exhaustive enough, before going back to the drawing board to craft a much more detailed outline.
Without a Trace has been a tale of firsts for me. It’s my first true multi-protagonist novel, with the point of view shifting between three different characters, and the first that I’ve written both in the first person and (largely) in the present tense. It’s also the first that I’ve written out of sequence. I knew, from the start, that in order to pull off the multi-protagonist format, which each character narrating their own perspective, I’d need to make sure they each had their own distinctive voice, and I knew that process would be a whole lot harder if I was switching to a different one each time I started a new chapter. So I began with Hazel, who narrates the bulk of the novel, then moved onto her half-sister Mickie, followed by their friend Claire. This proved to be a somewhat disorienting process, as it necessitated my jumping back and forth across the timeline, but it was definitely the right decision in the long run, as it allowed me to concentrate on really honing the individual voices of the three women.
For Hazel, I more or less followed the pattern I established in my previous books and wrote her narration in what I tend to think of as my “automatic voice” – in other words, she speaks more or less the same way I do. For the other two, I knew I had to do something different. Mickie was challenging but ultimately the easiest to differentiate, in that she has a very unique style of speech which it seemed logical enough to extend to her narration. (She’s Australian, but has lived in Edinburgh for the past two years and peppers her speech with Scottish colloquialisms she’s picked up in the mistaken belief that it allows her to blend in as a native. Of course, with her heavy South Queensland accent, it does nothing of the sort, but no one has the heart to tell her.) Claire, though, was more challenging. She obviously had to sound different from Hazel, but unlike Mickie, she didn’t have any particular buzzwords or unusual grammatical quirks that I could throw in as shortcuts. In the end, I did my best to give her a slightly more mannered, more precise mode of delivery than Hazel, which I imagine I’ll continue to hone when the time comes to do a rewrite.
Without a Trace is currently under its own lockdown of sorts, and I intend to let the dust settle before returning to it, hopefully with fresh eyes and a more detached attitude towards it, so I can begin the tricky process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t before tackling the second draft. In the meantime, I’ve been turning my attention to another long-gestating project, about which more below…
On the Writing Desk: The Shadow Men
The Shadow Men, the third instalment in my Anna Scavolini mystery series, is ticking along nicely. In the first half of 2020, I wrote the second draft, though that process was interrupted at various points so I could redraft, proof and get The Library Murders ready for publication. I spent the last few weeks of the year re-reading that draft and making copious notes, covering the various issues I discovered and my options for resolving them, and, shortly after Christmas, I began the process of writing the third draft.
I expect this will be my last major revision of the novel before I start pushing into the hands of my loyal cadre of beta readers. I’ve mentioned before that three seems to be the magic number for me as far as drafts go, and nothing so far has disabused me of that notion. The Shadow Men is split into four main parts or acts, and in general I feel that the first requires some fairly substantial alterations while the remaining three just need some tweaks here and there, often for nothing more than to bring them into line with the altered Part One. I’m not sure how long the process will take, but I would definitely like to be in a position to start offering it to beta readers before the end of February – and then, all being well, you should be able to look forward to seeing it released later in 2021. I appreciate that this has been a longish wait – but, much like the current global situation we’re all facing, the end does finally appear to be in sight.
The Long and Short of It
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about book length. So far, all my novels have clocked in at around 95-97,000 words, but I knew from the word go that The Shadow Men was going to be a different kettle of fish. The first draft was approximately 148,000 words long, and while I managed to pare that back to 130,000 for the second draft, I don’t hold out any hope of history repeating itself this time round. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the final tally creeps up again slightly.
I’m resigned to The Shadow Men being a considerably chunkier affair than its predecessors, though of late I’ve definitely noticed that there seems to be something of a stigma against long books, particularly among the Twittersphere. For certain readers, something approaching a “time is money” attitude seems to have developed, as if an author who takes up a second more of their time than absolutely necessary is committing some sort of grave injustice. This reached something of an apex with the latest Robert Galbraith book, Troubled Blood, which weighed in at a whopping 950 words and sparked some heated discussions about its length (among other controversies). One of the most common refrains was questioning why the editor hadn’t stepped in and brought it down to a more modest length – which, to my mind, somewhat misunderstands what an editor does, essentially relegating their role to that of someone whose job is to remove words from a manuscript.
Myself, I love losing myself in a nice long book, becoming fully immersed in its world and really getting to know its characters. The likes of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, the Dublin Murder Squad novels of Tana French, and the aforementioned Robert Galbraith “Strike” novels, are all examples of books that run considerably longer than the average crime novel but are none the worse for it. I highly doubt French’s The Likeness would have been a better book at half the length, and in fact would argue that it would, in all likelihood, have been a considerably lesser one if an editor or publisher had insisted it couldn’t run any longer than 100,000 words. I can understand getting irked about a book’s length if you’re not enjoying it – but in that case, surely the solution is to simply abandon it and move on to something more enjoyable? I’ve nothing against short books, and there are plenty out there which work comfortably at 70,000 words and have no reason to be anything longer. That said, I don’t share the sentiment that less is always more… and neither, judging by the success of the aforementioned novels, do a great many readers.
Still, I’m intrigued. Do you prefer a shorter or a longer book as a rule? Is there a certain length of novel that you’ll flat-out refuse to read? Let me know!
That’s All, Folks!
And that’s it for another instalment of the newsletter. If there’s any breaking news in the next couple of months, I’ll be in touch. If not, you’ll receive the next regularly scheduled issue in early March. Until then, stay safe, and happy reading!