Category Archives: Writing

Now the real work begins

Back in June 2018 I received a contract for a third novel in the Inspector James Given series (it didn’t start out as a series but has just grown that way) and, despite my slackness until I agreed a deadline, I completed the first draft by the last week in November. Hurrah!

I even got as far as devising a working title – it’s been James Given #3 for the last 5 months but now is called A Patient Man for the time being.

Unfortunately this is just the start of the process and there are many hours of work still ahead before it’s ready for a professional editor to take a look. Certainly I could just check it for typos, package it and send it off, there are plenty of novels out there where the author seems to have taken that approach, but then it wouldn’t be the best I could make it would it? And that’s what I want it to be, so the hard hours have to be put in.

I suspect every writer edits their work differently, and there are lots of guides out there to self-editing, so all I can talk about is how I’m attacking it. There are two main issues to address at this stage:

  1. I’m about 15,000 words short of my target length;
  2. I need to make sure the narrative of each of the story strands works from beginning to end.

I write using Scrivener on my laptop and on my iPad but prefer to read a hard copy, so the first job is to print a full manuscript, double spaced, punch it and put it in a ring-binder. The general advice seems to be to put it away for 6 months to give distance, but I’m not sure that works for me. Firstly, I’ve an awful memory so would probably forget where I put it. Secondly, I suspect that if I put it away I wouldn’t pick it up again, having moved on to new projects. Thirdly, there’s that deadline.

So, with my hard copy in hand, I skim read it, looking for time/day references or specific real events which provide a date stamp. I then produce what I should probably have produced before I started writing, a timeline. Because I’m that sort of geek, and because it’s easier to amend than a paper version, I tend to produce this as an Excel spreadsheet. Then I find that I need to go over the manuscript several times making margin notes to correct the times/days. This can, of course be very frustrating, and produce problems which seem almost insoluble – in this novel I had the declaration of the Second World War, which I’d have preferred (for other events) not to be on a Sunday, but it was, and nothing I could do about that so just had to make adjustments.

With these timing errors noted and rectified as far as possible I read the hard copy again, trying to avoid looking at typos, bad phrasing, etc, (that’s a later stage), making margin notes where further explanation might be needed, where gaps in the narrative arc have occurred and where opportunities exist to increase the word count. This latter one is really dependent on the others because adding words just for the sake of it isn’t a good idea, the reader simply finds it annoying to read verbiage.

Having read from beginning to end, without making any changes on the digital version, I then begin making the amendments in Scrivener, making sure I tick off each one on the hard copy.

This is the stage I’m at now. When it’s complete I’ll then read again and perhaps ask someone else to read it, still looking for errors in the narrative.

After that I’ll look for opportunities to increase internal and external conflict – the lifeblood of any good story. Then the work will start on phrasing, typos, repeat words, redundancies, excessive adverbs, clichés, pacing, etc. So not much there then.

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The pen is mightier

BrendanBannonPenAlmost nine years’ ago my wife bought me a pen for my birthday from Brendan Bannon’s small shop in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. The body of the pen is bog-oak, estimated by Brendan as being between 2,000 and 6,000 years old, which means it fell to the ground to begin its preservation when the pyramids were being built.

I’ve carried it in my pocket every day since then, initially for work and latterly to help me write four novels and countless short stories. Two weeks ago I lifted some change from my pocket and discovered the cap of my beloved pen had broken. I fiddled with it for a half hour without success then contacted Brendan Bannon, asking if he could fix it or replace all the fittings. He got back to me saying he probably couldn’t replace the fittings because it would damage the wood, but he’d supply a new pen at trade price – a very generous offer. However, did I want a new pen? I wasn’t sure. This was an old friend. We’d been through a lot together, at least three murders and hundreds of thousands of words. So I thanked Brendan and explained my dilemma.

Today he’s sent me a message saying he’s fixed the cap and he’ll post it back. What a star!

The point of this story isn’t to praise a pen-maker in Northern Ireland, or to talk about a bit of old wood, but to show how important it is for writers to have routine in order to be effective. This routine isn’t just about setting word targets or the hours when we write, it is also about the mechanics (pens, paper, tablet, laptop, etc) and place (coffee shop, desk, garden shed, etc) where we feel comfortable. I wouldn’t have stopped writing if I’d been deprived of my birthday pen but it wouldn’t have been the same and it may not have felt right with a new one. At least not for the first 50,000 or 60,000 words.

What routines do you use to increase your production?

Why did she say that?

How often in creative writing workshops have you heard that it is important to make your characters come alive? Like most authors I’ve struggled with that over the years but let me tell you, when it happens it’s both exhilarating and problematic.

I’ve plotted every scene of my current novel in sufficient detail for me to work on the first draft, which I’ve been doing now for a couple of months. There are quite a few characters in addition to the protagonist and antagonist, some I’m happy with, some I’m not. The latter need more work but the former feel well-rounded and I can see them. The problem starts when they’re so well drawn that they say things that aren’t in the plot but seem entirely appropriate for them to say at the time and in the place they find themselves. The other characters then need to react to the new situation and the story takes a twist I wasn’t expecting.

I could, of course, just go back and make the character say what I wanted them to say, bully them into submission if you like, but that would then be me talking, not the character. It would be false and, after all, I’ve wanted my characters to jump off the page so shouldn’t complain when they do.

How have I drawn them in this way? I don’t know. I’m a writer not a tutor and there are many good books out there which explain better than I could how to strive for this. All I know is that the two characters in this novel who seem to be speaking out of turn the most are ones where I drafted character sketches in the early planning. They didn’t become the characters I’d sketched, not entirely, but something in the process must have made them more real to me – allowed them (and me) to break free of two dimensions.

It’s exciting when this happens, even if it does mean parts of the plan need to be screwed up and re-written. It’s more than worth it in the end.

Is Research Worthwhile?

This week I spent a couple of hours researching the availability of cross-Channel ferries during the first weeks of the Second World War. Why? Because a character needs to get to France from England in September 1939. I found my answer after extensive googling and three emails to people who might possibly know. Continue reading

Newsflash – exciting

Today I have received an offer of contract from a publisher, Sapere Books, and am so excited. Sapere Books has offered to publish the new novel, A Rose by Any, alongside a relaunch of A Shadowed Livery and possibly a third in the Inspector James Given series which is currently at an early stage.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will be aware I’ve been looking for some time to place my second novel, following the decision of Holland House to stop commissioning new work for its Grey Cells Press imprint. It was a shame, because I have nothing but admiration for the dedication and editorial insight of Robert Peett and his team at Holland House, but independent publishing is a difficult game and I fully understand his decision.

One of the effects of these changes is that the digital version of A Shadowed Livery has ceased to be available for a while, although the print version may remain available via Amazon and other online outlets, or directly from Grey Cells Press. Hopefully, they will both become available again, alongside the new Inspector James Given novel, in a few months.

I’m very much looking forward to working with Amy Durant and her colleagues at Sapere Books on this new phase.

 

Finding the killer

I was just running through the main plot of my new crime novel with my wife a few days ago and she pointed out some similarities to the plot of my last one. After arguing for a few moments and trying the ‘there are only so many stories and it’s how you tell them’ defence I acknowledged she was right.

Unfortunately, by this time, I’d outlined almost 60 scenes and three sub-plots. I couldn’t abandon it all and I couldn’t go on – not with this ‘you’ve written this before you dummy’ gremlin sitting on my shoulder. So I tried tinkering. Could I use a different murder method? Could I use a different victim? Different killer? But I was so wedded to all the work I’d done and the intriguing (in my eyes) characters I’d developed that I couldn’t see past it.

In the end I drew a deep breath, pulled out my mind-mapping tool (mine’s Freemind but any will do) and started a new page. I asked three questions:

  • What are the methods of killing someone?
  • Why are people murdered?
  • Who might the killer be?

I didn’t bother with all the subsidiary variations, just enough to give me some choices and ideas, though I would have broken them down further if I was getting nowhere.

What I ended up with were half a dozen or more options in each category and within a few minutes I’d freed the head to completely rethink the story I was going to tell. I’m now writing a few alternative story-lines to see what works and what doesn’t.

The figure below shows my initial results. Try it for yourself. Let me know what you think.

Motive etc

Number Three

Finally. The writing of James Given number three has started. I’ve been plotting for a few weeks, and planning to start for much longer, but the actual words on the page have eluded me.

True, there have been a few changes in my life over the past few months (selling the house, moving country, etc, etc) and I’ve not quite settled in to a routine yet, but it’s not really a good excuse for not writing. I’ve still been sitting at the keyboard for a few hours every day reading those all-important Facebook posts, checking vital emails from holiday companies, and generally wasting time. I’ve told myself that if only I was still able to go into my favourite coffee shop (Mrs B’s in Killybegs, County Donegal if you’re passing) the prose would flow, though I know it isn’t the reason. The real reason is I’ve just been too lazy and easily distracted – not a good combination for a writer. I did have a traumatic experience in one new café though – I was accused by one of the locals of writing down everything that was being said. He might have been right but I wasn’t going to admit it!

So, to get a grip, I started to plot. I began with a vague notion of a body being found – there almost always is, you know – then asked ‘how did it get there?’. A chance encounter with a ‘what’s on’ guide gave me a murder weapon. Whilst thinking about who the villain might be, I wrote a ledger for the victim using some characteristics from someone in a newspaper article. The murderer came to me part way through the poor corpse’s scribblings so I wrote their journal next. Then, using a three act structure passed to me in a recent workshop, I sketched out the three main storylines.

Today, I wrote the end, then the beginning. At least it’s a start, and only 75,000 more words to join them together.

I’ll keep you posted.