Category Archives: editing

The Development of Character – A Case Study from ‘The Bluebell Informant’

Clever, loyal and moral. Vicious, arrogant and consistently haunted by her past.

These are the words I tend to use when describing the character of Detective Sergeant Evelyn Giles, the main character of my upcoming novella, ‘The Bluebell Informant’. A detective with a sharp mind who relies heavily on her instinct to read a crime scene. One of the most successful detectives in the Police Service. And yet, for all of her brilliance in the field of crime, Giles is plagued by her past, forever at odds with the world around her. Her desire to always do what is right, frequently brings her at odds with her own superiors and has led this promising detective to start turning down the dark path of failure and ridicule.

But this picture of a detective simply caught in the wrong time, fighting against oppression and corruption against a world full of it, was not how I imagined Giles when I first put pen to paper. In many ways, in fact, the Giles that exists now is almost unrecognisable from the original Giles and, as I have continually drafted and redrafted, Giles has slowly turned from a name on a page to a fully-fledged character that I can quite believe is out there somewhere.

Giles

The character of Evelyn Giles was originally conceived for my first attempt at a crime novella over two years ago. In many ways, the character has always had the whiter-than-white moral code and the story of pitting the detective against a corrupt world is very much there in my original drafts. However, a couple of major differences exist between that version and the Giles that exists today – most notably the gender of the character.

In the novella, titled but never retitled ‘Giles’, David Giles was not only a man but was also of a higher rank than the current character. As a Detective Inspector, Giles had a certain amount of autonomy, but his team were largely part of corrupted world that he was trying to take down. Whilst this gave Giles a great deal of power to make his own decisions, it did make him somewhat boring to read about. There was little conflict, except with the officers that he knew to be corrupt, as he never found himself in a situation where he had to report on his activities or was ordered to stop what he was doing.

Needless to say, the novella never really got past the first few chapters and has languished ever since in the Box File of Woe.

But that was not to be the end of Giles as a character.

Obsession

A year later, and appearing this time as a woman and at the rank of Detective Sergeant, Evelyn Giles leapt on to the page, once more attempting to bring an end to corruption. But this time, the character found herself at odds with her superior, Detective Inspector Bolton, who has Giles on a tight leash following a botched operation. Forced to investigate domestic murders instead of pursuing those she really seeks to bring down, Giles finds herself investigating a murder where the chief suspect has the ability to bring down the corrupt officials that she is working against.

Although the character had returned, this version of Giles was not the focus of the story but was more of a sideshow to the character that she was chasing, known only as Adam. However, as I progressed further through the story, I began to realise that I was more interested in Giles’ plight rather than that of the man she was chasing and, in future drafts, Giles became the centre of the story with Adam dropping in and out of the narrative.

After several drafts, though, I found myself struggling to get to grips with the character. Even though her actions in the story were solid, I had little idea about what it really was that was driving her forward. At this point, Giles was still very much a name on a page and, without a more detailed backstory I had no way of understanding her.

The Bluebell Informant

The novella, ‘The Bluebell Informant’, was very much a product of my desire to work on Giles’ past. I wanted to explain her and the world around her, not only how she came to be watched so carefully by her superiors, but also how her environment came to be so corrupt.

The British General Elections gave me the basis of the plot of my story, and keeping a careful eye on the political back-and-forths appearing on my Facebook page provided me with the substance. I created a new story; a story of a failed politician who is accused of murder and a detective (Giles) who feels compelled to help him regardless of her ill-feelings towards the man.

It was only after I had finished the second draft that I began to get a real handle on the character, creating the detective that I described earlier. But it was at the beginning of the third draft that I finally made a decision that would completely alter the tone of the story.

Up until this point, ignoring the fact that I had already changed her name, I had always envisaged Giles as a British, middle-class, white woman. But with the development of The Bluebell Informant, I found myself at a crossroads where I could begin to question what I had always assumed about my character. I wanted to explain why my character had such hatred for the politician and yet would want to help him. The answer to second lay in the familiar trait of morality that had been present in the character from the off. But the first, I discovered, lay in her ethnicity.

And thus David Giles, the white, middle-class, male Detective Inspector, turned in to Evelyn Giles, the female Detective Sergeant whose mother was an asylum seeker who later married a British labourer. Over the course of nine drafts from three different stories, Detective Sergeant Evelyn Giles has become a delight to write about.

And I hope you will have just as much pleasure reading about her.

To keep up to date on the progress of ‘The Bluebell Informant’, please subscribe to this blog for the latest news and articles about DS Giles and her world.

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Why Novel Writers Should Read Short Stories When Editing

Today I read a blog post about a writer who reads 365 short stories a year and it got me thinking about how short stories affect our writing. In the post, the author basically explains that, by reading one short story, a writer can effectively create a daily habit, which allows them to read a whole plot in a short period of time and, therefore, build up our own understanding of how to write fiction.

I’m not going to dispute this; the logic itself is completely right. If the best writers are the best readers then reading one short story a day will almost certainly have a greater impact on your ability to write than if you read one novel a week. In that week time period you would have experienced seven different writer’s styles and stories instead of the one you would get from the novel.

That being said, I think it goes a little deeper than that. As the writer of the post quite rightly says, a short story is not like the novel as you have a vastly shorter amount of time to get the story across. The plot has to be tight, the characters believable, the environment realistic – and all of this has to come across in a matter of a couple of thousand words at best.

And this is precisely why I think writers should be reading more short stories, not necessarily once a day all year round as suggested (although I can see the value of taking such a course) but at least once a day during the editing process for your novel.

As those of you who have been following my blog posts lately will know, I am a massive advocate for the editing process. As far as I’m concerned, too many authors skip the editing process or don’t give it its due care and attention in the belief that editing is the job of some publishing house stooge and has nothing to do with creativity. Editing is the most important part of writing and those who treat it with less devotion than they do to the story crafting part do so at their peril.

But why do I advocate reading more short stories when editing a novel? Surely if a novel is 70,000 words plus, there is little you can draw from reading short stories that will help you, right?

In a way that is true, but in a much bigger and more accurate way it isn’t. In my experience the act of editing is about three things: subtraction, transformation and addition. One of the first jobs of the editing writer is to be absolutely brutal with their work; carving out all of the unnecessary parts of the story that just slow everything down and doing away with all those awkward phrases that just make the whole thing read as a disjointed mess. Only after that can we start to transform and add to the phrases and passages that remain to make a coherent and flowing story.

Reading short stories is a great way to teach yourself how to do this. Short stories, by their very nature, are slim lined, trimmed and lacking excess weight. By reading them, we learn exactly how to make an engaging storyline with only a few words which means, when we return to our bulky novel, we can see precisely what we need to do to get rid of any extraneous bits.

Now I’m not suggesting that you should be as brutal with your prized novel as you would be with a short story – after all, if you remove all the fat from your novel you would eventually just end up with a short story which isn’t the purpose of the exercise. What I am saying is that reading short stories whilst you’re editing will get your mind in gear and will allow you to look beyond your work of art that you have just poured your soul into and spot the areas where we need to take a carving knife to it.

Everybody has a passage in their novel that they love to bits but we know isn’t really needed in the story. What reading short stories will teach you is how truly pointless that lovable passage is and encourage you to take the hard choice.

So when you next have a book to edit, try picking up one short story a you’re your novel will be that much better for it.

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Why Writers Shouldn’t Disregard the Editing Process

Today I was reading a blog post about the importance of writers being able to throw stuff away and it got me thinking about what exactly do writers really require from the writing/editing process. As a result, I ended up having a fairly lengthy discussion with a colleague of mine where we discussed the value of writing and editing and (after a minor detour where we debated the question of pen vs computer) we came to an inevitable conclusion that I feel I should share with you all.

For the vast majority of writers that I have spoken to (or at least those who value the editing process as much as I do), the consensus is that the creative process is split into arts and crafts. The art comes in to play when you are writing your story and the craft when you go through the monotonous task of editing.

Their reasoning for this is quite simple. When you are writing your story you are creating characters and worlds and storylines etc and therefore, by very definition, such creativity must be an artistic endeavour. In contrast, the editing process is about taking that creativity and breaking it down, throwing out the unnecessary bits and honing the parts that matter in a very craft like manner.

It’s a great theory…

But I respectfully disagree with it.

For me this view point couldn’t be more wrong and, as far as I’m concerned at least, it is this idea that leads many authors to rush to get unfinished work out on Kindle or whatever format they wish to use. I can say this with confidence as I have fallen into that trap myself.

I used to believe whole heartedly that the art was in the first draft and that everything else that followed was just the boring bit that you had to do to make sure you haven’t made any glaring mistakes. And it was that belief that kept me stuck in an endless cycle of producing mediocre stories that no one wanted to read. I could have been so much better but, because I was working in the belief that a) writing is 90% art and 10% craft and b) that the artistic part happened in the first draft, I never improved and, as such got stuck in a rut.

It is certainly true that all writing has an artistic element to it. We are being creative after all. But if we reduce the act of editing our work to the somewhat emotionless definition of being a craft, we are distancing ourselves from our own work. And if the editing process is what makes or breaks a story, distancing ourselves from it is only going to hurt the final result.

So here is what I think and I welcome you all to disagree with me if you wish.

The writing of a first draft, whilst it has elements of creativity in that you are completely forming a story from start to finish, is the actual craft part. Everything about it is formulaic; as writers, we are desperate to get our ideas out and on to the page before we forget about it and we all have our own strategy for doing that. For some it is planning it out meticulously, for others it is about diving in and sprinting for the finishing line. Either way, our first draft is normally full of clichés and repeated phrases and that one chapter where Elsie touches her hair repeatedly and her breath catches in her throat so many times that she may as well be hyperventilating.

In the editing process, we take it and we hone it; we make it more succinct and user friendly. We meticulously pour over our manuscripts looking for the words that don’t quite make sense or fit. We delete entire chapters because they are effectively useless for our story…

And some people say that is a craft as well, and I can see what they mean. But I always consider a craft to be like the unwanted younger brother of the popular kid at school; no one really likes it but you do it because you want to do the arty bit. As far as I’m concerned though, the real art is in taking that story that was little more than a jumble of words that formed your plot and turning them into something magical. That is the true art of writing…

Some of you may be thinking that I’m mad for putting so much more emphasis on the edit than on the original writing of the story, and you may be right. Others may think that you don’t like the editing part because it’s slow and dull and not exciting. But think about it this way…

What job in the history of the universe is really and truly made up of only the fun tasks?

For a lot of us editing isn’t particularly enjoyable. It is grinding and slow and takes away from the more exciting part of crafting stories, but undoubtedly it is the most important part of the whole process. It is where so many writers fall down and it is usually those same writers who will tell you it is a craft.

But riddle me this…

If it’s a craft, shouldn’t the editing process be fairly straight forward?

And if it is straight forward, is there really an excuse not to do it?

I guess what I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is this.

Editing is as important to a writer as any other part of the process. If you can’t be bothered to put the effort into your edit, then I’m afraid you’re not a writer…

Those are my feelings at least.

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