I have been a bit busy over the weekend putting the last touches to a pitching document for a new crime series based in Stirling. For this most ironic of reasons I wasn’t able to spend much time at Bloody Scotland , Scotland’s (First) Crime Writing Festival. As the strap line says… “40 writers, 20 events, 2 great venues and a weekend to die for. “
However I couldn’t miss an old friend Peter May discussing his novel “The Black House” as part of the Island Crimes session, which he shared with Shetland based writer Ann Cleeves in the Albert Hall in Stirling.I arrived at the venue with 15 minutes to spare to see that the queue for the session stretched out almost 50 yards into the forecourt, and the first person I saw was writer Janice Hally, a woman who has a lot to answer for . She loaned me a small portable typewriter almost 25 years ago so that I was able to write my first ever screenplay.( It was called “The Macrame Man” and STV put it on youtube if you’re interested. ) For that typewriter I am very grateful, though I doubt the vieiwing public would share that sentiment.
Sometimes these “writers chat’ sessions can be excrutiating. This one was a joy, not just because the subject matter was clearly defined by the organisers (Crime Novels on Islands), but because the two writers spoke with comittment and energy about their of their completely contrasting styles of creating the work.I should also add that the chair of the session had actually READ both books, asked excellent questions, and obviously shared the rapt audiences passion for the subject matter.
I’m always intrigued by writers speaking about their technique. Ann Cleeves confessed that she starts with an idea, (of course) but when she sits down to write page one, she doesn’t know what is going to happen next. After completing her research , “which usually consisted of sitting chatting in a Shetland kitchen” she leaps in and starts writing. She cited the famous quote Raymond Chandler who said if you are stuck for a plot point, have the door burst open revealing a man with a handgun. This “surprise yourself ” methodology is favoured by the likes of Ian Rankin, who once confessed (I paraphrase this from memory ) to killing of a major protagonist in Chapter 3, and wasn’t quite sure what direction the narrative would then take.
Peter May, on the other hand, applies a completely opposing methodology. Prefacing his comments with ” I come from a TV background”, May revealed that he writes a detailed 20,000 word outline of his novel. He knows what happens, when and why, before he writes a single word of the actual novel itself. I learned from the discussion that this sort of planning is mirrored by writers such as A.S. Byatt . We were presented with the astonishing fact that she planned so meticulously, she could decide, on a particular day , whether to write Chapter 12, Chapter 3 or Chapter 6.
The session went on for an hour but I could have listened longer to Cleeves and May, these two successful writers who employ completely differing techniques. It occurred to me afterwards that though their actual writing process is so different, what bonds them is their attention to original research…talking to the people who really know, who have really experienced the type of story they are trying to tell, and having the germ of an idea buried at the centre of the narrative. Both methods obviously work for both writers, and point to the truism that it’s not how you do it, it’s the end result that matters.
S0…Island Crimes. A fascinating and revealing session from only two of 40 writers who have contributed to “Bloody Scotland”, Scotlands (First) Crime Writing Festival. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to attend more of the sessions, but I was pleased to have been a very small part of what must surely be the beginning of a new annual Festival in one of Scotland’s greatest venues, Stirling. Well done to all involved, and here’s to “Bloody Scotland 2013”