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How To Write a Novel (When You Think You’ve Forgotten How)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a pathological procrastinator. I don’t know why, but I do know that I have never been able to delay gratification. So instead of rewarding myself with 7 hours of OJ: Made in America when the first draft of Book 2 is done and dusted and I can relax and enjoy it guilt-free, I watch it now and tell myself I will write after. I mean, I’d just be distracted by my wanting to watch it otherwise, right?

(Side note: OJ: Made in America is truly incredible TV.)

I joke that I’d call my would be productivity guide Don’t Start Until It’s Already Too Late – and that’s pretty much what I do. I can only work under pressure, while panicking. I read somewhere that the procrastinator’s sweet spot is the exact moment when the fear of creating something crap is overtaken by the fear of not having enough time to create anything at all. That’s almost always when I start work – and not a moment before.

This past year or so, my procrastination problem has got worse. This is the first time I’ve ever had to write a book under contract, and I’ve had to do it in a period of time that’s, at most, half as long as the time I spent writing the first one. So for starters, you’ve got pressure. I believe procrastination is something like 30% laziness and 70% fear. Distress Signals has been incredibly well received by critics, book bloggers and readers. It’s wonderful but it’s also terrifying. Can I do this again? How did I do it the first time? So, we’ve got plenty of fear in the mix too. I’m a binger, in that I do my best work when I can clear my schedule, lock myself away and write from dawn to dusk – or maybe through the night – without stopping, hopped up on caffeine and sugar. A slow and steady 1,000 words every day just doesn’t work for me.

But now, I’m much busier than I was when I was writing most of Distress Signals that way. Being in university full-time means essay deadlines and exams and more reading than any person who sleeps could possibly do (I maintain). Then there’s everything Distress Signals demands as a book that’s out in there in the world. Online promotion, U.S. edits, a one-day 10-stop bookshop road trip, a signing, an interview for a newspaper and preparation for a literary festival in a couple of weeks are just some of the things I’ve had to do in the last two weeks. So most days I just can’t binge-write any more. The schedule is too busy to clear.

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Last Friday I visited ten bookstores in Limerick, Shannon, Ennis, Newcastle West and Tralee. The Eason’s on O’Connell Street in Limerick had a side entrance onto Cruises Street – perfect! (Distress Signals is about a murder on a cruise ship.) 

So we’ve got more fear, more pressure and then more things to do/less time in the mix too. It’s the perfect storm. It’s the reason why the first draft of Book 2 still isn’t finished, even though my original goal – back in the rose-tinted days of last summer when the world was all rainbows, puppies and unrealistic plans – was to have a vomit draft by last Christmas and a first draft by the end of April, just before Distress Signals came out.

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(I really want to go back to Summer 2015 Catherine and slap her in the face. Hard.)

The good news is we’re almost there. I’m almost there. This is the last week I’ll work on this draft of the book. But I’ve had to sort of trick myself into writing it.I’ve had to hunt down procrastination, sedate it, bound and gag it and lock it in a basement room. (Hey, I’m a crime writer, okay?) In the process, I’ve been reminded of things – tips and tricks and truths – that I’d forgotten. In case you’re struggling with your project, here they are.

Build Write It and They Will Come

I’m a big plotter, so the first thing I have to do in order to write a book is sort mine out. I don’t plan everything out in advance, but I like to have some signposts along the way. I open a Word document and create a simple outline using numbering. It’ll be a longer version of this (the notes in square brackets pertain to my specific plot):

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Then what I’ll do is I’ll take my ideas for scenes, plot developments, etc. and fill as much of this in as I can. The problem was that when I sat down to do this for Book 2, I ended up with mostly blank space. Erm… Hang on a second. Do I even have a plot for this book?! I started to panic. Yep, totally screwed. I’m just an impostor. I knew I’d be found out. But because I was contracted to write this book, I had to sit down and write it anyway, which is when I realised/remembered:

The ideas come while you’re writing.

I’ve put that in bold and italics because it’s the most important point of this whole blog post. You can sit in all the cafes you want with your notebook, chewing on a pen, dreaming up plot lines and characters and killer twists. But – at least in my writing life – I will never come up with stuff that way that’s half as good as what I come up with while I’m actually in the midst of writing the book.

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This is what the plot of Distress Signals looked like by the third and final draft (the one with my editor at Corvus). But this is the end game. It’s okay to start with mostly blank space on your plot charts. You probably should. 

So don’t panic. You may have no idea what goes in Part 3 right now, or you may not even be sure you have an ending. Your plot plan may be mostly blank space. But don’t wait until you have a plot to start writing. A few signposts will do. The ideas will come. Until then, just concentrate on writing this chapter.

Early, First, Focused

There’s a difference between saying ‘I’m going to spend all tomorrow writing’ and ‘I will write for no fewer than six hours tomorrow’. I turned 34 yesterday, you’d think I’d have discovered this before now. But that’s one lesson that has really been driven home to me recently, because so many hours and days seem to disappear into time-sucking, pointless tasks, and I end up with nothing to show for them. It’s not enough to intend to write tomorrow or this week. When you’re a procrastinator, you need to plan exactly how, when and where you’re going to.

I get the most out of my writing days when I:

  • Start early. This is allowing for the fact that even though you may have eight hours free in which to write, you’ll be lucky if you spend half of them actually typing words into your manuscript. The other thing is that you don’t know what’s going to happen during the day. You could get an exciting e-mail or an unexpected invitation or a toothache. Best to start now, as early as you can, before real life wakes up and starts distracting you.
  • Do the writing first. It’s the only way. Otherwise you end up watching OJ: Made in America before noon. (Trust me on this.) Also, the best thing about doing the writing first is that it’s done, it’s out of the way, and you can spend the rest of your time not feeling guilty or anxious, but smug and overly pleased with yourself that you got it done.
  • Focus. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But as I said at the top, these were things I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten that the internet is like a fibre optic cable plugged directly into my brain – I can’t work with it. Blocking apps don’t work for me; I can’t bring myself to turn them on and whenever I do, I pick up my phone before they’ve timed out. The best thing for me to do is go to a cafe or a library, not connect to the wifi and leave my phone in my bag at my feet. I can get as much done in an hour without the internet as I can in a whole day with it, and I write much better when I’m deep in my fictional world as opposed to being yanked out of it every five minutes, distracted by shiny things.

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When writers moan about how lonely a profession this is, I roll my eyes. To me, that’s like saying ‘I love being hairdresser but – ew! – touching people’s hair. Yuck.’ I love the solitude. I need it. But I work from home, and my home is very small (I’m a writer and I live in Dublin city centre, so I’m essentially in a telephone box), and lately I’ve been experiencing cabin fever. So now I get out.

I’m surrounded by coffee shops and live only 15 minutes walk or so from my university, where there’s a whole library I can work in during office hours that’s comfortable, quiet and even has plug sockets. I’ve been making the most of this. The best things about writing somewhere else are that (a) you have almost none of the distractions you have at home and (b) when you do come home, you can enjoy it. There’s a separation between work and play.

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Think outside the box. One day last week I was really, really fed up. The weather was terrible, I was struggling to write and I honestly could not look at these four walls for a moment longer. So I did something drastic: I went on Booking.com and looked for cheap hotel rooms available for that evening within walking distance of my home. If a hotel has availability and it uses a third-party site like that, it might drop its rates during the day to try and fill empty rooms that night. I got a bargain, threw my toothbrush and my laptop in a bag and walked 30 minutes down the road to the hotel. I refused the receptionist’s offer of the wifi password and brought enough milk and coffee with me to see me through the night. Then I wrote 6,000 words, falling asleep as the sun came up. It was ridiculous, but it was just what I needed.

* * *

So there you go. I also recommend (i) whingeing and moaning to your writer friends over gin-based cocktails, (ii) re-reading Rachel Aaron’s From 2K to 10K on a regular basis and (iii) investing in a Nespresso machine. And reminding yourself that, hey, this is your dream job. Jobs are hard and sometimes they suck and you’re not going to love every single day, and some days will be more productive than others. But don’t forget about the “dream” part. These are all good problems to have. I mean, I used to have a job where I spent my days stapling things together for Satan himself, and my nights crying about my blackening soul in the shower.

This writing gig? It’s not all that bad…

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98p!  That’s not even enough for a latte. 

Hmm, you were thinking. Catherine hasn’t blogged in, like, a month and today she breaks out an 2,000-word post? Why today? Well, it’s because I got up REALLY early – taking my own advice [self-satisfied smile] – and so had the time to, but it’s also because I wanted to let you know that for this week only:

 You can download Distress Signals for just 98p!

(Ireland/UK only – although it’s possibly ANZ as well. If you’re there, you can let me know.)

You can find the book on Amazon.co.uk here, or find out more about it here.

Update: Distress Signals is also reduced on Kobo and on Google Play.

Reminder: I’ll be doing a workshop on The Business of Self-Publishing and reading from Distress Signals – for the first time, eek! – at the West Cork Literary Festival later this month.

How’s your writing going? Do you suffer from procrastination? What do you do to help overcome it? Let us know in the comments below… 

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‘Twas the Night Before… Um, My Launch

Distress Signals comes out tomorrow.

Getting a novel published is something I’ve wanted since I was eight years old. It’s something I’ve been actively trying to do since I was 18. Eight years ago, I started to make fairly drastic changes in my life so I could go “all in” on making it happen, which would lead to me self-publishing non-fiction to keep me in coffee grounds and ink cartridges. I started with a book about my experiences moving to Orlando, Florida, to work in Walt Disney World: Mousetrapped. Over a year ago, at a minute to one o’clock on Monday 23 March 2015 (yes, I do know it to the minute), I finally got The Phone Call. It came only six days short of Mousetrapped‘s fifth anniversary and my launch tomorrow takes place almost six years to the day that I launched that book in a bookshop, coincidentally.

So I’m teetering on an emotional precipice and not just because I’m sleep-deprived and over-caffeinated and totally underprepared for my university exams. I know I need a new record but I cannot believe this day has come.

Anyway, let’s not get all touchy-feely. Instead, I’ll just say this: these are the things I’ll be thinking about as I (try to) fall asleep tonight…

Christmas Morning 1989

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I asked Santa Claus for a typewriter (and Barbie’s Magic Van, which was the best toy EVAH) and promptly went to work on Christmas morning writing my debut. Later I’d ask my parents for an electronic typewriter, a Brother that I ended up writing English essays on for school. Later again, I’d convince them to buy a PC and then a laptop, just for me. But you know what? The first computer I actually finished anything on was also the first computer I’d paid for in full in myself. Coincidence?! I bet my parents would say no.

A Caravan in Garryvoe, July 1993

During the summer we used to go down to a 4-berth caravan we had installed in a field near the beach in Garryvoe, Co. Cork. One warm, sunny Friday afternoon – I assume it was a Friday; we were headed down there for the weekend – I convinced my mother to stop en route at a shopping centre so I could run in and buy the movie tie-in paperback of Jurassic Park to bring with me. I remember quite clearly lying on the bunk bed that slotted in above the dining table and across the front window of that caravan, trying to make sense of all the genetics and Chaos Theory parts Crichton put in at the beginning. I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. I wanted to write something that blurred lines in the same way.

I still have that paperback, although these days it’s only held together by Sellotape and love.

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My Friend’s Garden, Spring 2001

School friends on the cusp of leaving school, talking about our big dreams and plans for the future, for the Real World that lay waiting beyond. One of them – the realist – asks me what I’m going to do.

I’m going to be a novelist, I say.

Yeah, but what are you going to do? For work? Like, what if that doesn’t happen?

Her tone implies that she really means when. When it doesn’t happen.

I honestly cannot picture a future where it doesn’t. Not because of an excess of self-confidence or self-belief, but because I want it so badly, and it’s the only thing I want in this way, that I actually can’t imagine an alternative future. I don’t want to.

The Irish Writers’ Centre Dublin, Summer 2004

In the summer of 2004 I made a massive U-turn in my life, breaking up with a boyfriend I’d been living with at the time, a boyfriend that everybody around me thought would one day be a husband. It was immensely freeing and completely terrifying, all at the same time.

One of the first things I did was book myself onto a weekend’s Start Your Novel course at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin (and into a swanky room at the Clarion Hotel. Hey, I was treating myself, okay?) At 22 I was the youngest on the course by about ten years and totally intimidated, but it was heady stuff being around people who openly admitted that what they wanted was the same thing I did: to write books.

The course was run by Rose Doyle. At the end of the first day she gave us an exercise to do overnight that we’d all read aloud and discuss first thing the following morning. I wrote a short piece – half a page – about a woman who’s just given birth being visited in the maternity ward by her husband and her best friend who – TWIST! – discovers from a series of exchanged glances that the two who didn’t just spend nine months growing a human are having an affair.

After I read it aloud, Rose made an approving sound and said, ‘So you’re going to write thrillers then.’

My Desk, May 4th 2016

Yes. Yes, I am.

* * *

So that’s what I’ll be thinking about tonight.

I’ll be doing this:

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See you tomorrow for – SQUEALS – publication day!

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Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Where do you get your ideas?

The dreaded question asked of writers the world over. Now while personally I’ve been stalking authors – ahem, I mean, going to author events for years and have only ever heard it in the context of authors saying they’ve been asked it, I don’t doubt its popularity. Because that’s what everyone wants to know. It’s what I want to know whenever I read a book with an intriguing premise and/or a huge twist. How did he come up with this? Where did she get the idea for that?

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I can tell you exactly where I got the idea for Distress Signalsthe 12 November 2011 issue of the Guardian Weekend magazine. Specifically its cover story, ‘Lost at Sea’ by Jon Ronson.

Someone left their copy of it behind them in a cafe in Cork, and my mother picked it up and brought it home for me to read. This is something she does all the time: she saves magazines and newspapers, or just clippings from them, or nowadays she’s more likely to email a link to a thing she’s read that she thinks you might be interested in. Thinks. And that’s the problem, because more often than not the link between the article and an area of interest to you is tenuous at best.

For instance, back when I was self-publishing, she thought that all I wanted was to read local community newsletter stories about the latest Tom, Dick or Harry who’d written a 400,000-word opus about every single thing that had ever happened to him, ordered a box of them from CreateSpace and was now flogging it to family and friends while wondering aloud where you send submissions for the Booker.

(I didn’t, for the record.)

Even here, on this occasion, the link was weak. Once upon a time, I worked in Walt Disney World. Not directly for Disney, but for the global hotel brand that operated one of the resorts next to Epcot – and decidedly on dry land. Three and a half years after I returned home, Mum sees a story about a Cast Member (employee in DisneySpeak) who’d disappeared from the Wonder, a Disney cruise ship (run by an entirely separate branch of Mouse Ears Inc), and thinks Oh, Catherine worked for Disney too, she’ll be interested in that. 

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Me in Magic Kingdom in 2006

Turns out though I actually was, although not because of the Disney link.

I’d never been on a cruise ship or been even mildly tempted to get on one – the biggest ship I’d ever been on was an overnight passenger ferry to France. Still, I had what I would assume are typical ideas about it for someone who’d never been: suntanned pensioners, buffets and cocktails, cabaret shows. Bad stuff that could happen to you on a cruise were, in my head, mostly limited to: (a) claustrophobia because you didn’t book a cabin with a balcony, (b) getting stuck with annoying people at dinner and (c) Norovirus. (The Costa Concordia would add another possibility to that list – sinking – in a couple of months’ time.) As for the rest… Well, terrible things happen in hotels too, on occasion. I knew that from experience. Many suicides, for instance, happen in hotels. A cruise ship is primarily a floating hotel. What’s the difference?

The difference is that if something happens to you in a hotel in New York, the NYPD will come running. If something happens to you in a hotel here in Dublin, the Gardai will quickly arrive on the scene. But what happens when you’re on a ship that’s sailing in international waters? What happens when you’re in no country at all?

Rebecca Coriam was a British citizen working on a ship that was based out of L.A. – a ship owned by a company headquartered in the UK – who disappeared somewhere between the U.S. and Mexico. But yet her disappearance – potentially a crime with a witness list of 3,000 passengers and crew – was investigated by one man, a police officer from the Bahamas, who couldn’t start his investigation until he’d flown over a thousand miles to meet the ship. Why? Because maritime law governs cruise ships when they’re in international waters, and it states that the authority on board is that of the country where the ship is registered. Cruise ships tend to be registered in ‘flags of convenience’ for tax purposes, e.g. Bahamas, Panama, Libya. And no authority is on board, ordinarily – they have to be invited on, which only happens after the fact.

Would you go on holiday to a country that had no police?

Moreover, on a ship with thousands of passengers and crew, a disappearance might not be noticed immediately. And what if it wasn’t a disappearance? The ship might continue to sail away from the location where it happened, the crime scene could be a cabin that’s getting professionally cleaned once a day and potential witnesses – crew and other passengers – could leave the ship and go home. It’s also surrounded by the perfect place to dispose of evidence: three hundred and sixty degrees of open sea.

I was horrified. But at the same time, I was reasonable. This was a horrendous tragedy, yes, but surely it was an isolated incident…? Then I read something that stopped me in my tracks, so much so that I actually took out a pen and highlighted it.

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International Cruise Victims. International Cruise Victims. What was happening out there that a group like this existed – and clearly needed to? I started researching the answer online, reading the stories I found with my jaw on my desk.

I came away with three clear ideas in my head. There are no police at sea was the first. The second was the horrific challenge of looking for a missing loved one, searching for them all by yourself, when you had the whole world to check and no one to help you. What would you do? Would you – could you – ever stop, give up? How far would you go if you just had to know what had happened? And the third, which came later, when the wheels in my crime-writer-brain really started whirring, was this: A cruise ship is the perfect place to get away with murder.

I once watched an interview with Edna O’Brien where she talked about writing being her way of grieving for what she read in the headlines. I think of Distress Signals a bit like that, a way of working out for myself the question that I kept asking when, after reading Ronson’s article, I started researching the laws, circumstances and attitudes that seemingly enable cruise ship crimes to happen so frighteningly often: how can this be? 

That’s where I got my idea.

You can now read a preview of the first three chapters of  Distress Signals here. If you’re on Facebook, you can enter the giveaway currently running on my Facebook page. The prize is a signed copy and a gift. (Ends Friday 8th.)

The original article by Jon Ronson is online here and it’s also included in his collection of journalism, Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, which is available here. Rebecca Coriam’s parents have established a website here, and also had a hand in founding the Maritime Victims International Helpline initiative. You can visit the International Cruise Victims website here. Cruise Junkie keeps a running tally of how many people have gone overboard from cruise ships going back to 1995. It’s currently at 270. 

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How Did I Get My Agent? (The Answer May Surprise You)

(What an awfully clickbaity title, I know. Guilty as charged. But I think it will.)

It’s easy for me to answer the question “How did you get a book deal?” I only need two words and those are Jane and Gregory, i.e. my amazing agent. She took me on, we worked hard on revising the book and just five days after she sent it out on submission, we had a pre-emptive offer from Corvus/Atlantic for a two-book deal. My debut thriller Distress Signals will be out in mere weeks and you can find out more about it here.

But how did I get my agent?

Let’s back up a bit. Let’s go back a bit, to about seven years ago. That’s when my journey to publication really began.

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Hello 2016! I’ve Been Waiting Ages for You

Can you believe it’s 2016? I certainly can’t. When I got my book deal (have I mentioned that…? #sarcasm) I was telling people, “It’s out in June. Like, next June. June 2016.” The reaction from civilians, i.e. those not involved in writing or publishing or book-making in any way, was always “What? What the hell takes so long?!” Then, come July 1 last, I was able to say, “The book is out in June.” Then I started saying “May” because the date got brought forward, and as of today I can finally say, “My book is coming out this year.” Time is flying forward at violent speeds.

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YEAR IN REVIEW ⇒ (prologue) The Surprising Thing About Rejection, or What I Learned in 2014 → (February) Scenes from the Rewrite → (April) How To Finish Your Damn Book

I’ll admit it: things got away from me a little bit this year. Up until May and then again since the end of September, I’ve been at college full-time. English Lit, you won’t be surprised to hear, involves a crapload of reading. This was something that, once upon a time, I was looking forward to. I imagined myself curled up on my couch, or comfortably ensconced somewhere among the stacks of the college library, or sitting cross-legged on the floor of the university’s designated bookshop, having some kind of delirious metaphysical experience with a classic title, one I just wouldn’t be able to believe I’d reached the age of thirty-something without ever reading before.

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YEAR IN REVIEW ⇒ (May) I’ve Been BURSTING To Tell You: I Got a Book Deal! → (June) Being On Submission Syndrome → Are Amazon Really Paying Their Authors Per Page Read? No. No They’re Not. [Pause] Well…

Leaving aside for a second the fact that I would never sit cross-legged in any kind of retail space, this has not yet happened. Not once, and we’re up to the start of the last century, set-texts-wise. I applied to do this degree in part because I realized, sometime in late 2013, that for the previous eighteen months I had only read new books. And I mean new – either released recently enough to still be in the “New” section of the bookshop, or not even out yet (that I’d got in proof form). I used to joke that Orwell’s 1984 was as far back as I went, and only because when he wrote it, he set it in the future.

YEAR IN REVIEW ⇒ (July) A Short Story About Scarpetta → (August) How Many Drafts Did You Do Of Your Book? [Freshly Pressed!] → Something Nice From Nice

But as of right now, I’m not sure I didn’t have the right idea the first time. Awful, I know, but it’s difficult to make any kind of connection with a novel when it’s 500 dense pages long and you have a week to read it, digest it, read around it and prepare some sort of intelligent response to present in class – times six modules – while all the while trying to write a first draft of The Dreaded Second Novel in five months when The Exciting First Novel had a couple of years to percolate – as well as eat and sleep and stuff.

And yet, I’ve already seen all of Making a Murderer.

I’ve seen half of it twice.

As a crime writer I could say it was for research, but I’d only be kidding myself. The truth is I made time to watch it, even though it didn’t advance my progress on any of the extremely pressing items on my To Do list. The truth is that there is plenty of time to do all the things we really want to do. The challenge is making sure that none of that time gets away from us, and that we want to do the right things, the things that will make a difference in the long run.

But how do we do that? To be honest, I don’t know. But in 2016, this is my game plan:

  1. Get one up on my procrastination problem
  2. Track and plan (related: buy stationery)
  3. Stop being busy, talking about being busy, reveling in my busyness, etc. Be calm.

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YEAR IN REVIEW ⇒ (September) Book 1/2: Full Steam Ahead → (October) What Could Happen If You Worked As Hard As You Possibly Could? → Where The Crying Happens → Book 1/2: Cover Reveal → (November) The Worried Writer → Book 1/2: Proof Copies //

January on this blog will be all about those three things. Speaking of this blog, my friendly WordPress end-of-year e-mail report thingy says I blogged a mere 17 times in 2015. That. Is. Shameful. For context I blogged 30 times in 2014, 81 times in 2013, 117 times in 2012 and a whopping – and rather unbelievable – 235 times in 2011. There was no annual report for 2010 but I do know that when I copied all the posts from that year into a Word document to make a bound copy of my year in blogging, it amounted to more than 100,000 words.

Do you see a pattern? That’s a trajectory I need to reverse – that I want to reverse. Consider me already brainstorming ways to do that, but if you have any suggestions for topics, features, etc. do let me know in the comments below. (Sorry, but I don’t mean guest posts. I mean things I can write.)

BOOK12newlogoAlso, you may have noticed that things are looking decidedly blue around here. Sadly, RIP Catherine’s Pink-Soaked Blog. Pastels and polka-dots don’t really say “crime/thriller writer” and that’s what my website needs to start saying now. Blood splatter and an author photo which comes with an overtly threatening expression aren’t my thing, so the blue is a compromise. Book One/Two also has a new blue logo and I have been having fun buying blue things for my Instagram props box.

A reminder: if you have a copyright notice on your blog, update it now.

So, we have a brand new year. What are you planning to do with it?

The Worried Writer

Happy Thursday!

I’m about to crawl into my writing cave for a ten-day Ultra NaNo type thing but before I do, I want to point you in the direction of The Worried Writer podcast. Specifically the latest episode, which features a long, giggly interview with me.

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I really enjoyed chatting to host and fellow writer Sarah Painter about all things writing. Some of the topics we talked about include:

  • The name of my (fictional) self-help/productivity versus procrastination book, Don’t Start Until It’s Already Too Late.
  • The benefits of being traditionally published and why I think that ultimately, neither self-publishing nor getting published offers control (Oooh, controversial!)
  • Why I think I didn’t get a book deal until I deserved to – and what I was doing that made me feel like I finally did
  • How I pitched a winning idea for Book 2 to my editor… without actually having an idea for Book 2
  • Why if you claim that you only write for yourself but you’re also chasing publication, I’ll probably give you some side-eye…
  • The MASSIVE, PARALYZING, COLD-SWEAT FEAR that prevented me from submitting my work for ages – and how I pushed through it was dragged through it by writer friends (and why it doesn’t stop when you get the deal – sorry!)
  • Why luck can suck it
  • What you need to tell yourself when someone tells you won’t or can’t achieve your dreams.
You can listen to the episode here, or find it on iTunes.

NB: This was recorded a few weeks ago and so I refer to the publication date of Distress Signals being in June. But it’s May now. MAY!

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If you have a listen, do let me (and Sarah) know what you think in the comments below…

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HOW To Finish Your Damn Book

At the beginning of this year I wrote a post for that treasure trove of writing and publishing information, Writing.ie, about why you should finish your damn book. You can read that post here. It proved really popular. So popular that it seems to me like a lot of you are in the same place I was until last summer: wanting nothing more than to have finished your book, but finding yourself doing everything but writing it.

It’s all well and good for me to tell you why you should finish your book (nutshell: a finished book is the one thing everyone who ever got published/successfully self-published has in common) but how do you do it? How do you overcome procrastination? How do you finish your damn book?

I only know what worked for me, but maybe you’ll find something in there that works for you. Let’s see…

1. Reality check: do you really WANT to write this book?

For about two years a few years ago, I was trying to write the book that I thought would get me published, not realizing that this was also the kind of book I didn’t want to read. I had plenty of ideas, a plot outline, a killer title – but every time I sat down to add to my word count, it was like getting blood from a stone. That’s okay, I told myself. Writing is supposed to be hard. When I finally realized I was trying to type my way up the wrong tree and switched to writing the kind of book I loved to read – a serial killer thriller – there was practically an audible click.

Writing the wrong book, I’d begin a chapter by thinking Okay: 1,500 words. What can happen here that will take that to unfold? I was stretching out my plot points, trying to fill the virtual white pages with “set pieces” that would take me from one event to the next. But writing the right book, that became Okay: 1,500 words. How am I going to squeeze everything that happens at this point into that? I always knew what was going to happen next and in writing it, it was a case of even more ideas popping up during the process, rather than having to milk the few I had for more than they were worth.

That’s not to say that the book [eye roll] “flowed out” of me, as I’ve heard other writers say/lie. There were still struggles, still many non-productive days. But nothing as bad as when I wasn’t writing the right book, when I wasn’t writing the book I wanted to read.

Before you commit to this, check you’re trying to finish the right damn book.

2. MAKE A PLAN

This doesn’t suit everyone, but I couldn’t even attempt a novel without having some sort of plan.  It doesn’t have to be detailed, but a few signposts along the way will take the pressure off. Think about it: how does it feel to have to work your way from 0 to 100,000 words (your beginning to your ending) compared to working your way from 0 to 25,000 words (your beginning to your break into Act II) or even 0 to 5,000 words (your beginning to your catalyst/inciting incident)?

(These word counts are just examples, by the way. You can put your plot points wherever you like.)

Making a plan also avoids having to cross the wasteland of the Dreaded Middle. When we get novel ideas, they usually come with a beginning and an end. But what happens in between? How do we ensure that our middle doesn’t sag, it being the place that’s most likely to? I think a few signposts or tentpoles will really help to lead the way and curtail any aimless wandering.

You could have, just for example:

  • Beginning
  • Set-up
  • Inciting incident (that sends main character off on journey)
  • Start of B story
  • Midpoint – what happens half-way through your story that changes everything and/or significantly ramps up the tension/raises the stakes? If you even just had this along with a beginning and an end, you’d make things so much easier for yourself
  • “Dark Night of the Soul” to use Snyder’s term (see below) – the lowest point for your character
  • Act III/finale
  • Ending

I recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to everyone I know who writes commercial fiction. Yes, it’s a screenwriting book, but with a few tweaks it works wonders for commercial novel plotting too. Not only does it help you fill in the middle, but it shows you how to construct an incredibly satisfying story. It’s like Robert McKee’s Story, but a For Dummies version of it.

Are you shaking your head right now, dismayed at the notion of a storytelling formula? Get over yourself. This isn’t about formulae, but principles. You’d agree that every story has to have a beginning, middle and end, wouldn’t you? All that’s happening here is that we’re examining what happens between those three points. As Snyder says (and this is another paraphrase), when you know the principles of storytelling you have a framework that you can set down on top of your novel idea to check for holes. It’s not giving you a story or telling you how to make one up – it’s a stress test, a checklist that can determine whether or not the story you have has structural integrity and if it doesn’t, where the strengthening work needs to go.

Finishing your damn book will be a lot easier when you can break it up into smaller, manageable pieces.

3. the Entertainment Business

I had an epiphany while reading Rachel Aaron’s shot of motivation to the writer’s heart/e-book, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better and Writing More of What You Love (99p on Amazon): I’m in the entertainment business. What I’m trying to create is, above all else, entertainment.

I’m with Harlan Coben, quoted in The Guardian back in 2007:

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Aaron talks about how, reflecting on her process, writing seemed to be at its easiest and most enjoyable when she came to write the scenes she loved, the ones she’d conceived of first, the pieces of the book she wrote the rest of it to get to. When she got in the zone, writing her book became almost like reading it. She wondered: shouldn’t it be like that all the time? If your goal is to entertain readers, isn’t there something wrong if you, the writer, can’t keep yourself entertained with your own book? Shouldn’t a scene that’s a drudge for you to write sound an alarm bell?

Honestly, this idea freed me.

First of all I stopped worrying about fancy sentences and evocative language. (When I read my favourite scribe, Sir Michael Connelly, I never notice the language. It’s like a translucent membrane; I see through it to the story. It’s like the page and the words on it don’t exist, but Bosch and his LA do, fully. To me, that takes far more skill to produce than a certain literary writer who spends a whole day at his desk perfecting just the one sentence, writing it over and over until it’s good enough for him to turn around and type it into the computer on his other side…) From them on, I just had one goal: work out/get down the story. I could move much quicker this way.

Secondly, I stopped at the beginning of every chapter to ask myself how I could write it in the most entertaining way possible, a way that would be fun for me to create as well as keep any eventual reader turning the pages. I didn’t start until I could answer that and if I couldn’t, I scrapped the chapter altogether. This way, there were no “duds”. No chapters I had to trudge through to get Mr X from A to B.

I also got into the habit of ending each chapter with a line that (hopefully) forced the reader to push onto the next (the “just one more chapter” syndrome I suffer from as a reader, usually late at night), and deciding on that line at the beginning. This was really excellent motivation to finish the chapter sooner rather than later, because I knew where I was going and I was dying to get to that killer line, partly so I could slap the desk and say “BOOM!” which is what I like to do when I’m overly pleased with myself at the end of a chapter… (Don’t tell anyone.)

It’ll be easier to finish the damn book if you are enjoying the process. If you’re not entertained by your story, what are the chances readers will be?

4. stage your own NANOWRIMO

Early this year I discovered that it’s infinitely easier to commit to finishing a project by pulling out all the stops for a short, intense period of time than it is to say, commit to getting up at the crack of dawn every morning for a year so you can get 500 words down before your real life begins. It’s easier to sustain motivation, it’s easier to keep your novel in your head and when you are really going at it, writing whenever you can, after a few days you don’t even need motivation anymore because the book takes over.

I went from telling myself that there was no point in even starting anything because I only had a free hour to sitting down at my desk even if I only had ten minutes. (This from the girl who once upon a time believed that if you hadn’t started your writing day by 10:00am, you might as well wait until tomorrow.) It’s also easier to forgo socializing, appointments, human interaction, etc. for 4-6 weeks than it is to resist invitations to fun for months or years.

You will have to make sacrifices. This is something I don’t think I truly understood until I had six weeks earlier this year in which to re-write my novel, alongside being in university full-time and having freelance work to keep up so I could pay my rent too. For me, this meant doing nothing else except writing, working, being at university and sleeping – and I did a lot less sleeping than I usually do. It was hard and I had to push myself, but it was doable because I knew it was for a limited amount of time.

Be realistic about the phrase “I don’t have time.” Is that really true? You don’t have time to do the thing you want to do most in the world? You have to find it. Don’t be like the participant on a weight loss show that aired in Ireland last year who threw a strop at having to prepare healthy meals because it was sooooo time-consuming and she was sooooo busy – the same woman who, before she embarked on the programme, managed somehow to find the time to drink an entire bottle of red wine in front of the TV every night.

Practical tip: clean your entire house and cook up lots of things that can be frozen before you begin, so you have as few distractions as possible. It also helps to tell everyone what you’re doing. It makes it easier for you to say no to invitations, ignore phone calls and e-mails, etc. but it also gives you a bit of accountability.

It may be easier to press “pause” on life so you can finish your damn book in a matter of weeks, rather than trying to fit in and keep up a daily writing routine for months or years. 

5. Don’t read over what you’ve written

Again this may not work for everyone and I know there are those who like to edit as they go, but editing as you go was why I didn’t get past 10,000 words for more than a year. You just have to keep going. Stop mid-sentence so you can pick right up when you left off the next time you sit down at your desk. Resist the urge to edit. You’ll edit in the next draft.

At the same time, write the best chapters you possibly can – but in terms of what happens in them, not necessarily the line-by-line language. (If that makes sense.) Think of how professional editing works: it starts with structural things, and only then moves into the language. You should work the same way, I think,  especially if you are writing a first draft.

I really couldn’t resist this for a long time, until I hit upon an idea: print out your book as you go. Every time you get to the end of a scene or chapter, hit PRINT and then put the pages in a pile to one side. Far away enough so you can’t read it, but close enough so you can be reminded of your progress.

Speaking of progress, charts are your friend. Make a big one in which you can write the number of words you wrote per day, or use a calendar. Sometimes you’ll stay at your desk just because you can’t face writing ’29’ in the box for today, trust me.

It’s easier to keep moving forward when you don’t stop to look back. 

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So there you go. Sorry this post is so long but I have my first lot of end of year exams coming up, so I just don’t have the time to blog as much as I’d like. A long post whenever I do hopefully makes up for this.

Also: look! I changed my blog. Catherine is still caffeinated but this pile of HTML bricks is just catherineryanhoward.com now, and the pink is more an accent colour than a drowning depth of candy floss. There’s been some reorganization too. What do you think?

Have you managed to finish your damn book? Tell us how you did it in the comments below.

You might also be interested in this post I recently wrote for Writing.ie: Should You Be Best Friends with a Writer, Daahling?