How I Write – David Penny

It’s always interesting to discover the writing practices of other authors – we all vary so much in how we approach our work. David explains how his attitude and process has developed – and fascinating it is too!

For me, writing is a moveable feast. One that has lasted over fifty years so far. How I write now is far distant from how I began, and each book sees me refine my technique. So how did it all begin?

I recall the first time I wrote something on a typewriter. It was in our garden in Welshpool, on my grandfather’s portable Olivetti he had loaned me — and which subsequently became mine. I was around nine years old but already knew I wanted to be a writer. However, getting there took a while, and there have been many changes since that first moment.

Initially, I wrote science-fiction and little else. Short stories because they were, well, short. And starting out you don’t want to face a daunting word-count. Now, I find it a struggle to write short.

That old Olivetti went with me to Portsmouth college at age nineteen. I recall sitting outside our digs typing when an (to me) old man stopped and asked what I was writing. I told him a science-fiction version of the Norman invasion. He said good job, keep it up, and wished me luck. That story was my first publication in a fanzine called ‘When the Cows Come Home’, and was followed by several others.

Everything I wrote back then was stream of consciousness. Hey, man, it was the early seventies. Everything was stream of consciousness then. For me, anyway. It might explain a lot.

I was the ultimate pantser. I started everything I wrote with perhaps a single scene in mind and dived in, with no idea where the story would go. Amazingly, within a couple of years I had a story published in Galaxy magazine and, soon after, a book accepted by Robert Hale. By then I also had an agent, the lovely Leslie Flood, who represented many British science-fiction authors at that time.

Three more novels followed in the same vein. Sit down. Start. Write lots of words. Finish. And then, in 1980, I stopped. I needed to eat, and publishing a book a year back then didn’t allow me to do that on a regular basis. So I buckled and got a job. I was the warehouseman in a frozen food supplier in Mid Wales. I told myself I’d continue writing in my spare time. And then I married and the need for both of us to eat put a stop to that. But I always knew that, really, I was a writer. Just a writer in abeyance.

Roll forward almost forty years and as I approached sixty the urge to write began to nag at me. So I pulled out my copies of those old books and stories and scanned through them.

What a shock. We are always told it’s a great idea to set your manuscript aside for a few months before starting to edit. This was the ultimate form of setting aside. And what I discovered was … well, one good thing, and one bad thing.

The good thing? I could string words, sentence and paragraphs together pretty well.

The bad thing? The story made no sense whatsoever! Oh, there were good bits, but the arc of the story was more of a möbius strip, or even a tangle of wool left after a cat’s finished with it.

So I started to learn how to change from a panster to a plotter. These days I have two shelves of books on how to do it, from Robert McKee’s seminal Story, to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and more. These days I write a 45,000 word detailed plot before I start. I have spreadsheets for all my beat points, spreadsheets of characters, their dates of birth and death, their relationship to everyone else. I became a bit obsessed.

And then … I discovered all my plotting was a lovely idea but it never made it beyond half-way through a book. Stuff happens. Characters grow a mind of their own. New characters shoehorn their way into the story. Research throws up something too juicy to leave out.

Now I am less strident about plotting, but I still do it.

The other change is the way I publish. Back in the 1970s, there were publishers and there were vanity presses, and I only ever wanted a real publisher. When I returned to writing in the 2010s all that had changed. There was this new, wild west of self-publishing. I had a decision to make.

Or rather, the decision made itself.

I tell people I started to self-publish because I was arrogant enough to believe my books were good, and too impatient to wait two years to see them in print.

I thought I’d make a million, buy a boat, sail the coast of Wales.

Many people thought the same. In those early days superstars emerged and made a lot of money. They made the millions I thought should have been mine, but weren’t.

Things changed. I stopped self-publishing and became an Indie author. It’s the same thing but sounds better. Or maybe it implies a level of professionalism. Whichever, for me it is a mindset that has brought me to being a full-time writer, earning more than I did when I worked. I’ve had approaches from several publishers, thought about switching sides or becoming hybrid, and always thanked them and said no. It’s that arrogance again. I believe I can do a better job myself. I hire in professional editors, proof-readers and cover designers. The same ones the big publishers use.

Oh … and I still had that old Olivetti until I lost it in a house fire. Last year my daughter bought me a portable Royal typewriter to replace it. Because of hammering out words on a manual machine for years I still like an old-fashioned clattery keyboard and spent wildly on getting one that can keep up with my 60 wpm four-finger typing.

Long may it last.

You can learn more about David Penny and the Thomas Berrington historical crime series on this link

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