Those exciting milestones

All writers have those milestones in their career that stick in the memory. The first time you actually finish a manuscript or a draft. That one alone suddenly moves you out of the “I’ve got a great idea for a book” category into the realm of a writer. There are many dubious stats but I’m sure that most people never even make it that far.

Then, and this one is like it was yesterday in my mind – the first time that a stranger buys your book. Over ten years ago I wrote and self-published a non-fiction book, The Busy Pagan. It had its own ISBN and when people ordered it from bookshops I sent it out to the wholesalers. The thought that someone was reading my words, not my family or friends but a stranger is the most wonderful thing. It’s the end of the writing process – so much more fulfilling than having a first draft in the bottom drawer of the desk.

Much more recently, I was going round the cycle of submitting the manuscript, getting rejections, making changes before going back to submitting it. After several years of this, getting the request to for a full manuscript was another landmark moment, thankfully followed by a publishing deal.

And then, at the beginning of this week, my publisher provided me with this link – The List – my project has grown from words on my screen to a real book. (It’s now available to pre-order, just saying.)  From now on it’ll be one thrill after another – when I get my physical copy, when the reviews come in, and of course when the first copy sells to a genuine stranger.

Looking back over this list one thing stands out. Writing is one of the loneliest professions – usually it’s just you and the words on the page. Once you get past the first one, which proves that you can write, the rest of the milestones are about sharing your work, letting other people breathe life into your words.

So this post is a long and rambling way to say thank-you. To the publishers, editors, cover designers and the readers. To everyone who reads what I write, and for a little while makes it live in their imagination, thank you. It is a strange and lovely thing that you are inhabiting the world I created in my head. You are the end of the process of being a writer. You make it all worthwhile.


Where do you get your ideas from?

This must be one of the most common questions that writers get asked, so I thought I’d have a go at answering it.

Training Inspiration

I believe the brain is capable of being trained even in something as nebulous as creativity. I can’t find the quote now, but someone said “I write whenever my muse strikes, and I make sure that happens at nine every morning.” Let me explain a bit. I write crime mysteries. So, I pay attention the news. I scan the headlines. If I see something that piques my interest, I record it or buy the newspaper. I see what’s going on the world of the police, how real crimes unfold. I started off making it a conscious process, now it’s become second nature. It also helps that I have an enquiring nature and tend to look up and check anything I find interesting in case it comes in useful later.

A bit here and a bit there

Secondly, I don’t think I’ve ever had a flash of divine inspiration that allows for a whole book to be written. Instead I think of ideas. Sometimes it’s characters. I have had what I call a Harry Potter moment where a complete character arrives in my head. Other times, I indulge in playing “What if?”. My main interest in writing is asking “what happens next?”. If I read a book or watch a film, my brain keeps running another fifteen or twenty years past the end to imagine what would happen to those characters. It’s probably why a lot of my books feature the “what happened 20 or 25 or 30 years ago” style of plots.

I do keep notes (probably not as well as I could) about all these ideas. At the moment I’ve got a character that I’ve matched up with a crime for them to solve. I also have a really gruesome series of murders that would make a fantastic book, but at the moment I haven’t got a detective in mind to solve them! And I’m aware, because of the idea, it would be quite a departure from my usual style, so I don’t (at the moment) want to make it one of my current series. So, that idea is parked for now. I’m sure I’ll come back to it.

The same applies to characters. I collect traits of both appearance and personality (and sometimes phobias) – some are observed in people, others just come to mind. Then I combine them together in (hopefully) interesting ways that people can’t recognise in my friends(!)

Actually writing the book

As I’ve said before, I’m a great believer in planning. Partly that’s because I have a very busy life and with a solid plan, I can drop in and out of a draft. I can actually write as little as a few hundred words every day without losing track of what’s going on.

When I have a decent main character matched up with an interesting crime, I try to put it into a plot. I need at least two crisis points, some major setbacks and some breakthroughs. I check I’ve got a decent antagonist who the reader can understand if not agree with. Also needed at this stage is a strong cast of supporting actors and some good locations too. Plus a something extra to make it stand out from the crowd!

So, that’s where my ideas come from. I think I’m very fortunate in that I seem to have too many ideas. Well, fortunate in some ways – it is also very tiring! But at least I can skip over those courses and blog posts that suggest ways of generating ideas. For me it’s more a case of marshalling and herding the ideas into sensible patterns that make good books.

I know I have writer friends who read this blog. How do you get your ideas?

A blog post about blogging

So, once I got a publishing contract, I thought I’d better sort out my social media presence. What that means is blogging and tweeting on a regular schedule so that when my launch date rolls around (about six months give or take) I’d have some people to launch to.

Part of this plan was to publish a parenting blog post every Tuesday lunchtime and a writing post every Thursday lunchtime. Obviously, it’s now Friday morning and I’m still writing yesterday’s post.

Mind you, this is not all bad news. Now that I realise that people actually want to read what I write, my self-confidence has improved. I went back to Scrivener (a bit like MS Word but designed by authors to write books in) and found, to my surprise, that the sequel to the list actually had a structure and a few thousand words. I’d actually started in on it, before I got disheartened by the rejections, then forgot totally that I’d done it!

Anyway, the point I was trying to come around to is that my blog always suffers when I’m writing. And this week is no exception. I’ve whipped the outline for the List sequel into shape and now have a writing plan laid out.

The bad news is, I’m late with this blog. The good news is that the sequel has already grown by over 3,500 words since Monday.

I’m also learning about marketing as I go through the process to publication. One of the (more obvious) conclusions is that my digital output (Facebook, Twitter, here, etc.) should all have the aim of attracting and engaging readers. Now, the thing is that I love the process of writing, of plotting, of telling a story. That’s pretty much what this blog has been about so far.

So, I’m going to experiment. I’ll try steering more towards talking about the content of my books, the settings and characters. If I come across interesting facts in my research, I’ll use those for a blog post. Basically, gently move it in a more reader focused direction.

And, of course, comments are always very welcome, let me know what you’d like to see!

Anatomy of a Near Miss

The life of a writer is a weird one. I plot out in advance of actually writing. I’ve never recorded my time, but I’d guess that staring at a blank page, typing fresh words is probably only 20-30% of the time I dedicate to creating a book.

What do I do the rest of the time? It is split between planning it out before the first draft and editing and polishing it afterwards.

If you read my other blog, The Penguin’s Knee, you’ll know that I’m also a house-husband. This involves housework, shopping, driving and other tasks that don’t engage a lot of my brain. So I daydream. This is where my plots and characters come from. The journeys which feature me thinking, what if? (My boys are all school age, so a lot of my time is my own. I don’t day-dream when I’m with the children.) What if you had a character like this? How would they react if this happened to them? On and on.

Anyway, I’m currently finalising the plan for my sequel to The List. This is a police based crime novel set in South Wales. The protagonist, DS Jonah Greene works in Cardiff. But for this novel I wanted to branch out and decided to set it up in the Brecon Beacons. I was at the stage of having more than 30 scenes plotted out, and a good idea of the ending.

When the thought struck me. Are the Brecons in South Wales Police area? Thankfully, I now work in the age of Google. Unfortunately I was right – most of the Brecon Beacons fall under the auspices of Dyfed Powys Police. But, because I had an outline, not a first draft, I was able to catch it. And add a new layer of complexity with inter-force co-operation and all the conflict that implies!

So, that’s what put my schedule back by a week, but (hopefully) made the book a bit better!

That being said, I ought to go back to polishing the plan ready to start writing new words next week.



Burning down Hogwarts!

Apologies to those of you who don’t read Harry Potter, but I am father to three boys, aged 4, 8 and 11 so it is common currency in our house. Thinking about the series of books (and films, etc.) I realised something. By the end of the book, a lot of things that were axiomatic in the universe were destroyed. A dragon literally smashes through the wizard bank, Gringotts, and the relationship between wizards and the goblins who run the bank is changed. Coming back to the title of the post, Hogwarts is hugely damaged in an epic battle between good and evil. In interviews, JK Rowling actually said she wanted to kill off a certain number of major characters to indicate the seriousness of the final conflict.

Moving away from the world of Harry Potter, I noticed the same thing in Lord of the Rings. The books concern themselves with the end of one age and the dawning of a new one. Elves leave Middle Earth after thousands of years, dynasties are re-established, the world changes. Even Star Wars is about the end of the Jedi order which stood for a thousand years, guaranteeing peace.

I know these three examples are fantasy or science fiction, but I think they touch on something. Any plot requires a level of threat or upset to the established order. It is one thing that separates literary from commercial fiction. In commercial fiction, often large external matters are at stake, in literary fiction, it is often more personal, internal affairs that are dealt with. In chick-lit again it is personal institutions that are under threat. Often these books will start with the breakdown of a marriage, or a jilting, or a death or redundancy. Not as earth shattering on a global scale, but on the scale of one life, they are seismic events.

For any book not to be dull, you need a hero you can identify with who is under threat. The traditional way to start a book is to introduce the hero, in his world, and then rock that world. Shatter some institutions, put him or her under pressure, and a plot starts to emerge.

This is the classic, planned out way to start a book. You still have to decide which event actually opens the book – usually it’s not the main disruption to the whole plot. Again, to return to Harry Potter, it starts with Harry being rescued after the death of his parents, which illustrates a disrupting event in his life. But then, it establishes his life with his aunt and uncle, before the second big disruption – the invitation to Hogwarts arrives. From there on, as in any plot, you have a series of misfortunes and set-backs before wrapping it up.

As I say, this pattern follows through most successful fiction. When we get bored, my eleven year old and I watch children’s TV and analyse the basic plot points. Even the simplest cartoon still has the basic plot that I’ve outlined above. It appears to be a universal blue-print that we, as human beings and as lovers of stories, seem to need.

I think for a writer it requires a certain kind of bravery, especially if you’re writing a big novel, with large themes. You have, even with a happy-ever-after ending, to set up a world, and a hero, and then put them through troubles and hard times.

Nearly the end of the holidays

Well, another few days and all three of my lovely children will be busy during the mornings. I’ve been feeling a bit stifled of late, I tend to write things in my head and then type them out when I get the time. Except that I haven’t had time to start the writing process. But I have gone back into the plot and the files and I have started picking up the threads and working it through in my head. I also found myself in a soft-play area without a book to read so I went through my pockets and wrote on the back of scraps of paper – about three sides of A4. So that needs typing up as well.

Hopefully my next post will contain more forward progress!