The long summer holidays are already upon us. It can be a magical time for kids, especially now that our hot and dry summers seem to have returned. But often it can be expensive too. I’ve been getting leaflets through the door about holiday clubs, activities and crash swimming courses for months. If I signed up to them all I could easily end up bankrupt. But I suspect my children would end up bankrupt too. For them, all this organised activity would lead to a sort of intellectual bankruptcy.
When talking to people about my books, one of the most common questions I am asked is ‘where do you get all your ideas from?’ Considering this enquiry carefully, I have put it down to two things. Firstly, I believe that storytelling is simply in my genes. My ancestors were the bards to the local lairds on the Isle of Arran and before that in Antrim, Northern Ireland. They were used to having to produce a decent ripping yarn on the spot and I suspect that the Laird would be pretty quick to complain if it wasn’t good enough. Secondly, I think it is down to my childhood. When I was growing up in the late 70s and early 80s there wasn’t so much disposable income about. Computers and hand held devices were practically non existent. Kid’s TV was only broadcast for about an hour and a half each day. Although the choice did expand as I got older.
The summer holidays for me meant a sprawling expanse of glorious free time. Imagination games were played in the back garden and in our little cul-de-sac. These games might continue for days or even weeks on end and everyone involved would chip in with some different part of the plot. They were all the more exciting because we’d invented all the characters ourselves. We knew that no one else in the world was playing the same game as us. It was unique.
We may feel we’re doing our offspring a favour by organising multiple activities to keep them occupied over the two month break. It might be a lifesaver at times, but make sure you leave room for their imaginations to grow. Creativity is a skill which might actually be more useful to them in their later lives than playing an instrument or a particular sport to a decent level. Balance is the key, of course, but make sure they have room to think too. They may moan about being bored at first. But within a few hours they will have begun to construct a fabulous world of their own creation and this skill will continue to bring them joy throughout their lives.
The plotting of my books is the process I enjoy the most. My ideas are always carefully recorded in notebooks first. I try to keep one notebook for each novel, but sometimes I will have separate notes for research and story/characters. I would recommend keeping these as I refer back to them a lot. Even when penning future instalments. They can also be useful if you have any intellectual property issues further down the line.
As the structure of your mystery novel begins to take shape, you may be faced with a dilemma. You want the story to be convincing to your audience, but are also aware that to have a gripping narrative there will have to be connections between each of your plot lines and, dare I say it, certain coincidences have to occur in order for the piece to hold together. I found this was particularly the case in my fifth novel, Memorial for the Dead, which I also happen to believe contains the best of all my plots.
Try not to be overly concerned by the use of coincidence in your writing. Every single murder mystery, be it a novel, short story, or television script needs to rely on this type of literary conceit. In fact, I find that coincidences happen really quite often in real life as well. Usually, it is not caused by anything sinister or supernatural, but is simply a result of it being, in many ways, a small world. For example, you may be temporarily stunned when you bump into someone you once worked with in London ten years ago on a busy street in Sydney. Actually, it’s not really so surprising. Londoners travelling abroad tend to go to the same kinds of places. We all use the same travel guides and consult the same travel websites. It’s no wonder we end up in the exact same locations on holiday. So don’t become too alarmed about using the literary coincidence in your writing. In fact, the way you weave it into the plot can often add an interesting dimension to the story.
Your readers will be happy to follow where you lead them, because we all understand the old adage that there are never more than six degrees of separation between us. So don’t allow your imagination to be curtailed. Your plot can take you wherever you want to go.
When deciding to publish your own work independently, you are making a statement.
The whole idea is that the finished product will be entirely your own work, without interference from publishing companies or literary agents who may be pushing their own agendas when commenting on your book.
I have released eighteen novels and with each one I am learning more and more about the publishing process, from editing and proof-reading, to cover design and publicity. It has been a fascinating process and I wouldn’t have done it any other way than independently.
However, despite all the fabulous new skills that you will pick up along the way, it simply isn’t possible to do it all by yourself.
Why? Because no matter how many times you read and re-read your own work, there will be typos and errors that you will miss. I am not suggesting that you always need to employ a professional editor, but you certainly need at least one other set of competent eyes checking over your finished text.
I spend at least a couple of weeks on the editing process. My ‘manuscript’ will come back from my parents who each do an independent read through and provide me with their edits and feedback. I will then make their corrections. After that, I will spend at least another week or so performing several read throughs of the entire novel. Each time I will be looking for something different; for example, the repetition of a word too many times in a chapter or simply good old fashioned typos.
What I have discovered, is that there is no substitute for a fresh set of eyes. By this stage in the process, you will have read through the novel so many times that your brain has learnt to skip past the mistakes – it really requires somebody else to notice these in the final checks.
Then, even when you believe the novel has been as thoroughly edited as you think is humanly possible, sit back and wait.
It is amazing what will suddenly strike you in the days that follow. When re-visiting one of my early novels, I suddenly realised that I had described an entire action scene involving two cars on a winding clifftop road in Italy, as if they were driving on the left hand side. I had to go back to my final draft and make the approriate changes. But I could so easily have let that mistake go to print if I had not taken the time to reflect on my work.
For my next book, I am seriously considering bringing in an outside editor. Someone I know well does it for a living and I am very tempted to employ their services. If the editor is a person you have a connection with, it helps you to keep control of the project and ensure that your story is told in the way you intended it to be.
But take my advice, editing is certainly an area where you should be wary of going solo. Bring in some outside help and your novel will definitely be the better for it.