Have you considered writing in bed? I started doing it for the first time not long ago. Silly, because one of the most tempting points for this apartment for my husband and I was that I’d have my own office space, which has lately been collecting dust. We’re heading toward winter here in Australia, so leaping out of bed first thing has become a less than exhilarating prospect, and the situation isn’t helped at all by Tim making me coffee in bed every morning. So after a binge session of Married At First Sight left the laptop by my bed overnight, I woke up one morning and decided to put some words down before hitting the shower.
And WOW. Did I ever put words down! Yes, I’m almost finished the second book in the Crimson Lake series, so for me, I always write faster and harder toward the end. But by writing in bed first thing in the morning I’m putting down 2-3k per day, about half of them in that morning session. I have some theories about why writing in bed is so good. Allow me to speculate.
Of course, I there are downsides to writing in bed. You’re going to need snacks and coffee, and you will have crumbs between the sheets – there’s no avoiding it, crumbs and sheets love each other. I do not recommend that collaborative novels be written in bed, unless of course you’re one of those weird couples who collaborate on novels. The five women who make up Alice Campion might have a difficult time. But overall, a real winner, at least for me. Try it some time! Happy snuggling everybody!
Perth! You are a lovely place. Your parklands are beautiful, clean, sprawling. I’ve still not adjusted to the time difference, so I awoke at 5:40am and went for a run along the water and it was just magic. Lots of animals out and about enjoying the sunrise serenity – ducks and swans, cockies playing on the lamp posts.
The old cliché is that writers are awkward and anti-social, but at the festival over the last few days I’ve met some very friendly people and have witnessed plenty of connections being made – everybody seems very excited to meet each other. Perhaps because we’re such a lonely bunch, writers, and it’s nice to get out and see people who suffer the same affliction. I don’t know. Lovely catching up with old mates Natasha Lester and Sara Foster, and meeting Jane Harper and David Whish-Wilson for the first time. I love that we’re all so different. Still keeping an eye out for a crime writer as downright weird as me. Jane and David seemed like gentle, normal people.
I’m getting words done on the CRIMSON LAKE sequel occasionally – about five hundred at a time, stolen between events. The book is doing quite well. Number 6 in Australian fiction this week, and number 17 overall in Australia. I think NEVER NEVER is going into its fifth week on the New York Times Best Seller list, so well done to Jim and I, if I do say so myself. With any luck, fans will enjoy the sequel to that when it comes out over there this time next year.
So, just a quickie from me, but all the happiness in the world to you all and thank you as always for your support. If you’re writing, keep on writing – remember that every word you put down, no matter how badly placed, is one word closer to that finished first draft. And if you’re reading, keep reading – whether your books are bought or borrowed or battered beyond recognition. Every page you turn supports a writer somewhere, in more ways than you can imagine.
Much love! Candice.
Check me out on ABCNews24’s The Mix with my buddy Michael Robotham and James Valentine. We come on about halfway through the episode. Funny times! If these guys think I’m a ‘sick puppy’, they don’t know the half of it.
I’ve spent the last month driving up the east coast of the US on my honeymoon, and in that time I’ve managed to visit the sites of four infamous and brutal murders.
Don’t be too shocked. That’s not even the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.
For the true crime nuts among you, (and I know there are a few), I thought I’d write a little bit down about what visiting those places was like and the feeling they have left me with. Because I guess all us crime freaks imagine ourselves getting some kind of strange pleasure or satisfaction out of being in a place where something that intrigues us so deeply occurred. I was drawn to these places as though by animal instinct, and approached them with my heart thumping. But what did I really expect to find?
I guess in some ridiculous corner of my mind I imagined that if I could actually physically go to where Hae Min Lee of Serial was buried, for example, I’d find answers as to who killed her. That there’d be some soiled confession letter buried under the log itself, or a symbol carved into a tree, or a wispy shred of fabric that defied every police search, every curious websleuth who trudged that rugged path before me. Something that eluded even the family of Hae herself, who had surely been there themselves to see where she had been laid to rest by her killer. Predictably, and sadly, there was none. I guess you (and I) both knew that deep down. Such a find wouldn’t hold water even in the realms of the worst fiction.
I guess I also wondered if by going to the site of this terrible loss if I might be able to feel some of it more tangibly, and with some further legitimacy. That I might somehow become worthy of the sadness I feel for these strangers. These families I have never met and these victims, some of whom were born and died before I was even born. Because I do feel sad, but I don’t feel like I deserve to. I don’t feel like I’ve earned it. And I can’t think of a way to do that. This seemed like a pretty good shot.
I found the site of the infamous log behind which Hae Min Lee was found in Leakin Park, Baltimore, by following the instructions here. My husband parked the car at the nearby rest stop and walked back through the park with me, a little embarrassed as we ducked off the path by the side of the road and made out way into the bramble. It was tangly but not terribly dense in there, which is something Sarah Koenig was right about in Serial – you could still clearly see the road and the cars going by from 127 feet into the bush. Tim and I were a little confused as to which log we were looking for, but used pictures from Google to narrow it down from two potentials to one. I sat there, expecting something, looking at the leaf-littered earth at my feet, the place where she had lain. My husband stood nearby looking at the creek, probably wondering who the hell he married. I think he gets my weird desire to visit the places from traumatic stories to a certain point. He does it himself. We trudged around Boston making note of the sites of scenes from his favourite Spenser novels. So there.
But, granted, he might not have understood completely when I got my phone out and played ‘All My Life’ by K-Ci and Jo-Jo for Hae. Ok, Ok, Ok, I know how weird that sounds. But hear me out. I don’t know if there are ghosts or spirits or whatever the hell floating around in the universe, and I’m not prepared to completely reject the idea just yet (I’ve seen some shit, ok?). And I’ve never been given a really good guide. I spent most of my high school science classes quietly lighting things on fire at the back of the room. And my mother’s interpretation of Catholicism somehow includes reincarnation (and mermaids!). I have no grasp on the afterlife or whatever the hell happens in it.
But I figured that if even the tiniest part of Hae was around there somewhere, I knew she liked the song, and I thought it was unlikely she’d heard it in a long, long time. Because as I sat there listening and waiting for whatever might come, I realised how incredibly lonely a place this was. Yes, the road was just nearby. People, too. We’d even passed a group of school kids and teachers doing a nature walk by the bridge not a half a kilometre away. But the place where Hae was buried was closed in on all sides by thin green forest, making a sort of timeless bubble. I felt sick to think that she might have lain here forever, had she not been found, so close to life, but so completely detached from it. And even though she had been found here, there was not a thing to mark that horrible consequence. No shrine. No stone marker. Not so much as a cardboard ‘DON DID IT!’ sign pinned to a tree, which I would have put money on being the first indication that we were in the right place. Just an old, rain-soaked wooly rug someone had dumped (I checked it for bodies) and liquor bottles scattered here and there throughout the brush (there was one brandy bottle, but not the same as the brand mentioned in Serial). If some tiny part of Hae resides in this place so full of, and empty of clues, she has nothing but the sound of the slowly wandering creek to latch on to. In Hae’s diary, which Sarah read on Serial, she wrote that she was so excited Adnan danced to ‘All My Life’ with her instead of Stephanie at their prom. I wondered if playing it might help her, if she was there, return to a happier time. I know it’s weird. I’m weird. Get over it.
If the absence of any marker of the loss of Hae Min Lee at her burial site surprised me, it didn’t prepare me for the lack of, and sometimes deliberate erasing, of evidence from the three other sites I visited. Tim and I used our GPS and some co-ordinance obtained online and stopped on the side of a featureless stretch of parkway at Oak Beach, Long Island, where the bodies of ten people were found. Most of them were prostitutes working off CraigsList, but one was an Asian man in women’s clothing, and one was a toddler. Standing far out on the edge of the marshland where crab boats rocked back and forth, we could see a single white cross, but there was no way of knowing if it was related to the finding of the remains of these women (and one man and one child). The bramble at the side of the road was impenetrable. Whoever the killer was, he (or she) likely pulled up to the side of the road along this parkway at various spots and dragged or threw the bodies of his victims in, as each was found less that ten feet from the asphalt, some wrapped in burlap. The Long Island serial killer, sometimes known as the Gilgo Beach killer or the Craigslist Ripper, is still out there.
In LA, we drove along the private and leafy Cielo Drive looking for number 10050, where the glamorous Sharon Tate and the friends and employees with her that night lost their lives at the hands of the Manson family. The residents of Cielo Drive have obviously become tired of the ghost rides and celebrity murder tours roaring up and down their street, as they’ve done a good job of scrambling the house numbers. Tate and Polanski’s house is gone, and there’s no way of really telling where it stood. Walls of desert peppered with harsh plants creep up on each side of the street between the mansions, and a lone security guard loiters in someone’s doorway looking bored.
We took the car to 875 South Bundy Drive and found that there remains some scattered pieces of the scene burned on my mind of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman’s murders. Those peach-coloured tiles are still there, but the famous gateway has been blocked off and turned to the side, where a tall wooden gate guards the residence within. The house number hides behind the fronds of a potted palm, and the garden on either side of the doorway has been allowed to grow over, sheltering the dark space that so many remember from those awful photos.
In the end, I found no clues, and I felt no more justified for the sadness I feel over all these lost lives. And because I don’t feel like I’ve earned my grief for them, the guilt of a ‘gawker’ haunts me. Because surely I’m not the first to have come to these places and closed my eyes and breathed the air, tried to understand what happened, how it might have been interrupted.
As we turned and headed back toward Redondo Beach I posed a hypothetical to my husband. If I could have made a video of one of the killer’s lives after the murders and showed it to them, what did he think they would have done? I asked him to imagine that somehow, for example, I could take snippets of a greying and bloated OJ Simpson in prison coveralls and cuffs at his kidnapping trial, and splice it with pictures of Nicole’s crime scene. If I could have cut in images from the murder and civil trials, the aftermath, the strangely behaved and lonely OJ devoid of friends. If I could have showed him OJ not as the star but as the murderer who got away. What if I could have taken this short video from a future that may never have been and showed it to OJ himself back in time, if I could have put it in his hands just as he was getting in his Bronco that night, just as he pulling out and turning to drive to Nicole’s condo.
Would seeing what was to come change his actions? Or is killer rage just killer rage? Is fate, fate? Were these people meant to die?
Are monsters just monsters, no matter what you try to do to stop them?
Tim didn’t know. I don’t think I do, either. We drove on through LA toward the airport, and left these scarred and barren places behind.
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 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!
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!
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?