How I Write A Novel
(This article first appeared on Torbooks.co.uk)
I get ideas for books in one or two different ways. The first is by daydreaming, often in the weirdest damn places, while the second is stumbling across some random paragraph in a non-fiction book or article that sets my spider-sense tingling.
When it comes to daydreams, they might occur on the tube, or upon waking first thing in the morning, or getting the shopping, or cycling on a sunny day — any one of a thousand possible activities that allow the mind to wander.
My sixth novel, Final Days, published in 2011 by Tor Books, was inspired by a quote in Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. He mentions in passing a theory concerning wormholes, these being short cuts across time and space which were predicted by Einstein as being at least theoretically possible.
I was familiar with the concept. Wormholes have been used very effectively in SF for years as easy short-cuts between stars. I’d seen them used to spectacular effect in Dan Simmon’s epic novel Hyperion. But what I didn’t know was that a Californian scientist named Kip Thorne had made the realisation that wormholes = time travel. Relativistic effects meant that if you were to take one end of a time-space wormhole, stick it on a spaceship and sent it off to Alpha Centauri at close to the speed of light, you could — theoretically — get to that star in only three months.
How? Because Einsteinian time dilation meant that the far end of that wormhole would experience only a few months of onboard time. Meaning, if you were to keep the near end of the wormhole right here on Earth, you could walk straight through it and onto the starship, crossing a number of light-years to the destination system, less than a year after launching your ship. Even if the ship hadn’t arrived there yet within your own time frame. By stepping through the wormhole, you would have time-travelled a few years into your own future.
All I could think upon reading this was: wormholes? Time travel? How messy could that get? Very, I realised, and soon I had fertile ground for a devilishly twisty plot.
I’m no scientist. I won’t embarrass myself by telling you the score I once got for an arithmetic exam in school (but I always aced English). Yet I’m fascinated by what science can do and what it’s given our world. I worked hard at getting my head around Kip Thorne’s vision of wormhole physics.
I knew it involved governments and secrets. I figured if we could build time-travel enabled wormholes, then surely other advanced species could — and if they had, did that offer a possible solution to the Fermi Paradox? I wondered, if you next sent the far end of that hypothetical wormhole on board its starship to the farthest reaches of the universe at near light-speed, how far into the future might you find yourself when you stepped through that portal? A million? A hundred million?
How about a hundred trillion years, deep into the universe’s long senescence?
Suddenly I had a sense of the universe you might get if Thorne wormholes were real.
THE PLANNING STAGES
Writing a book a year is a tough order. It’s not ‘work’ in the traditional sense — not digging coal out of deep, hot mines, or suffering the drudgery of standing on your feet all day in some high street job. But it has its own inconveniences and hardships. The brain as much as any organ can become fatigued. Despite the desire of many people to be writers, it does take a certain degree of stamina, of willingness to go that extra mile or ten or a hundred. The published author is the one who went on writing long after anyone sane had given up and got a proper job.
I work out ideas on my laptop, using Scrivener. I write down pretty much everything that comes to mind — sometimes the best way to come up with story ideas is to just start writing, and plot complications and developments you might never have thought of otherwise are suddenly flowing out from your fingertips.
When this random scribble gets long enough — say, five or six thousand words over a period of several weeks — I reorganise it, writing it out again, changing it and altering it and shifting bits around.
Then I rewrite it again, until I have a rough sketch of a story and a plot. I don’t like to think I’m ready to go onto the next stage until I have a beginning, a very definite idea of the end, and a number of things to happen in the middle. At this point I start to fit the characters around the bones of the narrative. I start fleshing out timelines and other details using software designed for the purpose (Aeon Timeline, for those of you wondering).
Being a novel that involved time travel, the timelines proved to be very complicated. I’d decided there was a cover-up, and that required a detective character to investigate it. I also needed someone inside the cover-up, but who wanted to let the world know what was going on. Soon I had Jeff Cairns, along with other characters who grew and developed and learned their lines. I rapidly built up a folder of electronic clippings of articles of interest. Glancing at my screen as I write this, I see headings like: Kaku/Quantum Computers, Future Currencies, Star Candidates, Kurzweil on Thorne.
STARTING THE NOVEL
According to my records, I wrote the first 3,129 words of Final Days on the 30th of October, 2009, having worked out timelines, characters and story background over a number of months. By January 1st 2010, I had 42,000 words. About the 25th of January, I stopped writing at 70,000 words in order to rework the plot and to resolve a number of inconsistencies and problems that had cropped up (and believe me, they always crop up). That took me all the way up to the start of April, when I resumed writing the rest of the book, clocking in the last words of what would prove to be a 107,000 word first draft a few weeks later.
THE SECOND DRAFT
It wasn’t until I started using Scrivener to write my novels that I was able to develop a rough tally of just how many words I put down whenever I write a book. By this, I mean not just the words you see in the finished novel, but all the previous drafts and notes and outlines, all together. I discovered I probably write at least twice as many words as you actually see in a finished book, and quite possibly a good deal more. Glancing at the word counts of various folders in Scrivener, I see…
- PLOT NOTES (15,000 words)
- OUTLINES (14,000 words)
- STORY ELEMENTS (1,000 words)
- CHARACTER OUTLINES (3,000)
- OUT TAKES (5,000)
That’s about 35,000 words of notes altogether — a fair amount.
When I write that second draft, I use Scrivener to change the colour of the font to distinguish new text from old. At a rough guess, about half of the second draft is brand new writing — taking what’s already there and essentially rephrasing it better. That’s not even counting the numerous and extensive changes already made to that first draft, particularly during the months up until April when the whole thing got rejigged.
At a guess, I’d say about 95% of the first draft text is gone by the time I’m finished. And by the time I’m done with the third draft, the page is a smorgasbord of different-coloured words, like somebody chucked a couple of buckets of paint at my screen.
And it still isn’t over. Next come the beta readers. Amongst others, I solicited the help of fellow author Ian Sales for some of the more technical aspects of Sixties-vintage Apollo spacecraft. After a few weeks his notes came back, and I rewrote the relevant chapters.
SUBMISSION AND EDITING
By the time I’m ready to send a novel off to the publisher for final approval, I have real trouble forming coherent spoken statements. Seriously. By this point, I’ve spent weeks staying up until four in the morning, hammering away at the text. It’s got to be good. Or as good as I can get it. People are paying to read this stuff, after all. You want them to like what you’ve done, preferably a whole lot.
Typically, having emailed a book to your publisher, you take a few weeks off and curse your novel for the broken thing it is.
Then it comes back, with notes. You read them and feel your hair turn grey at all the stuff you missed. Not just spelling mistakes or errors of grammar: conceptual stuff, as well as errors of continuity. Much rethinking and retyping ensues, and the text is adjusted yet again. Off it goes. Then it comes back, with notes and queries from the typesetter. Once again, the text is adjusted. Once more, assumptions are questioned and sentences found wanting.
And even then the process is not over. Next come the PDF page proofs. I always make a point of reading these very, very carefully, because it’s the last step prior to printing. You can never guarantee catching everything, but you certainly can catch the stuff that matters. I spotted a few clangers and marked them up.
Then one day it was all done. There was a cover design, and marketing-related stuff, and emails sent back and forth between agent and editor.
But does that mean it’s time to rest? Does it hell. I had the notes on the new book to sort out. In fact, I thought, maybe it’s about time to fire up Scrivener and try and figure out what the hell the new characters are meant to be doing. And what are they even called? How old are they? And why them? Why not their cousin, their best friend, their worst enemy as the protagonist? And what about …
And that, you see, is how I write a novel.