Plot, Pace and Punch: What Crime Writers Can Teach the Rest of Us

image1Anna Mazzola

(photo credit Lou Abercrombie)

‘You write well,’ Harry Bingham told me. ‘But your plot is a mess.’

This was a telephone conversation I had with Harry in 2014 after coming second in AM Heath’s Criminal Lines competition. Although it was hard to hear it, he was absolutely right. Fortunately, help was at hand. Part of my prize was a critique from the Writers’ Workshop and Harry set crime writer Eve Seymour on the case. Within a few weeks I had an in-depth and spot-on analysis of why my draft debut novel, The Unseeing, wasn’t quite working.

The Unseeing is based on the life of a real woman called Sarah Gale who in 1837 was convicted of aiding and abetting the murder of another woman. I had spent over a year researching the real case and reading about 19th century Britain, and at the time Eve was looking at the novel, I hadn’t got far enough away from the facts. She correctly identified that to move The Unseeing from a fictional recreation of the case to a gripping novel I needed to pick up the pace.

I have set out below the five key things I learnt from the report and from my subsequent revisions to the novel, in the hope that they might be helpful to other writers:

1. Sort out structure to achieve pace and tension. Pace and tension are important in all genres but they’re particularly vital in a mystery novel. In my draft manuscript, pace and tension dropped off in the middle. The remedy was to tighten up my plot structure to make sure that the reader was engaged at all times. As Eve said, ‘If you sort out plot structure, pace and tension will automatically increase.’ Since then, I’ve found reading books on screenwriting – e.g. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder – particularly helpful in understanding how to structure a novel.

2. Be careful that flashbacks don’t slow the pace. Pace occasionally flagged where my characters were remembering previous events. Eve pointed out that, ‘as a general rule, flashbacks, recollections and dreams have a pesky habit of slowing pace. The exception to the rule is when they reveal a genuine turning point, in which case they can be used to terrific effect.’ I therefore cut or reworked my characters’ recollections to ensure that they were serving the story and contributing to pace rather than hampering it.

3. Make clear what drives your characters. It’s important to know what your character’s motivation is to make that motivation evident to the reader. The Unseeing is told from the perspective of two narrators: Sarah Gale and Edmund Fleetwood, the young barrister appointed to review Sarah’s petition for mercy. Eve pointed out that Edmund needed to be more determined, and more obsessed: ‘It has to be clear what’s driving him.’ I try to remind myself of my character’s motivation in every scene as it’s by constructing obstacles to our characters’ desires that we create conflict.

4. Ensure there are turning points throughout the novel. In my draft manuscript, turning points (defining moments within the story) were thin on the ground in the middle and so the novel sagged at that point. I had to look at what new information I could insert to move the story in a new direction, vary the pace, heighten tension and keep the reader guessing.

5. Cut the description. Particularly when writing historical fiction, there’s a temptation to explain how things look and smell, how people dress, what they eat, how they speak. Eve advised me to ‘nip and tuck’ paragraphs of description to increase pace. If there is to be description, I think it has to be given through the eyes of your characters. In that way it becomes part of character definition and earns its place within the novel.

I reworked The Unseeing following Eve’s critique and gained further support at the Novel Studio at City University. Shortly after that course, I signed up with literary superagent, Juliet Mushens, who worked with me on making The Unseeing more surprising – more compelling. Juliet sold the book at auction to Tinder Press (Headline) and my sage editor, Imogen Taylor, helped me to make it tighter and twistier.
The Unseeing is now a very different creature from the rather baggy draft that Eve considered in 2014. Early reviews have referred to it being ‘gripping’ and ‘page-turning’. Let me tell you: it wasn’t two years ago, and it is partly thanks to Harry and Eve that my debut novel has ended up in print. I’m now trying to remember their tips for writing book two.

The Unseeing will be published by Tinder Press (Headline) on 14 July 2016.

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