Writing to Order: Hold My Hand by M.J. Ford
Avon, the imprint of Harper Collins, actually came to me with the idea for Hold My Hand. That might sound an unusual way to end up writing a book, where the ‘standard’ journey is writing a novel, submitting it, and having it bought by a publisher, but it’s not all that rare.
I’ve worked in publishing on the production and editorial side for many years, so I’ve seen so many ways for a book to come to fruition, and I’m aware how collaborative fiction can be. Sometimes a publisher teams up a writer with an idea, sometimes writers write to a detailed brief, sometimes a publisher doesn’t think an idea has legs and suggests an alternative, sometimes editors take over when a writer is suddenly indisposed. There’s still a persistent idea of writing as a quasi-sacred act, a single mind, a single hand, working in a garret on a singular vision. And it can be (somewhat) like that. But the reality for many books is that a writer has a support network, with many different people inputting to the finished work. For instance, the agent who suggests a promising topic, the trusted reader who offers vital criticism, the editor who wants the third act to be restructured. (Beyond that, of course, there are several publishing functions that can mean a published book becomes a successful published book: cover design, publicity, sales and marketing, etc.)
I’m very comfortable with all this, for the simple reason it makes things easier. I’d much rather feel like part of team than carry the weight on my shoulders, with all the self-doubt it would (for me, anyway) entail.
I’ve written for book packagers for about ten years, writing to quite extensive pre-determined briefs in children’s fiction. I’ve also ghost-written several books, where again, the ultimate vision tends to be someone else’s. My agent has sent me ideas more than once, as well as rubbishing (nicely) several of my own.
For some writers, I know this approach leaves something of a sour taste in their mouths. What’s the point in writing, if you’re not free to write what you want? To which I have several responses. First, I am free to write what I want, and I have written original novels. But, for the most part, I just choose not to. On a practical level, I enjoy the regular work and opportunity that comes my way. The deadlines are tight, the work is finite, and often I don’t have to labour at the promotional side of things (though increasingly, this isn’t the case), because a lot of the work is pseudonymous. Creatively, also, I find it hard to simply sit down and write without knowing where I’m going. I find, if I let a story grow organically, it rarely flourishes. Writing to a brief avoids of the plotting dead-ends, the writer’s block, the horrible realisation that your second act is a saggy mess. I find I write much more quickly with the story mapped out in advance by someone else, with certain expectations in place.
That said, the brief Avon provided for Hold My Hand was very short indeed. It was really a character sketch, an opening scene, and a twist for the ending – perhaps a dozen lines in all. All three of those crucial elements were compelling, and crucially, they all tied together thematically. It gave me, to risk overused parlance, the ‘DNA’ of the story, as well as the backbone of a structure. But I’ll admit, I found it a little daunting. Not only was this my first adult novel, with the increased word count and story complexity that entails, but I recognised that I was incredibly fortunate to be given the opportunity and didn’t want to mess it up! In tackling the project, I fell back on what I knew from my editing days. I tried to look at the book as two distinct tasks – the first was creating a full, detailed storyline and the second was working that into a manuscript. I tend to structure story using the classic Blake Synder three-act ‘beat sheet’, from his screenwriting gospel Save the Cat. For those not familiar, it’s a fifteen-stage breakdown of the hero’s journey through a story, and it can be applied to pretty much any genre of film or book. Once I’d done that, I felt I was on firmer ground. The story ‘worked’, so next it was about finding the voice and putting my finger on the pulse of the main character, Detective Josie Masters. In some ways she’s like me: prickly, cynical, suspicious, stubborn… but enough of my good side. She’s also a product of her circumstances, and developed as her backstory did. There’s always an element of discovery in writing a character. Their edges harden as the story takes it toll, and the story flexes in response. It’s a give and take.
(c) M.J. Ford
M. J. Ford is a writer and an editor at Working Partners, where he works on projects across the age groups. He loves thrillers, historical and fantasy titles. Hold My Hand is his debut novel.
About Hold My Hand:
How long do you hunt for the missing?
A horrible vanishing act…
When a young Josie Masters sees a boy wearing a red football shirt, Dylan Jones, being taken by a clown at a carnival, she tries to alert the crowds. But it’s too late. Dylan has disappeared…
Thirty years later, Josie is working as a police officer in Bath. The remains of the body of a child have been found – complete with tatters of a torn red football shirt. Is it the boy she saw vanish in the clutches of the clown? Or is it someone else altogether?
And then another child disappears…
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