This is the second post in a two-part discussion on writing with Geoff Le Pard to promote his new book, My Father and Other Liars. Part one of this discussion can be found here.
In this part of the interview we discussed plot and story development, beta readers, research, empathy and the secret to writing a bestseller.*
*I’m lying about this last point.
GLP: You have a nice twist at the end of Second Chance; was that something you planned up front or did it come as the story developed?
DSH: The twist in Second Chance was something I’d had planned from the beginning although it underwent a few changes during the editing process. For me this is one of the strengths of plotting a story, even if it’s at a very basic level, it allows you to identify what to reveal when, to ensure the twist’s full impact is achieved.
That said, the real heroes for this are my beta readers. They’re the ones who let me know whether a twist worked, was far too obvious, or came totally out of the blue with no foreshadowing so they felt cheated. It’s really difficult when writing a thriller or mystery for an author, knowing the full story, to get this right on your own.
How many Beta readers do you use? How do you choose them and do they change book to book?
GLP: Beta Readers. Yes the unsung heroes. I don’t have either a set number or a consistent group. For My Father I had both general and specialist. A major component of the story is around genetic research using human embryos, and especially the current attempts to develop pluripotent stems cells from skin rather than embryos. I wanted the science to hold up – I gave up biology at school at 13 – so was fortunate that two of my daughter’s friends at school studied biology at Oxford and read the book. Not only did they make comments on the story but gave me great feed back on the science. In a similar way I decided to based my fictitious church in Oklahoma (why oh why!) but never having been couldn’t be sure my scenes there made sense. I found, via blogging, Paula who had spent the first 25 years of her life living in the Oklahoma panhandle in a staunch Baptist family. Her insights, both into the setting but also the religious family context, were invaluable. Otherwise I think a minimum of two beta readers are needed at the final stages; before that it’s really up to you and how comfortable you are showing a raw piece of work to people.
This has tied into my research; you have a significant storyline around the damage of climate change; did that involve much research? Were there areas where you worried that the science or settings or whatever might not pass muster because of the depth of research you were able to undertake?
DSH: Yes, I did plenty of research into the effects of climate change, especially how high sea levels need to rise to cause major devastation, along with future technologies. In fact I did so much research the hardest part was leaving most of it out. Most, if not all went into the first draft but on reading it back I realised just how dull these passages were so took most out. For me, the key to my fiction isn’t realism but plausibility. As long as the majority of reader believe it’s possible, I’ve done my job.
As of this moment I’m about a quarter of the way through My Father and really enjoying it. There’s one passage in particular that caught my eye, when you go into detail about the Church of Science & Development’s belief system. You’ve mentioned already that you’re an atheist but the way you’ve combined scripture with science is very believable. Is this something you developed yourself and if so, do you think you’re subconsciously trying to marry your conviction in science with a need to empathise with those of faith?
GLP: That’s beautifully put. Yes, I feel annoyed at the Dawkins and Hitchens, and indeed the Frys of this world who, in their articulacy, appear, in some cases possibly innocently, to patronise those of faith. No one has all the answers so who am I to say there isn’t a guiding hand, for want of a better expression, behind everything? I don’t believe it because it seems wholly improbable that something so creative could create something so random and bizarre as the universe. So I try to empathise all the time. The Church of Science and Development probably came about after hearing a debate between Richard Dawkins and a professor of physics who was a committed Christian. Frankly I was on his side because I loathe Dawkins’ sneering so it set me thinking: was there any way to reconcile science with the bible, with basic Christian theology? And this was the closest I came.
When I read Second Chance I was very taken with the Scrambles. It was a very vivid creation and easy to feel oneself inside it. I loved, though was surprised (in a good way), the way it took centre stage at the start of Absent Souls. When I created Beaumont for the home of the Church and the University I found it a struggle and it was one of the areas I felt was still weak even at the end of the process. How about you and the Scrambles? Was that always the plan or did that develop through the writing? And what did you base it on, (other than a warped imagination!?)
DSH: The Scrambles came easy to me because it was based on somewhere I know very well, the Düsseldorf Altstadt. While the Altstadt (or old town) isn’t quite the same den of iniquity as the Scrambles, it’s a very concentrated area of bars, restaurants and clubs in the historic heart of this modern city.
Having a very specific geographical and even architectural lawless zone appealed to me as I believe strongly that while socially and intellectually humanity has advanced significantly, emotionally we’re still the same as we’ve been for millennia and without some form of release valve, things could go downhill very quickly.
I know you’ve been writing a long time but have only recently started publishing your work. Even though both your books have been in the works a while, do you feel your writing has progressed from one to the other and if so, how?
GLP: I started My Father before Dead Flies (but not by much). The biggest change – improvement – is, I hope, in the show don’t tell area. As a lawyer (I have to blame something!) our drafting had to be explicit. Any contract worth its salt is clear and unambiguous. Sometimes that is why a contract clause may use up all synonyms to cover all bases ‘to repair, maintain, remedy, renew, improve, replace, restore, reinstate, refurbish…’ Of course, transfer this to a novel and it is 19th century literature at its most clunky. This form of writing has a legal term – the ‘torrential style’ – and that was my biggest challenge. That apart, I tend to be clever for clever sake, to add descriptive curlicues for the sake of them and then miss out something fundamental. My first beta readers pointed this out. ‘Where are we?’ ‘What does she look like?’ Because I have always had a fine sense of my characters, sometimes I forget my readers don’t and I underdo some description. I don’t think I will ever do this naturally. My first edit almost always consists, not in correcting plotting errors or continuity problems but adding in descriptions of some places and people and removing overblown descriptions of others. In many ways that’s why I enjoy editing: I know how much better it is going to be because my first drafts are so much rubbish. And they are rubbish because I do not plan.
What about you? What are your biggest failings that you’ve corrected and what do you still do that needs correcting at the edit stage. What do you find hardest? For instance, I love dialogue and think – is this hubristic? – that writing dialogue that is natural is one of my strengths. You’ll now turn to the page to something awful!
DSH: There are a couple of areas I struggle with. Like you, description doesn’t come naturally. I either add far too much or not enough to provide grounding for the readers. My writing style is naturally light on description anyway as I personally hate wading through pages of pure description, but I learnt early on that you can take this too far. You do need enough description otherwise the readers feel lost. That said, the brief descriptive style in Second Chance is deliberate as we’re seeing the world through the eyes of people who spend most of their lives looking inward rather than outward.
I too love dialogue. I think it comes from having spent my whole life re-running every argument I’ve ever lost in my head, testing all the permutations and snappy one liners I could have said. It’s been good training for the natural ebb and flow of conversation.
I’m also hopeless at spotting typos, which is why having a good editor and proofreader is essential for me. I made the mistake of publishing Second Chance with a large number of typos (despite having the support of a number of friends to look for errors) but was luckily saved by some very kind readers which allowed me to correct the manuscript before too much damage was done. I knew this area was important but I didn’t realise just how many rounds of checking were required to get a book in shape for publishing. Now I’ve a much more stringent process in place, which was proven with the launch of Absent Souls, but it’s still an area I know I need to work on.
One of the things I like doing is leaving ‘Easter Eggs,’ for my readers, little things that would appeal to people from certain backgrounds. There are one or two characters who are named after villages local to where I live, for example, and one of the locations in Second Chance is named after the founding father of climate science. I’ve also included phrases my children use as a little surprise for my wife. Do you do anything like this? Are there any messages or in jokes you leave in your books?
GLP: No, I don’t think so. I like to write around places that have a meaning for me in some way but apart from that, I don’t consciously do that.
One of my problems is using words repeatedly. ‘He/she/they turned’ for instance. Do you have words that you really try and remove yet often can’t think of anything better?
DSH: I’m a serial passive language offender in my early drafts. I have an editing crib sheet I use when proofing with over one hundred words or phrases I need to check, including any time I use could, had, was, should or were to see if it’s in a passive context, along with seem. I also overuse the word ‘look’, especially as a beat in dialogue and work hard to use alternate words instead.
Now that I’ve finished My Father… I’d like to talk endings. In it I reached what I thought would be the end point, only for the story to (successfully) continue on to a different resolution. How do you know when to end a story? Is this something you have planned in advance or is it a voyage of discovery?
GLP: You must have had that dilemma, with endings for a trilogy? So important to get that right. Enough to satisfy the one off reader, enough to hold them for the next instalment. You’ve done a great job but how easy was it? If I think about it, I’d say book one felt vey natural, very satisfying but more of a full stop than two. In book two a lot more feels unresolved – a lot of pent up energy waiting to explode.
My ending? I hadn’t decided where it would end when I started writing save that it would end on an upbeat note. In two (different) versions I killed off both fathers but it was a bit grisly and felt like Alice in Wonderland meets The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In fact the ending came reasonably soon – maybe the third or fourth edit – in the original draft Mo and Lori end up back in San Fran but that was too forced. The part here you think it ends is in fact a much later edition after a fried read it and said how sad she was that X didn’t happen in Nic (no spoilers) and that’s when I had an epiphany and added in the extra scenes.
I hope you enjoyed our (not so) little conversation on our writing processes. I’d like to thank Geoff for being such a wonderful interviewee/conversationalist. I feel we could have carried on for days but sadly we both have our next books to get finished!
Geoff Le Pard started writing to entertain in 2006. He hasn’t left his keyboard since. When he’s not churning out novels he writes some maudlin self-indulgent poetry and blogs at geofflepard.com. He walks the dog for mutual inspiration and most of his best ideas come out of these strolls.