How to Eat an Elephant
At author events, and during interviews, I’m often asked what my working day consists of, and how I approach my writing. So I thought this could be a good opportunity to explain. Since leaving the police force to write full-time in 2008, I’ve managed to pen (actually that should be type, as I work direct onto my computer screen these days) twenty-two published novels, with between 90 and 120 thousand words in each, as well as a raft of short stories, novellas and flash fiction, primarily in the action thriller genre, but also some horror and supernatural. That’s not including all the words I write for articles, interviews and on the social media networks, of course – I’ve probably written more there than ever ended up in any published volume. When I say that, some people blink in surprise, and wonder aloud how I manage to write so much. The trite answer is that it’s my job, but in reality it’s also what I enjoy doing.
I’m paraphrasing but there’s an old adage that goes something like “to eat an elephant take only one bite at a time”, and it’s with that steady approach to manageable chunks that I go. When you think about it, writing one thousand words a day is achievable (it’s less the length of this blog post). In 90 days, that’s 90 thousand words, and about the length of a modern manuscript of approximately 300 pages in book form. If you double your word count, you can write a 90K words rough draft in as little as one and a half months. That isn’t to say that your book is finished by any means, as editing and re-writing must be taken into account, but you can see how the daunting prospect of writing a book might not seem as impossible any more. Obviously I’m in the enviable position of having the time to write, to get down my word count, but being an author these days isn’t just about writing a book – there’s so much more that must be done that ekes into my time too. I’m still a family man with commitments, and part of my job these days is to engage with readers and attend library and bookshop events, and conventions, so every day isn’t a writing day. But I do try to write every day, even if it’s only a paragraph or two – each little bit of that elephant I tackle makes less to face tomorrow. When I’m on a deadline, I set myself a daily target of two thousand words, and I force myself to sit down and get them done. Usually, once I know where the book is headed and the adrenaline kicks in as the end comes in sight, I speed up, and it’s not unknown for me to write two or three times as much per day.
I’m not much of a forward planner. I prefer to write by the seat of my pants. Usually I have a theme in mind, a very basic plot and where things might end up. Then I start at the beginning and write through to the end, usually being surprised by the direction the story takes itself as I go. There’s no right and wrong way to write. Some authors prefer to meticulously plot their books, and write out a mass of notes, plot chapters and scenes beforehand, before ever getting down to writing the book itself. That’s good. I’m the opposite. But that’s good too. As is every other method in between. You have to find the way that suits you. I’ve tried plotting books out chapter by chapter and found myself getting bored, or going so far off tangent that getting the story back on its original track is almost impossible. I prefer my writing to be almost organic, growing in my mind as I put down new seeds on paper. I also write quite visually. By that I mean I choreograph scenes in my mind’s eye the way a movie director might, choosing the best angle, the best point of view to show the action from, and then translate them into the medium of prose. Often, by the action-packed nature of my books, I get caught up in the writing, and have been known to bounce about on my chair, fist-pumping the air while wearing a silly grin.
My research method is similarly as organic. There’s nothing like getting your feet on the ground, and hearing, smelling, tasting and touching the environment to get a genuine feel for the places you write about. But because I’m often writing about the USA while sitting at my desk in a rural corner of northern England, that option isn’t always open to me. So I rely a lot on the Internet and Google Earth etc. But what I prefer to do is look out random facts, then follow other links to something I wasn’t looking for in the first place. It’s those little surprise finds that often add flavour to your writing, rather than some info dump grabbed wholesale from Wikipedia or some other source. Occasionally I come across a fact or even place or feature that I simply have to incorporate into the story. It’s also not unknown for me to make stuff up: I’m a fiction writer after all. Seriously though, by that I mean I’ve created towns and streets and islands that exist only in my imagination, where to use a real location might upset those living there, or bring down the value of their property when I blow up their homes (not literally of course).
I tend to edit as I go. My first task is to go over what I worked on the previous day. I re-read and titivate. It’s an exercise that gets me back into ‘voice’ and also reminds me of what was on my mind when I last left off. From there I continue writing, and then repeat the process the next day. Often when I get to the end of the book I end up with an almost clean draft that I then submit to my editor. It’s never perfect, but any rewriting after that tends to be minimal to pick up hanging plot threads or major boo boo’s I might have missed.
And the dreaded writer’s block? I can’t allow it to stall me. If I’m struggling to write I switch and go and do something different. I’ll write something for a blog, or a short story with different characters, or even mess about on Facebook for a while. As long as I’m writing, the problem seems to resolve itself and I’m able to return to my original piece with the heel-dragging demon exorcised.
Best advice for aspiring writers? Don’t think one day I’ll write a book, start today. And keep on keeping on, one chewy mouthful of elephant flesh at a time.