Another month, another newsletter. In keeping with the new ethos of “more emails, fewer words”, I’ll skip the preamble and jump straight into the latest progress update.
Work on the second draft of the next Anna Scavolini mystery, Women Who Kill, is going well. When we last spoke, I’d finished my re-read of the first draft and had begun assembling my notes for the rewrite. I’m pleased to report that that process is now complete and, as of writing, I’m just over 17,000 words into the new draft. Most of these aren’t strictly speaking “new words” – I’ll be making some quite significant structural changes, but these come at a later point in the narrative. However, every line has been carefully reconsidered, and there’s scarcely a paragraph so far that hasn’t had words removed, added or changed, if not rewritten completely. In the process, I’ve managed to cut the word count by just over 3,000 – a cull rate which, if I can keep it up, will bring the finished manuscript in at a much more manageable length than the previous draft.
I find, when I’m revising a novel, that issues of logic are by far the toughest ones to grapple with. I have something of a back-to-front approach to plotting, in that I tend to come up with what I want to happen and then work backwards to justify why the character in question behaves the way they do. This results in an exciting plot with plenty of twists and turns, but it does mean I have to reverse-engineer the narrative a bit for it to make sense.
Case in point: the plot, deals with Anna re-investigating the case of a woman who was convicted of murdering her husband and two infant sons, in the process of which she comes to believe a miscarriage of justice has transpired. In the first draft, Anna began looking into the case… well, because she found it interesting. Not impossible, but not necessarily all that compelling. For the second draft, my solution has been for Anna to actually be asked to carry out an investigation – by the woman’s solicitor, who sees an opportunity to advance her client’s case by having a highly regarded criminology lecturer (and one who, by now, has built up something of a reputation for solving crimes that have bamboozled the police) take a fresh look at it.
But Anna would still require a reason to go along with this plan. The offer of money wouldn’t work – Anna may not be drowning in riches with her lecturer’s salary, but she’s not struggling to make ends meet. Besides, the solicitor is almost certainly representing her client pro bono and wouldn’t be in a position to splash cash around. For a long time, I thought this was an unsquarable circle. Then, during a conversation with my friend and fellow writer, Neil Snowdon, we hit on the solution.
When the story begins, Anna is writing a book on women’s experiences of the criminal justice system. In the fictional world of the novel, a new, centralised women’s “super-prison” has recently opened, which Anna, who sees this as a retrograde step, campaigned against vociferously. The solicitor proposes a deal to her: if Anna agrees to investigate the case, she’ll set her up with access to the various other prisoners she represents, and share with her the data she’s been gathering on the conditions inside the prison: overcrowding, self-harm, substance abuse, excessive use of solitary confinement… All, incidentally, issues that have been raised repeatedly about the prison system in the real world.
Suddenly, Anna not only has a concrete goal but also a concrete reason – more than one, in fact – to pursue it. It may seem a minor distinction, and it’s required a lot of reworking of the order and means through which Anna comes into possession of certain information, but I’m firmly of the opinion that it makes for a better story. For reasons I’m sure someone far more learned than me can explain, it feels infinitely more satisfying when, in pursuing a particular objective, the protagonist has something tangible to either gain or lose. And, unlike Morse or Rebus or any of the other fictional detectives who solve crimes because it’s their actual job, Anna always needs that little bit more justification for getting involved…