Thursday, 20 April 2017

How I Write: 25 Bullets...

Before I started writing in earnest, I did some research on how others approach writing fiction, hoping to find a magic bullet technique that I could use. However, the more I looked, the more varied the methods of writing I found and the less convinced I became that I would ever find one which would make my task any easier...

Some fly by the seat of their pants while others meticulously plan everything out to the last detail. One end of the spectrum thinks that over-planning or sticking to a strict process kills the creativity and creates more work because the preparation can take as long or longer than the actual writing. The other end thinks that an unstructured approach can be a slow process and the potential cause of writer's block which creates work more if character flaws or plot holes need to be retrofitted in at a later date. Both views have merit, but as far as I can ascertain most writers develop their own approach to writing that suits them as individuals - we are all unique human beings after all.

The best advice I found during those early days was held within the pages of the excellent On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. It is written in his own inimitable style and was hugely influential when I came to writing my first book The Pink Herring. There's no preaching, no dissecting of other's techniques, just good old plain advice about how he works and plays. There's a section in the book that deals with him being mowed down by a driver while out on an afternoon walk away from the writing - this is something I never knew about him. How he deals with that drama in his life and how he copes with the rehabilitation is an insight into the human condition and the strength of will to overcome adversity. I regularly refer to the book highly recommend it to authors, old and new.

I found some good examples of summarised advice on the web; Chuck Wendig lists 25 ways to approach writing in his excellent, irreverent blog; and Susan Spann follows the theme by explaining how she uses 25 things to write mystery fiction. They're both equally good humoured as they are informative and they struck a chord with me; you need to go you're own way, to quote Fleetwood Mac. This personal approach will be founded on many generalities but what makes it work will be some things that are specific to you and how you roll. It develops with experience, which may take one or more books to feel comfortable with - note that I don't say perfect.

So, what do I do? Well, I'll tell you; here's my 25 point list:

  1. I start by cracking open a bottle of red wine and drink a glass to get me in a contemplative mood. Suitably relaxed, I write down all the key points about the story that I've conjured up. When I say write, I mean that literally. I have a Moleskin A5 notebook and a Lamy fountain pen (blue ink) which go everywhere with me;
  2. I create the back page blurb for my novel in the full expectation that it will bear no resemblance to the piece that makes it onto the final pressing. It is important to me because it will explain the theme of the book, the main plot elements, the struggles the protagonist has to overcome and sets the tone for what I am about to commit the next 6 months of my life to (if not more);
  3. Having set the scene, I note down everything I know about the victim; personal, social and professional aspects of a life that will define them. This will of course mainly comprise all the problems they have could have lead to the crime. Again, it is important for me because the victim's POV runs throughout the book as a series of pertinent flashbacks which either support or contradict the evidence as the story develops;
  4. I jot down all of the potential antagonists that may have had a hand in the crime, desiring them in as much detail as I can muster at this point. This is where the characters take hold of your thoughts making it easier to list their motives, alibis and personal foibles;
  5. I tend to make notes phrased as questions. So, for example, why would Shaun Young forget to take his medication? I then record an indented list of anything that might be a reason, without any thought for the plausibility at this stage. Classic brain-storming - discount nothing until you don't use it and even then it may be of use in the next book;
  6. I establish many potential subplots around the motives, fleshing them out with brief notes and bullets;
  7. I note down all the background subplots for the main characters which is going to enrich them in the reader's mind - good or bad;
  8. You will note that I haven't mentioned the main plot line. This is because at this point I haven't decided which subplot will become the lead and the ultimate conclusion of the story. This is because I let the characters tell the story which I become intrinsically wrapped up in. For me, the story development is as exciting and mysterious as I hope it will be for the reader. This is something I picked up from Steven King. As he says in his book "I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way."
  9. At some point I start to migrate my scribbled notes onto a mind-map. This suits the way my mind works and its easy to get ideas down fast and move them around if I need to. I use the SimpleMind app for all my mind-mapping. The version I use is free and does everything I need it to;
  10. I use a Mac in my office, an iPad around the house and my iPhone on the move. I have spent a considerable amount of time creating a Word template for my books which easily and reliably uploads to Amazon, for both the eBook and paperback;
  11. Everything I do electronically is stored on Dropbox and synced with my mac - backup is important folks! IOS allows me to share everything on all devices. Mind-mapping is not too clever on the iPhone but the mobile friendly version of Word is excellent;
  12. I am always thinking about the story and I'm on the move a fair amount. For example, I took my daughter to get her hair cut yesterday and while I waited I got out my iPhone and wrote the best part of a chapter in the waiting area supping on a nice cup of coffee kindly prepared by the salon staff;
  13. I am currently writing this blog in the back garden using my iPad, soaking up some rare English sunshine while drinking a mug of PG Tips tea -;
  14. I use the web extensively to fact check certain technical aspects in areas which I am unfamiliar or unsure. In my early career I worked in industrial fluid engineering research (no, it actually isn't as boring as it sounds) and the art researching is hard-coded into my DNA;
  15. For the intimate, inside knowledge stuff, I speak to people in the know, read books and journals on the subject soaking up all I need to set the scene for the environment in which the book is set. In my latest book, The Nor'easter, the story revolves around offshore wind generation, protest groups, local government, fishery and of course the great county of Norfolk, England;
  16. In my early days of writing, my background in technical research forced me to go into precise detail about all the subjects, which can be very distracting (and not all that interesting for the reader). This trait was beaten out of me by my editor on the first pass through - use just enough to be realistic, sound as if you know what you are talking about but stop there - always concentrate on the story, as I was told;
  17. All the research for the book I keep in IOS Notes, which again is synced between all devices. Notes works just like Evernote (that I used to use) in that it is easy to record links to web content and any other documents I collect along the way;
  18. Similarly, I keep what I call a Storybook in Notes, which sits on the screen beside Word, which contains a chapter list with timeline and brief description, the subplots,  all clues and red herrings, the backstory lines I've decided to pursue and the detailed character profiles for major and minor players. I also use the Storybook to record plot holes and character flaws as I discover them (all of which get checked off once corrected);
  19. Now I'm ready to write and begin the process of developing the characters and subplots. I like to do both through the use of dialogue which comes easy to me and keeps the story moving along at an interesting pace. This is something I learned from my editor, where in the first draft I had the propensity to wax lyrical in the narrative form (another throw back to my early career). It is so much more acceptable to be long-winded with dialogue - so long as it interesting and moves the story along;
  20. Once I'm set, I concentrate on the writing and push on virtually not-stop until it is finished. I tend to spend a normal working day at writing starting at 9am, a break for some exercise mid-morning, lunch and then a productive afternoon session. I rarely write after 5 pm;
  21. I write in relatively short chapters, retaining a single POV wherever possible. Although short, there are many. The Pink Herring has 59 chapters;
  22. The first draft of The Pink Herring took me just under 3 months to complete. However, it took 4 friendly reviews, 2 major editorial reviews, 6 proof-reads and countless read throughs until it was finally ready for publication - and even then there were errors;
  23. The whole process, from opening the wine to publishing took just over a year. However, during the downtime waiting for editorial returns, I began work on the second and third books in the series;
  24. The great thing about self-publishing (thanks to the amazing author Tim O'Rourke for instructing me in this area) is that you get total control over updating both the content and the cover material. This I have done many times;
  25. Finally, I always find time to celebrate. Not just at publication, but at first draft, subsequent drafts and re-read after re-read after re-read. The final stage of editing, polishing, proofing and endless read throughs is the most tedious part of the whole thing. However, when the publication button is finally pushed and your glorious product is in the public domain, that's a celebration to beat all. Savour it, because then comes the marketing...
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  1. Hi Tom

    This us really useful info. Im Looking to self publish like yourself but who did you do it with??

    1. Hi Hannah,

      I went with Amazon and took the Kindle Unlimited option from the start on the advice of an author friend. It has worked out well, but be prepared to do a lot of marketing yourself. I find this blog really useful as a platform to launch articles on twitter and Facebook. Goodreads is also very good for collecting ratings and reviews. Check out my blog on self publishing (

      Good luck with your publishing and if you need any other advice, just ask...



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