I’m 15.5k into my novel for this year, so I downed my tools and showed it around. I did this for no other reason than that I needed compliments, validation, a literary hug and push onward up the hill by a friendly hand. Sounds needy? It is. Deal with it.
Fifteen to twenty thousand words isn’t much for someone to read – it took Tim about twenty minutes, and my agent came back to me overnight. I wasn’t looking for a meticulous summation and reader’s report, and neither gave me that. Both said they felt compelled, hooked, and that’s all you really want out of the first little chunk of a novel. Both had cautionary advice about a couple of points. But I feel spurred on now. It’s a lonely and worrying business, this, and I feel like 100,000 words is too far to wander without knowing what I’m doing has any merit.
If you’re not writing crime fiction, the 15-20k mark might be an inappropriate time to stick your head up. At this point in most crime novels, however, you’ve got (should have) essential things in place for your validator to comment on. The case has been sketched out. The protagonist has been introduced. There had been a juicy catalyst on the first page to hook the tired, underpaid slush-pile scourer or one day, the wandering bookstore reader (hopefully). It’s also a good time for the validator to take a stab in the dark and tell you what they think’ll happen next (if they guess right, you should change it up). So 15-20k works for me for these reasons.
But how far is too far, and how far is not far enough to stop and get some much needed praise or criticism? It’s difficult to say. In the non-fiction world, editors will be able to tell you a book has no merit right off the bat, before you’ve written a single word, and you’ll go away with no writing time ‘wasted’ (although, no writing is ever wasted. See other posts for my opinion on that). In the fiction world, however, it’s near impossible to tell someone their idea is great or terrible if they haven’t written anything. I have writers tell me their ideas a lot, and some of them sound really whacked. But I never tell them their idea has no merit. I do this for three reasons; one, because it’s brave to tell someone (particularly a published author) your book idea to their face, and I don’t think I could ever bring myself to respond badly to someone’s face (I’m a coward). Two, because I’m not a publisher, and I don’t know what the hell publishers are going to take at any given time. And three, because a verbal explanation of a book idea over a couple of drinks is no way to judge a book. I’m thinking of The Great Gatsby. ‘Guy throws parties all the time because he wants his chick back. She turns up. There’s a car accident. Something about eggs.’
The only time sharing an idea with zero words written has worked for me, is when I told my brother about my idea for a novel about a kid who goes missing on a plane, and her mother has to both find the kid AND convince the passengers/flight attendants that there even was a kid in the first place. Turns out this not my stroke of genius at all, but a movie called ‘Flight Plan’, starring Jodie Foster. Godfuckingdamnit.
So ‘zero words written’ is too soon to get validation. But the end of the novel is too late, too, I think. Only because it would be a pretty self-assured badass who could go for a whole year (minimum) without telling or showing anyone anything about their work as it progresses. Maybe, by the end of it, this kind of grouch-pouch might have written the best thing since sliced bread. But I kind of feel like that’s sad and unnecessary, and the sort of thing those brooding cashmere-turtlenecked, mustachioed writers who are rude to the debuts at writer’s festivals might do. You can just hear them, can’t you. Eh! I don’t need validation! Validation is for little girls with self-esteem problems! Mmmmm, yairs! *discards cigarette with a flourish*
Don’t be an asshole. Don’t run the whole marathon without water, just because you can. You’re not a machine. Take a sip. It won’t kill you.
Who should you choose as your validator? I chose Tim and my agent, because they know how to criticize me gently without any bullshit. That should really be the guideline, if you ask me. Your mum shouldn’t be your validator. She’d let you go down the wrong path if it made you happy. Admit it.
Your validator should be someone who you know is tough enough to say ‘I hate this character/plot point’ if need be, but someone deep enough and caring enough to give you more detailed feedback if you ask for it/share their suggestions. They should also be someone you KNOW will not tear your work to shreds because they’re jealous of you, or because they think doing so will impress you with how much they know about the science of narrative, even if there’s nothing wrong with what you’ve written. Beware of other writers and editors. Someone who reads a lot of your genre, or is into the same stuff as you are, might be best.
So anyway, onward I go, with a little more spring in my step. Happy writing, everyone.
Here are some things I’ve done this week as a full-time author that people probably don’t know the job involves. I think there are two schools of thought on what I do – one involves swanning around at parties with other authors discussing Tolstoy and now and then pattering the keys. The other involves lying around on the couch all day drinking scotch, and now and then pattering the keys. In reality I do a whole lot of diverse stuff! (And now and then patter the keys.) Like this:
Here I am! I’m plodding happily along, putting in about a thousand words a session. I’d probably be at around this word count by this time of year anyway, but I have been held up a few times – by my own marriage, for one! – and by some editorial business. I’m at 11,000 words today on my own manuscript for the year (if you haven’t been following, I also do collaborations). I’ve been putting together detailed outlines and some mini-outlines for unmentionable projects that you’ll probably be able to guess anyway. The seductive whispers of other books have been plaguing me, as I’m only a tenth of the way in, and I could turn around without feeling so bad. I shun those voices! Be gone! You have no power here! Saucy, sexy books are a reality. Don’t give in to those sirens.
My, my, my, I certainly know what I don’t want to ever do for a living, and that’s organise weddings. Though I’m not an amazing sleeper, I’ve lost a considerable amount of sleep this month agonizing over everything that could go wrong in my wedding to the hilarious, handsome and decidedly hairy Tim Keen, fellow wordsmith extraordinaire. In the dark hours, I’ve imagined some pretty insane stuff, like ex-boyfriends/girlfriends turning up on the green and shouting that they’re still in love with me/him. The more extreme fantasies involved a relative shooting themselves in the middle of the dance floor. In daylight guessed that more likely, Tim and I were going to get something like a story frequently told about a wedding of a friend of a friend, who had a fat man with a beer walk right through the back of the ceremony wearing nothing but a pair of Speedos. While we did have our wedding in a public garden, and there were hangers-around with no idea of personal space, they tended to loiter during the photographs after the ceremony. We only had eyes for each other! Nawwwww alright I’ll stop now. Perfect, perfect day, anyway.
There are more editorial nightmares looming on the horizon, so I’m trying to trundle along on the book at a healthy pace. My crisis of confidence seems to be over – and I think that’s a mark of having thickly detailed characters who are intriguing (I hope, anyway!) in themselves/their pasts without necessarily having to rush here and there completing plot points to fill themselves out. If you’ve got a few deeply interesting people, worrying about plot is like worrying if three incredibly socially skilled strangers are going to get on with each other at dinner. They have the tools. They have the experience. They’ll make it work, even if they fumble around a bit first.
As a mark of good practice I’m attending a new boxing gym tonight, because James and my character, Harriet Blue, is a boxing enthusiast. I think it’s always good to write what you do, and do what you write – it’s a lesson I learned back in the day as a teenager, when I used to set all my books in New York. I’d never been to New York, and knew nothing about it. The books were garbage in the first sense because I was an overly emotional, melancholy teen with a bit of an over-infatuation with Anne Rice and Martin Scorsese, but in the second sense I think it didn’t help that I didn’t know what New York looked, felt and smelt like. I’ve boxed for a long time, and Harry boxes. It’s a chicken and egg thing. It’s time to get back to that, I think. Get some of the tension out so I/she can sleep.
As always, curious to know how you’re all going with your writing/submitting/editing. Keep your chins up, everyone. (No seriously it’s really bad posture looking down at your laptop. Sitting is the new smoking, for real).
Well, it’s hit. Or, if you’ve been following my canon metaphor, I’VE hit. I fired, and blurted out those first 5000 words joyously, and then paused to do some editing work on something which is due much sooner. Lo and behold, the editorial process has made me feel like an awful, untalented writer who’s going nowhere. My muse has died. I’m suffering inspirational asphyxiation. My magic feather has been seared to dust by the fires of indecision.
Well magic feathers, muses and convenient moments of inspiration are all bullshit, so don’t panic.
My experience of the editorial process from my publisher and the copywriting process from my editor is gentle. They pose questions rather than telling me straight out that there are flaws in the narrative. Is this too repetitive? Is this the best word here? They make sure to tell me when they love pieces of the work. But still, I feel emotionally ruined. I think it’s an ‘artistic person’ thing. I’ve seen the slightest criticisms take on the momentum of Mac trucks and lay even the most seasoned writers flat. If you think there are authors out there who don’t mind criticism, or ‘take it in their stride’, or ‘cherish’ it, seeing it as ‘an opportunity for improvement’, what you’re really seeing is DIRTY FILTHY BARE-FACED LIARS. The most proud of these amazing creatures will reserve their true hurt for the solitary late night hours, staring at the ceiling, imagining themselves responding to said criticism in witty cutting interviews on Sunrise. The slightly less proud (like me) will reserve their whining and sulking for their spouses. And everyone else will happily moan in public.
What’ll I do to snap myself out of this criticism-induced creative paralysis? Finish the edit. When the edit is done and all those awful little comment bubbles have gone away, I’ll pick myself up, dust myself off and continue on the new novel. If it’s not criticism and self-doubt, but instead a lack of ideas or a lack of what you think is ‘inspiration’ that’s got you stumped, go back through my blog posts to one of my first, called ‘Over the Wall’, where I deal with writer’s block.
So my word count is 5k or so, and my momentum has dropped to zero. Because I’ve got some experience at this game, I’m not worried, and I’m NOT thinking of writing something else. That’s the temptation trap for the newbie writer at this point – you think you’ve come to a halt this early because the idea isn’t strong enough. Don’t be the writer who had drawers full of unfinished projects. There will always be greener grass, and better ideas, just over there. Take what it is you like about the sexy new idea that’s trying to seduce you, and integrate it into the current project, or have the confidence in your own mental skills to know that idea won’t float away into the ether before you’re done with what you’re working on.
Back to the edit! *slumps dejectedly over desk* Urgh. Bleurgh. Gurgh. Someone kill me.
Don’t get exhausted with me. The blog posts for my Novel in a Year project won’t be this frequent. But as you might have guessed, yes, the writing has begun. Last time we were together, I let you know that for four or five months my daydreaming and thinking and collecting of ideas had grown to such a pressure point that I was just about ready to explode. Well BOOM! It’s the first day of the year! I have done just that, and splurted out the first 2,249 words. Only, what, 87,751 to go? Intimidation, much.
I wrote it, I read it, and I added some things. I think it’s a nice place for the novel to start, something tense that’ll have people invested. The struggle for me in the beginning is always not blurting out ‘everything you need to know’ about the main character’s backstory like that little girl on the first day of primary school who so desperately wants to be your friend. Hooky’s cool. She’s very cool. Trust me! Just trust me! You’ll love her, I promise! There’s plenty of time for a character’s backstory. I just have to be patient and let it flow out.
So plenty of you are probably familiar with this stage, the explosion stage, where you fearlessly set out and put actual words down. In my experience of first time authors and their struggles, it’s not until about a month from now when your little engine will catch sight of the mountain it has to climb, and you’ll realise there’s actually not much coal left (might not have been much to begin with). You’ll scramble to fight the fear, duck down a few dead ends and back again, and finally come to a halt at the brick wall of indecision, lack of confidence in your abilities, and an empty basket of ideas. Don’t worry, I’ve been there too. My first brick wall, when it comes, will be smaller than yours, and I’ll have the confidence to leap over it pretty quickly. I’ll help you through yours when I hit mine.
Right now though – wow! I’ve had my first date with my new literary love for this year, and I’m smitten. I’m literally only two scenes in, but I’ve spoken with my new character’s voice for the first time, and I think I like how she sounds. I’ll now switch over and write from the perspective of the girl who’s living with my killer for this book, so I’m going to stop and think about that scene before I charge on tomorrow. I’m thinking, at this stage, I’d like to try and power out 2,000 words a day, but editing tasks from my work last year might get in the way. God, I hate editing so much. I’m in a new relationship now, with a whole new book. I’m done with those other guys. Urgh. Gurgh. Surely near enough is good enough? Oh woe is me.
If you’re writing along with me, please share, either here, on my Facebook page, or on Twitter. I love to know I’m not alone. It’s going to be a long year! Hopefully a good one!
If you know someone who is always talking about writing a book, or you’re the one who’s always talking about it, the below set of answers and explanations is for you. The new year is coming. It’s your fucking time. So sit up, shut up, and listen up.
Question: Should I write that book?
Excuse: Because I might not finish it.
Explanation: Jesus Christ, dude. The idea that you shouldn’t write that book you’ve been thinking about writing because you might not finish it is total bullshit. You ever not started eating a gigantic chicken schnitzel because you thought you might not finish it? No. You have a go at a massive pub schnitzel because you’ve been thinking about it, and you’re hungry, and not finishing really doesn’t have any personal consequences for you. Now, I know there’s a difference – if you start and don’t finish a novel you’ll feel like a failure. People who hear about you giving up might think you’re a failure, too, which would be worse.
But you know what? Fear of failure permeates life. It’s what stops people from going for that promotion, asking that girl out, or taking up parkour. And there’s only one thing you get from abiding fear of failure: disappointment. You didn’t try, so you didn’t fail, but you’re left with the life-long wonder of what might have been. Is disappointment any different to failure? Not by much. So stop being such a fucking pussy and start that schnitzel. I mean book.
Question: Should I write that book?
Excuse: Because I don’t know how to plot.
Explanation: You don’t need to know how to plot to write a novel. I’m hearing all your past English teachers gasp in horror (even the dead ones). Well shut up, bitches. You really don’t need to be one of those people with thousands of little coloured Post-It notes and exercise books full of chicken scratch to be a writer. You can be a totally authentic writer without a beat-up leather sachel and a chip on your shoulder, too. You can actually just sit down at the computer and wing it. Granted, you might not get very far. You might have to stop constantly and get yourself out of dead ends you’ve written yourself into, and what you end up writing might be a too-long, wandering piece of crap (see below ‘Because what I write might be crap’). But what a great way to learn how to plot for your next novel, or to discover, in fact, that you are one of those writers who flies by the seat of their pants and writes brilliant shit. Fire out of the cannon. See where you land. If it’s right next to the cannon, in a heap, go back to the cannon and try again for fucksake.
Question: Should I write that book?
Excuse: Because I don’t have time.
Explanation: Lemme ask you something – are you actually dying? If you seriously are going to be dead in three months, then ok. You probably don’t have time. But are you trying to tell me that you don’t have a spare hour a week for the next ten years? Because even if that’s all you could seriously give it, you’d still get a novel done in that time. Don’t give me that ‘I’ve got kids’ crap. JK had kids. Oh! Oh! I’ve got two jobs? No. Not a valid excuse. Stephen King had two jobs when he was writing Carrie. Get up half an hour earlier than you are right now. Write in bed. Buy an ultra-soft keyboard so you can type and not wake your fourteen sleeping babies. Put off cleaning your shower. I don’t care. If you want time, you’ll make time.
Question: Should I write that book?
Excuse: Because what I write might be crap.
Verdict: Such bullshit.
Explanation: Most first books are crap. My first book was absolute garbage – an assortment of pre-teen drivel that I’m so glad no longer exists (I hope). In fact, my second and third books were probably also crap, but not as bad as the first. And that’s because, with every book I wrote, I learned something from the people who read them. Rather than crying in my room for three weeks because what I’d written turned out to be crap (there was probably a little of that, I’ll admit), I took the criticism and adjusted my process for the next work. Here’s the secret: The only way you can tell you’re any good is by having people read your actual stuff. The ACTUAL STUFF on ACTUAL PAPER. If you do not try, you will not improve. Hoping to try something and magically not be crap at it IS WHAT CHILDREN DO. Grow up, and have a fucking go.
Question: Should I write that book?
Excuse: Because I probably won’t get published.
Explanation: Maybe you’ll get published first time, right off the bat. If this happens, fuck you. You will get no respect from your fellow authors, (especially me). Because most authors have several dozen rejections under their belt. Your inspirational ‘journey to becoming an author’ article in the Herald will be terribly scant if you walk right into that club, Bub.
Maybe (more likely) you’ll submit your novel and then you’ll cower on the ground while every publisher in the country hurls rejection letters at you, until finally you pass out, completely buried in paper and self-loathing, like some fat hoarder the police won’t find until her corpse starts to smell. Maybe, like me, you’ll spend a decade writing books and sending them out and watching as the weeks and months roll by, your heart fluttering as now and then an email pops up with a publisher’s name on it, only to click it open, fingers shaking, and spot that terrible word ‘Unfortunately’ before you see anything else. Maybe you’ll keep a spreadsheet of all these publishers, and one by one you’ll cross them off, until it’s official – not a single publisher in the entire nation thinks your work is good enough for print (even those brand new one-person indie publishers who presumably know nothing about the business and are willing to take a chance on newbies. Nope, they think you’re shithouse, too). Maybe you’ll resentfully wander bookshops looking at the displays, exhausted by the rolling trends – boy wizards, vampires, bondage, vampire bondage, vampire wizards, wizard bondage, teenage girls fighting for their lives in mazes, on virtual battlegrounds, in space. Girls on trains, kicking hornets nests, missing, in love, lost, girls fucking everywhere. Maybe you’ll have to report to all your friends (because they won’t stop asking) that in fact you’ve given up on that book and your only hope is to write another. But you won’t bother confessing that you’re so downtrodden by this defeat that starting another book feels like going back into the ring with Rousey after she’s just put your nose through the back of your skull.
Well, you know what? See above, about being a fucking pussy. If you’re being rejected, it’s because you had something to submit. You wrote a fucking book. If no one likes your book, fuck them. If your friends are smug at your rejection, fuck them, too! Tell them that when their book gets submitted and is being considered for oh wait they haven’t written a book that’s right because they’re creative as shit.
Smile, and nod, and know how good it’s going to be when you write the book that makes it through (or edit the current one until it does). Think about the girls who gave you shit in high school trying to friend you on Facebook now because they saw you in the newspaper talking about your multi-book deal (this has been happening to me a bit lately, and it’s so incredibly awesome. They’re all ‘so proud’). Fuck those girls! Friendship status: DENIED, bitch.
Question: Should I write that book?
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!
Ladies and gentlemen, DO NOT buy my novel Hades online right now, on any website. I’ll give you the all clear when we’ve sorted out the problem!
For the last four months, I’ve been writing two novels simultaneously. In case you’re wondering at the effects it’s had on me, (perhaps because you’d like to try it!), these are they:
This is in part because the second novel, the one I started in July, was planned that way (I’d like to get into details about this project but it’s secret for now, unfortunately). But it’s been such a help that the works are different – when I open the file for one I seem to take on the ‘persona’ required to write that book, and switch when I need to write the other (one is a very brave, fearless sort of writer woman who knows what she’s doing. The other is, well, me.) The lead characters are starkly different people – one an introspective, gentle man and the other a violent, unpredictable woman. Both are within the same genre, however, so as I’m living day to day picking up different crime-related facts and stories, I have the option to relate them to either text. I think writing in two different genres would be too much for me mentally.
And I think this is because the works are so different, I ‘take a break’ from one by writing the other, but always write, sometimes 2,500 words a day. Even when I’ve been down-and-out with writer’s fatigue, I have usually put words down on one or the other text, and the break has left me fresher for the return to the work that tuckered me out.
At all. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and I think that the simplest explanation is that I’m in writer-hyper-drive. I have twice as many characters and twice as many plot holes, twice as many ‘next scenes’ and twice as many climaxes rushing at me, closer and closer all the time. I like to really think through the climax over and over, trying to work out what will happen in those final moments before writing it, sometimes beginning to plan it halfway through the book and sometimes, as in the case of Hades, not achieving that until the cursor is on the screen. I’m operating on about three hours sleep a night at the moment, and have been for a few weeks. I seem to be getting through it ok, but the afternoonies are a killer right now.
Which is something I’ve sort of stuck to. I’ve wandered off the plot for the second novel in its last quarter, but in a general sense I could not have done this without some tight plotting. I think the dread of having two unplotted novels on my desk would have intimidated me right out of the project.
On my whiteboard, I’ve kept a running tally of both books and ‘words to go before December’, which at the moment stands at 54,000. (Approximately 9,500 for the smaller project and the rest for the larger one). I’m sprinting toward the finish with the project that started in July, only because that seems to be what my gut wants to do. Watching the numbers throughout this experience has been both terrifying and encouraging. I’ve reported them to friends and relatives periodically, and I remember mentioning to my mother when I had 75,000 words to go, and telling my mother-in-law when I had 64,000 words to go. At times, when the words have only shifted by hundreds in a day, wiping them off and replacing them with my small efforts has felt awful.
Being someone who grew up making the best of what I had, I’ve splashed out in the last few months, and thank God I did. My partner and I have moved to an apartment where we have our own office space with a large window overlooking the water, where before now I have been a musical-chairs writer in libraries and cafes. I hooked a big old flat-screen TV monitor to my laptop and bought an external keyboard to eliminate neck and shoulder problems that have plagued me for months – and though I’ve always mocked people who use cork boards and PostIt notes (including my partner) – here I am, surrounded by those little yellow squares and colourful pins.
7. I don’t have time for uncertainty.
What a blessing that has been. As I’ve only really switched between books and not had long periods of non-writing, I haven’t had time to consider either of them away from the open screen and to wonder – as all artists do – ‘Is this complete garbage?’ From the feedback I’ve been getting from my publisher and agent, neither work seems to be garbage. But that’s beside the point. I haven’t really wondered that much if they are, and so have managed go months without feeling sad and frustrated by what I do. If only we were all too busy to have doubts. We’d only have to worry about how we’re going to deal with the inevitable end-of-project crash.
8. I may be risking everything.
I’ve left myself basically no room for error. And I suppose that’s the difficult thing about trying to do something like this on a deadline, if you’re considering it. There has been exactly no room for experimentation in either book, so I’ve had to drive the vehicle all the way there, perfectly, with no side streets or dead ends I’ll regret later. If my publishers were to come back now and say the either work needs major changes, the deadline of both, and thus, my future books, would be pushed well out. But you’ve got to risk it to get the biscuit, haven’t you? I’m at the point in my career when I need to take risks like this, and thus far they seem to be paying off. Fortune favours the bold, and all that, right?
Here’s a quicky interview I did for QUT student Mindy Gill. Enjoy!
You’ve said that you have five unpublished gothic fiction novels! Was Hades your first crime fiction novel?
It was. I don’t know why – looking back, my entire childhood was crime-saturated, as I’m sure you’ve seen from my other interviews. They tell you to write what you know, and I think I might be the perfect example of that, writing five gothic fics/gangster novels etc all set in New York, which I’d never visited, and having them all fail. The other books had crime elements to them, but I strayed away from hard-boiled crime as I was a bit intimidated by how much procedural knowledge I didn’t have. And you can see it in Hades – Frank and Eden have a ‘Captain’ at headquarters. Whoops. There is no Captain rank in Australian policing.
When you landed the two-book deal with Random House, were you worried about whether or not the second book would ‘live up’ to the first? (In regards to this, congratulations on winning the Ned Kelly Award this year! And last year!)
Oh hell yes. I told my partner it was like hitting a bullseye with my eyes closed and then being asked to do it again. All authors have ‘book two terrors’ though, and rightfully so. You have to prove that the first book wasn’t a fluke – and you’ve got a fraction of the time to do it in. I think in the end, Hades went through a total of 14 edits. For Eden and my others, it’s around four or five. And thanks for the congrats!
How did the process of writing Eden differ from writing Hades? Was there more external pressure – expectations of readers, or time constraints from publishers – that informed your practice?
Yes I had less than a year to write Eden. I would have had a full year, but I paused after I got the contract for Hades, too afraid to ask if I could have another one. In about March I bit the bullet and asked my agent if I should write a follow-up book and she told me she thought I’d already been doing that! Shit! Couple of precious months wasted there.
The second book comes with a lot of pressure, too, because people are actually interested in it, if they liked the first one. When you’re an unpublished author, no one really cares that much about what you’re writing because you could very well be a hack. I was always like ‘Oh I’m writing about this old guy who owns a tip,’ and people would be like ‘Uh huh, yeah, great. You just keep on truckin’!’ with a roll of their eyes.
I’d said to somebody ‘I was thinking of making Hades a bare-knuckle boxer in his youth’ when I was writing book two and they said ‘Oh please don’t. That’s so cliché!’ and I thought ‘Right! There goes all my confidence in that idea!’ You learn to stop telling people what you’re writing about eventually, because they only have three reactions: they tell you they love it, they suggest something ridiculous that they think is better, or they tell you it flat-out sucks.
In writing the sequel, did you find that it was easy to pick up where you left off stylistically in terms of voice and theme?
I did. Frank and I think and talk the same, so putting on his voice again wasn’t hard. I found the flash-back scenes to the Cross in the sixties very intimidating, though, because I’d never written outside my own time period. I ended up making friends with the people who own a tattoo shop in the Cross (long story, my mother was getting some of her tattoos touched up. Another long story). So because I had links to the tattoo shop I was able to get a lot of the grisly old guys to open up about what it had been like back then. You can’t walk into Kings Cross and say ‘Hey! I’m a young writer! Tell me all your secrets!’ But I would just sit around in the tattoo shop with my mates writing and listening when the old guy owner’s friends would come in, and I’d pipe up with questions now and then when they were shooting the breeze. Lots of biker types and pimps etc.
This one is a pretty big question but, for you, personally, what do you think makes the successful second novel?
I guess it has to have something from the first novel in it. Even if you write two stand-alones, I think there will be something from the first one that people will want to see – even if it’s just your unpredictability, or your voice, or whatever. I asked myself seriously what people liked so damned much about the first one, and the answer was always the same. We like Hades! So I thought; well, shit, there’s going to have to be a whole lot of Hades in this thing. There was also constant mention of the characters being conflicted, neither good nor bad. So I thought, right, let’s get deeper into Eden herself and show people she’s got some kind of heart going on (maybe?) and brush a little of that good-boy shine off Frank.
I know using Harry Potter as an example is a bit of cliché, but you know what the most exciting part of each of those books was for me – it’s the train ride back to Hogwarts. We’re ‘returning’! I think people want some kind of return, because hey, they’re actually returning to you as a writer.
Do you think you would ever go back to writing gothic or other genre fiction novels? Or do you think you have found your niche in crime fiction?
Oh God no, those books were so embarrassing. I don’t dare read them these days, although I think they’re floating around my hard drive somewhere. I don’t have the romance required for such a genre, I don’t think, and I don’t have my head in it any more. My entire world is about crime, and as a crime author I’ve felt free to embrace that as I never did before. I only read true crime. I only watch crime shows. The podcasts I listen to are crime, and Facebook sites I frequent are crime-related. If I’m bored in my office I Youtube real-live murder confessions, and when I find an interesting one I go back and investigate the case. I mean, this is what I do for kicks. It’s crazy but it seems to work. And for some reason it doesn’t concern my fiancé at all. I’m in the office and I lean back in my chair and call out to Tim in the lounge room. I’m like ‘Hey Babe! You know the Ice Man had his own cyanide spray bottle? He’d just go around spraying people in the face with cyanide, drop them like flies. Doesn’t show up on autopsy! How clever!’ and he’s like ‘Yes, dear.’ Haha