Friday, April 12, 2019

Still Paddling in the Shallow End

By Abir

"Has your approach to writing changed during the time you’ve been published? What was the change in response to? Or, if not, have you considered other approaches and rejected them? What were they, and why?"

I was asking myself a related question about a week ago. Not so much, has my writing changed, but rather should it change?

What prompted it? Possibly that I’ve just put the finishing touches to the fourth novel in the Wyndham and Banerjee series and am about to commence on the fifth. I started on my first book in 2013. It took me two years to write and was published in 2016. Since then I’ve been on the literary treadmill, contracted to writing a book a year.

I’ve learned a lot over the course of that time: about how to write and also about my protagonists, Sam Wyndham and Surrender-not Banerjee. I feel I've begun to get under their skins, I now understand their distinct personalities and their voices. I also feel I’ve developed as a writer (though believe me, there’s still an awful long way to go).

Nevertheless, I still approach writing the novels in the same way. I’ve never been confident enough in myself to risk pantsing it. (I’m an accountant during daylight hours, so that might help explain matters).

My books are historical crime fiction set in India during the British Raj, and I tend to start by spending a few months researching the specific year or period the book is to be set in. I’ll try and pick one or two key events from that year to weave into the background of my story. For example my third novel, Smoke an Ashes, is set in the winter of 1921, against the backdrop of Gandhi’s freedom movement and the arrival of Prince Edward (later King Edward the Eighth who married Wallace Simpson and abdicated) on a tour of India. There’s a killer on the loose and Wyndham and Banerjee need to stop him before things spiral out of control. 

Once I have an idea of the setting and the backdrop, I’ll try and plot out the arc of my story – generally only a few pages – the barest of skeletons, but which, like a compass, is something I can use to show me the rough direction I should be heading in when things get choppy.

And they do get choppy. As my colleagues have pointed out, characters have minds of their own. Quite often they simply stick two fingers up at me (my characters, not my colleagues) and decide to do their own thing, heading left when I want them to go right. It’s exhilarating but also scary, and when they’ve gone off to do whatever it is they’ve decided on, I find it useful to have that overall skeleton to try and get them gradually back towards the destination I had in mind for them.

So why do I want to change, and what would I like to do differently? 

I’d like to change things before they start to get stale. If I start to get bored with my writing, I’ve no doubt my readers will too. For me, as I’d imagine for many other authors, writing is as much about the challenge as it is about the pleasure of the story. I try to push myself forward with each novel, hoping to become a better writer. My first three novels were all told in one linear timeline. For my fourth, I’ve set the action in two places and two times, India in 1922 and the East End of London in 1905. It proved a tougher book to write, but I hope it’s better for the duality and I feel I’ve grown as a writer.
I’m also experimenting with the narrative voice. My books are narrated in the first person by Sam Wyndham, and his voice is part of the overall experience. I don’t feel I can change that for this series. Nevertheless, I’ve set myself the challenge this year of writing a number of short stories in the third person and from alternate viewpoints, and when I get round to writing a novel which is not part of the series, I’d like to write it in the third person.

Finally, my dream would be to pants a novel one day. To just sit down and write without that safety net of my research. I imagine how liberating it must be. But for now, I’m still paddling in the shallow end, with my plotting and my skeleton plan.


Cathy Ace said...

I have to say that I have enjoyed the experience of changing from first person POV and I find several POVs thrilling ��

Susan C Shea said...

Surrender-not is such as wonderful character. I love him in the first two novels, but now realize I'd better get cracking toward the third, while celebrating that there will be a fourth.

RJ Harlick said...

I can so related to what you are going through, Abir. I too write in the first person and sometimes find it a bit constraining. But for the 6th book I included a third person narration simply in order to spread my wings and try something different. For the tth book I made it a thriller. Rather than solving a murder my heroine had to extricate herself from a very dangerous situation. Again to spread my writing wings to try something different. All of us want to continue to grow as writers. A good thoughtful post.