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How an Author Writes

Authors are often asked how they get ideas.

There seem to be two supposed ‘facts’ about writing which are absolutely set in stone in the minds of the public: that all authors are multi-millionaires, and that it’s an easy job with a magical formula that changes an otherwise inoffensive book enthusiast into a dribbling, private jet-owning scribbler.

Sadly, neither is true. Nope, most authors are permanently broke, and there is no magic formula to writing. Mostly it means a lot of hard work.

In my case, I started writing almost twenty years ago, mainly because my employers would keep going bankrupt while owing me money. For a long time it was joked among my friends that if I joined a company, they should sell any shares in it. After all, it was during my tenure at IBM’s largest software house that the firm disappeared and IBM went into anti-trust meltdown.

After thirteen years and thirteen jobs, I reckoned I was getting enough of a hint, and gave up the day job. Well, I got fired, really, and that really did annoy me. So, sitting at home, I decided I ought to try a new career. As an unqualified salesman, that was an interesting concept. What can you do, when you’ve no training? Since I knew I loved reading, I thought I’d try to write a book.

Writing is easy. We all know that. You sit at a keyboard and type. After some time, if you keep on typing, you have a book.

Yes. In theory. But you do have to type rather a lot, and hopefully you won’t have interruptions. You know the sort of thing: Coronation Street starting, hearing the children experimenting with grandad’s cut-throat razor upstairs, or seeing young William being taken for an interesting walk with his arm in the mouth of next-door’s pit bull. They can all cut into your concentration.

And there is the minor thing that if you start out with a black sheet of paper, you probably won’t get very far.

For my first books I used a pretty infallible method. I wrote lots, on sheets of A4 by hand.

You see, I’d decided (based on my enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s books) that I was going to write a crime book. And there are simple rules with crime. You can’t have too few suspects (about five or six is right) because it’ll be too easy to guess the culprit. Equally, you can’t have too many, because that’ll confuse the hell out of the readers.

But once you have characters, you need to have a plot as well. And that was when I invested in a brilliant Post-It note. No, not the little dinky thing in a block that sits by your desk, but a massive twenty by twenty-three inch pad.

It was brilliant. I designed the whole plot as a flow-chart, just as I had done when project managing software developments, and then could stick the sheets in front of me on the wall or bookshelves.

But soon I needed a different system. As I was writing, characters suddenly began to take on new aspects. It wasn’t enough that I had a stable of suspects: they had to be believable, and that meant changing them as the plot developed. More, while I was writing I needed to keep a handle on when things were happening that could influence the rest of the book. And that was when I discovered the brilliant use of … scrap paper!

All old drafts of manuscripts were pulled into use. I tore sheets of A4 into four long strips, and used Blu Tack to stick them to my walls. On each I wrote in a thick, black, soft pencil to tell me in summary what the scene was about, who was in it and so on.

The idea, you see, was to have the whole story in front of me. I had the Post-It sheet that told me what the story was supposed to be, what the interrelations between characters were, and a basic timeline; alongside this I now had all the scenes. And then I began to elaborate.

Using marker pens (because my eyesight’s lousy) I began to mark different colours for the scenes so I could see at a glance whose point of view was being used for each scene. That way I stopped finding that one character was hogging the limelight for too long.

None of them was allowed red, though. And for one important reason: I believe that if a thriller/crime story hasn’t got something exciting happening every ten or fifteen pages, it isn’t going to work as a story. So to highlight tension and danger, I used red ink in the scenes. Then I could see how the scenes were spread, and make sure that there was adequate excitement through the story. And if it wasn’t working, I could pull one strip of paper and stick it down somewhere else, to alter the flow of the story, fiddling around until I was happy.

And this is still the way I work.

My Post-It pads still get regular airings — although now I’ll use a good quality clutch pencil to write up the main flow, and I use Faber Castell dry highlighters to emphasise the main areas I need (the day-glow yellow is my favourite, although the orange works as well for contrast). Then I have a whiteboard for all characters and the timeline, along with any crucial notes.

The strips of paper are gone, sadly. I use a software package called Scrivener, which is designed by a devon-based designer exclusively for authors. Most of my peers use this superb piece of software. It gives me the sheets of paper on-screen, and I can pick up each and drop them into a different order at will.

Being an author means using lots of technology, after all. I have an Apple desktop (and it does take up a whole desk, with a 27 inch screen) on which I write my books; I send them, when ready, to my HTC Flier tablet, which allows me to read and mark up in red all those elements I need to edit or alter. When printed, I use the same Faber-Castell dry highlighters and an old Cross fountain pen with red ink to mark them up.

Writer's Desk

But still, although I have all the weird and wonderful electronic gadgets an author could hope for, the best times for me are still those when I’m sitting down and toying with a pen or pencil, with a large sheet of paper, dumping ideas down, hoping that something will spring into a connection. My next purchase will be a large clutch pencil from e+m for those doodling moments

My ideas always come from those moments. So perhaps it is easy to get ideas to write about. They just appear from nowhere when I have a pen in my hand. There is some sort of relationship between holding a pencil or pen and ideas coming. Certainly, it’s much easier to think up people and plots with a pencil in hand than on the screen.

So I’m looking forward to the e+m arriving!

Michael Jecks

 As well as collaborating with fellow members of The Medieval Murderers, Dartmoor-based Michael Jecks is the author of thirty three novels in his best-selling Templar series. His latest, Fields of Glory will be published in June 2014 in hardback and Kindle from Simon & Schuster. Expplore more of Michaels' work at: www.michaeljecks.co.uk

19 April 2013

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