Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Jacqueline Christodoulou tells us how Crime Writing found Her...

When people ask me about my writing I usually tell them that I submitted my first novel five years ago. But that’s not entirely true. My journey began a long time before that.

Like most people, I started writing at school.  I didn't give up later on. Likewise, reading began at around five years old and I continued. So when I decided to write novels I thought I had a fairly good grounding. How difficult could it be?
Not so easy, it turned out.

I began to write short stories for publication around 1995 and had some success with women's magazines. So the natural next step was to write something longer. I'd been thinking about a story and I began to write that, with some autobiographical details thrown in. Bound to be a winner, wasn't it? I sent it to the Romantic Novelists Association as an entry to one of their competitions. The main thrust of the feedback was that I had spelt 'whether' as 'wether' wrongly the whole way through the manuscript conjuring up the image of a castrated male sheep for the reviewer. Not exactly what I was hoping for.  I sent it to a couple of agents (with corrected spelling), and it was rejected.

Around that time I had been working with a group of young people at a youth project and learnt that there was more to storytelling than meets the eye - rather than just being a source of entertainment, it's how people construct and understand their life experiences.

So I went to study it academically for many years and came out on a very different trajectory than I entered at - I became a narrative psychologist with a successful non-fiction book about identity construction!

I’d learnt about the nuts and bolts of storytelling, and how it affects people psychologically. I learned about Aristotle’s three acts and how everyday language is storytelling with a beginning, middle and an end. In many ways, studying the way people build their identities through stories brought me closer to understanding how readers understand novels, as a kind of conversation filtered through both the ideas of the author and the experience of the reader.

But I still wanted to write fiction. In fact, I couldn't stop writing fiction. I read a lot of women's fiction and decided I would write fiction for women. Seemed entirely reasonable. I didn't plan to write formula or commercial fiction, rather stories about lives, wherever that took me. The first two novels exorcised my own life out of the stories, leaving my set to write a third story free from my emotional shackles. My third novel was the first one I had been completely pleased with and excited about. However, when I sent it out, I soon realised that it was considered mixed genre.

In between writing the third novel and revising it, I wrote a speculative fiction story and briefly wondered if I was meant to veer off in this direction. Then I started another women's fiction book that, again, had dark undertones.

By this time I had detected a pattern - these women's fictions books were all set against a landscape of the peaks and troughs of lives and how people dealt with loss and various emotions. I'd learnt about Freytag's pyramid by this time, and about comedy, quest and tragedy stories. I'd learnt about seed words and thematic questions. Some time early last year I realised that I my thematic questions were about crime and mystery and I was trying to squash them into a women's fiction-shaped container.

I love my characters, so much that I dream about them. I was, and still am, committed to strong characters who, like real people, have their own nuances, flaws and ticks. So as well as the confusion over genre, I was trying to write a character-led novel with an equally strong plot. This led to a slow pace - I was trying to do everything at once.

It wasn't until my work attracted the attention of agents and I received their feedback that I realised I was a crime writer. I'd had some requests for full manuscripts from agents who represented crime and thriller authors, and I came to realise that this was what the darkness in my writing had been - underlying tones of dreadful things in women's lives. I had also been writing strong women characters and some of the critique from beta readers mentioned that they were perhaps a little too quirky for women's fiction. I told myself that they were quirky because of their horrendous life experiences, but never wrote about the horror. It was almost as if I had been resisting writing what I wanted to in an effort to get myself to a point where I wasn't writing about surface issues.

Writing about crime and mystery has allowed me develop my writing in a way that I had never been able to before. My interest in characterisation extends to the characters surrounding the crime and affected by it, as well as the antagonist and protagonist, and this has given me an opportunity to use my psychological knowledge to understand the dynamics.

Having described my journey so far it sounds like I have a master plan, all plotted out somewhere. Yet when I start writing all of the above is in there somewhere, driving the core of the story as the characters provide a canvas for it. It's still difficult, and a challenge. But the joy from the creative process makes it worthwhile. That, and imagining my novel published and on the shelves of a bookshop.

So crime writing is for me. It always was, right from the first novel when I took imaginary revenge on the man who left my great grandmother alone with a child. I just had to recognise it. Now it's difficult for me to imagine writing anything else. Although who knows where this writing journey will take me next?


Jacqueline has written for best! Magazine, Bea Magazine and The F-Word. She has contributed to the 100RPM anthology and has written a non-fiction book ‘Health, Identity and Women’. Jacqueline is currently working on her second crime novel.  Her first crime novel is currently "under discussion  with interested parties" - watch this space!
Her blog, Keeping it Real, looks at links between psychology, ideation and the writing process.

2 comments:

Derek said...

Thanks Debs, for bringing Jacqueline to our shore. It's always fascinating to read about the story behind the story, as it shows there is often more to a piece of fiction than meets the eye.

I think learning about other writers' processes gives us new perspectives on our own work. Thanks for such an in-depth and intriguing post, Jacqueline. And now I know about wethers and Freytag's pyramid!

Caroline Green said...

Yes, really enjoyed reading this. Thank you