On Writing Novels
During much of my working life I would buy and study 'how to' books on writing, though never managed to find the time or inclination to do any physical typing or scribbling myself. I became quite an expert at not writing, and even bought Writing a Blockbuster Novel along with many other tomes to help me continue my not writing career.
They all pretty much described the same how to formula - so must have been right.
They all made perfect sense, with an emphasis on planning and structure as essential starting points, and pretty much confirmed everything I'd learnt in English composition lessons. Of course you have to know how the story progresses and how it ends before you start writing in earnest...
I tried a few times to write a novel the way they dictated: creating a plot, fleshing out characters with full background bios, then pulling these together into a detailed synopsis, applying that into outline chapters, then fleshing those chapters out to get the first draft.
By the time I had done all that, quite frankly, I was bored with what I had written, and I was convinced any reader would be too.
It wasn't until the turn of the century and one of my later midlife crises that I really knuckled down. I bought a copy of Stephen King's excellent semi-autobiography-cum-writing-guide entitled On Writing and was finally inspired. If you want to write creative fiction, or improve your writing, this is a must read guide - one that motivated me to finally put pen to paper in earnest.
King is a brilliant author, even for those of us not much into his genre, but his many movie adaptations are testament to his genius. Misery is one of my all time favourites - you can read about Kathy Bates' magical interpretation of obsessive psychopath Annie Wilkes on my Psychopaths in Fact and Fiction website.
So how did King come up with his amazing characters and original plots and themes? And what made the difference with King's recommended approach for me?
Quite simply, it was his suggestion of spit-balling some ideas and just letting the characters run where they want to go. Now I'm a Brit so the term was unfamiliar, but I knew intuitively what King meant and soon managed to cough up few balls of my own, and was soon on my way to my personal holy grail - Will Patching, Author.
This brilliantly simple approach really works for me and if you have tried to write a novel and found yourself bogged down and losing inspiration as you plough through the trusted how to formula, grab a copy of King's book right now.
This style of creative writing is exciting as the plot often heads in a new direction as the characters themselves start to write their own stories. I would regularly have to to go back to rewrite earlier scenes to fit in with how the characters had developed - a far cry from the standard preplanned approach - though I would often just make a hasty note and carry on to keep the flow going, and leave the changes until the the rough draft was finished.
This too is a King technique - he says get the story down first then you can worry about tidying up the prose, getting the structure correct, the plot and characters consistent - all after you have got your 80,000 words or more.
This works so well for me that, at times, it's as if I am an observer of a mind movie, visualizing the characters' actions and merely documenting them. It really helps me to not know the precise outcome as the writing progresses.
Using this King inspired technique I finally found the time to write my first novel, The Death of Innocence in 2004 - now updated, re-written and available in eBook format as The Hack.
The first handwritten draft of over 100,000 words took just a couple of weeks, gallons of coffee, a dozen biros, and an RSI injury to complete, though research prior and editing after took many months more.
The original handwritten draft of Remorseless took seventeen days in 2005 during a similarly manic stint of writing while house-sitting for a friend in Montreal after he and his missus went away for three weeks. You can see the original record of my progress here.
I had brought my tattered copy of Without Conscience and reread most of it on the flight over, I bought Forensics for Dummies in a great bookshop in town, researched parole and forensic psychiatry using my mate's internet connection, and came up with first draft of the entire story during that three week break.
I left Montreal with hundreds of barely legible handwritten sheets... and then did nothing with them for over a year.
In late 2005 and early 2006 I typed the first draft into a computer with many major amendments - an operation that took longer for this ham-fisted typist than the first handwritten draft - and I eventually distributed the completed manuscript to first readers and then, after final editing, to some UK agents and publishers.
The fact I was living in Thailand did not help my case for getting a start in the UK, nor did my break from the traditional rules of point of view being limited to positive characters (see Leech), but both novels were published in paperback by a Bangkok house in Dec 2006 - not self-published as they are now.
Sadly, the marketing effort from this small family company foundered due to financial reasons in 2007/8 and local market conditions affected things badly. I thought the original cover was pretty crap too, and so we failed to crack the broader English language market in SE Asia, Australia and beyond as originally envisaged.
The novels were largely in limbo for a few years until I rewrote both for eBook format in 2012, during which time I took the opportunity to update and improve them based on the feedback I had received from readers over the intervening period. I have since revised and edited both for the latest Nov 2015 versions, but have no plans to revisit them as I am already working on the follow up to both Remorseless and The Hack.
I believe that ePublishing is the way forward as the technology allows a much wider reach than the traditional route, and also a much closer connection between writer and reader through interactive links in the main body of text on reading devices like Kindle, plus extras that a paper printer would refuse to add due to cost.
Agents and publishing houses no longer have a stranglehold on the market and are struggling to carve out a new role as their traditional power base is eroded from under them by the likes of Amazon. The internet allows people with similar likes to connect at the speed of light, and smaller niches are worthwhile pursuing because of the reduced transaction cost.
The old school publishers and agents will soon find they are no longer able to dictate the novels that make it to the readers' shelves.
This is great news for reader and writer alike as there is no longer a major barrier between them. For example, one London agent told me she loved the novel and would've liked to represent me, but her firm felt the story would be only a mid-range rather than a best seller so she would have to pass. So, my novels might well have ended up in a drawer somewhere if I had listened to her.
I personally am happy to be a mid-range author and will try to connect with as many readers I can find who like similar crime fiction to me and enjoy reading my particular style - even if that entire group is numbered in hundreds and thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. I've recently introduced a newsletter too for readers and occasionally offer free books, prize draws and promotions that I personally would value as a subscriber. You can see the sort of free stuff I offer here and sign up for my occasional newsletter if you wish!
The internet has revolutionized the music business and now ePublishing is doing the same for printed books: I am very pleased to be one of the new generation pioneering this concept, and I will find more time over the coming months and years to indulge my addiction. I think downloading narrated works will be the next big shift in the market, so I have also recorded my first audiobook too - launched in late December 2015.
Thank you for reading!
Will Patching, Author