Starting point

It wasn’t initially going to be a novel.
I told people it was but that was too scary a place to begin at.
My original plan was to write a series of loosely connected short stories. I planned to take a minor character from the first story and use them as the protagonist of the second, someone from the second taking centre stage in the third, all the way through to the final story featuring the lead from the opening chapter again. It seemed like a good idea, a way of writing a longer story almost by stealth without the daunting prospect of having to plan and write a novel from scratch. After all, I was new at this game, not having attempted fiction in thirty years or so. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
So much for that plan.
The first short story worked out okay (email me if you’d like to read it) but I wasn’t happy with its pacing and, although some of the dialogue was fun, I didn’t find it that rewarding to write. I felt I had a lot to learn still, and needed some help. An attempt at the second was similarly frustrating: it was better but longer and again the pacing let it down. The third never got beyond a dozen pages before I realised I didn’t have a clue where it was going, even if it did start well.
And it felt like I was treading water, shying away from the real challenge.
So I parked the short story collection, for now at least (I still think it’s a cool idea) and started a few creative writing courses to try to learn more of the craft. My first was a one-day workshop with best selling novelist Kate Mosse at The Guardian,  the second was a more substantial twelve-week online course with Random House, and that’s where the story that would become my first novel started to take shape.


Introducing 'Becker'

The Random House course starts with creating a character. The first week’s exercises were all designed to help students give form and substance to a new fictional character that we would flesh out and develop over the entire course. I had nothing in my locker so I was starting from scratch - others on the course already had characters and even novels already in mind. Me, I had nothing.
I’ve always found heroes quite vanilla and dull, so I came up with an unlikeable anti-hero, ‘Becker’, to give me a little more licence to make things interesting. I was probably just trying to do something different, but it seemed to work for me. Becker (the name soon changed) was arrogant, materialistic, self-centred and deeply unpleasant. You may not like him, but any emotional response is better than none, and starting at a low point gave him plenty of opportunity to become a better person. For speed (the course went at quite a pace and deadlines were every few days) I had an actor in mind to help me quickly develop the character’s appearance and speech patterns. Every little helps.
The first sentence I wrote for the course is still the opening of the novel’s latest draft:

Before I found the man who would change my life, I found his bag.
I think it’s a neat opening (an Editor at Random House said it was ‘wonderful’ - it isn’t, but it ain’t bad) and, inadvertently, it actually introduces us to two characters: the man, and the person whose life he transforms. In that first week I didn’t have a clue who that second person was but hopefully I could use each course submission to develop both my anti-hero and the narrator, their relationship and character arcs. And maybe, just maybe, an idea for a story. If I was lucky.
It turns out I was.

Wanted - one John Watson

Once I had my protagonist I needed a companion for my anti-hero, someone who would act as a surrogate for the reader, who would be as surprised or shocked or confused or amused as the reader was. (There’s no doubting that Sherlock Holmes is a great character, but he wouldn’t be quite so amazing if we weren’t seeing him through the admiring and sometimes critical eyes of Dr John Watson.)
I planned to write the story from a first person perspective and almost by accident that gave me my second character, one who, much to my surprise, actually became my favourite in the story - Claire MacDonald.
Writing Claire, the 23-year-old who steals Barclay’s rucksack at Waterloo station, is no small challenge for me: I’ve never attempted a strong female character before, let alone as a lead, but on my Creative Writing course I found that her ‘voice’ came naturally and she proved pretty straightforward to write, a distinctive, feisty but flawed character, more identifiable than Barclay. It’s true what they say - work at it and the characters really do write themselves. Here’s a conversation from one of the course exercises that didn’t make it into the novel. Claire and Barclay getting to know each other over dinner:
“I find it difficult to make new friends, like I’m being disloyal to absent friends,” I said. 
“I don’t have that problem.” 
“You make friends easily?” 
“No, I meant I have no loyalty issues. I’m not very loyal to anyone,” he said.
“You’d make a rubbish dog.”
“Don’t mention dogs.” He didn’t laugh.
“No. Sorry. Delicate subject,” I said. “I do get lonely though sometimes, especially the evenings.” Confession time. It just slipped out.
“Who doesn’t?” Was he being sympathetic or sarcastic? I couldn’t tell.
“You don’t strike me as the lonely type.”
“Everyone is lonely. It’s just that some of us find it difficult to admit to it. I’d like to think I’m a loner but sometimes...” 
And he left it there, hanging. Looking back on it, that was the nearest I ever got to a confession out of him about him being unhappy. With Barclay it was all front, all bravado. But deep down, further down where he didn’t let you dig, there was a lonely, unhappy little boy still. Spoiled rotten, unprincipled, sad even. The bugger just wouldn’t admit to it.
A bit revealed about Barclay, a bit about Claire. It seemed to work.
As the course progressed I found myself having to work harder on establishing Claire than Barclay; I didn’t want her to be passive in the story I was starting to concoct and was keen to make her as realistic as I could. I knew I’d got close when I wrote something and someone else on the course exclaimed ‘But the Claire I know wouldn’t do that!’ Success!
Claire lived!

The First Draft underway

I finished the Random House Creative Writing course at the end of November 2015. From it I had around 22 500-word pieces and a short story, all featuring my two main characters, Barclay and Claire. These pieces would be the starting point for a novel, the story of Claire’s fall from grace after meeting the enigmatic Barclay and being dragged into his nasty, sordid world. Although I had an ending to the story in mind I didn’t at that stage worry about how the characters would get there as I wanted to see where the story went as I learned how to write - I didn’t want to just be joining the dots each day as that would be boring and routine.
I mapped out the pieces I had from on the wall and identified where I needed to add scenes, characters and storylines for my initial draft. Anything used from the course would need expanding or rewriting but I felt I already had the bare bones of a half-decent story.
I was working four days a week, writing in the morning and spending the afternoon revising and planning the next day’s work. My initial plan was to get a completed first draft of around 200 pages by Easter, with an expectation that the final draft would be around 300 pages and I’d publish that by the end of 2016. On a good day I’d get between five and ten pages down that I was reasonably happy with. On a bad day I’d write, re-write, lose all my confidence and go to bed wondering if Time Inc. had any openings I could apply for.
Fortunately the bad days were easily outnumbered by the good, and by Christmas I was about halfway there, just a few pages short of the page 100 milestone.

Finishing the first draft

Terry Pratchett had it right:
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. So let it run. Turn all the knobs up to 11. Second draft: hell. Cut it down and cut it into shape. Third draft: comb its nose and blow its hair.”
I finished my first draft of my first novel on February 1st 2016. It was a major personal milestone and I was quietly delighted with my efforts. After taking a few weeks off for Christmas I had returned to the laptop with a vengeance and, although I still had some elements of the plot to work through, I felt I was writing better. I was probably writing too fast (5k words a day) but everything seemed to be clicking in to place.
The first draft ended on page 224, just over 56k words. But it wasn’t anywhere near as good as I wanted it or even polished enough to share with friends. I had too many plot holes, ideas that I’d started but abandoned, characters I’d introduced and left hanging for no good reason and the underlying logic of plot was just plain wrong. And, undermining my confidence on a daily basis, I still wasn’t convinced it was a strong enough idea to hang a novel on.
All the advice I’d received suggested that I needed to leave the first draft in a drawer for six months, create some distance from it, work on something else, and then come back to it when it feels like it was written by someone else and rip it to shreds and start again. The real work starts with the second draft.
But I was impatient. Three weeks later I started the second draft.

Second draft, second thoughts?

This novel writing game is a frustrating one.
One Saturday I set aside the whole day for some second drafting and plot tightening. I had pretty much two whole weeks coming up to crack on and complete much of the second draft and was keen to proceed.
But by 4pm I’d hit such a low that I was thinking of trashing the whole novel. I had characters that were going nowhere, it seemed every time I filled one plot hole I seemed to create three new ones and one of my favourite chapters was slowing the story down too much and just had to go. Worse, a read-through of some of the second draft edits suggested my writing was becoming too verbose and clumsy, the editing process making it feel overworked, overwritten - I was going backwards and making the storytelling over-complicated and characters inconsistent. It also looked like the research I’d done into the locations and cars in the story was taking over the narrative in places and the Random House Editor’s words echoed in my head: “never let your research show”. Not only did it show but it was so out of place amongst the deliberately brief descriptions I’d used elsewhere it read like it was pasted in from a different book. Aaargh!
Who’d write a novel?!
Just a few days later though, having binned all of my work from the weekend, I was in a much better frame of mind. By putting aside for later the redrafting of one particularly problematic chapter (its heading is ‘Exposition’ - says it all, really)  I had moved on to the chapters in the second draft that I knew were fun, strong on emotion and better written, reminding me that it was not that bad and I didn’t need to rethink the whole thing completely. Phew.
One of the problems I’ve had with the second draft is determining what needs a gentle polish, what needs a heavy edit and what would best be served by a full rewrite. One of the reasons I did such a light edit as I progressed the first draft was that I know that I can tinker and tweak to the point of losing, literally, the plot. When I worked as an Editor I was forever berating Subs for destroying a piece’s character by overworking it, and sometimes in my second draft I’ve done that myself. 
I’m still learning every day and I have to remind myself that learning in itself is progress, even if the writing process itself does have these ups and downs. 

The first draft of anything is shit

Someone asked me the other day why I’m planning several drafts of my novel before letting people have a read. Aside from the obvious reply of ‘no-one gets it right first time, least of all me’ there’s another answer that springs to mind, and that is ‘I write too fast’.
On good days, I write waaaay too fast - some days I’ve written ten pages (3k words) in a few hours, one day I remember writing a twenty page short story in a single session. If I know exactly what’s going to happen in the story and it’s one of the more action-orientated or dialogue-led chapters, I write rapidly. It’s not always good (that short story is nothing I’m proud of) but sometimes that initial burst is pretty solid and only needs minor tweaks. It’s a surprising process, but never a predictable one. Somedays I write and write and write and it’s all destined for the bin. The great thing is that I can do it again - no-one’s being disappointed except me if I have a stinker. It can get frustrating but writing without external pressure is a huge advantage I have at present.
Re-writing the end of the novel in the second draft has been essential because I changed completely many elements of the story. I’ve also re-written the last quarter of it entirely because it will be (hopefully) exciting to read so it has also proven exciting to write, which means it will need careful review otherwise I’ll be cheating my readers. The various storylines have to be tidied up and characters' journeys completed.
The first draft was me finding my feet, discovering my characters and working on the framework of a story. When I read it through I found the pacing off (too slow to start, too fast to finish) and the story confused, exposition either too apparent or, conversely, completely absent. I have attempted to address these failings with the second draft and at the moment, with three chapters to finish, it feels good. But it still won't be 100% right, and with the third draft, the last I hope before I test it with a couple of early readers, I will look at ensuring each word, sentence, paragraph and chapter is the best I can do and that I’m telling the story as best I can, as consistently as I can.
Each draft is a layering process, peeling an onion in reverse if you like, each layer adding (or, just as important, subtracting) words and refining what, ultimately, will be a satisfying whole.
And the only thing I know for certain is that my first novel will be okay but nowhere near as good as my second. Whatever that may be.

'A fourth ending??'

My mate Mr Stanley asked me at the weekend how many drafts there would be on my first novel. Bloody good question, and my answer, ‘I have absolutely no idea’, was probably not what he was expecting.
I finished the second draft on Friday, April 15th. Some chapters survived from the first draft with just minor edits, but I made major changes to the central story and altered one character completely. This resulted in the last quarter of the book being a complete re-write with very little remaining intact. (I am actually now on my fourth ending, the earlier ones all disappointing me in how they turned out. Hopefully this one’s the one.)
I will embark on a third draft in a few weeks. Although I have had a few ideas to shake up the opening chapters, I’m looking to resist the temptation of any major rewrites now - this draft will be improving the way in which I’m telling the story, not the story itself.
After that I will send it to a few friends who have volunteered as ‘early readers’ and get their feedback. That will lead to a fourth draft, hopefully not a massive piece of work on my part unless I’ve really been deluding myself, and then it will be available as an e-Book and submitted to Agents.
Unless I feel the need for a fifth draft, that is...

One step forward, two steps back

I’m definitely going through a one step forward, two steps back period with my efforts. Making the most of some fine spring weather I spent a few days in the garden reading my latest manuscript, pen in hand, pouring over the second draft’s opening scenes for the first time in a couple of months.
Uh oh. Not good. Chapters and dialogue I had considered snappy and witty now feel laboured and flat, characters I thought I’d clearly defined seem confused and even shallow. Even my main man Barclay isn’t sparkling like I’d hoped, and Claire’s fascination with him doesn’t feel natural - she’s telling the reader how intriguing Barclay is but I’m not showing it. And after my prologue there’s little action to drive the story forward, which made me feel impatient (as a reader) for something to happen; the pacing is still a considerable distance from what I need to keep the pages turning.
I’m not sure how I’ll fix it. I know (hope? My confidence is taking a hammering at the moment with every page I read) that the rest of the story is told more consistently and at some speed, but this all-important opening needs a lot more work.
I may look to introduce Barclay’s sister earlier to add more life to these pages. I may have to add another ‘event’ to spark things along. I’m even considering changing the whole opening gambit of Claire finding Barclay’s bag, or at least make it a more exciting event. That would mean losing much of the work I’ve incorporated from my Random House Creative Writing course, but I’m starting to think that is a big part of the problem with the book’s opening - patching the course work into this story has resulted in the opening reading like an ill-fitting jigsaw. There’s some of my more accomplished writing there, but if it doesn’t fit it needs to be cut out.
I think that I need to attempt a rewrite of the first part of the book with the third draft, much like I rewrote the later chapters in my second draft. That may just work. Fingers crossed.
I will continue with my current review - let’s call it draft “2.5”- and then do more work on the Third Draft which I’ll share with a few First Readers. I’ll keep you posted.

Third Draft

Well the good news is that I’m in a better place now than I was when I wrote last.
I’m just starting my third draft this week and I’ve worked out what I need to do with the opening and I’ll get to it later this week.
My second draft proved to be an odd beast; after the zippy prologue the pace slows too much but from around page 50 it bursts back into life and I’m much happier with it, making fewer notes on each page as the story progresses. In summary, there’s an early chapter that needs a complete rewrite and there’s a later chapter that needs some editing/rewriting to address a pacing issue, but for the most part it’s reading better than I had feared it would and I’m very pleased with the final half of the book that builds nicely to an exciting climax.
It’s been interesting that my writing reads much better once I reached the chapters that didn’t include the writing I produced on the Random House Creative Writing course I did in the autumn. It proved a useful starting point but I don’t think there’ll be too many of the course exercises’ words left by the final draft.

Anxious times

Good news: I finished the latest draft of When She Was Bad this week and I’ve decided that it’s about time I let a few other people read it and give me their feedback. I thought that this would feel like a huge, liberating achievement but it’s actually quite a nerve wracking one; up until now, I’m the only person who has read the 300+ pages (aside from a few short pieces I completed on my Random House course last year) so this is its first time out in the wild on its own.
And that’s a wee bit scary. As my wife will tell anyone who will listen, I don’t take criticism particularly well, so I’m going to have to listen and learn what people think if I’m going grow as a writer before publishing this for real.
It’s gone out to four people who I hope can give me the constructive feedback I need to finish it.  I’ve asked them for feedback on the overall impression it leaves - does the story make sense? Is there anything that reads poorly? Are the characters clear and consistently portrayed? Do their motivations and actions ring true? Are there any howling plot holes? Where (and how) can it be improved?
That kind of thing. Anything they can think of. Oh, and did they enjoy it? That’s probably the one that matters most to me.
It’ll be interesting to see what comes back. It will be a somewhat anxious time waiting to find out. It’s a bit like sending your child off to school for their first day then sitting nervously watching the clock until it’s time to find out how they cope on their own.

A short story about a teacup in Argentina in 1932

My daughter Ellie bought me a wonderful book to inspire my writing: 642 Things To Write About and, when I’ve not been working on a draft of the novel, I’ve started a few of the exercises. Here’s the beginning of one that I’m going to complete as a full short story this month (and I’ll then publish here when I’m happy with it):

Write a short story that is set in Argentina in 1932, in which a teacup plays a crucial role. 
At night I would lie restless on my filthy bed, a single worn blanket pulled tight against the bitter winter’s cold, and listen to him pacing on the creaking floorboards of the room above. My father was a poor sleeper and that made him a poor, tired farmer, and us a poor, tired family. Even before the sudden death of mother he had found sleep difficult and would often complain loudly at breakfast of his tiredness and aching back and the worries that had tormented him through the long night hours.
How I missed those days.
After we buried mother in the shallow grave in the backyard father wrapped himself in his remorse at her murder, and sleep became an even blacker stranger to us all. He forbade us talking about the events leading to her death, hoping to shoulder alone the suffering of our combined guilt, as if he could protect my sisters and me from the pain and regret at our actions. He was a good father, but a bad man, and he paid for that badness in his torment.
His insomnia was contagious and our home became an exhausted, joyless and wearying place, the darkest secret within its walls weighing heavily on us, shared but unspoken.
But he couldn’t protect us. And I cannot forget.
(It will have a teacup in it later. Honest.)