Discover more from Hungry Words
The chaos of writing a novel
The workings of my writing process
For a long time, I didn’t think myself capable of writing crime fiction. The reason? All the clues and red herrings, the suspects and revelations made me think I’d need the mind of an engineer to pull it off. As it turned out, all I needed was a notebook, a pen and loads of time, but I didn’t realise that until reading Agatha Christie’s notebooks.
Much to my surprise, I learned that the mighty queen of crime fiction didn’t write her books in a linear fashion. If her process was a line, it would have been somewhere between a zig zag and a scribble. The secret was to cultivate the skills to sort it out before the readers got to it.
Hungry words is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
That’s when I first considered I could give this a try. Chaos, after all, was somewhat my specialty at the time, but I didn’t really get to it until I attended my second crime writing festival in Scotland. Sophie Hannah opened the festival by recounting her own experience switching from being a successful poet to being a successful writer of mysteries. She suggested that all you need to kickstart your story is an inciting mystery.
Not an answer, a question.
This was an epiphany, because questions were my specialty. I had way more than I could answer and could in fact easily start exporting them to great profit.
In I plunged, crafting my first poorly shaped mysteries, but mysteries nevertheless. Hey, I thought, this isn’t that difficult. The more I wrote, the less poorly shaped those stories were.
I picked up my old threads and turned them around until they became some kind of stories. I joined a writer’s group and shared one of those stories with other writers. To my surprise, they liked it and gave further suggestions how to tighten the story. Someone even called it prose. It must have been this wave of positivity that lured me into writing my first crime fiction novel, which I found out was quite different from writing short stories. Most notably, the mess created was much, much bigger.
Since no one asked, here’s how it goes.
After having the initial idea, I stalk the characters and make notes until I have enough to understand where they come from and what they want. Then starts the fun. By that I mean pinning down a few events and creating a storyline, which I usually abandon half-way through when the characters go off-script and won’t be reasoned with.
The whole process of writing the first draft goes something like this:
I write a few scenes.
I dream about things I’ve miswritten or left out.
I write more scenes and make copious notes on paper and in audio, some of which I delete by mistake, misplace or scribble in a manner that is illegible to anyone including myself.
The nearer the end of the novel, the longer the list of notes of what will need fixing. Although I always write them down meticulously, I only occasionally remember to read them and often only after I’ve already revised the first draft.
Afterwards, I write more notes and revise again, this time actually reading my comments and writing new ones.
Sometime through the third draft, I’m so tired of the story and the characters that I can no longer look at it or think about it. When someone asks me how the book is going, I give them the look, which is somewhere between going mad and having an existential crisis.
Between draft three and four, a small group of carefully selected beta-readers gets a beta-copy and a bunch of follow-up questions. After getting their feedback, I fret for a while, deciding what to keep and what not, before plunging into a revision. As I revise, I get more ideas how to improve the story (which of course means more work) and two drafts later, I’m back to being exhausted and thinking about pushing every single character off the proverbial cliff.
On the outside, I moan about how working on this book is much harder than all the other books and how I doubt I can whip it in shape. My husband, who’s well acquainted with ‘the process’, makes me tea and reminds me I’ve said this about every book I’ve ever written. Eventually, I calm down and do a final rewrite, carefully parking all the new ideas into a protected document and throw away the password, then I check in with my insanely talented cover designer. This usually gives me about half a year in which to do a copy-edit, read it about a dozen more times and start to thoroughly despise the story.
The only remedy is to start working on a new book, which turns out to be a whole different beast that requires its own messy process. Once the book is out, I’m super ready to never think about it again, but alas, it’s time to get the first reviews and for book bloggers to give their verdict. Only then do I realise the book is actually pretty solid and can stand on its own and that I don’t hate writing, which is good, because I’m already deep into the next novel.
In short, if my writing process was a building, it would look something like this image I created with Midjourney.
Now, aren’t you glad I’m not an architect?
Hungry Words is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.