100 Ways to Write a Book is a fascinating collection of author interviews that offers vivid insights into the craft of compelling storytelling and writers tips from some great authors.
At the beginning of the epidemic in the UK, I set up a website for myself and decided to invite other authors to answer a series of questions. These were questions that I guess most authors like to ask other authors about this mysterious business of creating imagined worlds on the page. I wanted to know about their backgrounds; what made them want to write; how they went about it; and so on. I’ve yet to meet an author that doesn’t like to talk about their work, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by the response, which was pretty overwhelming. By the time I had over 80 interviews on the website both my brother and brother-in-law suggested I publish the interviews as a book and give the author proceeds to charity. PEN International seemed to fit the bill perfectly as they speak up for writers whose voices are being stifled by regimes that have little respect for human rights and the freedom of speech. And so, 100 Ways to Write a Book was born. It is currently available in paperback from Amazon. The ebook and hardback will follow in due course. You can view, purchase and review the book here.
The interviews themselves are fascinating, wonderfully varied, and represent a cross-section of individuals from diverse backgrounds and settings. There are so many terrific passages from these pieces that are eminently quotable that it’s difficult to do them justice here in a short piece. The book runs to 687 pages! But to give you a flavour, I will endeavour to offer up a few fabulous snippets of author advice and writing tips.
Among the collection, there are a fair number of crime writers who used to be lawyers. But there is only one retired judge. His name is Malcolm Knott and he writes purely for pleasure, and is clearly rather good at it. His Sherlock Holmes: The Soldier’s Daughter and other new stories is a collection of short stories written in imitation of Conan Doyle and has garnered terrific reviews. In response to my first question about his background, he answers:
“I was born during the Battle of Britain and our home in North London was about half a mile from an Ack-Ack battery so I can truthfully say, ‘My lullaby was the sound of the guns.’ It was an idyllic childhood except that Hitler was trying to kill me.”
And while elucidating on the subject of Conan Doyle, he makes the insightful observation: “I enjoy the fact that, unlike the characters in modern novels Holmes and Watson do not ‘learn about themselves’ or ‘go on a journey’. On the contrary they remain absolutely consistent from beginning to end: brilliant, bohemian and insufferable (Holmes); decent, loyal and unimaginative (Watson).”
Another writer who appears in the book is the award-winning and prolific L. C. Tyler, author of 17 comic crime novels. (It’s probably up to 18 or 19 by the time this appears.) When I asked him about his approach and whether he was a planner or panster, he said “both”, and then went on to say the following: “I tend to do a lot of redrafting – both during the writing of the first draft and once the first draft is finished. Of course, no book is ever finished as such – you just see the deadline approaching, give the thing a final tidy and hand it in.”
When quizzed on the subject of research, this was wonderful: “A great deal of the research involved sitting in the British Library for days on end, reading standard text books and PhD theses – though occasionally you would thrillingly be entrusted with some leather-bound seventeenth century book, that had actually been handled by just the sort of people you were writing about. In one such law book I found, between the pages, an arrest warrant, apparently still unserved three hundred and fifty years later – and when you looked at the crimes that the people named had committed, I’d have been a bit nervous about serving it on them too.”
The question of planning is one that fascinates me. And the answers are so brutally honest. This one from Hazel Prior whose massively popular Away with the Penguins that has been outselling the likes of Graham Norton, is really interesting and will reassure all budding writers who are a little bit unsure about themselves and their writing:
“I’m still trying to work this one out! For each book I’ve needed at least some idea where I’m heading otherwise the plot would just drift around. But I’m hopeless at planning. I’ve tried different approaches and none of them seems very efficient. If I write out a detailed synopsis or chapter outlines I end up abandoning them because I keep having other (hopefully better) ideas as I go along. If I follow my nose I do get a story but the structure is a real mess and I have to pull everything around many, many times before it feels right. For book 4 I’m trying to spend longer on the thinking/planning stage to save myself time on the editing stage. We’ll see if it works…”
Of his background and being born on a boat, the actor, author and BAFTA-winning comedy writer, Julian Dutton writes the following:
“As an infant I was wheeled around Chelsea and my parents would point out various people: Mick Jagger, Augustus John, Somerset Maugham, Felix Topolski. These people were my neighbours, real flesh and blood people, leading real lives. I think that might have lit a candle of ambition inside me: I kind of got an impression that famous people were normal. We sold our houseboat to Edward Garnett, the Bloomsbury Group writer, and moved to Marlow, again by the river, and again a place where many writers had lived – Shelley, TS Eliot, Jerome K. Jerome etc. For some odd reason, from a very young age I wanted to be like them, the writers or artists that I surrounded myself with in my imagination and my reading.”
And this was the response to the planning question by the acclaimed crime author C. J. Carver:
“I definitely have a plan of where I’m going but nothing super-detailed because for me, this prevents the creative spark I can get when actually writing, which results in those plot twists that are totally blindsiding, even to me.”
In a similar vein, another crime writer Paul Gitsham says this:
“As the writer of an ongoing series, I have the basic story arcs for my key characters mapped out over the next few books, but that’s it. A page of A4 is usually pretty generous. Then I just dive in. However, by the time I’ve finished, if you were to look at my pages of notes and research, you’d think I’d planned it all from the beginning. I haven’t, it’s grown organically. It always amuses me when somebody describes my books as ‘meticulously plotted’. They really aren’t.”
Tessa Harris, the acclaimed author of historical fiction gives us a memorable image of her childhood:
“I was born in a small town, near the east coast, in Lincolnshire and ‘wrote’ my first book at five on pieces of wallpaper which my mother sewed together. I always knew I wanted to write professionally and so became a journalist. I was a journo and editor for almost thirty years before my first novel was published…I wrote my own first novel called The Adventures of Auntie Mary (about travelling with my aunt on a magic carpet) when I was just eight years old. Needless to say, it was rejected by a publisher, but I still have the letter!”
There are so many wonderful gems from other brilliant writers in this book; writers like Ashok Ferrey, Charles Harris, Louise Fein, Sam Blake, Tony J. Forder, Bradley Harper, Alan Gibbons, Jane Risdon, David F. Ross, Paul Kane, A. A. Chaudhuri, Jon Richter, John Dean, Peter Turnham… I could go on… There are simply too many to name here.
Just let me finish by quoting the words of Ron Impey, a retired classics scholar who until Covid struck hadn’t published a single word. He has now published a slim volume of light verse – Lockdown Scribblings. The account of his wartime childhood in these pages is, I think, rather moving:
“Born in East London just before WW2 erupted, I must have sensed from the outset that the world is a dangerous place and life is a serious business. My mother died when I was but a few months old, my father was gallantly trying to cope with four children (of whom I was far the youngest) and at the same time earning a living at Woolwich Arsenal, having become insolvent in a failed business venture. After a brief spell in Barnardo’s (a foretaste of the separation anxiety in lockdown?) I was evacuated along with my brother to an uncle and aunt in Dovercourt, where their house was then narrowly missed by a bomb and where soon afterwards I fell off my brother’s back on to a blazing coal fire with a kettle thereon which tipped its boiling water down my right arm (my first memory, at the age of three). Dad, with health deteriorating (partly the result of his time in the trenches in WW1), remarried in 1942. Our family was pulled together by a wonderful stepmother (always Mum to me); to her and Dad I owe so much.”
You can read all 106 interviews by grabbing a copy of the 687 page paperback from Amazon. The ebook and full colour hardback will become available in due course. And all author proceeds will be going to PEN International.
(c) Alex Pearl
About 100 Ways to Write a Book:
These author interviews initiated by Alex Pearl during the Covid epidemic started as a small lockdown project. But before long, Alex’s requests for author interviews on social media elicited an overwhelming response, and the project soon took on on a life of its own.
Within these pages, authors from a wide spectrum of backgrounds wax lyrical about their backgrounds, motivations, and working methods. Among this throng, self-published newbies rub shoulders with award-winning bestsellers from all corners of the globe, including the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Israel and Sri Lanka.
They provide a fascinating insight into this mysterious process of creating imagined worlds on the page.
Huge thanks go to the 100 authors who very kindly gave their time to participate in this project, as well as their consent for their words to be reproduced here in print. They are in no particular order:
Paul Waters, Jessica Norrie, David F. Ross, Drema Drudge, Chris Chalmers, Mark Farrer, Sue Clark, Hannah Tovey, Belinda Hunt, Glynn Holloway, Mark Eklid, Julian Dutton, Christopher Bowden, Alan Gibbons, Lily Mackenzie, Ian Critchley, Jadi Campbell, Tom Atkins, Jane Risdon, Charles Harris, L. C. Tyler, Fran Hill, Malcolm Knott, Nikki Dudley, Jacqui Castle, Ron Impey, C. J. Booth, Ashok Ferrey, Jennifer Irwin, Beth Duke, Vicki Olsen, Pete Langman, Pauline Morgan, Jonathan Peace, Sandy Manning, Shelley Wilson, P. J. Roscoe, Anthony Neil Smith, A. A. Chaudhuri, Jon Richter, Carolyn Hughes, Trish Moran, Madeline Dewhurst, Jeff Pollak, Louise Fein, A. B. Kyazze, Jack Byrne, M. A. Hunter, Tessa Harris, M. J. Mallon, P. R. Black, Nina Soden, Bill Arnott, E. Chris Ambrose, Paul Kane, Sam Blake, Douglas Skelton, Louise Mumford, Philip Henry, Hazel Prior, Lauren Emily Whalen, Laura E. Goodin, Simon Van der Velde, Dr. Manuel Matas, Jane Bettany, Regina Puckett, S. G. M.Ashcroft, Michele Kwasniewski, Judy Stanigar, Robert Craven, John Darling, Pramudith D. Rupasinghe, Richard Dee, Sophy Layzell, Lorna Dounaeva, Diana Stevan, Bradley Harper, Paul Gitsham, Sion Scott-Wilson, John Dean, Liz Martinson, C. J.Carver, Tony J. Forder, Sharron L. Miller, Patrick Osborne, Peter Turnham, Jude Lennon, Anna Holmes, Chris Calder, Jane Buckley, Rachel Brimble, Gail Aldwin, Anne Coates, Ian Riddle, Christina Hamlett, James Morgan-Jones, Alison Huntingford, Gila Green, Helen Pryke, Emilya Naymark, Marcia Clayton, James L’Etoile, Edward Trayer, Mark Leichliter, Lindsay J. Sedgwick, David Liscio, Kate Reynolds
ALL AUTHOR PROCEEDS WILL BE DONATED TO PEN INTERNATIONAL
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