01 Apr 2013

A few questions about the craft – a Q&A

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Hey everyone,

I was recently asked by the magnificent Tracey McDonald, from I Love Books, to answer a few questions about how I go about writing my novels. If you’re interested, here is the Q&A:

From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

My process is pretty much the same from book to book. First of all, I create a basic outline for each novel. These are really just rough notes that chart out a basic path for the story and its characters. Once I’m satisfied with the skeleton, I start putting down the skin – chapters. I don’t do much editing at this stage, but rather allow the story to flow onto the page as naturally as possible. Once all the chapters are down, I’ll go though it a second time – taking much longer to fix and rework each chapter. I then pack the laptop away and go through it a third time a month or so later – this is a critical part of the editing process as the time away from the novel gives you some much-needed perspective. Once I’m satisfied with this third ‘draft’, it goes off to the publisher (and the editor). He or she will then go through the novel and suggest changes at which point I will go through the book a fourth time, accepting and rejecting the proposed edits. After that, I have a final read and then it’s off to the printers. A fair amount of drinking follows this milestone moment…

What research do you do for your book?

I absolutely loathe research, but it’s a critical part of the process. Depending on the subject matter, research can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year. However, for the type of novels that I write, research is just a tool to lend authenticity to my stories. For me, the story and the characters are far more important than any technical information. But neglect research at your peril. In my first novel, Finding Jack, I got a few small things wrong about the helicopters and weapons that were used in the Vietnam war and a good few war veterans went out of their way to inform me of this fact. Poor research can also ‘break the spell’ that you are trying to conjure up with your story. So it’s important to do a good job in this regard.

How many words do you write, on average, per day?

I normally aim for between 1000 and 2000 words a day and will feel like absolute muck if I miss the mark. However, some days I can barely manage a few sentences. That’s just how it goes. Sometimes it’s better not to force it, if it isn’t there.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?

It’s all reasonably challenging really. However, certain aspects are certainly more challenging than others. Having the discipline to write day in and day out can be difficult. It’s such a lonely business that, after a while, you begin to feel quite isolated from your friends and family – from your life really. I call it the ‘Author Zombie Zone’. It’s important to make time to socialise on your off day, just to create a sense of balance. Dealing with self-doubt can also be quite tough. Often while writing your first draft you can become quite concerned about your story. Is it enticing enough? Is it believable? Are the characters going to resonate? Is this too close to other novels you’ve read? And so on. But, if you love writing as much as I do, these aren’t really major issues. Ultimately, writer’s write, regardless of the challenges that come with the craft.

What do you do when you have writer’s block?

I get my subconscious to do some work. What I’ll normally do is stop writing for a few days and go and do something away from the craft. Invariably, I’ll be sitting in a movie or playing a game of football and the answer will simply come to me. A writer’s subconscious is a powerful tool. I’ve even had dreams that have helped me with a roadblock in my story. In fact, I think Stephen King credits a dream with saving his most famous novel, The Stand. He was 500 pages in when his story beached itself. In his case, however, the answer only came to him several months later.

When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?

It’s not really an issue at the moment, given that I have a multi-book deal, but when I was starting out I bought The Writer’s and Artists’ yearbook (it’s an annual) and followed their advice to the letter. They provide very strict and accurate guidelines on how to submit your manuscript to both agents and publishers. Going on memory here, I used to submit a synopsis, a market analysis explaining where and why I thought my story could be a success in the market, as well as the first three chapters of the manuscript. You also need to include all your contact details, a brief biography and a word count of your work.

What advice can you give aspirant writers?

Well, on this score, I have great news. I believe I know the secret! The golden egg, one might say. And I believe in it completely. The key is this: persistence. When I was starting out, I received enough rejection slips to wallpaper my house. There were many times when I could have thrown in the towel, but I chose to keep trying. After a while, my rejection slips would carry a small handwritten note from an editor offering some modicum of advice. As I took the advice, so my rejection slips became more encouraging, with even better advice being offered. And then, after years of constant rejection, I finally broke through. It is my belief that persistence is the single most important ingredient in becoming a published author. Of course, you need to be honest with yourself as well and try to ascertain if you have any talent. But, if you believe you have some genuine ability … stick at it. It will make all the difference. Take advice from professionals who know more than you. Be humble. Be hungry. And don’t lose your desire. See your rejection slips as rungs on a ladder. Finally, it’s an absolute fallacy that you need to have ‘special contacts’ in the publishing world in order to succeed. The real truth is that when you’re good enough, and your work is strong enough, you will break through. Publishers want to make money – it’s as simple as that. After years of rejection and knowing not a soul in the industry, I landed a major New York publishing deal. That pretty much says it all.

All right, that’s enough for now.

Much love, everyone. And keep writing.

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