Writing a novel is a massive undertaking.
More than likely it will be the biggest thing you ever do, outside of your family or formal work projects.
In my own case, I started writing when my wife got sick. She was badly ill and I gave up work to look after her. I’d always, from boyhood onwards, wanted to be a writer and this seemed like my chance. Sure, I had quite a lot of sickbed-caring to do, but I still had a lot of time left in the day.
So out came the laptop, and my first book – The Money Makers – came along.
It didn’t come easily though. It was a huge book (650 paperback pages) and a huge undertaking. By the time I’d finished the first draft, I realised that the process of writing had just improved me as a writer. How could it not have done? And the writer I was by the end of the book wasn’t happy with the writer I had been when I started out. So I just selected the first 60,000 words of the book (that’s about the length of a short novel) and deleted them. Deleted, rewrote, made better.
And then there was a long, long process of editing that beast of a book. It had three interlocking stories and figuring out how to slot the pieces together was a brain-scrambling exercise, to put it mildly. I ended up printing the whole damn thing out and shuffling the chapters around in three huge columns on my living room floor until I had an arrangement I was happy with.
And then more editing.
And then the quest for literary agents.
And then – offers of publication! From not just one publisher, but from loads of them. An auction followed. A fat book deal. The book became a bestseller. (The publisher, by the way, was HarperCollins. I still have very fond memories of that firm.)
Dream outcome, right?
Well, kinda, except that that first attempt at writing a book was misleading. Because if my first book was a blowout success, my second one was a car crash.
The idea was bad.
The characters were weak.
The plot – uh, wasn’t really there.
My editor read the book and told me, bluntly, it was unpublishable.
And that moment was when my career as a writer began in earnest. I started to deal with the whole business of writing technique.
Real writers don’t just wait for inspiration to strike from the sky. They go out and get their ideas, then work them into shape. Work those fragile things into beasts of burden that can carry an entire novel.
They don’t just write a book of a random length and hope it’s OK. They check to see what the correct number of words for a novel actually is, then make damn sure that they’re in the right zone.
And then you have to think about characters and the business of characterisation. It’s not enough to “see” characters in your head. For one thing, you always see those characters in much less detail than you think. And for another thing, the reader isn’t in your head. They have the pages of your book and nothing else. If you can’t convey your characters, in words, as living, breathing, engaging humans, then you haven’t accomplished what is arguably your most basic task as a novelist. (And yes, I take exceptional care with my Fiona Griffiths novels. Getting the interplay of characters right is one of my biggest tasks – and greatest pleasures.)
Oh, and plot.
This is, no question, the single element that I find hardest in writing my books. It’s not that the resultant plots are bad – I blooming well hope they’re not! – just that I find the process of plotting arduous. No matter how many books I write, the process doesn’t even seem to get easier. I’m always forcing myself to work at the limits of what I can manage.
So yes, I have to figure out a plot for every novel. That plot needs to satisfy those ancient Aristotelean archetypes and at the same time strike the reader as fresh, engaging and plausible. (Even when the plot is definitely, definitely not plausible, it has to strike the reader that way.)
And because I write detective stories, I have to deal with two intersecting elements. There’s a mystery story, which looks back into the past. (“Why did this corpse wind up here? Who was the murderer?”) There’s also a suspense story which looks to the future. (“What’s going to happen next? Will Fiona Griffiths escape whatever bad thing is currently happening?”) Alfred Hitchcock was particularly fluent when it came to elucidating that distinction … but getting my actual novels actually right still does my head in. Every. Single. Time.
Oh, and I want to close this page by offering you this quote from American artist Chuck Close:
“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
He’s right. Follow his lead.