Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Hanging up my L-plates?

This writer's best friend

I’m now looking down into the abyss waiting to be filled with words which is planning Book 2. Writing it is a daunting prospect for many reasons, not least because I intermittently worked on Book 1, No Stranger to Death, over a long period. This time I’m giving myself a year to get Book 2 written, edited several times and polished to a shine.

Below are some of the things I learnt during the writing of Book 1 which I’m hoping will help me with its follow-up.

Plotting: There’s no telling what will work for you
Because I’m by nature a planner I started out imagining I could (or, rather, should) plan the entire novel before writing it. I wrestled with the enormity of that task, and felt worthless when I couldn’t do it. In desperation, with the idea of an opening that revolved around the discovery of a body in a Guy Fawkes bonfire, I just started writing. And soon the pages began to fill with characters and events. 

Every time I ran out of plot I grabbed one of my many ‘how to write’ books and read. If I struggled with making a character come to life I’d write a page or two in their voice telling me about their past. Eventually an outline for the next few chapters would reveal itself to me. And so it went on.

Several strands of the story, such as the resolution of the murder which kick‑started it, needed to be brought together towards the end of the novel. This required more detailed planning, although by then I had written the final chapter so I knew where I was heading. Long walks with the collie were great for working out particularly knotty problems. A bit like passing my driving test (on the 3rd attempt), I couldn't quite believe it when I completed the task.

I hope I haven’t made this sound easier than it was. Because it was staggeringly difficult. But by the time I got about two-thirds of the way in I felt able to relax. I’d travelled so far in this strange fashion, there was no reason why I couldn’t get to the end.

It turns out I’m more of a pantser than a planner. No one’s more surprised than me.

Editing: It is possible to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear
We’re all familiar with the saying that every first draft is shit (was it Graham Greene?). But it’s hard, when you’re starting out, to accept that means yours too. When I write copy for business clients I wouldn’t dream of showing them anything without editing it time and time again. This is especially true when I’m writing for the internet, which demands precision and brevity. So how could I possibly imagine being able to write 96,000 words and get them right first time?

Once I’d got that revelation out of the way I ploughed on with writing the first draft. I only reviewed what I’d written the day before. Any ideas which came to me about changes I should make were recorded in a separate file to look at later.

I actually enjoyed the editing process. However, it took much longer, and involved lots more reiteration than I’d expected. Reading out loud and using my Kindle have proved invaluable. And I’ve learnt to trust my instinct: if I’m the least bit unsure how good a phrase, sentence or paragraph is, I work on it.

Research: You don’t know what you don’t know
I’ve heard writers say they don’t do any research until after they’ve written the book, when they go back and fill in the gaps. This stops them wasting time by getting bogged down in superfluous information. I recognise this is sensible – there are already enough distractions (see Social Media below) conspiring to keep us away from writing. However, the ‘experts’ I’ve consulted have each done a lot more than just answer my questions.

For example, I asked a forensic pathologist for information about how extensively a body in a Guy Fawkes bonfire would burn up. His response, that this depended on different factors, wasn’t particularly helpful. Then he said, ‘But you could have the victim wrapped in a carpet, and that way she’d be more baked than burned.’ This was horrible – and irresistible. It also enabled me to add a further layer of complexity to what occurred before the body was put into the fire.

Most people are happy to talk about their job if you ask them nicely enough. I’ve only been rebuffed by one person – a genealogist – so far. I went on to find another professional in that field who said yes. She was lovely and gave me a lot more material than the first chap probably would have, as well as a brilliant one-liner I’ve used in the novel.

Social media: ‘Building a platform’ can be fun
In common with many writers I’m not a party animal. I enjoy the company of others, but in small groups or better still on a one-to-one basis. I was happy to have a website, blog a bit on it, but start talking, albeit via the internet, to complete strangers? Not for me! Or so I thought. Then, almost a year ago, I went on one of Nicola Morgan’s training events for aspiring writers. And came away having promised to give Twitter a try.

It was strange at first, talking to myself. But gradually I gained enough confidence to respond to others’ tweets, some of which developed into conversations. As at today I’ve tweeted over 4,500 times, am following 417 tweeps (I don’t like that word) and have 370 followers. I’m still not particularly gregarious, but I have made friends. And, I’m delighted to say, I’ll be meeting some of them in real life during 2012, mainly at book-related events. Entering a room full of strangers suddenly got a lot easier.

I’ve now dipped my toe into Facebook (but have a lot of catching up to do) and yesterday signed up to Pinterest. Will any of this make Book 2 easier to write and improve my chances of getting published? Hmm. Probably not. But I think that’s the best attitude for an unpublished writer to have. Enjoy social networking and look upon any other benefits as a bonus.

This isn’t, of course, everything I’ve learnt during my journey from ‘Chapter 1’ to ‘The End’. But, as I've already said, writing for the internet involves precision and brevity. So I’ll stop here. And anyway, I’ve got a novel to write.

If you’re a writer, what lessons have you learnt? I’d love to hear about them, so please leave a comment below.


  1. Hi Janet. I didn't realise you had a blog. I am now adding it to my feed reader. I've also been writing my first crime novel and what I found was that I wasn't too bothered that I didn't know the ending or plan too extensively. Like you I've written in my professional life before (mainly briefings and speeches). And like you too, everything was polished before it went in front of anyone. However writing creatively meant scrapping all that and what I enjoyed was writing as my mind/subconscience took me.
    I found editing it slightly boring but I have plenty of experience of this and now I have started book 2 I can't believe how much better book 1 is.
    I'll stop there as I could witter on all evening but interesting post!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah. I'm fascinated by how writers approach the mechanics of writing: no two seem to work in the same way. Best of luck with your writing!

  3. Hi Janet: as a new writer it's fascinating for me to read your comments on your writing and editing process. I've written a lot in a previous professional incarnation - mostly reports, papers and briefings - but having now written a novel, I've found the experience of working with my own original material both liberating and, frankly, slightly weird. Not clear as yet what I'm to make of this going forward, but I'm sure all will be revealed at some point soon! I definitely share your collie-walking approach to solving knotty plot tangles ...
    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  4. Great to hear from you, Sue. Lots of luck with the novel you've already written and the ones I'm sure you will write.