So I thought it might be fun to do a series of blog posts throughout the year that track my actual activities in writing a novel, so that those who are curious about how I work can get an idea of my ‘process’. I get asked the process question a lot. Here’s the answer. I do not anticipate in any way that this might stop me getting the process question in interviews. But what the hell, huh?
Everybody has their own process. There are writers who smash the first draft out in something like National Novel Writing Month, then spend 11 months fixing it up. I know fantasy writers who spend three or four years off and on putting together dictionary-sized epics, who spend whole parts of the year plotting and drawing maps and writing nothing.
Not so here. I’ve been writing a book a year for a good long while, and they’re all about 90-110,000 words. If you’re curious as to how that actually happens – in terms of word count spread, plotting time, and the intrusion of other employment activities I need to do to survive, I’ll try to paint that for you. I’m going to attempt to tell you what I’m actually DOING throughout the year so you can get an idea of what it takes for me – and how that relates to your own work.
So we’re at Stage One: Pre-writing ideas collection.
This has been going on for a little while now, maybe four or five months. Now don’t get all ‘Well, that’s cheating because it’s not in the year!’ on me – I haven’t actually DONE anything on this novel in that time, and this year I’ll be plotting the actual DOING for you. Thinking is not doing. Doing is doing.
And that’s an important distinction. Plenty of people think about writing books, and never get past this stage.
For four or five months, I’ve basically just been playing around with ideas about this novel in my head. I’ve been keeping an eye out for crimes and perpetrators in true crime books, podcasts and docos that I think I’d like to explore, and I’ve been thinking about my protagonist herself. What sort of person is she? What’s her history? I haven’t written anything down about her, or the crime, or set in stone the structure of the book. I’ve just been thinking daydreaming about it with my mind open to new influences.
Like I said, this stage is common. Ever heard someone say ‘Oh I’ve always wanted to write a book about (blah)’. I hear it all the time. When I ask – ‘So who would be your protagonist?’ Or ‘Where would it be set?’ Or ‘What’s the genre?’ Usually I get nothing back.
Ideas collection for me is kind of like this: whether I’m in the middle of writing a book or not, I have a basket on my arm and a backpack on my back. As I’m wandering around, day to day, I might come across ideas and influences that I like the idea of. I might hear about a particular poison that works well and doesn’t leave a trace at autopsy, for example. While I don’t have a use for the name of that poison, who used it on whom and how you make it, I figure it might be useful to collect that tidbit of information for use one day in a future book. So I put it in the backpack. I’ve got all sorts of weird things in the backpack, some of it decades old. Some of it is ‘how to kill a person’ type stuff. Some of it is totally random bullshit – hairstyles I like, one-liners I heard in movies, stats about serial killers I’ve known and loved.
I might come across another bit of information that I think closer relates to the project I want to work on this year. So for example, for this book, I’m interested in pathological liars, and people who suffer from Munchausens. I was very interested in the Belle Gibson affair when that happened, and I read a book on Casey Anthony early this year that was so great. I’ve decided my killer will be a Munchausens sufferer. So if I see or hear anything about that, I put it in the basket hanging on my arm. The basket is more immediate, directly pressing, and organised than the backpack. I don’t have much room in it, so it’s important that only the best bits and pieces go in there, stuff I’m fairly sure I’ll use. I might actually seek out specific sources for stuff to put in the basket. When the book is written, I dump the basket into the backpack and start a fresh one for the next book.
So I started my basket for the novel I’ll write this year a few months ago, and as I’m looking into it now, there’s a bunch of stuff in there – but not a huge amount. It’s not necessary for me to become a world-leading expert on Munchausens before I can write a character who has it. There are other puzzle pieces in there about the character that I’ve gleaned from my imaginings over the last few months – what her hair looks like, what she sounds like, where she lives.
I like to start writing when I’m sure of a few things. Firstly, who kills who, and why. So in my basket I’ve got a bit of an idea of the victim, and the killer, and of course I know my protagonist pretty well. This year I’m writing a novel about Amy ‘Hooky’ Hooku, who appeared in my novel just released. If I’d been starting with a brand new protagonist, I’d have things in the basket I’d picked up about her. Cuttings and shavings from real or fictional women I like, pasted together to create her. This woman’s hair, that woman’s smile. This woman’s upbringing, and this one’s shitty attitude toward public transport, etc.
At this stage, I don’t really know what the first few scenes of my novel will entail, or what order they’ll be in. That will come in the next stage – First Words. Right now I’m sifting through ideas for those chapters, trying to come into the story at a hugely thrilling point, so I’ll hook my reader nice and early. If I get stuck, I can always draw from my backpack of lifelong collected ideas to see if there might be a good starting situation for a novel in there somewhere.
So right now, my word count is zero. I don’t have a word doc open, blank page blaring, cursor blinking. My list of plot points reads zero. Only one character has a name, and a face, and a history, and that’s because she’s appeared on the page before. I’m hoping to start writing on January 1, just to make things nice and neat. So tune in next time for that!