Wednesday, June 17, 2009


This book writing journey began in 2002 for a lot of reasons I will not cover here. I also realised in 2002 that a vivid imagination does not a book make. So the objective became about writing anything and everything to an online journal. In 2006 I tried writing another book but failed again because a book needs a story not just an idea and characters. That led me late in 2006 to start writing short stories and most of 2007 was spent making up for my shortcomings in grammar. It was also spent writing lots of dialogue because I heard that was important too.

As 2007 came to a close I was about as ready to write a book as any parent is for their first child. I had failed in 2002 because I did not know how to write and failed again in 2006 because I knew not what a story was. But I persevere and I studied.
The Story
It was a cool overcast day in October 2007 and I was standing in the high street waiting on Prideesh, who was loitering in Smiths. It was busy and I was people watching. I think most people do but especially people that write, hunting mannerisms and creating backstory for the unaware. I watched a girl of about ten emerge from Boots and amble alone along the high street wearing what girls that age do. She also wore a tired pair of emu boots, a white boots bag swinging from her hand.

Some part of what struck me was her grace, a poise that was almost woman that stood her from the crowd. It is hard to describe what then happened in my mind but it was like every neuron fired at the same time. Everything I had thought and experienced through these writing eyes suddenly connected and illuminated like a a giant oak with every limb decked out in lights. I had the basic concept for a whole story.

The idea grew and grew and before Priddeesh emerged onto the high street I had imagined specific scenes and the key characters. From that night on I have been listening to the characters talk, their conversations and imagining their actions that would lead them through the story. Daydreaming has been a strength of mine for as long as I can recall. Although it was not often thought as such during my largely fruitless academic years.
Still a little cautious after my previous book writing attempts and having studied the structure of the sort of book I wanted to write I started creating a plot outline. Some people say you do not need them and some say you do. I know not all people are the same. I would use the outline much as a director does a storyboard. It would be a framework for the story but not the whole story. It would point in the right direction but not be a road map that was diligently followed for want of better paths.

So that is what I did and it took me to the beginning of 2008 to finish the outline. It was a hugely rewarding process and I have to say for me vital. It also showed to me later while I was writing how naïve I was in my imaginations for what the story was and how short the outline fell. But it was still useful for the first half of the book.
You do also hear that some writers nail everything about their characters before they get going on the story main and I did ponder a great deal on character profiles and did start writing them. But the characters were so distinctive in my mind I knew what they were if not exactly who. So I decided to let them become who they were as the story evolved. I am very glad I did that now with hindsight. At the time I did not write more than a few paragraphs in character development prior to writing and what I did write only served to enforce the image in my mind and were never used in the story main. It was a huge amount of fun defining who they were as the story unfolded.
Which brings us to perspective. I have written a few first person short stories and they are quite easy to write if you have the narrator’s mindset in yours. I am not saying a first person perspective book would be easy to write because you are narrowed by the fact you only see from one person’s viewpoint and stringing that out in an entertaining way for over three hundred pages must be difficult. But I wanted a book that had lots of characters, one of them is a child and I wanted to see things from her point of view and from the main characters: a woman. From all perspectives. So I went omnipresent. The decision was easy doing it was very hard.

So January 2008 arrived and I began writing. And before we go any further I want to make a few statements least you jump to the wrong conclusions. First and foremost this is not some glorious march towards a published finale. The book was finished at the beginning of April 2009 and I am one month into waiting for my first agency reply. Neither is this essay meant to be instructional or written from a point of authority. It is simply my experience during a stories genesis from desire, concept and creation. This is written mainly for me least my perception of this greatest experience diminish with the effort required in getting it published. I hope you find it entertaining and if you have written or tried to write a book then you will probably see a lot here that will echo. I hope the experience shared is a problem halved, or something like that.
Day Dreaming
So with that said it was January 2008 and I began writing. Well I made the mental decision to start writing having spent months dreaming endlessly, and dreaming some more and then dreaming a lot more. In some part I would have been happy to just dream about the story more than actually bring it to life. But this life used to be littered with failed projects started enthusiastically which drives me these days to finish them. The problem then though was that I had no idea how to start the story.

So after some deliberation I did what I often did with my short stories, the very first thing I wrote was the end. Well actually it was the epilogue which was finished as January turned to February of 2008. It was a useful process (writing the end) because it set in my mind what I was heading towards. The very next thing I wrote was the prologue. So in the very first two chapters I had created the beginning and the end. And in doing so created a vast canvas onto which to paint the drama.

Even then I still struggled to get going. A feeling I can only correspond to accounts I have read of stage fright. Would the promise of the book outshine the reality. And how the hell by the way do you start the first real chapter of a book?

So I spent endless hours at home reading the first chapters of my favourite books. And then in Borders and Waterstones reading the first chapters of current best sellers and notable classics.
Eventually I got going and wrote that first chapter. Then I re-wrote it, wrote it again, then edited and then re-edited, then re-wrote. Then edited, then cut and then re-edited. The second chapter took longer because I went back and re-edited the first chapter again. The third chapter took longer because I went back and did chapter one and two again. Repeat as above for the first six chapters which took me to sometime in March. At which time I sat down and calculated my daily word count and realised it would take me seven years to write the book.

So I just got on with it. Well I got to 30,000 words and something occurred to me. 30,000 words is a benchmark. It is 100 pages of a novel. Priddeesh and I celebrated, went out for a meal and then sat down and read the 100 pages as a whole. The story was there but the narrative was confusing, it changed basically from one chapter to another. Sometimes in the middle. I had still been struggling although not lingering so long on re-writing chapters. Eventually I realised I had no idea who I thought would read the book!
Realising the obvious
It is stupid I know but I was looking at the writing process from a reader’s point of view, not from the business point of view. Which essentially meant I was writing the book for myself. And because my reading expectations change with the books I read. The narrative of my story was a reflection of the books I was reading. It was a difficult problem to realise, being like looking at yourself in a different mirror each day and trying to work out what is different. Eventually you realise it is the mirror. So I stopped and really started thinking about who I really thought would read the book and more importantly, who might publish it.

I found that adult fiction falls into two different categories: literary and commercial. The later stands a lot more chance of getting published but it focuses on the story and not on literary writing style. I had assumed that a good story well written would be enough. It is not.

My goal is not to achieve literary greatness or a Nabokovian reputation for imagery, accolades or heaps of cash. I think anyone that knows creative writing knows that is very unlikely anyway. Above all I wanted to write a story that would be read and by that measure, I would need to write another. That was the beginning and end of the initial remit. The problem was in my audience viewpoint, which was constantly changing because I had been the audience. I needed a consistent voice and for that I needed to know who I was writing for. Just as you adjust your word selection and voice and attitude between conversations with a grandparent, a child, a mother or father, a young woman or young man, your peer group. I needed to adjust the story’s voice accordingly and keep it there. I made that adjustment based on the fact I wanted it to be commercial. I imagined my audience reading on beaches or on trains.

The voice took a while to level but it did and then with a consistent voice I found it easier to weave words and paragraphs, pages and chapters. And finally I was enjoying myself.
Having shrugged off the burden of inexperience and actually started writing I realised my imagined ideal of book writing was way wide of the truth. In my imagination writing a book would be a matter of pondering scenes and dialogue and then furiously tapping away and producing pages and pages of prose. I laboured to 60,000 words with the expectation I would soon hit my stride and would begin flourishing my writers wand, deliriously creating my masterpiece at a blur. But the reality slowly dawned on me. This labouring lark was how it was. Apart from some brief moments of inspiration, writing was actually more like being half awake and late and trying to squeeze the last out of a tube of toothpaste. That is how I would best describe the actual writing process.

I had given up my job at the end of March 2008 because I was in serious danger of falling asleep on the 60 mile stretch I drove home along, a desire to sleep which was the net effect of the interest I had in the job. From May through to August I did not write a single word while finding and then acclimatising to the new job. And then in September we moved house and I juggled writing with decorating and commuting. As Christmas 2008 arrived I was up to 90,000 words and considered myself to be on the home stretch. Which was naïve because the story was only two thirds completed.
But I was now writing and more importantly loving it. By the middle of the book I really knew who the characters were and had abandoned the plot outline. Because the characters and the situations now dictated what had to happen. Not in a predictable way but as you might freeze frame a video never seen before and discuss likely outcomes. I distilled the multiple possible paths to the ones I felt made the story the most interesting. And then I pressed play again and started writing. Although of course you always doubt yourself and there is always the temptation to just daydream.

The end of the year was a turning point. You do not write 100,000 honest inventive words and not learn a lot of lessons. I had learned a lot. If I was ill equipped to write a book at the beginning I now knew some of what it took. At least to get the story onto the page in a rough approximation of creative. So 2009 started and I left behind all the fears about the story and its worth, batted away the need to daydream, gave myself time and got into a routine. Thinking on creative ways to climb out of each rut or dilemma.

I typed the last paragraph of the story at roughly 19:30hrs on April 9. I had finished the book, draft one and 155,000 words. Which I now know was only two thirds of the book writing process completed.
Having finished the story I quickly came to the realisation I had a great big mess on my hands. Not that there wasn’t a great story in there somewhere, it just needed the fat trimmed off. Welcome to the editing process.

Most of the fat came from two sources. Firstly in large chunks of the story that were more about me explaining to myself what was going on during key points, whole pages of dialogue and exposition explaining dilemmas and points of view that the reader did not need, would fall asleep reading. Maybe even worse.

The other source for unnecessary chunks of story were either born of my occasional leaning towards over description and from trying to make points of philosophy that I leveraged into the story to serve my own agenda. Ultimately the edit showed them for what they were and nothing that wasn’t part of the story or the characters agenda survived the first edit. That left me with 145,000 words and was completed May 7.

Then after a brief pause I began the second edit which worked at the word level. Was every word part of the story? Was every sentence saying something that drove the story forward. You might think that might have been covered in the first edit. But the editing process has been like peeling away layers. You only see a fault or problem when you pull away the previous layer, then when that problem is fixed and that layer is pulled away it reveals more problems. But with each layer the problems narrow and you eventually have a finished product.

In the last two paragraphs I have detailed what is essentially a very painful process. Having poured heart and soul into every word, deleting words or paragraphs is tough. Especially when you can recall the creation of those specific words took hours of sweat and juggled meanings and context. A really tough process. But in the end for me it became all about the story and the people that were part of the story. If it served neither then it had no right to be there. Once I got over the initial trauma and started seeing the benefit, the editing became a hugely liberating experience.

That is where I am now, post second edit. The whole story now sits at 142,000 words and hangs together with no rucks or mishaps that I can see. That is not to say it is finished. There are lots of rough edges, grammar and spelling mistakes and a few hiccups in flow. But I almost can’t see them now for being drawn to the story. But it is out now with five people that are a good cross section of the intended audience. It is being proofed.
The gap between edit one and edit two was spent writing a letter to the agency of choice and the synopsis and polishing the first three chapters.

The first and only agency at this time is Darley Anderson and I spent a lot of time researching their crime/thriller agent: Camilla Bolton. She apparently likes a covering letter on one page and a synopsis under 1500 words.

Writing the synopsis was a really interesting exercise. As I had never written one before I studied the art. And it really is an art. As a consequence it is also very difficult because what makes a book interesting is the detail. In a synopsis you only have words enough for the essence of the characters and the story’s bare bones. And then you have to imbue it with some of the book’s writing flare - bloody difficult. What the synopsis did force me to do was revisit the plot and in doing so I realised a few omissions. And from that I realised a key story thread which was actually very pedestrian. Nothing earth shattering but a few key details that needed switching about and then mixing with a little extra creativity. These really added to the depth of the story I think and required just a little bit of work. So the synopsis was a very beneficial process if taxing.

I also knew Darley Anderson only signed three new authors last year and the world is entirely different this year. My chances were very slim, but they are looking for someone!

But not me. The letter came back during the time it took to write this essay. It contained words like: ‘Enjoyed reading’ and ‘talented writer’ and ‘strong literary style‘ but Camilla also broke my heart a little. Because it also contained words like: ‘not fit into our highly commercial framework. Good luck.’

I have not yet re-read those first three chapters to see what she saw – too painful right now.
The End
We live and learn and we move on. The next agent has been identified and this essay is almost at a close. I wanted to finish on a note that you might have been wondering about. Why was writing the book one of this life’s greatest experiences?

There is something magical about the creative process, in all the scope of creativity. By the time I got to the middle of the book I had intermittently enjoyed the process but it was so dogged by uncertainly it had been more a labour of love. The revelation for me was in focusing the audience and just embracing the process. Enjoying it for what it was. I knew I had a really good contemporary and ageless story because its themes resonate almost everyday. I had also created characters that I could almost reach out and touch. It is hard to explain. Finishing the book became about telling their story, I felt almost obligated on their behalf. People say writing is a lonely experience but it was not, it was brilliant. I walked with these characters for eighteen months and spent eight of those months carving their story into words. Their voices are silent now and their story is told. I miss them but can revisit whenever I choose.

In the mean time this mind has already turned to the next book and his voice is already chattering away, although he will have to wait until this autumn before he can breathe.