When I get an idea for a book, it’s feels like a movie trailer playing in my head––just the highlights or what I think are the highlights at that point––in fabulous cinematic glory, with very little plot and a convenient glossing over of the details, but it’s there. And that’s invariably where I start. I’m obsessed and excited about it because having the idea is fun and the hard work hasn’t started yet. It’s all I can think about, and I’m certain it has all the makings of a fantastic book. Snippets of what could work in the story come to my mind. I don’t write them down because there are so many, and experience has told me that I will remember the ones worth using.
As the story takes shape in my mind, I start writing. The first page is the worse, but faced with a blank page, the only thing to do is write anything that is connected with the idea. I’ll write a few lines, cross them out and rewrite them. It takes me a while to find the right tone and rhythm, and I’ll know that I’ll be back to refine the first paragraph, probably at least another five times. It is after all what must hook the reader and immediately immerse them in the story while revealing pertinent information in stages and at the right time.
“Nobody wants to read a book. You’ve got to catch their eye with something exciting in the first paragraph, while they’re in the process of throwing the book away. If it’s exciting enough, they’ll stop and read it. Then you’ve got to put something even more exciting in the second paragraph, to suck them in further. And so on. It’s exhausting for everybody, but it’s got to be done.”John Swartzwelder, Comedy Writer, “sage of The Simpsons.”
Once I’ve got the rhythm and voice right, I keep going and by the end of the first chapter I feel quite happy with progress. It’s gone reasonably well. The plot develops quickly over the next few chapters, and choices have to be made to go down a particular plot path. Some of them become blind alleys and, most frustratingly, can show this trait quite a while later and I have to backtrack and then think of something new. Usually those are the days when the writing is stops dead in its tracks while I try to find a solution.
Overall, however, it continues to be relatively smooth sailing until around the half-way mark, where with the challenge of daily writing, project fatigue sets in and my attitude towards the book changes. With all the choices I’ve made regarding the direction of the plot, I doubt if they correct and if I’ve exercised due care in the art of the plot twist––using sufficient sleight of hand to create a scenario where the unexpected happens without it appearing contrived.
But the trick here, I’ve learnt, is just to keep going, then test, rinse and repeat and most importantly, believe that no matter how badly I get stuck, I’ll find a way out. And it works. I keep writing until eventually, I get the first draft finished. It’s rough, has gaps and is light on detail and research, so basically not fit for anyone’s consumption except mine, but it’s a story from start to end.
The first pass fills in the blanks. As I go through this re-write, I already know I will have to come back to certain items because inspiration seems to come in stages. The second pass is refining the areas in the story which were not completely explained. I develop character and location descriptions and identify and rectify the overuse of words. Then come the concerns over whether everything is correctly explained and delivered in the most succinct way possible so that the reader finds it all effortless to read. In fact, if that can be achieved, then I know I’m onto a really good thing and the writing reaches the quality I’m after––when the writing almost attains a kind of melody to it.
When I’ve done all that, it’s time to deliver the book to my editor and, in the meantime, get on with the next book in the series. Two weeks pass by pretty quickly before the editor’s feedback arrives. There’s a moment of trepidation before opening the email. No doubt there will be more work to do, the question is how much? And most importantly, does the story work?
There’s some back and forth with my editor, and invariably some re-writing to ensure I’ve overcome the weak points or nailed any change in the narrative. Then I let my daughters read it. They’re not only harsh critics, but also pretty good editors. Thanks to them, I can tighten up parts of the story and the dialogue. When the beta readers’ comments come in and they’re positive, it’s time to publish. I only considered the work finished when there are sufficient starred reviews on booksellers sites. At that point, I can finally put my entire focus on the next book