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.

Close, but no cigar.

Best seller charts 3

Writer’s diary: 29.11.2013

Good job we’ve got a ‘special’ day off work today. I’ve got so much to do: extended blog-post to write (no groaning at the back), third draft of the fourth Romney and Marsh File to work on and a CV to dust off and make impressive, attention-grabbing things up for.

Let’s start with the bad news – I’m looking for a new place of work. I hate looking for jobs. I hate CVs. I hate applying. I hate interviews. I hate rejection. I hate starting somewhere new. But it’s got to be done. Every self-respecting professional has a line in the sand over which they will not cross when it comes to work. Well, I do anyway. I’m self-respecting. I’ve been shuffling towards my line for four years and this week I looked down to find it under the steel toe caps of my crowd control boots. (Did I mention I’m a primary school teacher?)

What’s this got to do with my writing diary? I hear myself ask. I would think that certain implications are obvious. However, there is one very big one that isn’t. I find it a little exciting to contemplate. I’ll save it for another blog-post when I’m surer of things and I’ve run out of stuff to write about.

(Interlude. One of my definitions for being a writer of fiction is that one can take the smallest crumb of an idea and be swept up with it in a matter of seconds until it has snowballed into a plot outline for a story. Example: Just as I typed the full-stop of the previous paragraph my imagination swooped on the suggestion of something, like a hawk falls on a small mammal. I couldn’t stop my imagination gambolling about with it for a bit (I know hawks don’t gambol – that’s lambs) and before I knew where I was I had a plot-line for a story that I would like the time to write – if I can’t find another job, I might have to. Here it is in a nutshell: man loses job, man has some savings, man lies to wife that he has new job, man goes out to ‘work’ every day, every week man gives ‘wages’ to wife for housekeeping and bills. [Wife would not like it if he were not working. Sometimes it’s just easier to lie to wives. That’s my experience of marriage anyway. Might have something to do with the reason I’m on my third.] Man isn’t going to work. Man wants to write – man doesn’t want to lie on his deathbed regretting that he never had a proper concentrated go when he has faith in his ability and some small success from self-publishing his stories. Man goes to cafe everyday to write. [So far this is just a summing up next year’s plan if you hadn’t guessed. And don’t worry on my account, she doesn’t read this.] Man overhears something in cafe. A crime to be committed. A heist. Big money involved. Cash. He sees an opportunity to rob the robbers. He follows them. He watches them. He waits for them to pull off their dirty deed and then…can I just remind readers about the law surrounding intellectual copyright and yes, I’ve seen LS&TSB. And don’t think I’m going to be giving away my twist.)

My good news this week is that I have a comprehensive draft of the fourth Romney and Marsh File finished. I’ve gone through it a couple of times and I’m happy that it’s all there. Now I just need to get ‘jiggy’ with it!

I feel a weight of expectation for this book that I haven’t felt with writing any of the others. The first three R&Ms were all written before I took the decision to self-publish and be damned. I had no idea if they would be read or how they would be received. I just put them out there. Now I know, and I believe that readers who have stuck with the series will want to try the next. There will be expectation and I feel it. I have to hope that I can live up to it.

This book has had two working titles, neither of which I was very happy about. The first, Money Talks lost its relevance as the story I initially had in mind turned out to be not the story my imagination wanted to run with. The second Hair of the Dog was too long and I couldn’t see how I could get the cover image trademark feature of this series (one of the letters of the title substituted by something relevant to the story) into the typography. Last night was one of those sleepless ones. Probably something to do with my impending work situation or it could have been the disturbance that my two year old son causes my sleep patterns because he insists on sleeping in the bed with us and lying across my head to get comfortable. (It’s either that or he screams the apartment building down.) I hope he grows out of this before he becomes a teenager. During my small hours wakefulness I decided to kick around a few ideas for a new title and finally something occurred to me that is a) relevant to the story b) something that I can fit in that trademark feature I was on about and c) longer than anything else I’ve come up with (oh well, as Meatloaf crooned) New title: Matters of Life & Death. I’ll give it a couple of weeks before I commission the cover art. Make sure I still like it.

Finally this week. It was with some surprise that I noticed on Amazon that Dirty Business and Loose Ends were both in the top five of an Amazon chart. I’m not lying. See screen shot above. One of my great ambitions as an author was almost achieved – I almost made best-seller status. They are still hanging around up there but I can’t see them displacing the big guys. Perhaps I shouldn’t get too carried away by the achievement of almost being a chart-topper. After all, the chart: Kindle store > Books > Crime, Thriller, Mystery > Thrillers > Assassinations, is the fiction equivalent of the non-fiction chart: Kindle Store > Books > Cookery > Meals on a Budget  > Vegetarian > Ethnic Minority Cuisine > Gluten Free. Still, it was a bit of a buzz for a while. It would have been something, if not for my CV as a teacher, then for my headstone in the graveyard: RIP Oliver Tidy – Best-selling novelist. Somewhere for the legions of heart-broken fans of the R&M Files and the Acer Sansom novels to flock to and pay homage. Maybe lean a red rose against or sob their way through a short reading beside.

Right, talking of CVs…

Ding dong! Avon Calling!


Writer’s Blog: Stardate: 14.03.2013

I have astounded myself. On the 22.01.2013 I mentioned in a blog that I had been inspired to start writing a new book by reading a Raymond Chandler novel. (Just to be clear, it was his writing style that inspired me not theft of his plot or anything like that.) I have just finished the first draft. It is eighty-two-thousand words in length. Checking back on my computer, I created the first file for the first chapter of this novel on 16.01.2013. By my calculations that means that I have written the book in less than two calendar months (and one of those was February). I repeat: I have astounded myself.

I’m not bed-ridden, retired or unemployed. It’s not like I don’t have a life outside of my mind and away from my computer. Like every other aspiring author, I have to go to work. I have a family to support. I have a one-year-old son who insists on having my full attention during his waking hours if I’m at home. I go out. I read books too. In those two months I have written seven blog posts (not including this one), which any blogger will know needs time and attention. I have to perform all those mundane but necessary tasks like eating and washing. So where have I found the time and energy to write a book in two months?

And it’s not crap. Whatever you might be forgiven for thinking, it is not crap. You’ll just have to take my word for that. It’s not finished either but it is a first draft.

And I have a title. My last blog was about the trials, tribulations and turmoil involved in finding a title that will do justice to my book. And I have one. For any would be writers out there who struggle to find that elusive title I have some great advice: when in doubt do the following.

1) Wait until you are well advanced with the writing of the story so that you are able to pick out one or more really key themes central to it.

2) Condense that theme or themes into one or two words that sum the themes up precisely. Simple is best.

3)Take those words and type them into the Shakespeare search feature at

4) Sit back and revel in the number of quotes that come up for said search term.

5) Find inspiration from the best there has ever been.

No one has ever written so much so well as the ‘Bard of Avon’. And the variety of choice phrases to ‘borrow’ is staggering. Or it was for me. There is also the bonus of using the full quote (and crediting it if you’re feeling inclined) on the title page of your book to make yourself look well-read and intelligent. I intend to.

So, what’s my title? Well, it sounds so simple and uninteresting but when it’s taken in the context of the full quote and measured against the five criteria that I set myself for selecting a title it’s a Cinderella’s slipper of a title. Don’t believe me? It’ll be out on ebook after the metaphorical six weeks in a drawer and obligatory fourteen edits.

Bad Sons – ‘Good wombs have borne bad sons.’  The Tempest, I,iii.

What’s in a name?


I am approaching the final chapters of the first draft of the novel that I am currently writing and I have a problem. It’s something that’s been niggling away at me for weeks to develop into an issue. It is not a problem with the writing of the book and how I’m going to end it; all that is chugging along quite nicely – for a first draft. My problem is what to call it. Nothing is really working for me for longer than a few hours, maybe a couple of days. I think that I have something and I get excited and then I either find that someone else has already used that particular combination of words, or my enthusiasm for it simply wanes.

I have given myself five criteria, which must each be satisfied, to my thinking, before I can settle on a title. In no particular order they are:

Uniqueness: I don’t want to use a combination of words that has been used before for a book title. Apart from the inevitable confusion for readers searching on-line self-publishing outlets – that I am confined to – for my book (pause for laughter)  only to be confronted with perhaps three or four different books with the same title, I have more personal reasons. The first book that I self-published I called, ‘Rope Enough’. I was trying to be creative and get original. There are many books out there with the words ‘enough rope’ in the title. I didn’t do my research thoroughly. I have since discovered that typing in, ‘Rope Enough’ as a book search term with Amazon, for example, will first return a book of that title with two young men kissing on the front cover. That’s not my book by the way.

Cleverness: I want something with a hidden double meaning that the reader might reflect on at the end of the book and go…oh, I get it. That’s clever.

Conciseness: it’s still got to be short and punchy. Something like, ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’ isn’t for me. And there is also the typography issue to consider when the cover art is shrunken to a thumbnail image. It’s going to need to stand out. A sentence of a title can’t do that.

Appropriateness: obviously it’s got to strongly reflect/suggest something of the content.

Eye-catchingness(?): it’s got to be something that readers of the genre it’s aimed at will linger over as they scroll through the hundreds of other titles listed. Downloaders must be immediately hooked and intrigued by it.

When I choose a book to read whether I’m buying it, borrowing it or downloading it for free I find myself increasingly reliant on my initial reaction to the title and the cover-art, unless it’s a book by an author who I know and enjoy. Example: I just finished a thriller by the quite superb Gerald Seymour called, ‘Traitor’s Kiss’ and I eagerly anticipate the next book of his I can lay my hands on, but the title doesn’t really do it for me and the cover art I would ordinarily pass without pausing. If I didn’t worship the paper his pencil scrawled across I wouldn’t have given that book a second glance. More fool me I suppose. But with all the books to choose from there has got to be something that lures one in.

I’ve just had a look at some of the titles on my shelves. How do the authors or their publishers come up with some of them? What made someone think that, ‘Billy Bathgate’, ‘Moby Dick’, ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’, ‘Waterland’, ‘Ratking’, ‘Birds Without Wings’, ‘The People’s Act of Love’, ‘Great Expectations’, and ‘Debbie Does Dallas’ for examples, would work for those authors?