Today marks 20 years since my first piece of writing was published, which, quite frankly, is terrifying.

I was 12 years old and in Grade 6 when I was selected to take part in a ‘Newshounds’ program run by our local paper, the Maroondah Mail. Four students from local schools were chosen to write one article per week for six weeks, under the supervision of a journalist.

Newspaper articles
My ‘Newshounds’ articles in the Maroondah Mail, Oct-Dec 1996

Newspaper articles

I’d always loved writing, but this was the first time I’d seen my name in print, and the feeling has never really left me. It was this experience that started a passion for professional writing and, although I’ve moved away from straight journalism, I’ve continued to publish. Including Greythorne, I now have 114 publications to my name (1 novel, 3 academic book chapters, 4 academic book reviews, 5 academic journal articles, 11 conference papers and 63 media articles – details here). I hope to make it 115 by the end of the year, with the upcoming release of my new non-fiction book, Communications for Volunteers: Low-cost strategies for community groups. The little girl who wrote those Newshounds articles can hardly believe it.

Incidentally, in the first Newshounds article introducing myself, I note that my favourite books are The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, All in the Blue Unclouded Weather by Robin Klein, and Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody. All three remain favourites, and I was especially excited to meet Isobelle Carmody at the Canberra Writers Festival in August this year, where we got talking and I gave her a copy of Greythorne (which she asked me to sign!). I won’t lie – my inner 12 -year-old completely fangirled. I like to think I hid it well, but I suspect I didn’t.

isobelle-carmody-canberra-writers-festival-2016
With Isobelle Carmody at the 2016 Canberra Writers Festival.

So anyway, it’s been a bumper two decades. Who knows what the next two will bring?

 

I had a conversation with some other freelancers recently about how our culture loves to celebrate youth, and particularly the wunderkind, whether that’s in business, the arts or whatever. We were discussing how we’d like to see more stories of older people who may have come to their field late, but nevertheless blossomed, and it got me thinking about my grandpa, who I’m pretty sure gave me the writing genes.

My grandfather, Ken Sillcock, was a World War II veteran who, after retiring from his public service job in 1975 when he was 65, did a DipEd, learned computers (in his 80s) and devoted his time to writing and volunteering. He had quite a bit of writing published over the years, culminating in his memoirs of his and his brother’s war service, Two Journeys Into Peril, when he was 100.

But one of my favourite works is his poem The Jinx Kite (below), which appears as a foreword to the book G for George: A memorial to RAAF bomber crews, 1939-45 (G for George is one of the most famous Lancasters and now has pride of place in the Australian War Memorial’s ‘Striking by Night’ exhibition). Although Grandpa initially joined the Australian Infantry Force and was sent to what was then Palestine, where he did a lot of anti-malaria work, he transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force and became a wireless operator in Lancaster bombers with RAAF 460 SQN, based in the UK. This poem is about his time in that role, flying missions, seeing so many mates lost and wondering if they’d be next. He came home, but his brother, a pilot in the Pacific, didn’t. The poem still makes me tear up a bit. So here’s to him and all the other late bloomers.

Crew of Lancaster bomber Easy Two
The air and ground crew of Lancaster bomber Easy Two. Grandpa is sixth from left. Photo courtesy Australian War Memorial
THE JINX KITE
by Ken Sillcock

 

“Grandpa, what kind of aircraft did you use
Back in the olden days?”
“Lancasters, lad, I’ll show you one some day.”
He made me think
Back to events, it seemed, of yesterday.

My first impression of the squadron was
A battle order on the notice board
And, next to it, the Melbourne Cup sweep draw.
I wondered which would give the better odds!
Then I saw Dalton, whom I’d known before,
Leaning on crutches, hurt on his first trip
By an incendiary from a plane above.

“Our fighters were not much opposed of late
Over the Ruhr.” The briefing room was hushed.
“Dortmund today, our deepest daylight strike.”
But they forgot to add “as fighter bait”.
Our next was Merseburg, late at night.
I thought “Why did I leave that useful army job
Killing mosquitoes in malarian zones?”
I’d known the threat of instant death before
In skidding cars on Gippsland’s soggy hills,
And, below decks, at sea, silent and tense,
Waiting the foe’s explosive messenger;
But this was not a passing episode too brief
For fear. Death stalked us eight long hours.
Seeking our slightest lapse from vigilance,
Just as I’d seen him wait in Lebanon
At the big house to which the wounded came.
The day we got an aircraft of our own,
“Yours is the jinx kite, Easy Two,” we heard.
“If you got G for George you’d have more hope;
“The last George, which got back from 90 trips,
“Flew to Australia just a month ago.
“But Easy Two — we lose them all the time!”
The pessimists were right, for, all too soon
E2 was lost, but with another crew.

From the depth of winter to the equinox
We flew in fifteen raids in Easy Two,
Our second of that name.
The squadron lost
Ten crews on those same flights: seventy men
Who had been with us in the briefing room.
We had our moments. Jim gave “Starboard go!”
We rolled, nose down, rolled port and down again.
Then steeply up, still rolling. Radio gear
Before me vanished till we levelled out
And blood returned to my depleted brain.
We did another ‘corkscrew’, to ensure
The fighter Jim had spotted to our rear
Would go in search of a less wary prey.

Over Cologne, by day, another craft
Direct above us, opened the big doors.
His load, released, would intersect our path.
We held our course into the aiming point
A little longer. Then I said, “Okay,”
He’s moved to starboard.” But I wondered then
What might have happened on a cloudy night.
The night our navigation aids went wrong
I found Polaris, from the astrodome,
On our port bow; a suicidal course
To fly at night alone above the Ruhr.
As we turned west to make our late way home
I pictured all the other crews at Base
After interrogation, at their meal,
Saying, “E2 has bought it once again.”
Adding our epitaph, “They weren’t bad blokes.”
Crews were not callous, though. It seemed to me
That the dark veil that blacks our future out
Had been dissolved. We lived right on the brink
Between two worlds. Lost crews were near us still
As we awaited the next lottery draw
To find who’d be on this side, who on that.

Returned from leave, we learned that Easy Two
Was lost again; used by another crew
On their first operation. We received
Our third E2, used it on three more trips
Before our tour of duty was complete.

Then a new danger loomed: I would be sent
To fly instructor with those novice crews
Of whom dread tales were told. When lost in cloud,
Instead of climbing for a radio fix
They would go down to seek a clearer view
And find Mount Snowdon in their path — too late.
I’d feel much safer flying in Easy Two
Raiding oil plants or mining in Kiel Bay
With my six trusted mates, and with the care
That Lofty and his ground staff gave that kite
As if they had to fly in it themselves.
But in three weeks that new-found danger passed
When peace in Europe left us still unscathed.

And now I stand beneath the sturdy wing
Of G for George. On the museum walls
Are names of many who were briefed with us,
“Lest we forget!”
Should not we also say,”Lest they forget”?
Might they have clearer sight
In the dimensions they now occupy?
Perceptions hidden from us, as we grope
In the dense cloud of man’s distrust of man?

Could they transmit to us a course to steer
Or lift our eyes to a great guiding star
Of shining wisdom? We have hands and minds
The only assets we could ever need
To build that better world of which we dreamed,
And to pass down to disenchanted youth
Our vision of what can be brought about.

The time is short. We who are left grow old
But, with good briefing, we could do the job
Just as we could when time was short before.

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Click image to view full photo essay

Last week I had the privilege of being part of an amazing art exhibition at the Annandale Creative Arts Centre in Sydney, called Creative Conversations with Women of the World: Access Denied. Artists and performers were invited to respond to the theme of women’s inequality globally, in whichever way they chose. Many of the pieces focused on issues such as child marriage and sex trafficking, but I chose to look at something a bit closer to home – the narratives of safety that we expect women to adhere to but which are not part of men’s consciousness.

Obviously it’s pretty unusual for a writer to take part in an art exhibition, and this was the first time I’d done anything like this. I decided to produce an interactive photo essay using Adobe Spark Page (which I wrote about here, back when it was called Adobe Slate) and display it on an iPad.

The story, called The Stories We Tell Ourselves, combines pictures of young men on a night out with the narrative that would be going through a young woman’s head if she were doing the same things: Does this outfit make me look like a slut? Can I run in these shoes? How will I get home? My aim was to create cognitive dissonance in the viewer to highlight how society’s expectations of girls and women when it comes to safety differ so significantly from our expectations of men and boys. This narrative has serious implications for how women and girls view their access to public space – although a woman is still most likely to be assaulted in her home, this narrative of being unsafe in public is so pervasive that many women (especially young women) choose to curtail their public activities. This is supported by evidence, which is cited at the end of the essay. You can click on the image at the top to view it in full.

I wish I could say this was hard to write, but it wasn’t. Every one of the situations in the essay is something I’ve either personally experienced or thought about as a distinct possibility. I imagine most women have, and that’s the tragedy of it.

It was an amazing experience being part of the exhibition and it’s reaffirmed my love for interactive storytelling and new technology. It’s really exciting as a writer to be able to bring my stories to audiences that I wouldn’t normally reach, and I’m grateful to the Annandale Creative Arts Centre for the opportunity.

Circus (5)

Last weekend I did something I haven’t done since I was six years old. I went to the circus. And it was fabulous.

Circuses seem to pop up in our area relatively frequently (once or twice a year) and each time I see the spires of a brightly coloured tent I think about going, but don’t usually get round to it. There’s also an idea that the circus is just for kids, which is probably why, until last week, I hadn’t been to one since I was a kid myself. But when the Great Moscow Circus came to town and a friend recommended it, I bit the bullet and bought tickets.

Circus (3)

I go to a lot of theatre, both amateur and professional, so I assumed the circus would be similar, just inside a giant inflatable tent. And it was, yet it was so much more visceral as well. There’s something undeniably thrilling about seeing people doing quite risky things – like trapeze flying or tightrope walking – right in front of you. It felt much more real and immediate than the productions I’m used to seeing.

Circus (2)

I’ve been fascinated by circuses for a long time, especially the old-time travelling shows and carnivals from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I think it’s because they occupy a kind of liminal space – in the heyday of circuses and travelling shows, they were important to the community (in fact the circus couldn’t exist without them) but at the same time they traditionally provided a haven for people who were otherwise socially excluded due to disability and difference (although the darker side of this was just another kind of exploitation). Probably for this reason, in popular culture the old-time carnival combines a fascinating mix of joy and menace, which has been deftly illustrated by authors such as Ray Bradbury (in Something Wicked This Way Comes).

There’s also a certain element of romance about the circus life – the freedom of the nomadic existence can seem, to those of us stuck in the workaday grind, like the answer to all our problems, although no doubt the reality is rather less glamorous. But who hasn’t at some point dreamed of running off to join the circus?

Strangely enough, as I was sitting there ringside thinking about circuses, it occurred to me that this is one of the big reasons I like being a writer. I’ll never run off and join the circus in reality – not least because I have no talent for it – but in my books anything is possible. My forthcoming novel, Dragonscale, has a troupe of circus folk in it, and I’ve long been toying with the idea of a book set in an American travelling carnival at the start of the twentieth century, when barnstorming was all the rage. One of the great perks of being a writer is you can be anything you want to be, so once I’ve finished being a nineteenth-century level-crossing operator in my current novel, The Iron Line, I may just become a circus acrobat for a while.

Dragonscale
This, incidentally, is why authors should never design their own covers!

When my husband Tristan and I first started dating three years ago, we had a ‘food-for-stories’ deal – he’d make me dinner and in return I’d read him the next chapter of Dragonscale, the long-running young adult fantasy novel I’d been writing off and on since 2007. We each thought we got the better end of the deal, although I’m still convinced I ultimately did. The unconditional support he expressed for my writing in those early days was one of the many things that convinced me this relationship was going places.

But over the intervening years, life got busy and Dragonscale lapsed. I went through a rough time at work and a period of quite crippling creative drought where I found it very hard to apply myself to anything; it took a new idea in a completely new genre – which ultimately became Greythorne – to snap me out of it. In the meantime, Tristan and I moved house, got married and I got the contract for Greythorne while on our honeymoon, so poor old Dragonscale languished in a corner of my hard drive.

It wasn’t until I went back to it earlier this year that I realised how close to finished it actually was. During a particularly obsessive phase I’d mapped out the content chapter by chapter, so I knew exactly where it was going and what needed to be done. Then I had a brainwave: Tristan and I were coming up to our first wedding anniversary in April, which is the ‘paper’ anniversary, and what gift could be more ‘paper’ than a manuscript? Finally I’d complete my end of the food-for-stories bargain and he’d get the ending he’d been waiting patiently for for three years.

I only made this decision in March, so it was a bit touch-and-go as to whether I’d finish it in time, but there’s nothing like a deadline to motivate you! And I got there…just. Here it is, all nicely finished and bound.

Dragonscale bound

As to what will happen to it now, that’s a good question. It needs a lot of editing, and Tristan is the only person I trust to read what Anne Lamott aptly calls ‘shitty first drafts’, so no one else will be getting their hands on it for a little while. I’m off to a retreat at the end of April where I’ll give it the first overhaul, and then we’ll go from there. Hopefully by the second half of the year it’ll be in decent enough shape that I can begin shopping it to publishers, so watch this space. I can’t lie though, it feels pretty damn good to have finally finished a book that’s been nearly 10 years in the making.

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Click to read Part 1 (The Idea), Part 2 (Plot and Structure), Part 3 (Setting), Part 4 (Characters) and Part 5 (Writing).

As Ernest Hemingway famously said, with characteristic brusqueness: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make, in my opinion, is thinking that all the hard work is done once that first draft is on paper.  I’ve heard of publishers bemoaning the growth of NaNoWriMo (which I wrote about in Part 5) because every December and January they receive a raft of poorly edited first drafts in their unsolicited manuscripts pile. Not that finishing a first draft isn’t a huge and satisfying achievement – it certainly is – but the truth remains that probably only 20 per cent of the work of getting a book to a publishable standard involves the initial writing of the story, and the rest is revision, revision, revision.

I found James Scott Bell’s ‘Revision and Self-Editing’ incredibly helpful during my revision process.

Different authors have different approaches to revision, but pretty much all of them agree with Hemingway when it comes to first drafts. In his part-memoir-part-manual, On Writing, Stephen King says that he feels the first draft is something to be done “with the door closed”, because it’s often emotionally taxing, deeply personal and not something you can do if you’re viewing every word you write with a critic’s eye.

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
– Stephen King, On Writing

For King, the second draft is the time to “open the door” and start really thinking about your audience. This is where the craft comes into it – in the first draft, you’re a storyteller getting the tale out whichever way you can; in the second (and later) drafts you’re a master craftsman, testing each word and phrase to make sure it belongs and that it’s earned its place. Personally, I was stuck in the first phase for probably the better part of 20 years – I had lots of inspiration and could spin a good yarn, but I hadn’t developed the self-discipline and willingness to hone my craft that is absolutely necessary to move from amateur writer to published author. (This craft-honing doesn’t necessarily have to be done through formal education, like a writing class or MFA degree, though I’ve found mentoring from other writers has been a huge help – there are lots of great books out there on the practicalities of writing, which I’ll discuss in another post. Most importantly, just read, and read, and read – especially in the genre in which you want to write.)

King’s revision method is similar to my own. As I mentioned in my previous post, I bashed the first draft of Greythorne out over two months – but the editing took a further nine months after that. Ideally, I like to leave a fair chunk of time between my drafts – at least a month, preferably six weeks – so that I’ve forgotten the intricacies of the story and can come back to it with fresh eyes. In Greythorne‘s case, this period was much shorter between drafts one and two – around three weeks – as I was scheduled to go to a summer writing retreat in January where I intended to do the first-round edits.

After I came back I spent another six weeks or so revising and rewriting – around 15,000 words got cut and rewritten at this point. I then gave the second draft to 10 ‘beta readers’ (basically people whose judgement I trust) and asked them to give me feedback by the end of March. In April I went on a four-day writing retreat and made a big dent in the second-round edits, which were based on feedback from my readers. Some pretty big changes occurred to the story at this point, including the final twist and the ending, which a couple of readers had very honestly pointed out wasn’t really working. Funnily enough, their suggestions were actually a lot closer to my original notes – I’m not sure how the story had drifted away, but they do that sometimes – and once I made these major changes, a lot of the smaller problems I’d been having (like plot holes and twisted logic) fixed themselves. This process taught me that good beta readers are absolutely worth their weight in gold. I picked people who I knew would be honest with me and whose opinions I trusted. Some were writers, but others were teachers or other professionals, or just people who really liked to read and were able to articulate why they felt something was good or bad. This last point is really important – someone who just says “I liked it, it was really good,” is useless as a beta reader, because that won’t help you improve at all. Choose people who read like critics and know how to give constructive criticism.

It was while I was doing the second-round edits at a writing retreat that I learned the importance of beginnings, and that they’re not always where you think they are. I was giving a reading from the manuscript, and for reasons of time decided to start at the beginning of Chapter 2. The listeners all said afterwards that they couldn’t tell that this wasn’t the actual start, and they didn’t feel anything had been lost. I’d read somewhere that most writers start their books too early (in an action/backstory sense), and that in fact a good trick is to write it from where you think it should start, then come back and cut the first one (or two, or sometimes even three) chapters and you’ll have the proper beginning. It’s not necessarily true for everyone, but it certainly worked for Greythorne. The opening scene as it now stands was originally the beginning of Chapter 2, and all the information from Chapter 1 has been folded in as backstory throughout.

Some of my characters also changed during the revision process. Nell and the Professor became deeper and more complex, as I discussed in Part 4, and some of the minor characters had their roles shift, becoming more- or less-emphasised, or in one case were written out entirely (this last was Matron from the Brookvale Girls Home where Nell grew up – she was initially a relatively prominent figure, but as things changed she lost her utility and now she is only referred to in passing and is not seen at all by the reader directly).

Between drafts two and three I rewrote another 15-20,000 words, and finally it was starting to get in reasonable shape. I decided to do one final revision before I started shopping it out to publishers – I paid a professional editor to do a manuscript appraisal, which is essentially a structural edit plus a copy edit. She came back with some really good advice (I’ve written before about how invaluable a good copy-editor is) and on the basis of her suggestions I made a few more tweaks. So, finally, nine months and four drafts after I ‘finished’ Greythorne, it was finally ready to be taken out into the world.

How do you like to revise your work? Do you have any particular tips or tricks for editing?

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Click to read Part 1 (The Idea), Part 2 (Plot and Structure) and Part 3 (Setting).

I wrote in my earlier post on plot and structure about ‘architects and gardeners’ – those who like to plan out the whole structure of the book and see where everything is going to go, versus those who just plant a seed and see what grows. As I mentioned, previously I’ve produced in-depth character studies for my books, but this time I just took the four main characters – Nell, the Professor, Sophie and Lucy – and decided to see how they turned out.

The results from the first couple of drafts were mixed. Nell (who is the first-person narrator) had started to develop a strong voice, but was sometimes inconsistent, and the Professor was quite two-dimensional and risked becoming a bit of a caricature villain – what I like to think of as a ‘moustache-twirler’. Both of these things were pointed out by my beta readers, who read the second draft (more on that in Part 6 – Editing), so when I was doing the revisions for draft three, I sat down and did character studies for Nell and the Professor. The template for this came out of James Scott Bell’s Revision & Self-Editing, which is part of the Write Great Fiction series and which I swear by.  These are the questions I asked about Nell.

Personal problem:
Plot problem:
Risk (what she will potentially lose if she doesn’t achieve her objective):
Main positive traits:
Main negative traits:
Moral quandary:
Reasons not to act honourably:
Adhesive between Nell and Professor:

The questions I asked about the Professor were very similar, but I also gave him around 1500 words of backstory, because it was clear that I didn’t really understand who he was or where he came from. Once I’d figured this out, I was able to give him a lot more depth and, hopefully, make him a bit more sympathetic, because a completely blackhearted villain isn’t in fact very interesting. One of the most important things I learned in this process is that characters need to have yin and yang to make them believable – even the most likeable heroine needs the capacity for moral ambiguity, and the worst villain still requires a sympathetic streak. Above all, they need motivation, for if you can’t explain why they’re doing what they’re doing then you’ve got a massive plot hole.

In the (Australian) summer after I wrote the first draft, I spent a week at an artists’ retreat in Tasmania. There, I collaborated with a good friend, Pamela Horsely, who is a talented portrait painter – I gave her a 400-word description of the Professor, and in 24 hours she’d produced a portrait of him. She captured him exactly as I’d envisaged him, and really brought him to life. She very kindly gave me the picture afterwards, and he now hangs on the wall of my study. There’s nothing quite like seeing your character in the ‘flesh’ to bring a book to life.

Professor Nathaniel Greythorne by Pamela Horsely
Professor Nathaniel Greythorne by Pamela Horsely

 

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Part 1 looked at the development of the original idea.

When I tell them I’m a writer, a lot of people respond with “Oh, I often think I’ve got a book in me!” The crucial difference, however, between an author and someone who has a book in them is this next part of the writing process – the author is able to figure out how to get the book out of them and onto the page.

Exactly how you do that is a very personal thing. Some people like to know who they’re writing about before they decide what they’re writing about – so they start with characters. Personally, although I need at least a rough understanding of my main characters, I like to start with plot.

How-to-write books often divide people into ‘plotters and pantsers’ – those who like to outline every detail before they start, and those who would rather just fly by the seat of their pants and see where they end up.  George R.R. Martin famously described this far more eloquently, noting that writers are either ‘architects or gardeners’:

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”

I used to be an ‘architect’ (or a ‘plotter’ – though that sounds far more sinister).  In my early novels (which were never finished, let alone published) I plotted things out obsessively – at one point even writing 10,000 words of character studies. These were mostly fantasy stories, and world-building obviously requires a lot of work behind it, but it turned out to be counterproductive, because by the time I got round to actually writing I found I’d run out of steam.

So when Greythorne came along I decided it would be a chance to try something different – I was going to start with a very rough outline of the major plot points, but from then on I’d ‘pants’ it and just see how it went.  And, oddly enough, it worked. The novel turned into a standard three-act adventure structure (which I’ll discuss more in Part 6 – Editing when I deal with the issue of saggy middles) without me even needing to think about it that much. Having the major ‘way-points’ to aim for kept me on the right track, but I also had enough freedom to explore the characters and the world without being tied down too tightly. So I’ve discovered that I’m not really an architect or a gardener, but more like a conservatory builder – the best of both worlds.

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it.

One of the most common question writers get asked is where our ideas come from, and to be honest, I wish I knew! Generally, story ideas creep up on me slowly – they might start with the name of a character, who gradually gets a story, or I might get inspired by a place I visit or something that happens. Sometimes I’ll be turning something over for months or even years before it makes it to the page. The idea for my next novel (which I’ll be blogging about as I start writing it in November) has been like that – a slow-burn that started with a ‘what if’ question then gradually grew from there. Someone once described this process as a bit like archaeology – you start by uncovering one small fragment, then another, then another, and eventually you have something with a recognisable shape and form. It can be a slow, laborious and sometimes disheartening process, when you’re not sure if what you’ve got is a never-before-seen fossil whose discovery will change the world, or the leftover bones from someone’s barbeque.

Having been through this process a number of times, I’ve always scoffed a little at the authors who claim their story – or worse, an entire series – just landed on them fully formed (I’m talking about you, J.K. Rowling). Or at least, I did – until it happened to me.

I was home from work sick one day, lying in bed reading Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, when I dozed off. Something must have been going on in my subconscious, because when I woke up I had a fully-formed story in my head – including the main characters and a rough plot outline. I scribbled it all down in the notebook I carry around with me and Greythorne was born – or at least had begun its gestation.

The first page of my original notes on Greythorne (I've omitted the second page because of spoilers).
The first page of my original notes on Greythorne (I’ve omitted the second page because of spoilers).

That said, what was in that notebook bears only a passing resemblance to the final story. The major ideas and most of the major plot points are the same, but it’s a long way from a rough outline to a finished book. In Part 2, I’ll be looking at plot and structure – the first step in turning an idea into a novel.

Photo: Taymaz Valley, Flickr
Photo: Taymaz Valley, Flickr

For most of us, deciding whether or not to work as well as write is a choice we don’t have the luxury of making. But the assumption is that, if money were no object – if we suddenly became independently wealthy, or became hugely rich (or at least self-sufficient) off the proceeds of the Next Big Thing – that we’d quit our day jobs immediately and devote our lives to writing.

I used to think so too. But recently I’ve begun to wonder how I’d go as a full-time writer. At the moment the discussion is purely academic (I have bills to pay like everyone else) but maybe in the future…and I’m not sure it’d be as rosy as I sometimes think.

I don’t just have a job outside my writing, I have a career, and one that I’m generally very happy with. I’ve bounced around a bit between journalism, communications, international relations and strategic analysis, but in everything I’ve done I’ve learned a huge amount and I know it’s influenced the way I write. I enjoy the interactions with my colleagues and the new experiences and challenges that you can only get by pushing yourself out into the world. My workplaces have also funded professional development opportunities for me over the years that I could only dream about as a sole-trader who has to write for a living. I’ve also had the chance to visit countries, meet people and do things I would never have dared to on my own. New experiences are grist to the writer’s mill, and I’m not sure I could give that up even if I was financially able to.

The other side is time management. It’s easy to think that I’d be so much more productive if I could write full time, but I know myself well enough to realise that this probably isn’t true. The old adage about how if you want something done you should ask a busy person to do it certainly applies to me. When I have limited time, I know I need to make the most of the hours I can snatch here and there; when I’ve got long uninterrupted periods, it’s so easy to while them away. I wrote the first draft of Greythorne by getting up early and plugging away at the computer for an hour each morning before work; I’m so not a morning person, so this was a real struggle, but after about two weeks I realised that I was actually really enjoying it. It helped that it was summer, so it was light early and relatively warm (there’s no way I could do that in the winter!), but it also felt really good to have achieved something productive before I’d even left the house.

I don’t know if I’ll ever sell enough books to have to seriously confront the question of whether or not to work but, if I do, I wonder if the answer will be quite as straightforward as I always thought it would be. Nonetheless, it’d be a good problem to have.