“Action, not Words!” That’s a political quote, and at this unsettling time in the UK, perhaps just as relevant a mantra as it was in 1966 – when Ted Heath used it as the theme for his election manifesto. Those of us waiting to see what Boris Johnson might bring to the feast, may indeed hope that he can honour his spoken intentions with a practical result.
But here’s another version: “Life is words in action, literature is action in words.” That one came from a contemporary of mine, Turkish actor and playwright Tarik Gunersel. I like that one because it encourages me (as a writer) to ensure that the words I put on the page serve a purpose. By that, I mean that they drive the story forward, taking the reader on a path that leads to a satisfactory destination. I hate it when (as a reader) I find the plot of a novel to be wallowing in literary treacle as if the path I’ve taken is consumed by inches of sticky mud. Sometimes it happens simply because the writer wants to apply a richer description than the reader needs: “his craggy features, heavy brows, piercing eyes and Roman nose gave an impression of impatient senility in a way I found impossible to ignore in a teacher of classical studies”; “all about me were scattered the detritus of nature at its angriest – snapped twigs of elm and sycamore trees, copper and russet leaves both old and new carelessly swept into untidy hillocks several inches high”. This is self-indulgence from a writer that adds very little to help the narrative, and potentially smothers the interest that may previously have been piqued. (Those two “quotes” are my own invention, by the way!)
A writer has a similar job to do as a painter: to produce a work of art that allows us to focus on the subject inside the frame, rather than the frame itself.
So, when faced with writing Novel Number 2, what had I learned from Novel Number 1? (The Murder Tree)
In a nutshell, I’ve moved away from the restrictions of following the elements of a True Story. Both my previous projects have been largely governed by historical record. This time, like my play Rabbit-Chasing For Beginners, I have been free to use my imagination. While the events of The Murder Tree were centred around the City of Glasgow, this time I have featured places nearer to my present home in the Ribble Valley of Lancashire. Manchester (my place of birth) features strongly, as do London and Liverpool, Belfast and Northern Ireland. The plot is exponential, meaning I let it develop in its own way. Characters often influence a plot because of their personal motives and interests, and that has become the deciding factor for me in writing Sisters. The chapters are short, and the pace is quick. I want my readers to stay on a path that has many twists and turns – but it is all the more fun if there’s an ever-present risk of them taking a corner too fast…
Action? Yes – plenty. Words? Yes – but only the ones deemed necessary to complement the action!
Need to know:
I don’t just write fiction.