August 2, 2011
First, a disclaimer. I am not claiming to be an expert. These are just things I have learned through my own trial and error. It’s not meant to be a guide or anything other than my own thoughts.
REASONS FOR WRITING
When I started working on Locked In, I had not long turned 30. I was at the point where I had been doing the same job since I graduated and, while I still enjoyed it and liked the people I worked with, I was ready to try something new. I didn’t start writing because I wanted to be rich or famous, I simply began because I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of doing it.
The first few thousand words took quite a while to write but gradually the process became easier. I was aiming for roughly 90,000 words and it was all about stages, getting a quarter of the way there, then half, three-quarters and eventually reaching that target and knowing I had a little left to tell.
The sense of achievement after finishing the story was amazing. Whether it was good or bad and whether anyone else actually read it was largely irrelevant because the biggest reason I wrote it was to prove to myself I actually could. For me, the reason for writing always has to be yourself; it has to be because you want to. That’s not to say that you can’t want other people to enjoy your words or like your characters but you have to write because it’s something you want to do.
MY WRITING PROCESS
At the time of writing this, I have written three novels all using the same characters. Only one is currently out, although the others should follow. The problem with a first book in a series is that you have to come up with a full cast of people and create the atmosphere, setting and interpersonal relationships between them all. I found writing the second and third stories a lot simpler because all of that was already set up.
The crucial thing when I started working on Locked In is that none of that was in place. I began with what ended up as the twist that comes towards the end of the story. I knew broadly how I wanted things to happen and how the person responsible was able to get away with it. Essentially I had the end first but I still didn’t have a motive because I had no characters.
The actual physical process of sitting down and typing didn’t take that long – it was the notes and plotting that took time. Before I start writing, I like having a relatively detailed breakdown of the plot, including all the specific beats of when things happen. Everyone works in a different way, so I’ve read about authors much better than me who have next to no notes who plot as they write.
For me there is no right or wrong way, it’s all about doing whatever works for you. My plot notes for Locked In are 3,000 words on their own. Vigilante and The Woman In Black are 4,000. Those are just random plot ideas or perhaps a line that’s been in my head all split down into a relatively set order of how I want things to happen.
It is those pages that take me a long time to work through. I will send myself emails or text messages because I might have ideas while I’m busy doing other things and don’t want to forget, while I keep a pad and pen next to my bed and in my car. It’s a long, bizarre process. Once that is in place, it’s almost just a case of joining the dots when it comes to the actual writing. That’s not to say ideas don’t change or I don’t alter things as I move further into the story, it just means I pretty much need to have that full breakdown before I start.
Finishing the first draft of Locked In was a brilliant feeling of achievement. The problem came after I had left it for a couple of weeks then went back to revise it. The first eight chapters really were poor. The content wasn’t great and there were even big style changes. It might not sound like much but quotes would end with “, said Jessica,” while others with, “, Jessica said”. It’s just the kind of thing that crept into the work because I had no idea what I was doing.
The realisation that the first fifth of the book was utter rubbish was depressing to say the least … so I rewrote them. The information the reader finds out in the first eight chapters is broadly the same in all drafts – but, in the final version, it is ordered so much more sensibly and, hopefully, all the style issues were sorted too.
The reason I am talking about those first eight chapters so specifically is because, as I read through the whole of the story, I really think I got better. Even in the first draft, the tone settles down and it becomes an easier read. I’d like to think that in the final version the whole thing has that even tone.
After my revisions, it was time to let other people read it. I think this is the point where you have to be brave. Locked In and the characters in it are a part of me. Not all of the viewpoints the characters have are mine and some of them are completely opposite to what I might believe. The point is that by letting other people read what you’ve written, it almost feels as if you’re letting them into your soul slightly.
For this reason, it has to be people you trust. It’s a hard balance because you want people to tell you the truth about what works and what doesn’t but, at the same time, you don’t want to give too much of yourself as a person away.
Looking back, I chose the right combination of people to read Locked In but probably gave out too early a draft. I received back plenty of notes and ideas that were really useful but, as well as using their suggestions, I rewrote large sections again because what I had written didn’t feel quite right.
SHOULD YOU WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW?
This is perhaps the one piece of advice you often see people giving out, “write what you know”. My honest thoughts are, “sod that”. The truth is most people haven’t lived exciting enough lives to come up with anything remotely interesting if they wrote about what they knew. For those that have, that’s why they write autobiographies.
My opinion about fiction is that you might write what you know in terms of people, attitudes and broad interaction between characters but, as for the situations, writing what you know is generally quite boring. I liked doing the research and talking to people about their experiences and then relating it back.
Whether the book was ever completed and regardless of whether or not anyone ever read it, that made me a broader-minded person because I was listening to other people and understanding parts of the world from their viewpoint.
This brings me to…
ARE THE CHARACTERS BASED ON PEOPLE I KNOW?
I’ve been asked this by a fair few people and the truthful answer is “no” but with a little bit of “yes”. No one in any of my books is based on a real person but there are perhaps mannerisms or attitudes which are influenced by people I have met over the years. Some of that could be friends I know well or something I’ve witnessed.
I have worked as a journalist, lecturer and magistrate. When I was a teenager I did agency work in various factories and spent two years in a call centre. I have been a student, played in many sporting teams and visited a lot of interesting places. You meet an enormous number of people throughout your life and they all have different outlooks. So the characters in my stories, broadly speaking, are based on my own experiences and opinions of those people – but certainly not on anyone specifically.