I finished a book on Friday. Though finished is probably not the best word for it. What I did was get to the end of a first draft which, anyone who’s ever written a book will know, is most likely terrible – full of plot holes, clichés and generally bad writing. Or is that just me? Getting to the end of a first draft is not really an ending but the beginning of what is often a long and frustrating process to get it into something you wouldn’t mind other people reading.
But some of the other things I’ve been working on recently are further down that road and it got me wondering, how do you know when something is actually done?
A couple of weeks ago I was sent the proofs of my book No Place Like Home to check over, and though I didn’t make any huge changes, there was still the odd word change, or cutting a line. Each time I’ve gone over the book, something has changed, no matter how minor. These little tweaks won’t change the novel but they still seem important to do. But how long can you keep doing that? Not anymore, now that I’ve sent it back.
I remember tweaking things from my first novel, Stolen, after it had been published, using a pencil to cross things out and add things in just before I was about to get up and do a reading. But the book itself was done. I could only make changes to what I read aloud. But maybe that’s how it should be. I can look back at my work and cringe and wish I’d done it differently, but that’s just showing that I’m (hopefully) getting better as a writer, and the books as they are show how far I’ve come. In theory, I can change Murder in Slow Motion as much as I want because it’s self published. But should I? Catching typos is one thing, but altering the book itself seems wrong.
So ultimately, I had to stop messing with the manuscript and send it off, knowing it’s as good as it can be at this time. But how do you know when that is?
I was working on a play recently, using competition deadlines as motivation to get it done. I was quite proud of myself for putting the work in – coming up with the idea, developing it and writing it in just a few weeks. I sat up late redrafting and redrafting again. But it got to the point where I couldn’t see the wood for the trees and had to put it aside, even though it meant missing a deadline.
But a week or so later, I read it through again and realised that it wasn’t as bad as I thought, and with a few more tweaks, I was able to send it off to another competition. I’m still not sure it’s done. I’m sure I will mess with it some more. But there’s a fine line between done and not done. If I waited for perfection, I’d still be working on my first book. Sometimes you need to let it go, send it out, and let someone else tell you when it’s done.
Since April 2015 I’ve been working on a project that means the world to me. The story of Heloise and Abelard was one I first became aware of as a teenager (so quite a while ago) and even then, as an aspiring screenwriter, I knew I wanted to write about it. So after many years of stalling I decided to begin. I was ahead of schedule with my crime novels and thought if it was ever going to happen, it was going to be now.
I spent around eighteen months doing the research for what is now known as Devotion, and then started writing it as a TV series before coming to the conclusion that as someone with no screen credits, it would be unlikely to be produced. So I decided to write it as a historical novel. It seemed to make more sense but mostly I just wanted to stay in that world as long as possible. As much as I enjoy my job, I’ve never loved project as much as this one. I buried myself in it completely, losing all interest in everything else. But about 240,000 words and two drafts later, I realised it was going to take a long time to get it right and if I ever wanted to earn any more money, I’d probably have to do something else too.
So earlier this year I self-published Murder in Slow Motion, the fourth instalment in my crime series, as well as signing a contract for a standalone, No Place Like Home, which will be published by Bloodhound Books in August. But these projects were already finished before I started Devotion and it felt like I needed to not only step away from Devotion for a while to get a bit of distance, it was also time to do some of the other things I’d wanted to do.
Playwriting has always been something I wanted to do but other than a few half-hearted attempts, I hadn’t really done anything. I don’t know why as theatre is one of my favourite things. But I was determined to actually do something this time possibly spurred on by my friend Tas whose advice was to ‘Just fucking do it’. So I found a few competitions (having a deadline often helps with motivation) and wrote a ten minute script called Feta Friday, and am now writing a full-length play. They might not win any prizes (they might not even be done by the deadline) but at least I’m doing it. And it seems a little motivation goes a long way. I’m now also applying for a place in a writers group at the Royal Court, have just outlined a new crime novel which I hope to start writing soon, have written an essay for a magazine about our legacy after death, and have a couple of screenplays lined up.
It’s good to be excited about work (and probably a good thing to not stay hidden in twelfth-century France all the time), but I have to wonder, am I setting myself up to fail? How many projects can you balance at once? Is it possible to keep so many characters and worlds in your mind all at once? I suppose time will tell. I might end up with several mediocre projects or just run out of steam and end up with several unfinished projects. But I won’t know until I try and anyway, I’ve always wanted to have a go at juggling.
Yesterday I wrote a short play about cheese.
Wanting a break from my main project, I’d been staring at the page for a while, wondering what to write. And then it came to me and, faster than squeezy cheese from a tube, I’d written a short play. About cheese. And that got me thinking about ideas.
The question usually asked first at any Q&A or after telling anyone you’re a writer is ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ This makes writers laugh. Not because it’s a stupid question – it isn’t. After being asked so many times, I started to think about why it was the most pressing query and realised that normal people (i.e. not writers) don’t have ideas bombarding them every day. They don’t look at every situation, hear every fact or conversation, and think ‘that might be a good story.’ When people have said to me they couldn’t do what I do, I assumed they meant sit by themselves every day, churning out 100,000 words. (Not 100,000 words a day – I can’t type that fast). But often they tell me they just wouldn’t know where to start when faced with a blank page. To me, that’s strange. Not that I’ve never been stuck, but usually when I can’t think what to do next it’s from trying to work out how to get from A to B, or how a character might do this or that. Ideas are ten a penny, you just need to work out which ones are good (not many of them) and how to develop them into a 100,000 word novel, or a script or whatever it is you write.
For years my stock answer to the question was Everywhere. If pushed to be more specific I’d say from the news, newspapers in particular (especially those minor stories that’re only worth a paragraph – they’re a goldmine for crime writers), real life, listening to people’s conversations (much like Facebook, your information isn’t safe with writers either). But more and more I’m finding that Everywhere is more accurate.
My forthcoming thriller No Place Like Home came from a personal experience mixed in with a couple of ‘What if’s’ (and then twisted a lot – so don’t panic if you read the book). Doing something other than writing is good for ideas, especially if that something else is exercise (something about movement makes different parts of the brain smush together and form plots of novels – that’s just science). Writing one thing can lead to another too. From writing my historical novel, Devotion, I’ve developed an interest in philosophy, so much so that I considered packing in the writing to retrain in philosophy. (Until I realised that if there’s one thing less useful than a degree in creative writing it’s probably a degree in philosophy, so settled for reading more about it instead.) This week one article about memory sparked an idea I couldn’t get written down fast enough.
But to get back to the cheese play (it’s actually a play that features cheese heavily but is really about something else). That came from a writing competition with a theme, which meant scribbling down everything I could think of related to that theme, and what I ended up with was cheese. Is it a good idea? Only time will tell. Is there a big market for cheese themed plays? Probably not. But some ideas you just have to run with.
So, Everywhere. That’s where the ideas come from. It’s not a very helpful answer but it’s true.
Very excited to announce my first standalone – No Place Like Home – will be published by Bloodhound Books in August 2018!
My first three novels – Stolen, Gone, and Tell Me Lies – were all traditionally published. But with Murder in Slow Motion, I decided I wanted to try something new. Having been first published by a small, independent publisher and later by one of the biggies, I found there were pros and cons to both. I knew nothing about self publishing but knew people who had. It’s easy, they said. It’s fun! Well… after a lot of hard work and a handful of nervous breakdowns, here are some of the things I learned.
- Before doing something, know why you’re doing it, and what you hope to get from it
Did I want the “kudos” of being traditionally published? Did I want to see my book in bookshops? Did I want a hard copy of the book or was just an eBook fine? I realised that the book is the same regardless of who publishes it and that being traditionally published doesn’t necessarily mean your book will be stocked in real bookshops. What was important to me was getting a story that meant a lot to me out there and having control of things I previously didn’t have. The only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted a paperback as well as an eBook. As someone who reads very few eBooks, I wanted something I could hold in my hands.
- There are far more decisions to be made than I ever realised
There’s a lot of excellent information out there (a lot of mine from The Creative Penn) but as someone who is chronically indecisive, it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. Do I publish exclusively on Amazon or publish wider? Do I use my own ISBN? What should the cover look like? How do I find an editor that’s right for me? What size book do I want? Do I format it myself or get someone else to do it? What are my categories and keywords? And on and on. After a while I found myself in limbo. There were pros and cons to everything, and almost too many things to choose from. At this point I wondered if I should start sending the book out to traditional publishers.
- If you need help, ask for it
After weeks of researching editors and still coming to no decision, I reached out to the brilliant Mel Sherratt and asked if she could recommend anyone. She did, and I ended up working with the equally brilliant Donna Hillyer, who whipped the book into shape. With one less thing to worry about (I’m also a chronic worrier), I reached out again to my first publisher. I was told that the overwhelming majority of their sales came through Amazon so I decided to publish exclusively with them. Another decision made.
- There’s an answer to almost everything on the internet
I guess I already knew this from some of the more obscure “research” questions I’ve typed into Google. But I’d decided to have a go at formatting myself because I like to learn new things, even though new things related to technology usually send me into meltdown. I found some useful videos on YouTube and discovered things I could do in Word I never knew about before. Exciting!
- Challenging yourself is challenging, but also feels really good
So, extremely proud of myself for formatting my own book, I uploaded it into the previewer and waited for my work to appear in all its glory. Except when it loaded, it was a disaster. Turns out there isn’t a one size fits all when it comes to formatting. I won’t bore you with all the ins and outs, but let’s just say that after several more attempts I was almost weeping. But as well as being technically inept, I’m also stubborn, so I couldn’t leave it alone. Spending nine hours on a Sunday afternoon trying to format is not fun at all (especially when you’ve already put a lot of hours in and thought it was done). But when you finally get it right, it’s worth it.
- Any decision is better than no decision
I spent a lot of time trying to weigh up pros and cons, and second guessing myself. Every time I thought I was ready to move to the next stage, I’d panic that I’d made the wrong decision. I was afraid to choose one thing over another. But the thing is, almost all of the decisions are reversible. Choosing to publish with Amazon now doesn’t mean I can’t go wider at a later date. If I realise I don’t like the font or the cover? I can change that too. No matter how uncertain things feel, doing something is always better than doing nothing.
- You’ll know the perfect cover when you see it
I’d never had input with my covers before but now it was entirely my decision to make. There are lots of people out there who can create whatever is in your head. The problem was, I had nothing in my head. I guess visuals are not one of my strengths. How could I commission something if I had no idea what I wanted? Fortunately, a lot of designers do ready-made covers. Out of thousands of designs, I found one that looked good and I thought maybe that was enough. But after procrastinating for so long, the cover was snapped up by someone else. This turned out to be fortuitous. Going back in, I found the cover I finally used, knowing it wasn’t just good but actually perfect. This time I bought it immediately.
- You have to press publish eventually
The book was edited, proofread (and read and read), formatted, the cover was designed. I’d chosen my keywords and categories. Decided on a price. I’d got a proof copy and checked it over. There was nothing else to do but press the button that said Publish. And yet I hesitated. What if I’d done something wrong? What if it wasn’t quite ready? With my previous books there were little things I’d change if I could but it was too late. But this time, I could change things if necessary, so what was I waiting for? I pressed send. And felt a bit sick. (But also happy).
- You never know when a book will be a success, but neither does anyone else (unless it was written by J.K. Rowling). So don’t worry about it!
The book hasn’t been out long and it’s tempting to keep checking the sales reports. (As handy as it is, having day by day sales figures is possibly the road to madness.) And as nice as it would be to become a bestseller, I have to remember that, just as the book is the same whether it’s self published or traditionally published, the book is the same whether one person reads it or a million do. The achievement is in the writing and, for me, navigating the self publishing process. I found it hard work but I’m glad I did it. What happens next is out of my hands.
- Life is too short for algorithms
Finally, one of the things that came up repeatedly in this process was algorithms – the thing that dictates how visible books are on Amazon, and how sales are ranked. Many of the sites I visited spoke of algorithms as if they were the most important factor of all, as though the book itself doesn’t matter. And yes, I know it all helps, but really? Isn’t life too short to worry about algorithms? I’d rather be writing the next book.
Thanks to Karen for inviting me over to My Reading Corner to talk about my ten steps for writing a book.