How to Write a Killer Plot: WORD Christchurch Festival 2021

Finally the moment arrived!

Like presenter Jo Malcolm, I did a little dance when WORD Christchurch Festival was reborn; a smaller event in November instead of August. As the saying goes, it's quality not quantity, and How To Write A Killer Plot did not disappoint.

After months of uncertainty and postponements caused by the Delta outbreak, I was really excited to attend this great event - with local crime writer Paul Cleave in person, and Jacqueline Bublitz, (who is actually from New Plymouth, although she lives in Melbourne) looming over the auditorium on the big screen.

I felt like a voyeur lurking on livestream, a really good option for a web reporter.

Paul's latest book, The Quiet People, about the disappearance of the son of two crime writers, has the self-awareness of some of Stephen King's books, which also explore the assumed culpability of a writer immersed in staging death and terror.

Jacqueline Bublitz is riding high on a huge wave of success with her first book, Before You Knew My Name; the story of a young woman murdered while out jogging one early morning in New York. 

Where do these two get their ideas?

Bublitz says the idea for Alice and Ruby's story in Before You Knew My Name germinated a long time ago. A jogger herself, she used to run 'The Tan' track around Melbourne's Botanic Gardens early in the morning. In 2014 a young woman was sexually assaulted and murdered on the same route. A second young woman was murdered in the city around the same time. At the time she worried about her own safety. Bublitz, with the respect she showed her character, named both victims. 

Cleave says the idea for The Quiet People came from a response to The Staircase, a show on Netflix - and from often being judged by the fact that he was a crime writer. His writer/character talks about how the public's perception of the mind of a crime writer can turn the public against him:

"People say things like, 'So you really love crime?' or 'What kind of person writes this stuff?' I've been asked, 'Will you take us around murder hotspots in Christchurch?' 'Can you give us your insight into a (real) murder?'  No. Its not appropriate. People say, 'You must have a really sick mind. They're wrong most of the time...(jokes) so (The Quiet People) looks at peoples' judgement of crime writers - the perfect people to stage a crime scene. Crime writers are a bit flippant on stage, saying 'I could do the perfect crime - I've said it - and it comes back to bite them in the ass."

Bublitz thinks, "Now I do know how to kill."

Her crime "feels familiar" - because, tragically, gender-based crimes happen so often. She's overjoyed to be embraced by readers, and crime writers' networks. She wanted Alice's story to reach a broader audience, so it helped to think like a crime writer. Does she follow convention? She flouts it, by starting with the end which perhaps softens the blow?

Does Paul plot a story before he starts writing? His focus, he says, is usually on a setting, a character, or an opening chapter. Although he doesn't follow conventions, his writing is linear, but uses flashbacks. Paul writes 7000 words a day!

"I've got nothing else to do," he says. "The only time I ever plotted a book I wasn't able to write it. I just kind of go for it! Maybe you can see a few chapters ahead.. but I have no idea - its whatever happens on the day, with 'aha!' moments. In that way I'm entertaining myself along the way. I'd say its a 50/50 mix which authors do this. You can go back and amend bits but it has a ripple effect..."

Does Jacqueline use a beginning, middle, end structure?

"No - it's all freewheeling and see how it goes. I drop characters into a situation and see how it goes. Editing is where you make sense of things. I didn't know I was writing a crime novel, so I didn't have to break with conventions."

Bublitz quotes T.S Eliot: "The end is where you start from."  In her mind, she saw the end scene of Before You Knew My Name and worked forwards from that, interested in "How did they get to this point? The truest part of the book is the ending" she says.

Jo Malcom talks about setting, asking Cleave, "Why Christchurch?"

The setting - it's familiar: I know what can be going on in different parts of the city. Christchurch has a small town vibe but its big enough for police and a serial killer to be in the same space at the same time. That couldn't happen in city of ten million. Besides, I love Christchurch."

Cleave says when he first began writing, people weren't so keen on seeing New Zealand books. Audiences tended to stick to their own familiar scenes - the UK, the States, so he wrote as if you could pick the story up and put it anywhere. These days, his pub is asking for Kiwi identifiers, such as jetboats on the 'Waimak', rimu trees, getting stuck behind boats...

Bublitz liked the 'vibe' of New York:

"You can be anonymous. You can get lost, or be found in the most extraordinary way, which can change the direction of your life."

She went there herself, jogging in Riverside Park (where Ruby finds Alice's body). Not knowing anyone, like Ruby, she could go for ages without talking to anyone, except for being mostly misunderstood (due to her accent) ordering bagels, or she would meet 'transplants'  - people just passing through. Bublitz, wanted to live there.

Malcolm asks about rejection. Paul Cleave had a work rejected because a publisher hated the crime/humour mix. Then the Dexter series did it, and was hugely successful. He was then faced with 'Dexter's already done that.'

The #Metoo movement took offence at men writing depictions of women being at the centre of violent crime novels. It worked in reverse for Bublitz. Cleave says, "Don't blame crime writers, blame the world!" pointing out that crime writers are raising awareness rather than being sensationalist.

Cleave doesn't read reviews, depending instead on the reaction from his readers. " 'I like it' is the best feedback."  Both authors uses a professional editor for the draft process.

Bublitz says, "I love how they have my back."

Characters? Bublitz says they feel real, and she misses them - "I want to slip them in the next book.". She is often asked, "Which one is you?" Bublitz borrows them from real life and real people. Her character, Ruby, is from Melbourne - she wanted to make her experience of New York similar to her own. 

Jo Malcolm: "Are you getting better and better?"

Paul Cleave: "As I age? ...Yep. It's experience. You would expect a sportsman to improve. If I get stuck I don't panic any more - it happens every time - it's part of the process."

Paul says that a writer can take a lot from one book and put it into the next one: things like structure, pacing and repetition. 

Jo Malcolm talks about not knowing what's going to happen. Does Jacqueline drop clues as she's writing? Bublitz says that the clues were found in editing; "thank you, past me!" And of course the murder has already happened. Bublitz suggests that we still will read or watch a story or a film even if we know what's going to happen. "I'm interested in how things got to that point, how they got there. Its a bit like the Titanic", she says as an example.

"Spoiler alert!" says Paul Cleave. Lol.

Paul's approach is also to add the odd hint as to whodunnit in the editing, but he loves to lie to the reader.

"I tell you there's a twist but you don't see it....then you go, oh! now it makes sense!"

You have to be careful with this technique, Cleave warns, because it can create a ripple effect in continuity. And get you into trouble with your editor.

Why do we like Crime? "Closure, " says Cleave: "justice, ending."

Why write Crime? "I like money," says Paul, with a twinkle. Why not Romance? "I'm not very good at it."

Paul reckons he's been doing this so long he couldn't do anything else. He loves getting emails from around the world, going to book fairs and receiving copies of his books in different languages. He's come a long way from the nervous young festival guest Rachael King might remember.

For Jacqueline Bublitz, her reason for writing crime was timing: the fragility of existence; the feeling, based on her own experience, that you could get out of the shower and the whole world could has changed. (Her dad had a heart attack) .

"I like to look at who they were before everything changed." 

Expect to see both these authors in the final five for the Ngaio Marsh Awards next year. Jacqueline Bublitz's new book (new book!) was written while Before You Knew My Name was being edited for publication. She's very eager to impress. In my book, she has. And Paul Cleave continues to knock them out of the ball park.

WORD Christchurch