I’m often asked how I write. It’s as though people want to be let in on a magic trick. And I suppose there is a bit of alchemy involved in creating a book out of thin air. First, find an empty vessel – my head will do. Then mix personal experience, outbursts of imagination, and a rainbow of emotion, and wait for the muse to come up with a brilliant plot and the right words to tell it.
I wish I could say there’s more to it than that. But fundamentally, that’s it. Of course as any alchemist will tell you, you don’t transmute lead into gold first attempt. Before Truth Dare Kill was published I wrote half a dozen others that have never seen the light of day. Writing is a craft and it takes a lot of practice to get it right. Like plastering. I don’t know how typical I am, but I reckon it took me ten books to find my ‘voice’ and have my first taste of real success with The Hanging Shed. Somewhere around a million words.
Leaving aside the high-flown references to muses and magic, writing is a job like any other. It requires application and a pattern of work. My approach is continually evolving, but here’s how I wrote my latest book, Bitter Water, the sequel to The Hanging Shed, starring Douglas Brodie.
The great thing about writing a series is that you already know the setting and the main characters. The worst thing is that you’re stuck with both. And then you have to come up with a new story. Ideas are as elusive as unicorns. They can crop up reading an article in a newspaper. They can leap out in conversation. But sometimes you just have to go out hunting for one. I hunt with my keyboard and screen. I start writing something, anything, and see where it goes. I keep shouting at my characters, wanting them to say something, do something, until finally an idea flops out, like a new and amorphous life form. I then have to bash it into the outline of a story. Typically this is four or five pages long, and takes a month or so to hammer out.
I then start writing. I try not to review what I’ve written, otherwise it’s groundhog day for the first chapter, often the first page. I keep on bashing away until I’ve cranked out a rough and ready story of about 50,000 to 60,000 words. I then go on holiday, or a bender, or to the Priory . . .
I come back from my break, read the first draft and weep. It’s like I’ve built Frankenstein’s monster. Most of the bits are there but not necessarily in the right place, and there’s no sign of life. I dry my eyes, take up my keyboard and start to rewrite. I fill in the blanks. I flatten out the discontinuities and flesh out my characters. I cut and paste, chop and change, and generally play God with storyline and actors until miraculously, I have a rough diamond of about 100,000 words. Many of them good, and frequently in the right order. After another round of playing with words – killing clichés, strangling adverbs and instilling cadence and rhythm – I let Sarah, my wife and first reviewer see it. And it’s back to the keyboard. . .
Eventually my publisher rips the draft from my hands, lets their editor at it, and round we go again. Finally I sign off on final proofs and the cover, and wait for review copies to show up. It takes a year from idea to publication, and each time I hold the first edition in my hand there’s a couple of days relief. Then the anxiety starts up again. Where am I going to get the next idea . . .