This article was first published in August 2021. 56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard went on to win the An Post Irish Book Award for the Crime Fiction Book of the Year.
56 Days is a thriller set in lockdown that I wrote while I was in lockdown. It’s about a couple, Ciara and Oliver, who meet in Dublin just as coronavirus reaches Irish shores and then decide to move in together to get around the ‘no mixing between households’ rule when the first lockdown hits. She sees it as a way to avoid the scrutiny of family and friends, but he sees it as a way to hide who – and what – he really is. The novel opens on May 1, 2020, the day the reopening plan (I use that term loosely) was announced, with the discovery of a dead body in the apartment the couple shared. We then flash back to their first meeting 56 days ago, their first date 53 days ago, etc. to see what led to murder. Meanwhile, two detectives investigate whether lockdown has provided someone with the opportunity to commit the perfect crime.
56 Days was one of five July picks for Book of the Month club, a very popular book subscription service in the USA that’s been going since 1926 when one of their picks was The Sun Also Rises. This meant that tens of thousands of readers got an early look at 56 Days – and I got a look at their early reactions to it. In among the reviews were a few comments along the lines of Can’t believe she got this out there so fast. How can it be good when she wrote it so quickly?! – which made me, honestly, cackle. Because… Well, brace yourself: ALL my books were written that fast!
To me, it’s not fast at all. It’s just my normal speed. And to be honest, I don’t even consider it to be all that impressive. I write a book a year. Writing a book a year is my full-time job. It’s my only job. I’m child-free; my time is my own. Apart from the functions of being alive – sleeping, eating, etc. – and the things I like to do but don’t have to – Netflix, day-drinking with my fellow crime writers, LEGO – I have literally nothing else to do except get words on the page. And I really like getting words on the page. I have my dream job and I’m grateful for it, so there’s nothing I love more than getting up, shuffling zombie-like to the coffee machine, collecting a small bucket of caffeine and then sitting down at my desk to write words for the day. If I wasn’t writing a book a year, I think that would be more a lot more worthy of remark.
I’ve never actually kept track of how long it takes me to write a book in terms of hours or days, but it generally goes like this:
Planning a book happens while I’m writing the previous one. This might be a random thought taking hold in the background of my daydreams or percolating while I wait for the coffee machine to do its business, scribbles in a notebook or a list of major plot points in an Excel spreadsheet, or even me writing a blurb that I think could go on the back of the book or writing a 1-2 page synopsis or outline in extreme cases.
Writing the first draft takes about 12 weeks, but at least the first 2 or 3 of them is spent not writing because I am an Olympic-level procrastinator. Then I will spend, on average, 3 weeks writing the first couple of chapters over and over and over because I have The Fear that if I keep going, I’ll find out this book idea is actually a pile of shite. I will only push through that fear when it is overtaken by the fear of not being finished by the date I’d told my editor I’ll send it in. Cue 6 weeks of a caffeine-induced fever-dream, writing thousands of very messy words every day, sleeping badly at night and ignoring pretty much everything else in my life until I see THE END.
Writing the second draft is where, for me, the bulk of the work takes place. Armed with feedback from my editor and a much clearer idea now of how the book should be shaped, what it’s about, characters’ true motivations, the ending, etc. I open a brand new Word document and start typing from scratch. This takes another 6-8 weeks of actual writing, because I’m much less likely to procrastinate at this stage. I am in this stage right now with Book 6 and writing an average of 4,000 words a day – but these are mostly a re-write of words from the first draft, so I’m not writing brand new scenes every day. On the days that I do have to do that, it’s more like 2,000 words. (I hesitate to include actual word counts because people get SO fixated on them. Don’t! Even if you wrote 10 words a day, you would eventually have a novel. The only right way to do it is whatever way works for you. Every single writer is different and everyone’s lives are different. What I do doesn’t necessarily apply to you.)
Writing the third draft is more like tweaking and polishing. I might need to move some things around and write a few new scenes, and this is why I (hope I) polish the prose to a brilliant gloss. I don’t type this one from scratch – I go to my second draft and work my way through, making changes as I go. This usually takes about 4 weeks.
If you’ve been counting, we’re now up to around 6 months of writing time. But there’s still copyediting to go – and I do that twice, once for Ireland and the UK and once for America – and page proofs to check. Plus there’s all the other work of being an author (90% of which is answering emails, true story), promoting the last book I wrote and, if I’m lucky, taking a few weeks off to go lie on a beach and read other people’s books. Add all that up and you’ll get a year.
That’s how it always happens, it’s just that the real-life events in 56 Days have made people realise this.
When people comment on how fast something was written, it’s almost always to insult it. How can it be good when she wrote it so quickly? But two CWA Dagger nominations and being a finalist for the biggest award in crime fiction, the Edgar for Best Novel – and, in the case of 56 Days specifically, a glowing review in the Washington Post – should answer that. (BURN. And also, notions! Yes, I cringed internally writing that sentence, but I think it’s important to say.) There is no correlation whatsoever between how long something takes to write and how it turns out in the end. There are brilliant books written in weeks and terrible books that took decades. What I consider to be one of the greatest psychological thrillers of all time, Into The Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes, started life as a NaNoWriMo project, where you write a first draft during the 30 days of November. Thomas Harris kept us waiting 11 years for Hannibal, which, so the general consensus goes, wasn’t a patch on The Silence of the Lambs.
We all write at different speeds. I’ll say again: the only ‘right’ way to do this is the way for works for you. This speed is what works for me.
(c) Catherine Ryan Howard
56 Days is out now. That Washington Post review said, “At or near the top of any list of superb Irish thriller writers these days is Catherine Ryan Howard. Her fifth stand-alone [is] the masterly 56 Days. Timely, surprising, emotionally alive, this is about as good as suspense fiction gets” (The 5 Best New Thrillers and Mysteries To Read This August).
About 56 Days:
No one even knew they were together. Now one of them is dead.
56 DAYS AGO
Ciara and Oliver meet in a supermarket queue in Dublin and start dating the same week COVID-19 reaches Irish shores.
35 DAYS AGO
When lockdown threatens to keep them apart, Oliver suggests they move in together. Ciara sees a unique opportunity for a relationship to flourish without the scrutiny of family and friends. Oliver sees a chance to hide who – and what – he really is.
Detectives arrive at Oliver’s apartment to discover a decomposing body inside.
Can they determine what really happened, or has lockdown created an opportunity for someone to commit the perfect crime?
‘Compulsive, intriguing and fantastically entertaining’ Liz Nugent
Order your copy online here.