In our How I Write series, our Crime Cymru authors share their insights into the writing process. This week, Ripley Hayes writes in praise of notebooks and letting the unconscious brain loose on getting the story right and offers some great tips for aspiring writers.
How I Write…
To paraphrase Dickens, writing is the best of times and the worst of times. The best of times when the words flow effortlessly, the worst of times when you see the gaping hole in your plot. The best of times when you have that brilliant idea for a book, the worst of times when you doubt you have the skill to put the idea into words. The best of times when you sell a book, the worst of times when someone leaves a horrible review. What follows is one author’s take on the business of writing, especially writing crime.
As a child, my ideal day was one where I was left alone to read my book. It’s probably my ideal now, if I’m honest. Like every reader, I love being transported into another reality through the power of words. Writing is even better than that — you create the world and everything in it. You know your characters so well that they become your constant companions, as familiar to you as your best friend. You recognise them in the street, and wonder why they never send you an email. I find it incredibly seductive.
It’s easy to get drawn into the world you have created, to spend time with your characters, to look through their eyes and think their thoughts. You can do all that without ever putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. The plot develops itself in your imagination, scene after scene. You can see the setting unfolding itself in your mind’s eye, like watching the countryside roll past the train window. Unfortunately, if you want to share the vision, you have to write it down, and that’s when things get tricky.
None of this should suggest that there is no place for imagining what happens in the book, and playing a video of it in your head. I’ve seen it suggested more than once as a tip to use before writing a scene, and my best writing buddy says that he can’t write anything that he can’t picture first. More to the point, for me at least, is the way that your brain will sort out the plot holes, the hows and the whys if you just give it a chance. I don’t think it matters whether you are a plotter who outlines every scene in technicolour detail, or a pantser who starts at page one and keeps writing until they work out what’s going on — everyone gets to a point where they get stuck. That’s when I instruct my unconscious brain to sort it out.
For example: walking along the cliffs near where I live, I noticed that a sandbank had appeared about a quarter of a mile offshore. As I watched, the tide began to cover it up. I wondered whether I could leave an unconscious person on such a sandbank — fictionally of course — and then go back to shore and wait for the tide to come in. The image brought to mind the fabulous Erskine Childers book The Riddle of the Sands and the horrible practice of execution involving chaining people up below the high water mark and waiting for two tides to come and go. Shiver. As I am writing a story involving a body found on a beach, I had to work in a sandbank that comes and goes with the tide. So I carried on scribbling until I thought why would the murderer go to all that trouble when they could just push the victim out of the boat? I wrote the question down, along with every possible answer I could come up with. Then, in the middle of the night, all the pieces rearranged themselves to make perfect sense. Well perfect sense for my story anyway.
You may have noticed frequent references to scribbling. I write directly onto a computer, using a fabulous piece of software called Scrivener. But everything else is in notebooks. A particular kind of notebook A4, spiral bound, with hard covers. Nothing else will do. That’s where the character sketches are, the outline of each scene, and the overarching structure of the book. Plus pages and pages of scribbles where I am trying to work something out. There are also extracts from other books, analysed with my story in mind.
For example: Raymond Chandler used language like no one else. The opening to my book Dark Water which takes place during weeks of wet weather ending in a flood, is modelled on Chandler writing about the hot dry weather in the desert. I’m not borrowing his words, but I borrow the way he uses different lengths of sentences, to form a rhythm, or outlines a scenario and neatly drops in the possible consequences (murder).
Or, I know nothing of violence. My life has been blessedly free of it. But crime writing contains violence, almost always a scene or two where the good guy has to defeat the bad guy with force as well as guile. To write those scenes I have to choose authors whose work I admire and see how they do it — the ebb and flow of the fight, the struggles of the protagonist to keep going, and the stroke of luck that gives victory, only to have it snatched away, and so on. I make line-by-line “storyboards” of the action, and apply what I have learned to my own fight scenes.
I read about the craft of writing, and do regular courses, but I think that I have learned most from analysing other authors’ work. That it gives me an excuse to lie about all day reading is neither here nor there. But it does explain why my notebooks are filled with pieces copied from other people’s novels.
I’m a self-published author. I’m not against traditional publishing, but I am very impatient. I think I’d find it hard to wait a year or more after finishing a book before it was in front of my readers. I’m not going to rehearse the arguments for and against self-publishing here, it’s easy enough to find them (try David Gaughran if you’re interested). But what self-publishing does is make me hyper-aware of every aspect of the story, and the book. I have to judge when it’s finished. I have to decide whether it’s good enough to put out there.
I do have writing buddies who will read things and point out the hideous mistakes (‘I thought his name was John’ or ‘there are too many bats in this book’). I pay for professional editing and cover design — but when I press publish it’s my responsibility. That’s a heavy responsibility, and for me it’s got heavier as the books have started selling. I’m constantly asking myself if this book will please the readers who enjoyed the last one. No surprise, that sends me back to my own reading. What books are popular now? Do I like them? What can I learn from them (whether I like them or not)?
Social media is both friend and enemy here. I have been lucky to find supportive online groups involving authors at every stage of their writing careers. I’m also a member of lots of groups made up of people who write and read the kind of books I like. So I can find out why some readers love Character X and hate Character Y. I know from readers groups that a great many US readers are fine with pretty much everything except marital infidelity. Books with cheating get a thumbs down. Good to know if the USA is a big part of your market. There are also groups who offer help with things like legal process, police procedure, firefighting, and medicine. There are a lot of nice people out there. The downside is that social media is a time suck of the worst kind. But you knew that already.
I love, love, love writing. It gives me an excuse to do the things I like best, namely reading novels, learning new stuff, problem solving, and imagining interesting alternative realities. What’s not to love?
Three tips….things that have helped me the most
1) Read and analyse. If you like something an author does, try to work out how they do it. For me, copying out sections is a good starting point.
2) One of the things I’ve learned from successful authors is that they don’t stop studying the craft. That’s fine with me, because I love learning how to be a better writer.
3) There is a lot of support for the aspiring writer out there in the virtual world. No, I don’t know how to stop myself spending too long on social media. That’s down to you.
Ripley Hayes is the author of the DI Daniel Owen books, about a gay policeman in small town North Wales. The titles in the series are:
Too Many Fires
On 8th and 9th December Undermined is free, and the remaining books are 99p.
You can find Ripley’s books on her Amazon page.