(Some) Writing Advice

Before I became an author myself, I was shamelessly obsessed with them. Or more specifically, with how they wrote their books. I made forensic examinations of everything they said in interviews, etc. hoping I would stumble upon the magical nugget I needed to go from where I was (unpublished) to where I wanted to be (Oprah’s couch). I can tell you that Stephen King says the second draft should be the first draft minus 10%. That Michael Connelly says the best cure for writer’s block is a new computer. That at the start of her career Maeve Binchy would get up at 5:00am to write, but at the start of hers Cecilia Ahern would stay up until then. But what I eventually learned is that there’s no right way to write a book, only the way that works for you – and that you will never learn as much about it as you will from sitting down and writing a book. That was the crucial step I was omitting, it turned out: the writing bit.

Still, I love hearing about how other people write their books and I do still use some tips and tricks I picked up along the way. Once upon a time I had a blog where I wrote about stuff like this, and occasionally I teach workshops and talk about this kind of thing on podcasts, etc. but I thought this would be a good place to collect my answers to the most common questions I’m asked.

Keep in mind: this is just my opinion. It’s just how I do it. It’s working pretty good for me. But someone else may say something completely different and THAT’S OKAY. You might even say something different. ALSO OKAY. I write commercial or genre fiction, and I live in Ireland and both my agent and main publisher are in the UK, so elsewhere it might be a very different ball game. ALSO TOTALLY OKAY.

So are we all totally clear on everything being okay? Okay.

Let’s move on.

Where do you get your ideas?

I tend to get my ideas from real life. In November 2011 I happened to read a cover story in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, ‘Lost at Sea’ by Jon Ronson. It mentioned an organisation called International Cruise Victims, a phrase that stopped me in my tracks. I’d never been on a cruise, but I associated them with relaxing by the pool with tropical cocktails, all-you-can-eat buffets and cringeworthy cabaret acts. So I had 2 questions: victims of what, and how could there be so many of them that they had to organise? I started Googling and was shocked by what I found. The idea for Distress Signals began to form…

The Liar’s Girl began taking shape when I read the paragraph at the top of this article by Chris Heath for GQ (the one that starts, ‘In a remote psychiatric hospital in Sweden…’). A depraved serial killer confesses to dozens of murders, but then one day years later says he’s left out the worst part of all. Whaaaa? What could that possibly be? I thought if I read that on the back of a book in a bookshop, I would run to the cash register because I would just have to know the answer. So I set about writing that book. The end result was a completely different story but you can still see the parallels in the tagline: Her first love confessed to five murders, but the truth was so much worse.

The idea for Rewind came from a Postsecret image. It was a postcard with a picture of a bedroom and this secret on it: I trade hidden sex camera videos with other Airbnb hosts. A question popped into my head: what if you were doing that and you got more than you bargained for? What if you captured a murder? I started thinking about a novel that opens with just that scenario, but whose structure mirrors a tape. You start watching in the middle, then rewind to see what led up to it, fast-forward to follow the aftermath, etc. That’s how Rewind was born.

My new novel, The Nothing Man (coming autumn 2020) came from reading another book: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara. It detailed the late McNamara’s obsessive search for the identity of a serial rapist and murderer nicknamed the Golden State Killer. Two months after the book came out, a man was arrested and charged with the Golden State Killer’s crimes. It got me thinking: had he been aware of the book? Did he read it? What was his reaction to it if he did? I started planning a book that was half a (fictitious) true crime book and half the killer’s reaction to it as he reads. The Nothing Man will be here soon…

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I am a plotter: I plan my books in advance. The first thing I do when I’m starting a new book is write the text that I imagine would go on the back cover when it’s published, i.e. the blurb or jacket copy. The second step is to write a synopsis, a 5-10 page outline of the plot of the book.

Story has a structure. If you’re new to this idea, I often describe it as taking what we can all agree stories have – beginnings, middles and ends – and looking at the gaps in between those points with a microscope. Guess what? There’s stuff in there!

I divide story into 4 parts: Act I, Act II Part 1, Act II Part 2, Act III. The midpoint is where Act II breaks in two and although there’s many different definitions of it, I think of mine as the place where (a) the main character becomes a kind of 1.5 version of themselves, i.e. they can no longer return to who they were at the beginning (1.0) but they’re not quite who they’re going to be at the end yet (2.0) and (b) something BIG happens that changes everything and ramps up the pace. Act I is where we get our set-up (who is this about? Where and when are they? What’s their life like?) and inciting incident or catalyst, the thing that kicks the story off (a girl goes missing, a murder is caught on tape, some crazy billionaire reveals he’s built a theme park stocked with genetically engineered dinosaurs… You get the idea). Act II Part 1 is what the late Blake Snyder – more on him in a second – calls fun and games or the promise of the premise. This is where you put the stuff that automatically popped into your head when you conceived of this idea, e.g. if someone goes missing in Act I, this is the frantic search for them. In Jurassic Park, this is the oohing and aahing. Once we get past the midpoint, things have to get really bad before there’s an ‘A-ha!’ moment where the main character realises how they’re going to get what they want, whether it be to resolve the case, find the missing girl or get the hell out of Dodge before that T-Rex gets hungry again. They go do it, racing towards a resolution in Act III until they – and you – get to ‘The End’.

I might need a lie down after all that.

All the while, the threat level is increasing. The obstacles between your characters and what they want or need increases as we go. Think of it this way: the book opens with an ominous news report about an unusual weather event that no one pays any attention to. Act I: drizzle. Act II Part 1: rain. Act II Part 2: hailstones. Act III: the real bad bits of The Day After Tomorrow. Finally the clouds clear and the sun peeks out, THE END.

A great primer on story structure is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. (Yes, screenwriting. Screenplays are structure so screenwriting books are great for learning more about this.) I recommend this book with a side serving of salt because what I’ve found is that new writers take everything on its pages as a prescription. Please don’t do that. Read it, stick it all in the back of your head and then call on it when you get stuck.

Being a good writer means being a good storyteller. You will probably do most of this naturally without even thinking about it. You’re probably doing it already. But story structure can be a helpful cheat-sheet for those moments in the planning stages where you’re building something out of nothing and you suddenly draw a blank.

Sometimes I hear writers complain that plotting in advance stifles creativity. For me, it enables it. When I start on my first draft, I know my story structure is sound so it frees me up to focus on everything else: characters, prose, suspense, complexity, etc. Think of it as building a house. The plotting is the construction phase. Once it’s done, you get to go in and do the fun bit: the interior design. Personally I cannot hang the wallpaper while building the wall at the same time.

Also: once the first draft is done, I don’t think about this at all. It’s just to get me to that point. Then the fun bit – rewriting – begins.

How did you get published?

The short answer is that I wrote a book (Distress Signals) and started submitting it to agents. Within a few weeks, I had 2 offers of representation. I choose the more experienced agent who was known for representing crime writers. Together with her in-house editor, we spent 6 months working on a second draft. Five days after it went out on submission, it was pre-empted as part of a 2-book deal with Atlantic Books. As for the long answer…

(You might want to make a cup of coffee first. It’s really long.)

I can’t remember not wanting to be a writer. I keep a photo on my desk of me, aged 7, tapping away on the typewriter Santa has brought while Barbie’s Magic Van sits off to one side, ignored. At school I was the girl who relished having to write an English essay but ignored all her other homework. I wrote my first novel while I was still at school, aged 17. It was a (bad) YA novel called Diary of an Irish Leaving Cert and I wrote it instead of studying for my own Leaving Cert. I sent it to an editor at a publishing house that happened to have an office near where I lived in Cork because I thought geographical proximity would be an advantage (?!). She sent me a rejection letter I can still quote from memory 20 years later. Thank you sending us your book… Unfortunately I don’t feel it’s strong enough to capture the competitive youth market. However you are obviously a born writer (why study Science???) and I look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.

She was right about the science thing. A few weeks later I went to Lancaster University to begin a degree in it and 3 weeks later, I came back. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do next, instead, so I started working, first in a greeting card store and then in an office. Exciting stuff. I kept writing, occasionally, but I never got any further than the first 3 or 4 chapters. Cue 3 years when my dreams of being a novelist felt very far away. I call them my Lost Years. BUT—

In late 2004, I applied to work as a campsite courier in France. The company assigned me a better job as an administrator at one of their offices in the Netherlands and I headed out there to do my first ‘season’. There was about 10-12 of us, all twenty-somethings, living and working and playing together in the middle of the Dutch countryside, and I still think we would’ve made an amazing reality TV show. I loved seasonal work and longed for another, bigger adventure – and I got it, with a sprinkling of pixie dust. In September 2006 I flew to Orlando, Florida to take up a job as a front desk agent in Walt Disney World. I was there for eighteen months and I had the time of my life. I started writing about it, and then started wondering: I’d always planned on writing fiction, but maybe I could write non-fiction instead?

I put together a book proposal and three chapters of Mousetrapped. I submitted it to 9 agents based in London. One said no, 7 said nothing and one – I’ll call her Mary – said she’d like to see the rest. When I got back to Ireland in the summer of 2008 I finished the book, sent it to her – and then she said no too. But she wondered: had I ever written fiction…? I vowed that I would finally write (and finish) a novel ASAP.

But I only started to write it a year later, when I quit the office job I detested and used what little savings I had to rent a desolate holiday cottage by the sea in East Cork for 6 weeks. (My recklessness was made possible by the fact that I had been living with my parents since I’d come home from Florida.) I had read an interview with Alex Barclay in which she said she’d finished her first novel in holiday homes around the country in the off-season, so I felt like that was basically permission if not encouragement. It was pretty desolate but I had no distractions and by the end of the 6 weeks, I had the first draft of a novel. It was a corporate satire about an evil slimming company. (Let’s just say I had, ahem, inadvertently done lots of research already.) As soon as it was done, I swiftly sent it off to Mary. Fun fact: the houses in Rewind were very much inspired by this holiday home.

In the meantime I’d got more rejections for Mousetrapped and had decided to self-publish it instead. We’re now up to early 2010, when digital self-publishing was taking off and things like Kindle e-books and print-on-demand were suddenly accessible to everyone. I started a blog, Catherine Caffeinated, to which I added a new post nearly every single day. I worked tirelessly to promote my books online and eventually, they started to sell. I was permanently attached to my laptop that whole first year.

Around this time there was a lot of self-publishing info online, but it was all tinged with chants of ‘Down with traditional publishing! Death to the gatekeepers! Vive la révolution!’ etc. Um, no. I hadn’t grown up dreaming of seeing my book on a Kindle; I knew that while self-publishing could be worthwhile, it couldn’t help me achieve my goals. But it was a good Plan B that would keep me in coffee and ink cartridges while I chased them. Because I wasn’t chanting, I started getting asked to do workshops and seminars and was regularly interviewed on radio and for newspaper articles. I got to travel to book festivals all around Ireland and the UK to talk about self-publishing. It was fun. I felt a step closer to my dreams. There was still no word from Mary though…

Through a friend, I got a meeting with an editor at a major publisher who had an office in Dublin. Just being in their office, surrounded by stacks and stacks of shiny new books while people sat at their desks and helped publish them, was one of the most exciting moments of my life so far. I skipped home with a bundle of proof copies and hope in my heart. But the outcome was that while the editor liked my writing, she didn’t like the samples of potential novels I’d write for her over the next few months. (Years later, I realise why: because they were crap. And the reason they were crap was because I was writing what I thought would get me published, not what I actually wanted to write.)

But then something crazy happened: that same publisher asked me if I would be interested in promoting their books online in the same way I promoted my own. So now I was working in publishing. Hooray! But I still wasn’t published. The novel I’d written in East Cork was going nowhere; I needed to write something new. Then: an idea. Serial killer on a cruise ship. (See Where do you get your ideas? for more on that.) I started writing the book – and practically heard an audible click. This was the book I was supposed to be writing. I loved crime fiction and had been reading it obsessively since I was 12 years old and sneaking Patricia Cornwell paperbacks into my room to read past my bedtime. Why had I ever bothered trying to write anything else? I couldn’t remember now.

But around the 30,000 word mark, I got stuck. I know why now, looking back: because I was afraid. Deep down, I knew this was The Book. What if I finished it, sent it off and found out it just wasn’t good enough? It was nicer to stay where I was, with The Dream still alive.

So nice that I stayed there for a whole year.

We’re now up to spring 2014 and two very important things are about to happen. The first is that I’m going to get into Trinity College Dublin to study English as a mature student. This will necessitate a move to Dublin and also give me something to focus on other than getting published, which has started to get me down. But it also means that, come September, I will have nowhere near as much free time as I do now. Finishing the book is suddenly a now-or-never kinda thing. I have to take drastic action. So I do something I do not recommend…

I submit the first 10,000 words of the book to an agent along with the impression that I have the rest polished and ready to go. My plan is this: the abject fear that she come could back any second to ask for the rest will spur me on and I’ll finish it in record time. But I don’t. And she does. So in a panic, I tell her I want to have one last read over it but that I’m about to go on holidays for 2 weeks so I’ll send it just as soon as I get back. Then I cancel everything and bang out 50,000 words in 3 weeks and finish the book. I sent it off and…

She says no, OBVIOUSLY.

That is not how you impress an agent. You should only send them your best work. BUT—

I have a finished first draft, at long bloody last. I spend a few weeks rewriting, polishing, etc. and then I send it to other agents, including my Dream Agent (who I don’t think I’ve a chance in hell with) and Mary. Remember Mary? She read and liked Mousetrapped but never got around to reading my other (failed) novel. But she loves the sound of this and asks me to send her the full manuscript. So do two other agents. So does my Dream Agent.

Mary offers representation. So does my Dream Agent. I go to London to meet them both… and at our meeting, Mary pulls out the query letter I sent her seven years ago, from Florida, asking her if she’d like to read Mousetrapped, complete with Disney stamps… She’s kept it all this time. *sniff* I want to bawl, but I also know that although we’d be the best of friends, Dream Agent is the one for me. The next morning, I sign with her.

I’m just 6 weeks into the 4-year degree that I was doing because getting published wasn’t happening. Grr…

Together with her in-house editor, we spent the next six months working on a second draft. It went out on submission in March 2015. My agent told me not to wait by the phone, that it could take months, but just 5 days later (at a minute to one on Monday 23rd March yes I do remember the exact time) my phone rings with a UK number. Distress Signals had been pre-empted as part of a two-book deal with Atlantic Books. It was published on May 5, 2016, the day after my second year exams began. I sat Post-Colonialism Literature while still hungover from my book launch, but that’s a whole other story…

So what is the moral of this never-ending tale? I think it’s this: if you want to get published, the most important thing you need to do – the only thing you need to do until it’s done – is get your arse in the chair and finish that book. The book you’re supposed to write, the one you want to read but can’t find on the shelf. The book is what all this is all about.

I had always thought that when the time came, everything I had been doing over the past few years – the self-publishing, studying for an English Lit degree, building up a blog readership, etc. – would help. But I still got rejections because the agents weren’t in love with the book.

It’s all about the book. Nothing else matters even half as much.

(To find out what’s happened since then, visit the About Catherine page.)

How do I find an agent?

There are books, seminars, websites etc. entirely devoted to this subject, but I think you should keep it simple. First and foremost, completely forget about this until you have finished your book and worked on it until it’s the best book it can possibly be.

How do you know when that is? Try this simple test. Imagine you send it to your dream agent and she comes back and says no. Imagine she has a policy that she never looks at the same book twice so you can’t send it to her EVER AGAIN. Do you feel that (a) you did your absolute best so this book just isn’t for her or (b) you wish you’d fixed that little thing in the penultimate chapter and rewritten the opening one because you knew deep down that it wasn’t quite right? No prizes for guessing which one it should be.

When you are ready, draw up a list of agents and submit to them 3-5 at a time. How do you find them? Buy books that you think are similar to yours that have done really well recently. Turn to their Acknowledgements pages. If the authors have agents and they’re good, they’ll be thanked. Make a note of the names and look up their websites. All the other information you need will be there. I’m of the firm belief that agent research doesn’t need to be any more time-consuming than that. Use your time wisely. Use it to write.

The most important thing about submitting to agents is to make sure they represent the kind of work you do. Then follow their submission instructions to the letter. (To the letter!) Repeat as required. If you get an offer of representation, rejoice! But don’t say yes immediately. The wrong agent is worse than no agent at all. Meet them first. Make sure you share the same vision for your career. Check that you two will get on. And good luck!

What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

Write the book you want to read but can’t find on the shelf.

How long does it take you to write a book?

I have to deliver a book a year so it can’t take me longer than that.

*looks to camera as if I’m a talking head in an episode of The Office*

Truthfully, a year is more than enough time to write a book once I know what the plot of that book is going to be. When I write, I actually write quite quickly. A first draft will probably take no more than six weeks of actual writing time. All I’m doing at that stage is telling myself the story and we can fix everything in the second draft. At one point during The Nothing Man, I wrote 10,000 words in one day. That was 1/8th of the first draft.

The problem is that I’m a terrible – or amazing – procrastinator and so before I sit down to write, I need to waste a LOT of time. I often joke that if I ever write a productivity guide, it’ll be called Don’t Start Until It’s Already Too Late. So by the time I make it to my desk, my deadline is looming and panic has set in. But this is how I work and it’s been working for me so far. Plus, I only seem to do the procrastinating on the first draft, my least favourite part of the process. (I love the editing bit.) So I’m embracing my inner procrastinator. I get there in the end and I’m getting better at getting there on time. As I said half a mile further up this page, the only right way to write a book is the way that works for you.

A short note on procrastination: it’s not laziness, it’s fear. You are afraid that when you actually sit down to start writing the book, it won’t be as good as the idea for the book you have in your head. So it’s better to stay where you are, on the couch watching Netflix, where the dream of a No. 1 bestseller and an Oprah bookclub pick is still alive, then it is to go to the desk and find that the dream is lying dead on the keyboard developing rigor mortis. (Sorry! But hey, I am a crime writer.) But here’s the thing: what you fear will happen will happen. What you write will be bad, because all first drafts are. They’re a load of shite, usually. The good news is that writing is rewriting and it will get good. But you can’t edit a blank page. You have to start somewhere.

So get your arse in that chair and start writing!

Do you use any special software to write your books?

Nope. I use Microsoft Word. I open a new document, put the title of the book on the first page, insert a page break and start typing the first line of Chapter 1. While I write I keep track of my plot, chapters and word count on an Excel spreadsheet. It’s usually colour-coded because procrastination is FUN. I work best at home where I have a big screen – these days I have an even bigger screen that the one pictured below – and can keep both the Word doc and the Excel spreadsheet open in front of me while I write.

I might also keep a second Word doc that I’ll call something like ‘Draft 1-notes’ where I record names, dates, times, etc. as I make them up, and use as a reference for myself throughout the process.

Depending on how much work needs doing, I usually start afresh when it comes to the second draft. New Word doc, start typing Chapter 1 again. I do this with both drafts, first and second, open beside each other on screen. I find my writing is much better when I write it again, from scratch, as opposed to going in and changing things here and there. That’s too messy for me. My second draft is always about 10,000-20,000 words longer than my first, fun fact. I usually do 3 drafts, although the third draft is only minor changes where I do just go in and change bits here and there.

I never print it out. Instead I send the Word document to my Kindle and read it like a book, making notes as I go. I find this especially helpful because if I read it back on screen, I cannot stop myself from editing as I go. The first time I see it on paper is when my publisher sends me the page proofs, i.e. the inside pages of the book as they’ll appear in the finished product, but loose in a stack.

Why do you have a tiny picture of yourself in a frame?

It’s a little shrine to my achievements that my mum made me. Those miniature versions of my books have pages inside them and everything!

What’s the deal with Jurassic Park?

Jurassic Park is my favourite book (and movie) of all-time. I first read it the summer the movie came out, but I was 11 and had to skip all the dino genetics and Chaos Theory bits. I still have my battered 1993 movie tie-in edition, held together now purely by Sellotape and hope. It sits alongside my prized possession: a first edition, with Chip Kidd’s iconic ‘Dinosaurs crossing’ park sign design.

It blew me clean away. I just couldn’t believe that someone had sat down and made all that up and that – I couldn’t grasp this bit at all – that was his job?! I already had notions of becoming a writer but Jurassic Park cemented them for me. I still re-read it once a year and I’ve watched the movie so many times that if this writing business ever goes tits-up, I’ll be taking my one-woman show, Clever Girl: The Entire Jurassic Park Screenplay Recited From Memory, on the road.

And as an ode to my favourite book of all time, the one that set my imagination alight in a way that no other book has before or since, I shoehorn a mention of it into every one of my books. Some of them are blatant, some are more discreet. But they’re in there, in each of them.

This is nothing to do with anything, but a definitive ranking of all five Jurassic Park movies is as follows, FACT:

  1. Jurassic Park (obvs)
  2. Jurassic World (because all I ever wanted was to see the park up and running)
  3. Jurassic Park III (tragically underrated, and it uses some cool bits of Jurassic Park The Book that got left out of No. 1)
  4. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (an amazing first 20 minutes or so, but then no please make it stop)
  5. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (the original movie had 15 minutes of actual dinosaurs in it, they were acting like they did when they were here the first time around and all the action was confined to an island. Maybe have a think about that…?)

A recommended reading list

There are loads of books about getting published, writing a novel, getting that novel published, etc. etc. and new ones are being published all the time. I would stress that the most helpful thing you can do for your writing career is to write, but if you have some free time after that, you can’t go wrong with these for a bit of inspiration, motivation and/or supremely useful advice. Also How Not To Write A Novel is hilarious. I re-read that one just for fun.

A note about The Inspiration Project

Alongside my writing besties/unpaid therapists Hazel Gaynor and Carmel Harrington, I am a founding member of The Inspiration Project. We started out offering residential weekend writing retreats with a dose of gin-infused writing advice on the side, but more recently we’ve switched to one-day writing workshops. I tend to talk plot, Carmel talks characters and dialogue, and Hazel talks about editing your work. We also have a series called 5 Steps To… on our website, where we offer advice and check in with some of our graduates every month to see where they are on their writing journeys.

Visit The Inspiration Project website to find out more.

Can I submit a question?

Sorry, but no. I’ve got coffee to drink, Netflix to binge-watch and books to write. I’d recommend Googling your question and/or reading some of the books listed above.

How many words is this? I’ve been scrolling for HOURS.

Just over 5,000. Jeez Louise. I really need to go do some writing now. So do you, probably. Shut this down and let’s go write some words.

One last thing: good luck!