How I write a novel – idea to self-publication.

Writer’s diary: stardate: 20.12.2013

It occurred to me this week that as this blog is essentially an online diary recounting my efforts as an author-publisher it might be worth recording for posterity the process I go through to write and publish a novel – start to finish. Who knows, The Paris Review might want to do a piece on me one day (probably when I’m dead. Typical that would be.) and so if I have the material available in the public domain they won’t have to make it up, will they?

I’m essentially talking about the physical process of churning out the finished article here not the generation of ideas. It’s obvious that every novel must start with an idea. I know that writers have different ways about growing their ideas and exploring them. Some plan meticulously with diagrams and post-its and notepads of jottings. That’s not me. Sometimes I write something down if I think I’m going to forget it. I did start carrying a mini digital voice recorder around with me to capture ideas quickly on the hoof, so to speak. This can work well for me because my walk to work and back is when I have most of my best ideas. (Annoying when the batteries run out though.) I get some conversational material this way that I can record as I walk along. And I don’t look mad because just about everyone else I pass is talking on their phones. I’m just talking to myself. Out loud. And recording it. Is that mad?

As for the development of a narrative I’m firmly in the same school as Ray Bradbury, though sadly not in the same class. I’m mostly a make it up as I go along kind of writer. But because I’m always thinking about the story I’m engaged in if something occurs to me when I’m away from the laptop, as I said,  I’ll try to make a note.

Take this new novel I’m working on. It’s the second in the Booker and Cash series. I’m not getting to sit down at the keyboard as much as I’d like to these days so I tried to save a bit of time by taking opportunities when I have some thinking time to plan what’s coming next. But it doesn’t work for me. I can’t work/write like that. I never get anywhere. However, as soon as I sit down at the keyboard it’s the characters who take the threads and run with them.

(Fantastic insight into Bradbury’s writing process and thinking and life here.

Well worth a look as are all of the interviews with other authors there. Great resource. The following quote from Bradbury struck a particularly resonant chord with me: I’ve always believed that you should do very little reading in your own field once you’re into it. That’s how I feel. Sadly, Ray doesn’t elaborate on this thinking. I’d like to have known more. (I have my own reasons.)

So, where was I?

1) With my general idea, settle at my laptop. Open three new word documents. One for the book, one for brief chapter summaries and one for character names.

2) Start typing. I always try to leave my writing with something left to do that I’ve already thought of. I mull this over when I’m away from the computer and when I next sit down I can pick up the thread and get straight into it rather than sit and stare at the screen wondering what’s going to happen next.

3) I usually start my writing sessions off by reading the previous chapter. I always make alterations. It helps get my mind into the narrative.

4) When the novel is finished (What? Finished? What happens between the start and the end? Answer: life, thinking about the story, writing, being part of a family, thinking about the story, writing, working, thinking about the story, writing, thinking about the story, eating, writing, thinking about the story, sleeping, writing, thinking about the story, ablutions, writing, thinking about the story, time passes but I’m always thinking about the story and adding to it.)

I write everything on my laptop. At home I write either at the dining room table or sitting on a chair in the bedroom with the laptop on a tray – depends who’s at home and how noisy they are. I carry my laptop to work with me every day and, subject to work commitments, I write at my desk in the staffroom before school starts, during break-times, dinner times, during free periods and after school.

When it’s ‘finished’ I read it through on the computer at least twice. I do a lot of alterations and editing in this phase. The further I get into the books the harder it gets to keep it all in mind, different threads and developments. It can end up a real jigsaw, a puzzle that needs bits moving around for the best effect. A mystery that needs solving.

5) When I’m fairly happy that I have a good draft, I then print it off with a cover page, take it to the shop round the corner and have spiral spine and plastic covers fitted. This makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I have written a book. I usually then go for coffee and cake and walk around with the physical manuscript under my arm and a smile on my face for the day pretending that I’m a successful writer who’s carrying a best-selling book in manuscript form under his arm.

6) Leave it alone for a few weeks.

7) Read manuscript with coloured highlighter pen. Then update word document.

8) Reread manuscript with different coloured highlighter pen. Then update word document.

9) Reread manuscript with different coloured highlighter pen. Then update word document.

10) If I’m happy at this stage I’ll go to (11). If not I’ll repeat the process in 7,8&9 as many times as feels right.

11) Send edited and formatted word document to my Amazon Kindle account. The document comes straight back as something I can read on my Kindle.

12) Read the Kindle version with the original hard-copy within reach. Use a different coloured pen to make further alterations. (That’s three mediums I’ve used to read the book. I find viewing the text in different physical ways brings a new perspective to the experience. I see different things and things differently.)

13) Feel pleased with myself.

14) Send word document to Martin.

15) Martin works on what needs doing regarding proofreading and editing suggestions.

16) Martin sends me two files back. One that is the ‘clean’ revision he’s done and one that is the original I sent him with a markup reading pane at the side showing all annotated changes and suggestions. The text can end up looking like my hard-copy with all the highlighter over it.

16) I read through the clean copy to see how it grabs me. Then I read through the annotated copy to see what Martin’s changed.

17) We might exchange comments, insults and further suggestions.

18) When I’m as happy as I can be with the final copy I submit it to Amazon.

19) Celebrate.

20) Wake up in a ditch or a cold and smelly bus shelter three days later, quite a bit poorer, covered in the evidence of my over-doing it and often semi-naked (a bit like a crime scene from a R&M File) and wishing I hadn’t celebrated.

Somewhere in the process I get to thinking about the cover art and the title. That can happen at any time. I’ll often go through a few titles until I find one that I’m really happy with.

Regarding cover art, I work with Kit Foster. He’s done them all and I’m still very happy with them all. I usually have some strong ideas of what I want to see on the cover and Kit always manages to combine them and come up with something that really does it for me.

So there we have it. Whole process for me to write an 80,000 – 100,000 word novel typically takes between three and four months with work and life in the mix. If I didn’t have to work I reckon I could knock out four books a year. This year I’ve managed two (but I did do a lot of work on the Acer Sansoms and got them out there). All my R&Ms are 80,000 – 85,000 words. The Acers are 100,000 words each. The new novel – Bad Sons – is 85,000 words.

5 thoughts on “How I write a novel – idea to self-publication.

  1. Very interesting as always. Two things stand out to me:

    1. “I have my own reasons”

    I’d be interested to know some of these. I always recommend that clients read OUTSIDE of their field, sometime way outside – trying to write a crime novel after only reading hundreds of other crime novels is likely to produce something that’s either completely sterile or so niche as to be unaccessible to anyone except the author. The contrast of reading the occasional horror or sci-fi or 30s erotica can be very helpful.

    But crime is a very tricky genre with lots of unique problems and techniques, many of which you just aren’t going to run into reading outside the field. Placing clues, establishing and juggling suspicion, revealing a solution in a clear, surprising and interesting way… I think it’s vital to see how other crime authors have tackled these issues. There’s been 100 years of progress on this front (admittedly most of it in the first 40 years), and ignoring this is going to be like starting from scratch. Even if other books DO use these techniques (withholding information from the reader and revealing it later is pretty universal), crime tends to do it in a “pure” way which makes it easier to study. Something like “The Three Coffins” by John Dickson Carr has very little merit except as a mystery. Which makes it a cruddy book, but excellent study material.

    2. What’s the longest section you’ve ever cut/rewritten from a book?

    Although I’m firmly in the “plan everything” camp, as you know, I’m obviously in favour of any technique that gets the words on the page. But the problem with writing as you go along is that you have to rely on broader structural issues sorting themselves out, or try to fix them after the fact, which leads to that nightmare jigsaw situation you allude to.

    Yes you can keep things in check by instinct, but it’s hard to keep an eye on the big picture as you go along. Apart from issues of how you can possibly create a satisfyingly complex mystery like this, I’d worry about pacing. This is especially true at the beginning of a story. One of the most common suggestions ruthless editors will make is to start a story a third of the way through or even later. If the story doesn’t build up steam until 30,000 words in, then that’s where it needs to start.

    Police procedurals have an additional problem: the tedious middle. That’s when all the suspects need to be questioned because that’s proper and expected procedure, but the reader KNOWS that nothing definitive can result because there’s still half a book to go. So what you’ve got is a lot of chat that’s almost guaranteed to be a blind alley, and even the most entertaining dialogue is going to struggle to keep things compelling. Obviously this affects any story where you know how long it is, but police procedurals have a pretty limited range of options for what can legitimately go in the middle part of the story.

    Planning in advance tends to circumvent or at least minimize these issues. Fixing it after the fact usually leads to some pretty difficult pruning decisions. You either have to get rid of very large chunks material you like for the sake of the overall book, or leave it in at the expense of the pace and structure.

    • Hello Rich
      For a man typing with one hand you seem to be managing pretty well. Your two questions have been really difficult to respond to. What I mean is, I’ve really had to think hard about my answers and then how I write them. And I’m still not very happy with my responses.

      Why don’t I read a lot of crime fiction? The reasons are both practical and personal. 1) Living abroad I’m pretty reliant on my Kindle. 2) The decent crime authors are traditionally published. Traditional publishers are generally asking several £s for digital copies of their client’s books. I’m not paying several £s for digital copies of even my favourite books. I’ll pay money for a physical book I want but not a digital file. It’s a principal thing. 3) There are crime series I’d like to read and have not yet: Rankin, Reg Hill, Morse, Frost, Rendell etc but because they are series I’d like to read them in order. But then again, I’m a little anxious that if I read these books I might start unconsciously stealing lines and plots and ideas from them. I don’t want their influences in my head. I’ll get over that. In any case, reading time is very limited at the moment and so I like to try other genres. Writing crime and reading crime might become a little samey.

      I enjoy cold war thrillers by Le Carre, Deighton, Albury, Gerald Seymour and historical fiction – Sansom and Patrick O’Brian for examples. And I’m working my way through the free classics on Amazon. I also enjoy American crime of the Chandler, Elmore Leonard and Travis McGee style. There is the other salient point that when I have tried some of the modern crime fiction on offer from UK and US and Scandinavia I have not been too enamoured with it. Maybe I just got the wrong authors.

      What’s the longest section you’ve ever cut/rewritten from a book?
      In truth, only the odd paragraph or sentence. I have not written a book yet where I have felt the need to cut big lumps out of it. I shift stuff about, edit and revise. I don’t think that I write with great detail anyway and I like to think that everything I spend the time to write is going in somewhere and if it isn’t, I wouldn’t have thought to include it in the first place. If anything, when I have that hard-copy, my experience is that I’m not going to cut stuff, I’m going to add. Maybe that’s my secret – the first finished draft is not overburdened but underdressed.

      I feel quite fortunate in that when I really get into writing a book I’m able to keep the whole story in my head as I would remember a favourite film, almost like I physically experienced it and each read-through consolidates my understanding further.

      I appreciate the points you raise re pacing and it’s quite possible that my books fall foul of conventional wisdom in this regard. But you know what? I am happy to write the way I write. There is nothing in any of my books that I would want to cut. A reader complained that the opening of Making a Killing was too long for a disposable character. I thought about that and then disagreed. The bottom line is if it works for me then it’s going in. One of those joys of self-publishing. And the proof of the pudding is in the feedback and a good number of readers seem to have enjoyed the books as they are. Mind you, I’m not so arrogant that I don’t appreciate the books could be improved by good editing.

      Maybe the R&M Files aren’t, strictly speaking, police procedurals. But they involve police solving crime so I’m not sure what else I could list them under. I can’t claim to have been a great student of traditional themes of the genre. So it’s quite possible that purists might not warm to them. That sort of thing doesn’t keep me awake at night. Again, I’m just enjoying what I’m writing and if readers enjoy my books too then that’s all that matters to me.

      Best wishes and thanks for your interest.

  2. Dictation software. It used to be crap, but now it’s basically magic, provided you don’t feel like an idiot talking out loud and having to speak your punctuation like Victor Borge. Unfortunately it’s too fiddly to do editing with, but it works pretty well for rambling into social media.

  3. Great post OT. I enjoy reading about other authors’ routines, especially when my own is so chaotic as to make me doubt my own professionalism / ability from time to time.

    Loved the Bradbury link also – thanks. Really great stuff – I particularly liked his three rules for living, his concept of making the most of an idea as soon as it arrives to give the work its own life and ‘skin,’ (something I absolutely agree with but haven’t been able to articulate) and his aversion to pre-planning. Maybe I don’t feel so bad about the chaos after all…

    • Cheers, Tin.
      I always felt a bit bad about not doing the big planning thing. Surely, I must be doing something wrong? Ray makes me feel a whole lot better about the way I go about things. And he wrote some fantastic stuff.
      That Paris Review site is great for wasting an hour or two.
      So, how do you go about it? My curiosity is serious.
      And finally, what are you doing on here on Christmas Eve?

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