I woke up in terror today. The climax of my current novel loomed like tax-day: a police shoot-out set in a hotel in Llanfairfechan. I know bugger all about police procedures, never mind shoot-outs, though I’ve stayed in hotels and driven past (and can pronounce) Llanfairfechan.
I do not have a calm, logical nature. More a Panic-First-Then-Hide-Under-The-Bed-type personality. Except there’s no room under our bed.
I knew what at first glance was wrong with said climax. To barrel home to the finish line of the marathon the first draft became, I didn’t write the penultimate chapter so much as the bare bones of what had to happen. (Many experienced writers advise that this can change during the writing, but I really did need this particular climax.) After the first read-through I’d noted SHOW NOT TELL at the top of the page, so I wasn’t entirely lost.
Staring at my PC screen, I realised with dawning horror that within the space of a few pages, I had two different characters dialling 999 saying they’d been attacked by the book’s Evil Bastard. He is evil and a bastard, but unlike real life, fiction has to make sense. No reader would buy two 999 calls in as many scenes concerning the same perpetrator.
Trying to wriggle out of my obligation, I thought, perhaps I could delete the climax. Police shoot-outs, along with car chases, aren’t really my shtick. I’m not writing police procedurals or even genre crime fiction. My interest lies in how injustice can kill a person as surely as a bullet or cyanide can. There are corrupt police officers in the story, but they represent an inept local housing association who really are bastards.
My book isn’t even a thriller. So why a climactic shoot-out? Because a character had to be shot, and I’d envisioned this climax since first setting down the three disasters and resolution of my novel. This is as close as I, a non-visualiser, can plot. (I refuse to call myself a pantster, which sounds to me at best like baby-talk, at worst, inept. Who enjoys being labelled?)
I also live in fear of being a bad writer. Self-doubt is never far away. But the emotions are not the reality. Performance anxiety does not mean I won’t find the words. I just have to be tolerant of my own crap and the invariably poor first draft which often has little patches of brilliance as compensation.
Best-selling novelist Nora Roberts says that if she doesn’t write anything, she will have nothing to fix. And fixing can be the best bit if a writer learns to relax into it. Work isn’t always tapping a keyboard; often it’s reading good writers or listening to silence or gazing into space, or in my case, the hedgerow, birds, and sky visible through my study window.
Sitting, and staring, on standby―Kafka had a sign over his desk: WAIT―it dawned on me that the setting for climax was all wrong. Of course ‘shoot-out’ itself was wrong; an exchange of gunfire between two or more parties not being the only way an officer can get shot. And I remembered Roz Morris’ advice in Nail Your Novel:
‘Smart plots draw together threads of things that are already there... Every time you’re tempted to invent new things, see if you can bring back an old one.’ (E-book Location 551)
See, sometimes what I’ve read does stick with me. Thus my climax setting changed from a hotel in Llanfairfechan to the flat of one of the Evil Bastard’s squeezes, near Meliden. I deleted 999 from the first scene so that a 999 call could trigger the climax instead. Anything I didn’t know about (basically, the entire chapter), I asked on Quora and got great answers from retired policemen and from my husband, who has an intensive knowledge of not only firearms as used in Wales, but how to make the best G&T ever, called an I Can’t Get Any More In.
And once I understood what needed changing, the revisions came easily. So the fear and the block had been the result of trying to force a square peg into a round hole. When I twigged what was needed for the climax to happen, finishing was a doddle.
My husband told me about a rugby union match he played when he was seventeen, an Under-20s game. Their opponents, Wrexham Under-20s, hadn’t lost a game all season. As you can imagine, Kev’s side were terrified, going up against a tough opposition. These frightened lads went on to beat the reigning champions 12-9. Wrexham clapped them off the pitch, the good sportsmanship practice at the end of every rugby game, but not with enthusiasm. Kev’s lads didn’t care. Their night out afterwards, celebrating the win, was beyond glorious.
Trusting your ability, gained by practice, is half the battle. And even if you forget what you’re capable of when faced with a challenge, the feeling when you do win makes it all worthwhile.