This was originally posted in Louise Phillips Crime Scene blog, but it is so good we wanted to include it in our resources section, so, in case you missed it, here crime writer Mark Sennan discusses his writing process:
I’ve just finished reading Chris Hadfield’s autobiography (you’ll know him as the Canadian astronaut who recorded Space Oddity while on the International Space Station – the recording became a YouTube sensation) and he tells an interesting anecdote about when he met Neil Young and asked for some tips on song writing. ‘I never write songs, I just write them down,’ Young said. He also told Hadfield that he doesn’t judge a song until it’s finished. I’m comforted by the latter point because at the moment I’m halfway through writing book four in my Charlotte Savage detective series and the material so far is, in the well-worn phrase one of my characters likes to use, a complete dog’s dinner. And it’s all my fault.
Crime novels are supposed to be tightly plotted, the twists and turns part of an intricate story the author has spent hundreds of hours concocting. I’ve seen pictures of writers with dozens of Post-It notes on the side of their screens, a rainbow of different coloured marker pens, a big whiteboard with a spider’s web of lines, exercise books full of character sketches. It all looks so professional and I can only assume that because I have none of these things (not even virtually, hidden away on the computer) my method is that of the rank amateur.
You see I don’t plan. No Sat Nav, no road map, not even a compass to point me in the right direction. I only have a vague idea of where I’m going, and the only reason I know that is because I’ve visited some of the destinations before I get there. By which I mean I tend to write some of the later parts of the book before earlier parts. When an idea for a scene comes to me I work on it, sometimes having no idea where the piece will go or how it will fit in. The danger is the scene can easily become an island with no other points of reference near. My characters might end up sitting on the beach like castaways with no passing ships to rescue them (or me).
I’ve tried to obey the EU’s Health and Safety regulations for writers, honestly. I’ve bought the sticky notes, pens, whiteboard. I’ve read books on plotting and structure. I’ve written out the obligatory headings: Act 1, Act 2, Act 3. I’ve gone for long walks armed with a Dictaphone, hoping that by the time I get back home I’ll have sketched the backstory, plot and subplot. The problem is everything remains resolutely blank. The notes, the board, the recorder, my mind, the document on the screen. The only thing I have plenty of is guilt. Blank screens are good for that. Especially since I can only take so much before the mouse cursor gets a mind of its own and scuttles across the screen to take me into the unholy trinity of black holes which are Twitter, BBC News or Wikipedia. After an hour on the latter, the end result of which is an intimate knowledge of the history of the ISS (see where we came in) it’s time to admit defeat.
Enough. No more planning. No more pretending to plan. For me the writing is the thing. I’m not writing a book, I’m just writing (thanks, Neil). The mantra I repeat to anybody who asks and anyone who’ll listen is ‘don’t get it right, get it written.’ So that’s what I do, write: Scenes, snippets of scenes, waffle if nothing else will come. My fifty thousand words might be a dog’s dinner, but it’s fifty thousand words more than the other me who’s still staring at an empty document and getting high sniffing marker pens. In another two or three months I’ll have a hundred thousand words and then things can really begin to take shape. As I work through the second draft scenes I didn’t realise were important become pivotal. I might discover that, quite without intention, a certain motif has repeated itself several times. Or maybe a walk-on character shouts out to be given a much greater role. During this process there’s a lot of juggling and great chunks of the story get moved back and forth. It feels a little like throwing a thousand piece jigsaw up in the air and hoping the picture will assemble itself, but by the end of the second draft I know I’ll have a book with an intricate and (I hope) interesting plot. And none of it planned.
If you’re the type of writer who can plan, great, good for you, I’m insanely jealous. If, like me, you can’t, then my advice is don’t just sit there wishing you could, don’t sweat it, and don’t bother buying those Post-Its in the hope they’ll help you finish the book. They won’t. Writing is the only way to get across the line. You are a writer, aren’t you? So write.
(c) Mark Sennen