Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Write Path

How do writers write? What's their process?

It's a question that's always fascinated me and it's led to me reading any number of books on the subject ... William Strunk Jr and E B White's The Elements of Style, Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, David Quantick's How to be a Writer and How to Write Everything, William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade ... I've read them all and many more.

You can learn an awful lot from such books. You can learn a lot too from being a voracious reader and by analysing how the authors you love do what they do. However, the one thing that you have to discover for yourself is how you plough your own furrow; you have to find the writing method that suits you. And you can only do that by writing.

My next book, A Murder To Die For, is a comedy murder mystery. And, as a tribute to my late father, I'm incorporating extracts from his unfinished first novel within the body of mine (see here for the full story). Dad only completed the first few chapters of his novel before he died. However, he spent several years beforehand plotting and researching it. Admittedly, in those far off pre-internet days, such things took a little longer but, knowing Dad as I did, he would not have written a single word of his book before he had every wrinkle ironed out. He was meticulous that way.

And it seems that lots of writers do the same; they work everything out before they type the first word of Page 1. A good friend of mine has been going through this plotting process for at least two years for his first novel and he recently shared some photos with me of his plot notes.

I'm sure it all makes perfect sense to him. However, it wouldn't work for me.

What I've discovered, after some 35 years of writing, is that I don't work like that. Yes, I make notes and I have piles of notebooks and sketchpads that are evidence of that fact. Some date back to the late 1970s and they are all bulging with ideas, thoughts, snippets of dialogue, character sketches and useful facts. But you won't find any kind of a plot contained inside any of them. Let me explain why.

I bought a typewriter with my first ever wage packet in 1977 (partly because my handwriting is so abysmal) and I used it to write short stories and scripts. And then in 1981, when I was 20, I wrote my first novel. Thankfully, I kept the manuscript and I read it recently. And it was awful. And so was the novel that came after it. And the next. And the next. However, by the time I'd written my fifth and sixth novels, they'd started to get better. Like any skill, be it juggling or playing golf, your ability improves the more you do it.

Writing a book is hard work. And the hardest thing about writing a book is nailing your first draft to the paper; the long and often arduous job of starting at Page 1 and continuing until you've written something like 80-120,000 words. The arrival of word processors in the mid-1980s made the process a damned sight easier, it must be said. But, more importantly for me, word processing allowed me to develop a way of working that took the hard work out of the process.

My method, quite simply, is to get writing as soon as I can. Naturally, I don't start until I have a pretty good idea of the story I want to tell but, at the start, the idea might be quite simple and undeveloped. The idea for A Murder To Die For, for example, was to have a murder take place at a murder mystery convention where everyone is dressed the same way and then to set the police against the murder mystery fans in a race to solve the crime. Hilarity ensues! I had a few ideas for characters and a few action sequences in my head. I also had a bunch of settings in mind, mostly based on real locations in and around where I live on the South Buckinghamshire/ Oxfordshire border. But that was all. Now, I could have spent months developing my characters, plotting out the course of the various plot strings, and researching content. But I didn't. I sat down and started writing. I got a rythmn going. And as I did so, magical things started to happen ... new plot ideas would occur to me while others would be excised or replaced ... the relationships between the characters started to evolve ... a complex and complete novel began to emerge almost as if it was appearing out of thin air. It felt creative and organic. And it was fun every minute of every hour of every day. The writing didn't feel like a chore; I couldn't wait to get to the keyboard.

That's how I like to write; I literally feel my way through the plot. And it works for me. The alternative method of plotting it all out beforehand and then having to face the physical task of 'writing up my notes' just seems too mechanistic to me. It sounds like hard work. And I can't help but wonder whether, if Dad had just got on with the writing instead of agonising over the details, he'd have written more than just four chapters before his untimely passing. I really wish he had.

The hardest part of being a writer is that first draft. But once you have that completed, the fun can really begin. Re-drafting, editing and re-writing is an utter joy. It can sometimes mean making some drastic changes - for example, I realised very early in my second draft that I had too many police characters so I had to drop some of them, and a whole plot strand, and merge two cops into one to streamline the story - but it was worth doing and the book was so much better for it. By not minutely plotting things beforehand I was left with some blunders and a few plot holes. But re-drafting can easily fix that.

I also sent my first drafts out to critical readers, all friends and/or colleagues who know me well enough to tell me if something is wrong or doesn't work. And they always do, sometimes quite savagely! By the fifth draft, I was feeling pretty happy with the novel. And no part of the process had felt like hard work.

I did a count up recently and discovered that I have written or part-written 18 novels, nearly one every two years for the past 35 years. None have been submitted for publication before. A Murder To Die For is the first. But now that I feel confident that my novel writing is good enough, I'm going to be looking to get a few more published.

My plan over the next few years is to write one new novel a year. But I'm also going to re-visit those 18 unpublished novels - although the earliest ones are piss-poor they have some great ideas and plotlines - and treat them as first drafts. They can all be brought bang up-to-date with my current level of ability. I couldn't even consider that kind of commitment if all I had was 18 plot outlines and mountains of notes. So maybe there is some method in my madness after all?

So how do you like to work? What's your writing method?

I'd love to hear!

Oh, and if A Murder To Die For sounds like a book you'd like to read, why not help crowdfund it by clicking here? It's already 80% funded so not much further to go!


  1. Fascinating! I always thought I was alone in my intuitive approach to plotting - after all, you read the 'manuals' or listen to the creative writing tutors and get the impression that's a very amateurish way of proceeding. But it's what works for me, too. I have the ideas, the details, the scenes and - most important of all - the characters. And then we go on a journey. And it's fascinating! Well, I think so...

    1. Hi Tim - I couldn't agree more! It's so easy to get caught up in the research too because creating a world for your novel to live inside is more fun than writing the damned thing! For me, writing means writing and the sooner i can get into it the better :)

  2. I try to plan out a barebones plot before I start writing, but not much else. In general I feel as though less is more when it comes to planning: if you're going to have every detail decided before you start, you're pretty much just making more work for yourself by writing the book twice. Instead, I try to do all my planning on record cards so that I can focus on major plot points and shuffle them around as necessary: https://damonwakes.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/record-cards-astronavigation-and-you/ .

  3. Damon - Yup, that pretty much mirrors my thoughts :)