Writer’s Block or Indolence?

I suppose I’m lucky in that I’ve never suffered from the dreaded writer’s block. Whether it’s stories, novels, plays, blogs, reviews or writing commercial stuff to a deadline, I usually get quickly into the swing of it and get dragged along. Then, after staying away from whatever text it is for a while, I enjoy getting back to it and starting the editing/rewriting process.

Recently, though, I have experienced something like it. I started on the sequel to The Figurehead and, after writing a few pages, found I was unsure of where I wanted to go with it. I knew what the themes would be, how the characters would behave with one another, what the main conflicts and climaxes would be and also how it would turn out, but it was all bitty and wasn’t managing to cohere in my mind. I began to think that I’d maybe done too much research, collected too much information on the commercial aspects of ship owning, passenger accommodation on transatlantic voyages, and also on actors and theatre groups, all of which would be part of the story. I knew plenty about all that but had no idea what the characters wanted to do. Also, there didn’t seem to be much room for them amongst all the ‘facts’.

Then, with the publication and subsequent freebie offer of Unsafe Acts and the blogs and interviews about it, it was obvious that I had to write another Jack Carston. Again, I knew the sort of case it would be, and that it would signify a departure for him which maybe/probably would make it the last in the series. It needs some research, so I’m in no position to start it yet but, again, the impulse to embark on it wasn’t strong.

Rather than worried, I was puzzled by this so, instead of persevering with either of them, I started a sequel to The Sparrow Conundrum, with very little idea of what it would contain. This time, though, because of the absurd extremes of the characters, I immediately started seeing plenty of possible developments. But even then, after a few days writing, I started finding reasons to do something else.

So I wonder whether it’s another manifestation of a desire always to want to do something new. I seem to do things for a while then, without there necessarily being any feeling of having achieved a goal or been successful, I get the ‘been there, done that’ sensation and look around for unknowns.

I wonder, too, whether the whole blogging, tweeting, facebooking thing has made writing less fun and the proliferation of new books has devalued the process. I don’t think that’s the case, but I’m very aware that I’m writing in a very different publishing context from the one in which I started – with more opportunities as well as more competition.

Then again, it’s maybe all down to the trait I’ve mentioned many times before – I’m lazy. The books will get written but, for the moment, it’s relaxing to look through the window at the branches blowing in the wind and the confused flowers which came out in the recent warm spell shivering and wondering what the hell they’ve let themselves in for.

(And it occurred to me that I could write a final paragraph using one of those flowers as an image for/symbol of the author’s dilemma, but you can do that for me.).

More Unsafe Acts

As I was saying, we learn from our books, and Unsafe Acts gave me the chance to remind myself of how unsexy and ugly prostitution is at its lowest levels. One of the characters (who, I hope, is sympathetic) is forced into it to pay the bills. She’s not one of the truly hopeless cases whose dependence on drugs strips them of their humanity and allows others to treat them as objects with no worth, but she has to put up with some pretty unpleasant clients who pay pennies for her services.

But it recalled the things I’d learned when I was writing The Darkness (the third of the Carston mysteries). There, one of the central characters was a woman who’d been abused but learned to turn it to her advantage and became an escort. In other words, she was further up the scale and didn’t have to service her customers in cars or against walls. The research for that involved contacting actual escorts online (I know, I know – insert your own comments here) and I got some very generous and enlightening replies. They came from intelligent, articulate women, some of them married, who answered my questions honestly and sometimes at great length. These were women aware of their attractiveness and skills and ready to provide services far beyond the basic sexual satisfactions. I’m not suggesting it’s a positive career choice but they were conducting a supply and demand business with the common sense and efficiency of any respectable service company and the overwhelming impression was that they and their clients operated in a context of mutual respect.

The final thing wasn’t really something I learned because I already knew it. It arose from my recognition that Unsafe Acts is the first of my seven crime novels (the historical The Figurehead and the spoof The Sparrow Conundrum are both crime-based, too) which has a real culprit – someone who commits deliberate, premeditated murder. There are baddies in all the others but the deaths and motives are all … well, let’s say different.

Apart from that, there’s the fact that I always add something at the end to say that, yes OK, the crime’s been solved, the puzzle’s been explained, but other things are still going on, usually nasty things. Because life isn’t neat and tidy, we don’t live self-contained adventures or events with natural conclusions to which we can confidently attach ‘THE END’. There’s always something else going on, more events brewing, problems arising and so on. Reality isn’t completeness and satisfaction; it’s continuation and change.

At the end of each of the Carston books there’s a sort of coda, just a page or two. It comes after Carston has made his final revelations, the crime’s been solved, the loose ends have been tied up. But then the coda gives the reader a little nudge and says ‘life’s not like that’. Having said that, you won’t find one in the Bloody Books edition of Material Evidence (the paperback version available in the USA). I mentioned that to a friend who lives in New York. He emailed me to say he’d enjoyed reading it and I told him about the coda and said that I’d left it out on the advice of the commissioning editor. He asked to read it, I sent it to him and he replied, ‘Your editor is an idiot, she knows nothing about crime writing’. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the editor did actually know exactly what she was talking about. Her name is Val McDermid.

And remember, Unsafe Acts is available free this weekend on the 19th and 20th on Amazon UK here and Amazon USA here..

Learning from Unsafe Acts

Some friends have written blogs consisting of interviews with characters from their books. It’s creative, imaginative, entertaining and an excellent way to extend the fiction’s ‘reality’ and draw readers into its world. With the latest Jack Carston book now being available for a free download on the 19th and 20th of this month and the need to say something about it, I wondered whether to follow that route, too. The problem is, I don’t think he’d let me, so instead, this is about the book itself.

It’s called Unsafe Acts which, as well as being a term often seen in safety brochures and videos, applies to the other layers in the story. There’s the possibility of sabotage on an offshore platform, the ugliness and dangers of prostitution and the depressing reality of queer-bashing and the law’s ambivalence towards punishing it. On top of that, the actions of one of Carston’s incompetent officers threaten to mess up the investigation, while Carston’s own acts over the years have irritated his superiors so much that they’ve decided to charge him with indiscipline – all of that right in the middle of a double murder case

I think we always learn something from our own books. The very fact of researching subjects opens them up in sometimes surprising ways. In this case, I think the book made me aware of several distinct things.

The first and maybe most important was that, despite the progress that’s been made and the apparent ‘tolerance’ of civil partnerships between homosexual men and women (apart, of course, from those with a direct line to God who know for a fact that He ‘hates fags’), anti-gay prejudice persists – not only in unreconstructed males and certain bishops and cardinals, but in some surprising institutions. The law, for example, is supposed to be impartial and yet statistics seem to bear out that, for anyone accused of assaulting a gay person, self-defence is a viable plea. All you have to say is that you were propositioned and the likelihood is that that will earn you a degree of ‘sympathy’ and a lesser sentence or acquittal.

Many years ago, I wrote a radio play which was broadcast in the UK and Australia. Two of the characters happened to be lesbians but I’d structured the play around a pretentious idea of exploring themes of expansion and contraction. As a result, I forced my characters to use my words rather then giving them the usual (and essential) freedom to be themselves. The result was that one critic began his review ‘This is a tiresome play about tiresome people’ – and he was right. So did that mean I should be embarrassed about it? Well, yes, but…

In the summer vacation about two years later, I was sitting in my room at the university when there was a knock at the door and in came a female student who’d graduated the previous month. She’d been in lectures of mine but not in tutorials so I knew who she was but knew nothing much about her, so I was surprised to see her.

She’d come to tell me that a mutual friend had lent her a recording of the play. She  said she’d liked it but wished she’d known I ‘understood’ the problems faced by homosexuals while she was still a student. Because she was gay and she had no-one she could talk to. We had quite a long chat and, at one point, she said that she’d been miserable throughout her years as a student because, among other things, she couldn’t just walk through the campus hand in hand with her girl-friend, a simple fact that carried so much heartache. And I remembered it when I was writing Unsafe Acts and felt angry and baffled that those negative old attitudes still hadn’t completely disappeared.

But this blog’s already too long so the other things I learned from the book will have to wait for next time. I’ll just say that, despite appearances, I don’t write conventional crime novels. And, on that bombshell … well, just download the book on the 19th-20th. It’s free.