Writing Process Blog Tour

I have been tagged by debut writer Belinda Landsberry whose illustrated kiddies’ book Anzac Ted is coming out later this year. This is a seriously triumphant development for Belinda who has been slaving away in the proverbial garret much longer than her talent deserved. Of course, it’s always been hard to be published, but these days it’s damn near impossible which makes her achievement all the more impressive.

Belinda’s responses to the blog tour questions are here and mine continue below. So, without further Ado…

What am I working on?

It is the nature of my muse to be usually working on several things at once. In fact, I’m working on four projects at the moment. I can’t say too much about any of them but one is a sequel to one of my already published novels; another is a biography I was commissioned to write by a football identity (who has had a really fascinating life); the third is a historical novel set in the high middle ages, told in a very rough and bawdy Cleansheets style; and the fourth is a political crime thriller set in 2030. Inventing the technology available to detectives (and consumers) in just 16 years is a real challenge, not least as I believe quantum computing will have arrived by then which will fundamentally change the world.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hard to answer this question without sounding like a self-absorbed wanker. Nevertheless…

My two (print) published books are both crime novels, although fairly off-beat specimens of that genre (which is already a very broad church). There is little or no procedural detail in my work – even when writing from the detective’s POV – mainly because it is the human side of the story on which I tend to focus. My novels are also a tad literary in that there are layers to the characters and story and the ‘answers’ require just a little bit of work from the reader. I never explain everything (and I hate books that do) and some people tell me they enjoy reading my books even more the second time because they can then enjoy the sneaky ways in which I set up the various clues and twists.

I guess the other thing that sets my work apart from most other crime novels is the humour. No matter what dark and creepy places my stories take me, there is always an undercurrent of black comedy bubbling along. I love it when readers tell me (especially regarding Straight Jacket) that they couldn’t believe what they were laughing at – felt embarrassed by what they were laughing at.

Why do I write what I do?

Many writers say they write the books they’d like to read themselves, and that certainly applies to me, but strangely enough I’ve never been much of an orthodox crime reader.

I started out writing strange, speculative fiction stories but seem to have evolved accidentally into crime. I didn’t intend that – it just happened. But now I quite like thinking of myself as an off-beat crime writer in the same way that people like Iain Banks, Irvine Welsh or even Janette Turner Hospital might be regarded as off-beat crime writers. Accordingly, I am increasingly focussed on stories of that nature and having a little bit of success.

I suspect also that my speculative fiction origins have given me a unique prism through which to envision crime writing.

How does my writing process work?

As I mentioned earlier, I tend to have several projects on the go at any time and my head is always rattling with ideas looking for a structure. Occasionally I have what I call the framing idea – into which various other established ideas might neatly slot – and I suddenly realise I have an inciting incident, a principal character (or more) and a goal towards which the principal character is moving. That’s the basis of the plot and I will sit down and dash off about 10 pages of notes. At this point I’m absolutely sparking with ideas and alternative futures – some of which will later be rejected. I’ll even come up with some snatches of very characteristic dialogue and ideas for scenes from anywhere in the book which might be years from completion at that point. To give an example, the very first scene I wrote out for Straight Jacket (in more or less finished prose) is on pages 202 – 203 of the published novel.

After an opening frenzy of activity, which might typically give me my basic plot map and about 30 pages of opening text, I’ll usually put the project down again at that point to think about it while I work on something else – then possibly years later, I’ll return to the project ready to work through to the end. Both of my crime novels sat in incipient state in the bottom draw for seven or eight years until I suddenly pulled them out, ready to go, and rattled off a draft in about a year.

Generating the first draft is a bit of an exploration – feeling your way through the dark to the various plot beacons you’ve laid out in advance. This can be the really fun part of the process because you’ve constructed lots of little journeys for yourself to get from plot point A to plot point B and so on down to plot point Z. Each one, successfully navigated, is another manageable journey of discovery and extremely satisfying when you know you got it right. I suspect that’s also what makes my books page turners (so most people tell me, at least) – there’s always a sense of movement. I tend to write in short scenes and the reader always learns something new by the end of the scene but also faces a new question. The plot continues to thicken.

There are always surprise twists and revelations in my stories – especially at the end. And the odd thing is, I never know what the final twist will be when I establish my plot map. It is only ever revealed to me – the writer – at the end. I don’t know why it always works like that but the twists always make perfect sense and readers rarely guess them in advance. And why should a reader guess the end when I couldn’t?

Then comes the editing process. This is what separates the amateurs from the professionals. I reckon anyone can write a novel, but most new writers get to the end and think they’ve finished. To give an idea – it took me about a year to write the draft of Mr Cleansheets, and then a good 18 months (over numerous drafts and versions) to bash it into publishable shape. Straight Jacket was similar – a year to write the draft and then another two years of reconstructing, whittling and polishing. What’s more, that process never really finishes because there are many aspects of both books that now rankle and I’d love another chance to polish – but you have to let them go.

That’s how the learning process works for a writer – you make your improvements in the next book.

Anyways…

It is my solemn duty now to pass the blog baton to three more writers:

Tony Wilson – multi-media phenomenon, blogger and writer (across a range of genres, including novels, non-fiction and kids’ books). Tony’s book Australia United (about the Socceroos in Germany 2006) is one of the best sporting memoirs I’ve read.

Ant Mann – a childhood mate and fellow traveller on the writing road. Ant is a multi-award winning novelist and screen writer, having won the Macallan Gold Dagger for his short story Taking Care of Frank and also won Best Short Film at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the amazing Billy’s Day Out. He is also ‘big in Japan’ after the successful translation of his short story collection – Milo and I.

Matt White – one of the most naturally funny people I know, Matt is a screen writer living in darkest Shropshire and has just seen his first feature film being made (The Final Haunting) – now in post-production.

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