Today I am delighted to be bringing you a guest post from Keith Crawford about writing. First though a synopsis of his book Vile.
Elianor Paine is a Magistrate of the Peace in the Kingdom of Trist and a republican secret agent. She has 6 days to subvert her investigation, supplant war-hero Lord Vile, then coerce his adult children to start a revolution, before her masters discover the truth and have her killed. Just how far is she willing to go? And can she change the world without changing herself?
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Writing Vile by Keith Crawford
Vile isn’t my first novel. I remember trying to write books in primary school. One of my earliest efforts was written on my mother’s blue manual-typewriter when I was around nine years old. My mother caught me, told me it was rubbish, I should stick to hobbies that didn’t involve using her typewriter, and that I had misspelt “pawn.”
A couple of decades of hiding novels from my mother followed. I wrote a book when I was 11 about the ghost that haunted our house. The pictures were much better than the words. The books I wrote between the ages of 13 to 16 are probably best not mentioned, other than that I had learned how to correctly spell pawn. I wrote a book while in the Merchant Navy, “A Peculiar Betrayal”, that was very bad. I wrote another during basic training with the Royal Navy. Somehow, it was even worse.
Yet my plays were doing rather well. I never took playwrighting very seriously. It was something I did on the side. Still I consistently found commissions, platforms and even pay for my stage work. On one occasion I was asked on the Friday for an original full-length play written for around 12 actors to be ready on the Monday. A crate of beer and a sunny weekend in my back garden later, I had an epic tale of warring angels ready to go and that went on to get great reviews. Later, while I completed a PhD in Law and Economics, I had similar success with academic writing, publishing in scholarly journals, texts, and even in The Economist.
So why the heck couldn’t I write a novel that didn’t make me want to bite off my own hands?
In 2014 I was lecturing Law and Economics at Science Po in Paris and negotiating a contract to write a book on banking regulation (yawn), when my wife both fell pregnant and won a big promotion. We were thrilled. I decided I’d rather look after my own children than the children of rich people (Sciences Po is great but like all elite educational establishments the privilege lies thick in the air), and that I’d be better able to support my wife’s career from home (plus my pay was less than childcare costs). It seemed like a sensible, practical way to be the feminist I’ve always tried to be.
Like a lot of people, I started off my new effort to learn how to write with short stories. This didn’t help at all. First, if were listed in a competition, GREAT! But you had no idea why you won so you may as well have won a raffle. And if you lost you didn’t even get to say great. I started work on a fantasy novel called “Shadowgate” because I figured having read so much fantasy as a kid it would be easy (wrong!), and I had a self-help book that said it could tell me how to write my first draft in 30 days (very wrong!). With the benefit of hindsight, I’m not sure I could have made a worse start (dinosaur porn, perhaps?)
Needless to say, my 30-day draft was awful.
I started to read everything I could about the craft of writing. One of the advantages of a PhD is it teaches you how to decide whether what you are reading is a load of crap or not. I started a blog,www.aboutwriting.org, where I publish articles trying to figure out what makes good writing. I thought a lot about why my plays worked, wrote a lot more plays, and set up a podcast publishing radio plays and working to develop new talent; I had a stage play win the City 27 competition and a radio play longlisted by the BBC Drama Competition. Yep, I could still write plays.
Finally, it started to make sense. When I write a play, I think about the client: the producer, or director, or actors, and most of all the audience. I think about the sort of thing I enjoy in a play and the sort of characters who are compelling, I find something interesting I want to talk about, then I make those characters experience it – fight it, laugh about it, suffer for it but most of all be inside the experience.
All those books I wrote came from a desire to SAY SOMETHING IMPORTANT. And that’s fine. It’s even good. There are certainly enough important things going on that we should be talking about. However, not many people pick up a novel because they want to be told that economic theory means they are wrong about everything, or whatever. Personally, I usually want swordfights, explosions, and spaceships, not necessarily in that order. Most importantly I want characters I care about doing stuff I care about in a way that made sense to me.
Time to revisit my 30-day draft (which by now had spent a couple of years being redrafted into new rubbishness.) What was this book about? Why had a chosen fantasy? Because it was easy?
Because those fantasy stories that I loved as a child had never been about me – they had always been about the orphaned prince, the heroic knight, the magical princess. I was one of the peasants that get to cheer the prince, or the thugs that get mowed down in enormous numbers by the miraculously uninjured knight, or the homely maid who supports the princess in her hour of need then gets to cry at her wedding. It was all a big fat lie. A lie I had bought into because it made me feel good. Like buying a lottery ticket. I had chosen fantasy because I was angry about it.
I was writing about all the things that made me angry about a genre that I loved. And so, we came to the question. What would a world be like in which people thought they were heroes destined to do great things at no matter the cost? Funnily enough, that wasn’t very difficult to imagine – just turn on the news. Then, what I’d finally learned from my plays: who were these people that would live this question? What did they want? What was stopping them? What were they prepared to do to get there?
So Shadowgate became Vile, and a confused mess of characters became a battle between people trying to prove that their vision of heroism was the one worth sacrificing the lives of all the little people who got in the way. Character’s driving story. Message shown not told.
My immediate problem, and my favourite character to write, was chief protagonist Elianor Paine. In a book called Vile you can guess that at least some of the characters will be unpleasant. The challenge was to make a character prepared to do awful things also likeable, empathetic, and someone you were prepared to spend 150,000 words with.
Thankfully, all that study paid off. Writing is as much craft as art. We know what makes people likeable: talent, compassion, suffering, wit. Give them a pet or a sick parent. Have them adjust their cufflinks as the step from the exploding train. Making Elianor a small, very angry James Bond made her fun to write, gave her lots of excuses to get into fights, and kept the book moving. She didn’t need to talk about social injustice: she needed to enact it.
The hardest character to write, unsurprisingly as I’m a disabled veteran, was disabled veteran Anton Vile. This is a common problem for writers: when you get so close to a character that you can’t see them clearly. Anton is an overweight, alcoholic, PTSD’d up to the eyeball’s womaniser (and maniniser – sex isn’t a major theme in this book, but a range of sexualities are there if you keep your eyes open). He’s also utterly ruthless when not distracted by his obsessions.
Like Elianor he needed to be likeable enough to follow but true to his character. Unfortunately, (and again unsurprisingly), I felt too close to him. So, I would make excuses for him. I edged him towards being the hero in a story without heroes, in a story where if there had to be a hero it was Elianor. It took a long time for me to get the balance right (and it was problems with alcohol that showed me the path back to making him vile enough for the story.)
Finally, humour. You can write books that are 100% grimdark bleak dark death pain no tomorrow slit wrists in the bathtub etc etc. Given that I prefer books that are funny, why would I write one that was not? So, I set out to build a reputation for writing funny plays. Turns out well-written comedies are even easier to get staged than well-written drama. I read every book on comedy I could find. I wrote lots, and lots, and lots of jokes, and I kept notes when audiences laughed. Then I wrote more jokes. Writing is a craft. Throughout Vile the character’s have moments of humour, moments of tenderness, hopefully even moments that will make you laugh. Telling jokes is so much of a part of our everyday lives, why wouldn’t that be true of our character’s as well?
And so, four years after I start my 30-day first draft, I had a real draft, a draft that got past my wife, a draft that got past my friends, a draft that got past a professional developmental editor. A draft that got publication offers from three different publishers. I turned those offers down. I want the freedom to keep on learning. To write the books that I want to write. And, I figure, whatever I earn self-publishing will be more than from that book on banking regulation.
What I’m saying is this: you can learn to do anything if you try hard enough, and if you have the humility to look all the things you do badly straight in the eye and strive to make them better,
I hope you enjoy Vile, because that’s what it’s about at the end of the day. I certain learned a lot from writing it. And, with a bit of luck, my mother will never, ever find it…
Keith Crawford is a retired Navy Officer, a disabled veteran, a Doctor of Law & Economics, a barrister, a stay-at-home Dad, and a writer. He has written for collections of scholarly works, academic journals, and newspapers including The Economist. He has had more than thirty plays recorded or produced for stage, been listed in a variety of short story competitions (in spite of his hatred of short stories), and runs a radio production company, www.littlewonder.website, which regularly runs competitions promoted by the BBC to help find, develop and encourage new writers.
In 2014 he was lecturing at Sciences Po in Paris and negotiating a contract to write a book on banking regulation, when he and his wife discovered to their delight that they were due to have their first child. Rather than writing more work that would only be read by his poor students, and then misquoted by politicians, he decided he would do his bit to stick his fingers up at the patriarchy and stay home to look after his own kids rather than the grown-up kids of rich people. Two more children swiftly followed. Keith has discovered that if you recite Stick Man backwards you get the lyrics to AD/DC’s Highway to Hell.
This (looking after the kids, not satanic rites with Stick Man) allowed him to support his wife’s career, which appears to be heading for the stratosphere, and also gave him the space to write about swordfights and explosions. And spaceships. All of which are more fun than banking regulation. As an extension to his work in radio production, he set up his own small press, and his first novel, Vile, is due to be published in December 2019. More novels will swiftly follow, like buses in countries that don’t privatise the bus companies.
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