Monthly Archives: January 2014

Adventures in Writing…writing as a process.

I hope this might be of interest.

I often find it hard to explain the writing process. For me it is purely intuitive and instinctive. I’m not one for learning lessons or reading ‘how-to’ websites and books. I write novels. End of. It is difficult for me to convey how I do things. I’m not like this in history. When I teach history, I can impart not just the knowledge, but the understanding too. I help students to research, plan and write essays. But when it comes to creative writing…well…

A lot of it comes from practise, of course it does. Writing regularly makes you better at writing! But not simply the mechanics of writing, knowing how  to pace a story, you also need patience, time and determination to read back over what you have produced, critically. To be able to pick out the grammar, spelling, syntax errors. To look for POV discrepancies, passive voice, and to step into the head of a reader, not only a writer. This is absolutely essential I feel, which is why I always read passages of dialogue out loud. That way I not only check for silly mistakes, but I can hear whether or not the dialogue is realistic and natural.

OK, given all of that, this is how it works…

A germ of an idea comes into my head. This is the most difficult part to explain, as I have no idea where these ideas come from. I invariably know if I’m going to pursue this initial idea and develop it from the feeling I get in my gut. If I achieve the ‘buzz’, that thrill which rushes through my insides, then I know I’ve got it. This happened recently with ‘Roadkill’, where my initial idea just blossomed and the whole story mapped its way in front of me as if by its own volition. If this doesn’t happen to me, it is rare that I pursue the idea. Fairly soon I find myself thinking about the story at the most inopportune of times – often when I’m in a meeting, or somebody is talking to me about something really important. Well, importance is relative, isn’t it…because, to be frank, there is not much else which is important apart from my story!


Next, I sit down and begin to jot down a simple 10 step plan. Nothing hugely detailed, just the very bare bones of the initial thought, developed into a sort of structure.

Then, I begin to look at things much more deeply, but I’m still working fast. I very rarely stop to think at this stage. I’m jotting down notes and ideas as they come, crossing things out, looking ahead, going back, all the while developing the plot, bringing in lots red-herrings, trying to keep everything meaningful.

It is this aspect, the plot development, which I consider in more detail, slowing down. The plot is everything. I usually have a very good idea of how the story will end. So, in a sense, I’m writing backwards, attempting to ensure that all the scenes, events, etc, all lead towards the finale. This doesn’t always happen, but I feel a lot more secure if it does. I am not one of those writers who can simply sit and allow the narrative to develop on its own. I need to know the general direction. HOWEVER, I am not restricted by this, and often the end can change. As can developments in the plot. And as I finally sit to write out the story, changes occur at this juncture too. Characters can die, or do something which I never envisaged. It’s exciting and keeps me on my toes.

So, I guess, my story is quite loosely planned and is always developed and changed as the writing takes over. And it DOES takes over. It consumes me totally. That first draft, I simply have to get it down. I write like someone possessed, churning out at least 6000 words in a day, sometimes more. I write at weekends and holidays (I’m a teacher, and although I have long holidays, I am simply too exhausted to write during the week…This may surprise some people, but teachers do work hard!). I usually look to write at least 65,000 words on that first draft, if it is a thriller. A piece of historical fiction, I’m looking to get down at least 80-90,000 words. So, 12000 words in any given week…maybe 6 weeks to complete the first draft, but during the holidays, this can be as little as 3 weeks.

A lot of writers say you should now look at the 2nd draft and begin to cut. Cut, cut, cut, they say. Well, that doesn’t work for me I’m sorry to say. What I tend to do is DEVELOP my scenes and my dialogue, to explain things in more detail. Not to waffle, but to simply keep it going, to bring it to life. Sometimes writing can be too short, with not enough detail. The reader needs to know what is happening and where things are happening. That means description. So, what might have begun as 65,000 words will end up as 80,000 and my historical fiction work is now coming in at around 120,000 words. BUT, as long as it makes sense and it’s entertaining, I don’t believe we need to get too hung up on word counts. The story dictates, as always.

OK, so I’ve now done the 2nd draft, and it is shaping up well. I use ‘Auto-Crit’ to help me with repetitive words and phrases, and it’s amazing what it picks up. I could have read a scene 12 times and not even noticed I’ve used the same word twice in consecutive sentences. It’s also good for picking up over-used words, and those horrible little words – that, it, then, was – which we can all shave down to the bare minimum.

Because I use publishers, once submitted (and if I’m accepted of course), I work closely with the editor in fine-tuning the work until it is ready for publication. Some editors are fantastic, some…well, we’ll leave it at that. If you’re self-publishing, you need to get hold of someone to read over what you’ve done and offer advice on pacing, as well as structure and grammar, etc. Whether you pay for this, well…that’s up to you. It’s a bloomin’ minefield out there, with all sorts of ‘experts’ offering all sorts of advice, and most of them are disreputable, so please take care. Use personal recommendations if you can and don’t be swayed by all the advertising hype. This is one of the reasons I have no intention of going self-published, but that’s just me. You may think differently, but you need to tread carefully!

Well, that’s it; my way of doing. things It is not the only way, but it’s the way that works for me. And I think that’s the important point. Whatever works well for you as an individual. But it is damned hard work, and is full of set-backs, self doubt and despair. Some people simply can’t do it, or they only ever write one book. For me, it is a passion. The drive to create. I live to tell stories and I hope that some of you feel the same way too.

Thanks for dropping by and I hope you’ve found something of interest here. I’m always willing to give help, advice and encouragement to budding writers, so please comment or visit my website to find out more about me and what I do.

Keep reading!




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Adventures in Writing…feeling the buzz

I’ve been so sick these past 10 days. I caught something awful whilst in Paris for the New Year, and it laid me low so badly I could neither eat nor drink. I must have lost more than 5 kilos, but far from feeling better for that, I have felt close to death. Certainly, on my journey back home on Saturday 4th January, I honestly believed I would not make it. I remember sitting in the airport, having gone through security, thinking ‘I can’t go on’. I don’t know where the strength came from, but I managed to get to my feet and reel, like a drunkard, towards the boarding gate.

At no time did I feel fear or panic, just a terrible sickly feeling which gripped my insides, cramped me up, and almost made me swoon. I have a capacity, from where I do not know, to ‘keep buggering on’, because I know I have no choice. This happened to me in the desert once, when I was stranded miles from anywhere with no water and temperatures hitting the high forties. I knew I was going to die, knew I could not walk, and yet somehow I managed to survive. I’m not exaggerating.

But, when I get home, and normality strikes, other things occurred which have led my life into another direction. The one thing remaining the same, however, is all the emails I receive. Constant, like a barrage aimed at wearing me down, destroying my defences and rendering me susceptible to attack. So much more than any illness ever could.

Every flaming day of my life they come flying in, radar guided Exocets. How to get published, 50 ways to write a great pitch (God, I HATE that word too – ‘pitch’. Jeez…), learn how to plot, the 12 pillars of great novel writing…you know what, I’m sick of it. I want to throw my computer through the window, get out the old Olivetti, go back to how it was. I’m certain when I began writing there was stuff like this. The difference was it wasn’t rammed into my face every second of every flaming day.

I remember going to my local library and scouring the shelves for some books which might help me with stuff like this. I found some, ‘How to write Children’s Books’ I remember was one title. I think I read about 3 pages before I sank into despair.

So, do you know what I did?

I read.

I wanted to be a thriller writer. I wanted to write stories which would grip and entertain, which had fantastic storylines and awesome twists. So I read. Everything. I must have spent a fortune (well, I was on the dole in those days, getting £4.75 a week. Yes, you can read that again if you don’t believe me). Most of that money I spent on books. Agatha Christie, Jon Creasy, Leslie Chateris, Jack Higgins. I loved those early Jack Higgins books, devouring them in a day or two. And as I read, I learned. I learned all about plot development, the building of tension, and I wrote as I read, developing my style, exploring, experimenting, feeling that buzz of excitement every time I sat down and fed  the paper into the typewriter. I am blessed with a boundless imagination, which does help. I am forever creating stories in my head. And, like my ability to keep going, no matter what, I wrote whenever I got the chance. In my early days I simply wrote and wrote and wrote. I must have got down maybe eight full length novels, and I never submitted a single one. I knew they weren’t good enough, but I loved writing them.

It is that sense of love that still determines what I do today. If I do not achieve that buzz, then I don’t continue with a particular scene. I have to know, instinctively, that what I have done is worthy. The buzz is my guide. It’s intuitive, instinctive, but it is what drives me on. I believe when the buzz goes, so will my need to write. I doubt however if that day will ever come.

So, is my advice to turn away from all of these self-help books by the ‘experts’?

In a word…yes. Before you spend your money, you must WANT to write. You must have a BURNING desire to tell a good story. Writing is not easy, and neither is it a way to make money. My first book was published in 2009. I haven’t made a penny. Not a single penny. Do I care? If I did I wouldn’t still be doing it, would I.

First thing, write. Once you written a few novels, then perhaps you might want to dip into some of these tomes of wisdom, pick up a few pointers, smooth off a few of those rough corners, but I think it would be so much better to join a writing group first. There you’ll get honest feedback, not the holier-than-thou wisdom of people who probably haven’t written a 100,000 word novel in their life. I remember I was told, and still am, not to use the word ‘suddenly’, or to use adverbs. Then, the most heinous sin of all, the ‘head hop’. Then, I picked up a Henning Mankell book. Henning Mankell has sold in excess of 20 million books. Can you imagine? In one page I must have seen any number of adverbs, adjectives, the use of ‘suddenly’ and different POVs dotted here and there. George R R Martin does it too. All the time. It made me think. Who is it who actually makes up these rules? As long as your writing flows, makes sense and doesn’t cause the reader confusion, then why not do it? I’ll look at this again, because I think it’s worth a debate on its own, but rules…Mm… I’m not so sure about rules.

Yeh, I’m very anti-establishment. I’m a rebel. Always have been. And what annoys me, no, INFURIATES me more than anything else is when people you have never heard off get up and proclaim ‘this is the way you should do it’. Anybody who has the balls to stand up to tell other people how to do things…well, sorry, but I ain’t interested. When was the last time you heard Harlan Coben telling anyone how to write? And Harlan Coben is brilliant AND successful. Do you know why? Because he tells thumping good stories that engage the reader. Writing is a craft. You learn it, and you learn it by writing. So sit down, open up your notebook, and get that imagination working. Lesson one. Done and dusted. Good luck!


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