Writing is not a mystical process involving tea leaves and libraries of how-to books. At least, not in my (somewhat limited) experience.
However, the choices individual writers make about what they write and how they write it can often seem inscrutable. I’ve always been interested in how other writers go about their business, mostly in the hope that their words of wisdom will somehow improve my own attempts.
So, thank you, Mysterious Person Who Began “The Blog Tour”. You are the reason why I am writing this post today.
Because I am a glutton for punishment, I agreed to be tagged by Phill Barron, screenwriter extraordinary, and become part of The Blog Tour before passing the dubious honour of baring their writing souls to two more unfortunates – I mean highly-privileged writers.
But first, let’s talk about Phill.
Phillip Barron is a UK scriptwriter who’s had nine feature films produced. In addition to movies he’s written for BBC3’s BAFTA and Rose d’Or nominated sketch show, The Wrong Door, and co-created Persona, the world’s first smartphone-delivered drama series.
Our paths first crossed in 2011, when I was a green young writer desperately consuming any and all aforementioned words of wisdom. And so, obviously, I started following Phill’s blog and Twitter. When he started working on Persona, I jumped at the chance to be involved. Phill strangely enjoyed working with me and “Megan’s Persona” aired in May 2012. So I am heavily indebted to Phill for giving me my first IMDb credit and I therefore agreed to this pleasure,
on pain of pain because he asked nicely.
Without further ado, here are my answers to these devilish questions:
1) What am I working on?
I’ve just finished the developmental edits on Code Runner, the second novel in The Amy Lane Mysteries series. The first novel Binary Witness is out on May 5th, so I’m also getting my head around marketing and promotion for the first time. This is the flipside to being a novelist that no one really tells you about – the actual writing of the book is nowhere near the end of the journey, and getting accepted for publication is just another waypoint.
The writing part is usually why we get into this crazy world, but it’s the other skills that can limit your progress if you don’t invest in them. Pitching and salesmanship is one facet, and actually getting people to buy/watch/read the thing is another.
My other writing projects are therefore taking a backseat but, as per usual, the projects I’m not actively working on are the ones desperately competing for my attention. “Ooh, look at me, I’m so much better than mystery novels! Think of me! DEVELOP ME!”
My other slow-burning projects include:
1) An historical urban fantasy mystery novel based on a pre-existing property no longer in copyright – this is in the “pre-contemplation” stage of research, plotting, character development and world-building. AKA The Fun Part.
2) A romantic comedy feature – editing and polishing stage, post-notes from the delightfully excellent Michelle Goode aka Sofluid. Highly recommended for all your script reading needs!
3) A drama feature – in development with an indie producer, lots of drafting and redrafting in response to notes. This is the point where it’s really important to have a shared vision of where you’re going, even if neither of you is really sure how you’re gonna get there.
Plus a number of TV pilots that I REALLY want to write but don’t have time for right now. This usually means that I daydream about them for half an hour, add some notes to the rough files I keep for each of them, and then forget about them again. Most of my ideas percolate in this way – I estimate a mean lag time of 2-3 years between first having an idea and writing a first draft.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Ooh, tough question! But I guess it’s what we’re asked every time we pitch – “What’s your USP? What’s so special about you?”
I feel my work has a strong sense of location. I like to write about places I know well, acting as a tour guide for the stranger in town, with the plot enmeshed within the place. I wrote Dragon Chasers after visiting Bryn Celli Ddu, experiencing the magic of the place first-hand. The Amy Lane Mysteries are set in Cardiff, where I lived for five years. My rom com is set in London, where I now live, and the drama feature is set in one specific wine bar, where I had to enjoy a glass of wine in order to write the damn thing.
And I love British characters. I want the characters in my work to reflect Britain, diverse in gender and ethnicity, in age and experience. I am also passionate about accurate portrayal of mental health, which I promote with my Freudian Script series, and which is reflected in my work. Amy Lane’s crippling agoraphobia and depression is part of what makes her so enthralling to me, how she overcomes a disease that makes getting out of bed difficult, how she excels in spite of her limitations.
I also have a flare for the dramatic. People ALWAYS get hurt in my fiction. Often repeatedly. I was writing this cosy romantic comedy feature about this GP who moves to Wales and clashes with the pub landlord, but they secretly fancy each other…one thing leads to another…and then someone gets shot and the local mine explodes. Average day in North Wales, y’know. Even I realised I’d got a little bit carried away with that one.
3) Why do I write what I do?
I write things that I want to read/watch. I’m not yet cynical enough to just Do It For The Money (though some money would be nice, if anyone wants to give me some).
Genres I love include mystery, SF&F, historical, action-adventure, and rom coms. I’m an eclectic girl and therefore I struggle to stick to one genre or medium. Sometimes, a plot will shift medium – the TV/short film/feature film swingometer is pretty common, but one idea made the leap from feature to graphic novel.
But the common theme of my writing is identity. Who am I, what is my purpose, how do I define myself, how do others define me, what is the contribution of my gender/ethnicity/culture/family/occupation/sexuality to my sense of self? As a bisexual mixed-race cis-female psychiatrist, this is something that crops up, oh, every now and then in my own life. I think that’s why I find the question of identity fascinating and why I choose to explore it in my work.
4) How does my writing process work?
Firstly, I’m a professional writer but not a full-time one. Therefore, by necessity, my writing fits in around my fixed-time commitments – like the day job.
When I have a stretch of writing time, I like to Pomodoro (thank you, Jason Arnopp, for introducing me to that). Basically: 25 minutes work, 5 minutes rest, repeat until you fall off the chair. It’s been brilliant for my productivity and I wish I’d discovered it sooner.
As for how an idea becomes a fully-realised product, I work through a number of stages depending on the nature of the project. I usually start with plot – I have an exciting idea, usually sometime inconvenient (e.g. while driving, middle of a clinic), and I note it down ASAP. I then come back to it at a later date, and embellish it with additional points – characters, set pieces, random dialogue. Often, this is an organic process, unless it’s an idea I dig out for a specific purpose (e.g. I need to write a TV spec – what TV spec ideas do I have lying around?).
With screenplays, when I have enough basic material, I write an outline, usually with a beat sheet – my favourite is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, but it depends on the medium (for example, it doesn’t work for sitcoms). After that, I flesh out my characters, and my go-to tool for this is Story Forge. I then jump straight to index cards, because I really hate treatments. Treatments, for me, are sales documents that come later if someone asks for one. From index cards, I go for a first draft and then several more drafts. I sent out for script editing notes and then I write more drafts. Eventually, I decide It’s Ready and send it out into the world!
My experience with novels is a little different. With novels, I start with characters and a very basic plotline. I flesh out the characters first and then outline the plot; with a murder mystery, it’s important to work backward – whodunit plus means, motive and opportunity. I move on to the victim(s) and the details of the crime scene that will be analysed by the sleuths. I then layer up the obscuring features of the plot that make the mystery harder to solve – the decoys, red herrings, missing evidence, etc.. I would like to say that I plot everything down to the last detail, but I tend to swerve off at a tangent somewhere in the middle and then have to write myself a list of what needs to happen at what word count to actually time the final acts with the end of the novel.
Now it’s my turn to pass this honour on to two more writers. Here they are:
Robin Bell lives in Hope, literally, a small village in North Wales. He is lead writer and produces the Guardian Top 25 web TV show Twisted Showcase; Series 3 starring Gareth David Lloyd, Sarah Louise Madison and Norman Lovett launches later this year. His romantic comedy feature is currently in production with Dark Arts Films.
Sandy Nicholson is the head writer at Box Room Films, and has been working as a television writer and dialogue “flirting” consultant for five years, including writing on the remake of the HBO show, In Treatment. He was also nominated for the 2013 Peter Ustinov Prize by the International Emmy Awards Foundation.
Tune in to their blogs next week for insight on their writing!