Monday, April 21, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour

I’ve been tagged. I can feel it oozing all over me. Not really, it’s actually quite a pleasant feeling. Like being tickled with butter.

SF Said told me about this ‘Writing Process Blog Tour’ and he’s one of my favourite children’s writers, so when he says things I pay attention. (He wrote the extraordinary Varjak Paw books and his new release, Phoenix, looks amazing so check it out.)

He tagged me, so it’s my job to continue the tour. The idea is that every week from now until the internet burns up in a fight to the death against the aliens, a writer posts on a blog the answers to the same four questions. You’ll find out what they are in a minute.

SF Said’s answers from last week are here:

And my answers are about to scroll in front of your eyes…

What are you working on?
A thriller. An epic, gut-busting, nerve-shredding, eye-widening, sphincter-pinching thriller. It’s going to be the first full-length thriller I’ve written that isn’t about Jimmy Coates. At the moment I’m considering whether a couple of NJ7 agents are going to appear in it just so there’s some kind of continuity across the different worlds I’m writing in. Or I might decide that’s too confusing.

I’m about a third of the way through the first draft. Or perhaps I’m closer to half-way. It’s hard to tell. I’m about a third of the way through my story plan but about half-way through my expected word-count. And if you think that’s a problem, it isn’t, OK? It just isn’t. IT REALLY ISN’T. Hush now.

All I can tell you about this new book is that it’s about a ninja. And that it’s basically awesome.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?
Easy. Mine are better. I know they probably aren’t really, but before I start writing a book I have to believe that. I have to think it’s going to be better than anything else out there, or what’s the point in doing it? Aim high. Fail big.

Actually, I think I’m trying to do things in a slightly different way to other action-thrillers. I don’t get a kick out of bigger explosions or more over-the-top set-pieces. I prefer tension. So a small piece of action or a turning point for a character can actually be much more exciting than, say, a spaceship blowing up. That’s the challenge I like: to get a reader breathless and on the edge of his or her seat simply because of the twists in the story, not because of a series of big bangs.

One other big difference between my books and other action-thrillers is that my books have a much bigger female readership than most.

Possibly unrelated to that, or not, is that I set out to write better women than there are in any other action-thriller books. Apart from Jimmy Coates himself, every significant character in the series is female. Jimmy is just a mechanism through which the lives of many different, contrasting women and girls come into conflict with each other. Each of them grows, changes, wins or loses in different ways. I don’t think you could point to any other series of action-thrillers and say, ‘That has a male main character, but it’s really all about the women.’ Sadly, you have to keep that quiet because the ‘wisdom’ of the publishing industry (which is completely wrong) is that if a book features female characters, boys won’t read it.

Why do you write what you do?
I started writing action thrillers because I love the form of a story with mystery and twists. It’s the clever construction that I enjoy – as a reader, a watcher of movies, or as a writer. Twists give a special kind of satisfaction. A good one should feel shocking yet at the same time inevitable. Like you can’t believe it, but at you also know it absolutely had to happen that way. A great reveal, a powerful turning point – that’s why I keep writing.

I do have plans to write in other genres but I think I will always love a great twist.

Continuing to write thrillers for now is not really an artistic decision. It’s a commercial one. While I have an audience for thrillers, it would be silly to suddenly switch to something else. If I can write something that will grip anybody who’s enjoyed my Jimmy Coates books, then for the time being I’m going to do that. After this, I’d like to write more screenplays, some funny books and books for grown-ups.

How does your writing process work?
It doesn’t really 'work'. It just is.

I allow myself about two months to plan. I do most of my planning by hand, in notebooks. It involves brainstorming, charts, diagrams, doodles and a lot of scribbling. Eventually I’ll have a rough idea of what’s going to happen in the story, in order. I’ll either type up that running order into a scene-by-scene list on my computer or I’ll transfer it to a series of index cards – one scene per card. Then I play about with the plot some more, on the computer or on a big pinboard where I can stick the cards.

Planning Jimmy Coates: Blackout started like this:

Once I think I have the plot sorted, I pitch the whole thing to my wife. I ask her for ten minutes and I tell her the story. If you can’t tell a story in ten minutes it isn’t worth telling. From her reaction I know exactly which bits of the plot work and which bits don’t. She often has questions that help me sort out a lot of kinks. Or I need to throw the lot out and start again. It’s good to know that kind of thing before you actually start writing the book.

Once the plot is sorted I start writing. I aim to write 2,000 words a day until my first draft is finished. I used to do all of this on the computer, but these days I write a lot by hand, again, in notebooks. Switching between the two can also be a really good way of keeping the process fresh. The shift in feel and perspective helps give me a boost if I feel stuck.

Writing Jimmy Coates: Blackout longhand looked a bit like this:

Nobody will ever see my first draft. First drafts are awful. But that’s the point. Knowing I can write rubbish allows me to write 2,000 words a day. Then I go back over the first draft and make it good. That takes roughly another two months, but it varies from book to book.

I don’t write much in the morning. I usually read or watch a movie. I start thinking about proper work after lunch, or after tea, or after dinner. It’s a meal-based work-schedule. I usually write until 2 or 3am. On a really good day I can write 2,000 words in an hour. Most days it takes a lot longer, though I don’t really know why. Often I’ll write the first 1,000 words in half an hour then need a break. Then I’ll spend perhaps 2, 3, 4 or even 5 hours grinding out the rest of the day’s work.

The whole process involves a lot of agony. Every few weeks there is a moment of joy. Then it’s gone and I’m back to the agony.

The agony is worth it to end up with something that looks like this:

The planning stage is probably the most fun because I enjoy the bits that feel like solving a huge puzzle. The rewriting is also OK because at least by then you’ve actually written the story down from beginning to end without any breaks. That’s a major achievement. The exciting thing about rewriting is that at the end of every day your book is better than it was that morning. But rewriting would also be the worst time to die. I always worry about that while I’m still rewriting – “The book isn’t as good as it can be yet! But people will think I was finished! And I’M NOT FINISHED!”

And as for this blog… NOW I’m finished.

So. My turn to tag somebody. Actually, I’m tagging two people. On Monday next week they’ll both be answering this same set of questions. Check them out…

First there's young talent Lauriane Povey.

She'll put her answers on her blog which is here:
On twitter, she’s @laurianeteresa and her latest book looks like this:

And then there's the rather brilliant Rachel Hamilton:

Rachel Hamilton studied at Oxford and Cambridge and has put her education to good use working in an ad agency, a comprehensive school, a building site and a men's prison. Her interests are books, films, stand-up comedy and cake, and she loves to make people laugh, especially when it's intentional rather than accidental. The Case of the Exploding Loo is her first novel, and she is currently working on a second.
Her website is and you can find her on Twitter as @RachelLHamilton and Facebook as RachelHamiltonAuthor.

1 comment:

SF Said said...

Your ninja book sounds absolutely brilliant, I can't wait to read it!

Also very interested in what you said about female characters. I think it's so important to have strong characters of both genders in books - after all, none of us live in a world with only men or women in it!