My Way – Part Two

Here we continue the short series of blog posts that endeavour to share how I write. It’s not meant to be a classroom affair, nor is it ultra analytical; it’s meant to be a little informative and perhaps a bit of fun. Each heading is a ‘fuzzy’ heading because the essence of writing is not easily broken down into true segments; each merges into the other.

Writing

At the beginning of my career (I’m allowed to call it that, right?), I panicked a lot. After reading a book, I wrote like the author had. For example, when I finished The Stand, my authorial voice grew an easy American twang that I simply couldn’t break free from. Same with Bernard Cornwell’s books – I developed a rich English slant that really wasn’t ‘me’ at all. On occasion though, especially with the American twang, it had the effect of catapulting my writing forward at great speed, and I soon realised why. creative-725811_1280I was trying too hard to sound authorly, and using someone else’s voice allowed me to break away from my own inhibitions and just write – and just enjoy writing. It was faster, flowed better, read easier, and made more sense.

This realisation hit me half way through the second book of the first trilogy: Stealing Elgar. You won’t know it because it’s been edited a thousand times since, but A Long Time Dead was stifled, it read like a series of bullet points; it had no flow. In Elgar, I made the conscious connection between my mind and my writing voice – it was almost something physical, something I could feel happening.

So the greatest thing to happen to me was being able to let go of those silly self-doubts and chain-232930_1280artificial constraints that I’d chained myself up with. The style you read in today’s Eddie Collins books is my style. It isn’t copied from anyone. It’s mine. And it comes to me as easily as breathing; I wrote Black by Rose in about five months. Its only edit was correction of typos, and a quick polish or two – aside from making sure there were no chronological or continuity errors of course. What you read there is almost precisely how it came out the first time round.

And here’s a little tip that might actually help! I believe there are four levels of thinking (I hope to write a blog about this a little later), and when you’re immersed in Level 3 thought as you construct your story, have a go at listening to music that best reflects the mood of the scene you’re writing. I promise, if you’re struggling to achieve the authenticity that the scene deserves, this really does work. If I want Eddie to be downright nasty, rude, or even if I just want him in a strop, I listen to a bit of Ozzy Osbourne, or AC/DC, or Halestorm.

My latest phonograph for the best tunes
My latest phonograph for the best tunes

If on the other hand, I’m writing a thoughtful, emotional scene, maybe one where – if this was a film you were watching – you’d shed a tear or two, play something mellow, something ‘deep’ (we’re in Level 3 thinking mode here – ‘deep’ is a pre-requisite!), which for me includes Enya (laugh and I’ll poke you in the eye!), some old Queen (no, not some old queen, read it again), a little Taylor Swift (just discovered her, some good stuff in there)… you get the idea.

Of course if I’m not struggling, then I prefer silence every time.

I once tried listening to some classical music for the triumphant and uplifting feeling it can generate, but I failed to get hooked on it. That’s perhaps because I spent most of the evening listening to five-second samples of it, searching for the one that would carry me away. They all sound the same in five-second sound bites so I gave up.

So that’s the theory of my writing. What about the logistics? What happens when I get stuck?

I only need ask myself one question: what would the character do in this situation? Okay, scratch that – I ask myself this one too: what would be the most realistic way that this crisis would end? Occam’s razor: “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.” In other words, choose the simplest path.

In this instance, I outline the problem, and from it draw a series of lines radiating from its centre. At the end of each line, I summarise what could happen. From this summary I extend the line to include whatever knock-on effect that particular action would initiate.

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A flow chart from Black by Rose

Eventually, I arrive at two possible paths in which to proceed (I suppose this section harks back to the Planning section), and I’d choose the one that I felt most attracted to emotionally, rather than the one that appealed to me through practicality. Emotion is the driving force of you and me, of your character and ultimately of your story. This then becomes what would happen, which in the final draft, becomes what did happen.

Okay, the logistics of my writing. I use a Logitech solar keyboard. I’ve been through a dozen or so keyboards since I began this writing lark, and this one is by far the best. It has a very short keystroke, a pleasing ‘tink’ when the key bottoms out, and is very attractive to the eye. I’m not one of those writers who trained to use a keyboard. I can type while not looking at the keys, but there’s a lot of red on the screen when I do, which doesn’t really bother me.

The very latest technology
The very latest technology

Instead, I look at the keyboard while I’m smashing away at the keys, glancing to the screen only occasionally when in full flow (but obviously reading what I’ve written when I come to a natural pause). As I’m typing this now, I realise that I don’t actually look at the keys at all; I look through them. I’m staring right now at the ‘t’ and ‘y’ keys and my fingers are just a raggedy blur to each side. This is me sinking into my story, looking at my character’s face, hearing his thoughts, and shrieking at what comes out of his foul mouth.

I find that if I watch the words appearing on the screen, then that’s what I’m doing: watching the screen. I should be observing my main man, and disappearing through the keyboard and absorbing the crisis he’s engaged with, which helps me a lot. It especially helps me with the character’s mood. I try to gauge the mood he’s in as a result of whatever crisis he’s lumbered with, and if I keep myself away from physical things by staring through the keyboard, I can maintain that mood or move it along to the next natural mood he’d encounter in a much smoother fashion.

As I mentioned above, when I do sit back and study what I’ve written, I can see the flow of words, and I can hear them. Do they sound right? Is that sentence clumsy? Is it really what I was thinking when I wrote it? I also see other things too, like a word I’ve used too often (okay, I’m a guilty of this – I’m not perfect!), or the very real fact that I’ve skirted around what I meant to say and have not made the point at all.

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My desk, my home, aaaaah.
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Note secondary desk lamp for ultra moodiness

I try to keep myself away from the physical world around me while I type. I have two screens – one has the story I’m writing on it (always on the right hand screen), the other has the Chapter Profile. I have a keyboard that I feel comfortable with (if you wear your favourite slippers, they eventually disappear from your conscious mind, and that’s where I am with this keyboard), and I have a sheet of red velvet across the desk (thanks Kath!) that stops my arms sticking to the wood when it’s hot in summer, and stops them feeling the coldness of it in winter.

I have a lamp nailed to the wall above me. Its light shines at the ceiling and is diffused enough to cast an even pool of light over my desk. All around me doesn’t exist. My desk faces a wall where I have a few choice pictures pinned – but I rarely look at them. The blind over the window to my left is never open; I like the consistency of my artificial pool of light, and get quite cross when the sun comes through it, especially on a windy and cloudy day when the sunlight is weak then strong then weak…  I have a footstool under my desk for those moments of contemplation where I sit back in my chair and read the screen or immerse myself in deep thought – I want no pinprick of discomfort to pull me out of the story, I want no distractions.

When the neighbours are being noisy, cutting grass or whatever, they’re pulling me away from the story. I counter this not with music (or automatic gunfire from my roof-mounted sniper’s nest), but with a rainfall soundtrack turned up high enough to obliterate them. Sharp intermittent noises play havoc with my thoughts, but a constant drone, a washing machine for example, or my rainfall track, soothes me, and allows me a swift exit from those around me.

On my desk I have a 1966 sixpence (my birth year) which is the first coin I ever remember holding. I have a few spent 9mm shell casings, some heavily distorted lead from a shotgun slug, and a few rifle rounds alongside some gifts from special people – oddments to carry me away somewhere new.

As an aside, I hate new pages. I used to write my books longhand in an A4  pad.

First Draft of Charlotte's Lodge 1991
First Draft of Charlotte’s Lodge 1991

And I would cram words onto each page simply because I hated turning over and starting on a new blank page. I could fit something like 800 words onto one single page. And it’s the same now that I use a computer. I’ll often continue on the same page when I begin a new chapter, just so I don’t have to see a blank page with the words Chapter Six (or whatever) waiting patiently for me to crack my knuckles and begin punching the keys. Maybe a psychologist could shed light on that one.

My Way – Part One

So how do I do it?

We’re talking here about writing, so all you smutty heads will be disappointed.

First of all, let’s start by injecting a little sobering and thought-provoking pep talk.

This is a short series of blog posts on how I go about my business of writing. I made up everything that follows! I have no more qualifications in creative writing than I do in Quantum Mechanics. This is all my opinion; it’s how I work, and the methods in this piece are those I’ve learned or have tried for myself. If you follow my advice and end up a penniless bum with nothing to your name other than a dream to write, then don’t try to sue me, for I too am a penniless bum with nothing more than a dream to write. If however, my advice leads you to great wealth and fame, please pop by for tea and biscuits. You’ll need to bring some tea. Oh, and some biscuits.

And for all you penniless bums out there clutching at your pencil and your writing pad – welcome brother; let us dream together.

Ideas.

Usually a scene will occur to me first and then I’ll grow a story onto it. It’s very organic, but a little scary as the end result can be monstrous. I think people call this technique and this style of writer, a ‘pantster’. I’m one of the few authors I know of who generally struggle to come up with ideas though. I suspect that’s because I like to have an idea plop into my head that’s fully formed – a whole story, in other words. And I’ll often dismiss ideas that do show themselves simply because they’ve been written about before, even if I know I could give the tale an original slant.

A lot of authors seem to have ideas occur to them all the time, even bits of ideas. That doesn’t often happen to me. If nothing plops into my mind, I begin prodding and poking at the box inside my head labelled Novel Ideas, but that never works out right. I can see the box closing tighter and tighter the more I growl at it. Only when I chuck away my prodding stick and walk off does it seem to relax and maybe open of its own accord.

But for me, coming up with a plausible idea is very difficult and often tedious. And I cry a lot in frustration. Sometimes I have moments of exceptional clarity where a very appealing idea will arrive, smartly dressed, and with a smile on its face. And each time this happens, something distracts me, and I turn away for a second or two and when I look again, it’s gone, a small cloud of dust where it once stood. Infuriating doesn’t cover it.

Planning.

I am the worst planner in the world. I don’t plan. For Black by Rose, I formed the story around a robbery scene I had in mind, and then promptly got stuck. So I made a flowchart on a sheet of A3 I had kicking about. It had all kinds of ideas branching off in all kinds of directions. There was a whole spectrum of ideas coming from that thing that ranged from impossible to improbable, and I basically drew a route through the whole page. That got me going again, but mostly I was winging it.

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In The Third Rule I did do some planning, but only the background. I planned it in minute detail so I knew exactly what I was talking about. All the laws and policies I’d created regarding The Rules were fixed in place in my head and I could just get along and write the story (I learned a lot about British law, the judiciary, and politicians along the way). I kept an A4 bound book of all my notes too so I could refer back to it when I needed to, and it helped me eke the story forward too, letting me know what scene should come next. But there was still no forward planning.

In Stealing Elgar, I also kept a note book. It all happened a long time ago, but I do recall simply going down a list of the scenes I needed to write and ticking them off. I look back on that book with envy, wishing I could do that these days. This made for some really quick writing, and it’s a technique I’d like to employ again.

But in every modern book that I’ve written on my computer, I create a file which I call the Chapter Profile.

Chapter Profile
Chapter Profile

It’s headed with a chapter number, page count, word count, one-sentence heading, and day/time the scene takes place. Below this heading I write a brief summary of what occurred in this scene, who was present, what the important aspects of it were so I can refer to it any time. Keeping this up to date is vital. In Sword of Damocles, I used this extensively to help me rearrange all the chapters and all the scenes within the chapters to make sure it was chronologically correct. It helped me find inconsistencies and continuity errors – well, some of them. And then, it also helped me equalise the chapter lengths and so avoid some 50-page chapter.

Alongside the active document, I like to use the navigation tool on Word. It’s invaluable and I cannot now write without it being there. It’s another chapter marker. The text box though is very short but I like to get as much information into it as I can. Then swapping chapters or scenes around is a doddle: drag and drop.

Navigation Pane
Navigation Pane

All of these aids are great to refer to when making up the story, propelling it forward, or correcting it afterward, but they’re all retrospective aids. I still don’t know how to actually plan out a story.

Launch Day and Associated Nerves

Nervous? Why?

Writing a book is an intensely private affair. When I’ve finished writing one, along with the euphoria I feel at completing such a mammoth task (and be under no illusion – it is a mammoth task), I feel deflated – the same way you might after watching a good film or reading a good book. I look around and think, ‘Now what?’ There is a rainbow of emotions to experience before you can begin to get on with your life; it really is that disruptive – to me anyway.

But uppermost in that list of feelings, is fear. You and your baby have been through hell and high water for a year or so, and you’ve cuddled it, sworn at it, beaten it, and shed tears and blood (yes blood. Paper cuts are evil!), shared laughter and frustration with it. It has caused friction in your ‘real’ life, it has given you a crutch to support you when ‘real’ life has been too much to bear alone. It has been the one thing you have thought of more than just about anything else for as long you can remember. It lives within you.

And now you’re going to let the world look at it.

Are you nuts?

That world is often cruel, and it takes no prisoners. It laughs at your efforts and mocks you without even the good grace to smile as it does so.

So beware, releasing a book is a minefield of nerves and emotions.

However…

So far, with Sword of Damocles, all is good. The reviewers seemed to like it very much, making the fear abate somewhat. I’d like to say I can just sit back now and enjoy the ride, but I can’t because the nerves are never far away.

I’ve heard that the pain of childbirth melts away and all a mother knows is that happiness of seeing her child grow. The same is true for writing I think. The emotional turmoil and the physical pain dissolves when the good reviews come in, and it is because of these reviews that the heartache of writing a novel gives way to the joy of having written it. The pleasure other people get form your work outweighs the pain it took to create it.