Sunday, 16 December 2012

How I write my books

What I'm reading: Unknown Pleasures: inside Joy Division, by Peter Hook; and True Blue: 150 years of service and sacrifice of the NSW Police Force, by Patrick Lindsay.

Of the latter book above, you might be thinking, 'God, how boring', or even, 'Boo, the pigs', but it's a beautiful and comprehensive volume packed with history. And timely for me - I've been looking for a history of the NSW cops for ages for my own research and, as far as I'm aware, this is the first to be published. I could be wrong, of course, and if I am, no doubt someone will let me know.

Anyway, onto my own books. These days they're around 130k words long, and take me about six to seven months to write, if I don't count the days I spend doing other things like rewriting or editing another of my manuscripts, doing research or other work-related stuff, having a headache, or procrastinating and wasting time. Or even having a break. Even writers need time off.

Often the writing of my books can overlap. I'll be starting a new one while the one before is still going through the editing process, which can sometimes be quite drawn out. Which means I have to stop writing the new one to work on the old one again. This isn't a problem if I'm writing a series, because the characters are the same, but if the two books aren't from a series, it's tricky to hop back into a 'headspace' I've finished with. Fortunately, at the moment, I am working on a series.

Startling cover for Russian edition of Kitty
I'll spend about a day bashing out a story outline, maybe three to five pages, and refer to this as I write. The beginning and the end seldom change, but sometimes the middle will. I do tend to get lost in the middle of my books. Not enough detailed plotting. I must do something about that. When writing a series, I'll do outlines for all the books at once. Storylines can get complicated when they go on for, say four volumes, and once something's in print it's a bit hard to pretend it didn't happen, so it's important to get it right from the start.

I do a lot of research before I start writing. I decide on my subject, make a 'shopping list' of everything I think I'll need to know, and off I go. For a series, this means loads of research at the beginning but far less as the series goes on, which speeds up the whole process. As I progress I inevitably discover research holes, but racing off to find out gives me a break from writing.

When I start actually writing, I set up an XL spreadsheet with a finish date and the number of words I can comfortably trot out every day (five days a week, not seven). This is 1600, though usually I'll do 2000, or occasionally even 3000, though I find that rate hard to maintain. At the end of every day I'll enter my word rate, which is deeply satisfying. I aim for a weekly goal, not daily, in case I have an off day. Of course, now that I blog, and I'm on facebook, and several writers' loops, this is all going to hell in a handbasket.

My mantra is 'get it finished, then get it right'. I'll keep going even if I know what I'm writing isn't the best. It doesn't matter, as long as the basic story is there. I can fix it when I do my pre-delivery edit. On the other hand, I've been writing long enough now to know when I'm going wrong, so these days I don't scrap much. Also, I can't write scenes out of order. If I have an idea for later on in the book, I'll make a few notes in my trusty notebook, and park the rest in my head.

What I submit to my publisher, HarperCollins Australia, is basically a cleanish draft. When I've finished I'll give the ms a reasonable edit, but it won't be perfect. I'll fix spellos, typos, obvious plot holes, glaringly repetitive words and phrases, and stupid things like characters whose eyes are brown on page 21 but blue on page 345. However, I firmly believe a writer can't edit their own work - not to publication standards, anyway. Well, I can't. When my commissioning editor has read it, she, I and the freelance editor working on this series will meet and discuss how to improve it. And no, I don't get bitter and twisted and hurl my toys out of the cot. It's brilliant having other eyes look at my stuff and offer expert opinions on how to make it better. Who wouldn't want that?

So anyway, off I scamper, make some changes then back the ms goes to the freelance editor for a proper edit. Then it comes back to me yet again for any further suggested changes (which are my choice, but they're almost always good ideas), then the ms goes to HCA to be turned into first pages (or galleys, or first pass proofs, or whatever you want to call them) and copy edited. I also do a copy edit, ie, go through it with a nit comb, though by now I've had enough and I'm gagging at the sight of it. When all the edits are finally finished, the book goes off to be printed.

While all this is going on the cover is being designed, a process in which, I'm delighted to say, these days I have a reasonable say. Unlike with the foreign editions of my books, which frequently come out with somewhat unique covers. All of the above takes place well before the book is 'sold in' to retailers, which is about six months before it actually appears in the shops and as an e-book.

And that's all there is to it!

Blatant advertisment: A bit of news for New Zealand readers - from 17 December until the middle of January, you can download my book Kitty from the NZ Apple iBook store for NZ$4.99, which is quite cheap. Merry Christmas!



  1. You make it all sound so easy :)

    Loved reading about your process - thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Kez. It's certainly easier when you have a good team supporting you, whether that's your publisher, your writing group, or family and friends. Preferably the whole lot!

  3. Love your dedication to getting those words down. What would you recommend if you were a bit of a compulsive nut? ie find it hard to move on until what you have written is as good as you can do at the time. Any advice? Apart from a kick up the bum? Great learning about your writing process, thank u for sharing.

  4. Hi SE Gilchrist. Ta for your comments. When I'm setting up my work schedule, I try to build in enough time at the end to allow me to go back and fix those bits I know aren't great. If I know I've got safety net time at the end to fix things, then it DOESN'T drive me mental to leave them and I can move on and get my first draft done. Often I'll go back a week later and fix something anyway - a few days' break gives you a new perspective. Hope this helps.

  5. Hi Deborah, just wanted to say thanks for sharing your writing process. I'm on the 3rd draft of my first novel, and I'm almost over it! You are a great inspiration. I think I need to set more structured goals. Would loved to have been able to attend your workshop up north earlier this year, never mind, perhaps next year.
    All the best for 2013.

  6. Hi Carole, good to hear from you! Thanks for your nice words. Hang in there with your novel and good luck!


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