Writing for beginners… a few thoughts

Lots of people out there are trying their hand at writing books at the moment. Or so I gather. My first thought… isn’t life tough enough already?

You see… writing’s hard. Even if, like me, you’ve more than thirty books under your belt. If it feels it isn’t then it’s probably not working. Success doesn’t lie in making the process easier. It’s achieved by doing your best to make it less hard.

So here are my top ten tips for getting on with a story instead of sitting there banging your head against the wall sobbing over your lack of progress.

  1. Don’t fall for the idea software will do the job for you. Far too many beginners think, ‘I’m getting nowhere with Word… all I need is something else.’ And then find themselves struggling to learn a new app instead of setting a story down. If you’re a Mac user I like Ulysses (seen above) which is pretty easy to understand (and I have a cheap book on Amazon to help if you need it). But really if you’re just trying for the first time and you have something like Word stick with that to begin with. Software does not ‘unlock your creativity’.
  2. Have something to say. There are lots and lots of books about writing theory out there, many of them with pretty much the same advice. But if a story doesn’t have something to say — something that fires you, maybe makes you mad or makes you want to say how much you love it — then it’s going to be a bit flat.
  3. Listen to your characters. They are not your marionettes. They should feel like living creatures. The moment one of them tells you they don’t plan to do what you want because they’re not like that is the moment you know you’ve given them life. The relationship of a writer to his or her characters is that of a god to his or her creations — unless they have free will they’re not quite real. Characters shouldn’t just drive the story they should drive its writing too.
  4. Dispense with the need to write in a linear fashion. If you’re on scene thirteen and suddenly come up with a great idea for scene thirty go and write it. Don’t think you have to go through all the bits in between first. Yes, you may have to amend it when you get there. But the golden rule is if something keeps nagging you to write it then do so. Even if it’s not the next thing in the book.
  5. Don’t think that writing is only accomplished while sitting at a computer tapping out words. It’s also when you’re lying in bed at three a.m. going over the story in your head. When you take a walk and do the same. When — especially when — you look at what you’re written, realise it’s not good enough and go in to fix it. I once reduced a 30K opening setup to 20K and a friend of mine said, ‘Oh. Shame.’ It wasn’t a shame at all. It was what was needed. It was progress.
  6. Think strategically. Some people outline in detail. Some people launch in and see what happens. Most of us are halfway between the two. Whichever approach you take, bear in mind that conventional narratives invariable have a structure, like a piece of music. Beginning, middle eight, vamp, return to theme, close… that kind of thing. The building block of most mainstream fiction is the scene — a piece of story involving the same people, often in the same place, usually seen through the same point of view. Focus on starting and finishing one scene each day, usually of no more than two thousand words, and you should see your story building in front of your eyes. These aren’t rules — I don’t believe in rules for writing. But it’s how things generally work because it’s how readers have come to recognise the story form.
  7. Keep notes. Create a separate document in which you write down character names, locations, thoughts, and maybe keep a tally of word counts. Not that you should bother much about word counts. I hate the ‘if I write 2000 words a day for eight weeks I’ll have a book’ idea. It rarely works like that.
  8. Read your work away from the computer. There’s a lot that could be said about the crucial task of revision but my primary piece of advice is this: you can’t do it and write at the same time. So yes, make one pass of your manuscript correcting obvious mistakes. After that get it into something like an iPad as a pdf or email your Word file to Kindle so it appears like a book. Read it there and just highlight bits that need working. You’ll spot a lot more and you’ll see it from the point of view of a reader.
  9. Be wary of asking opinions. When I used to teach writing I was a regular at the wonderful annual mystery conference run by the great Book Passage store outside San Francisco. There were lots of keen students there, some great talent too. But I couldn’t help notice that a good few were part of writing groups where work in progress was shared around for an opinion. If this works for you… fine. But bear in mind it slows the process and those opinions aren’t going to be those of a professional editor (and they will vary too). Me… I’d just get on and finish the thing and then ask around if you must.
  10. Finally… never, ever give up. As someone once said the only difference between an amateur writer and a professional is the professional finally got published.

A free Vos short story to pass the time

These are strange times for everyone. Though for writers the idea of self-isolating isn’t perhaps as odd as it is for lots of people. All the same if you’re looking for something to pass the time let me make my own little offering.

Here’s a short story featuring Pieter Vos, Laura Bakker and a few other characters from my Amsterdam books. It’s called The Bad Apple and begins with a siege in Vos’s favourite watering hole, the Drie Vaten (based on the real life De Eland in the Jordaan).

It’s a freebie (though still my copyright of course) so share as you see fit. I hope you enjoy their little outing, which is my first piece in Amsterdam for a little while.

You can download an ePub version for your ereader using this link.

You can download the short story as a Word file using this link.

In the meantime… I will imagine myself back in De Eland raising a toast to the return of normality.


Shooter in the Shadows, an Audible original

Out today, worldwide, is a brand new Audible original, a unique two-person narration thriller that switches from the present in a remote part of the Venetian lagoon to the past in upstate New York.

It’s a full-length story about a writer locked away in a crumbling mansion in the lagoon, suddenly finding he’s facing the most dangerous deadline of his life.

Welcome to Shooter in the Shadows

Here’s what to expect…

Tom Honeyman made his name cracking a horrific double murder in his hometown of Prosper, New York. He got an international best seller out of it, made a small fortune, and left his newspaper reporting days behind. 

But was it all based on a lie? 

Now, more than a decade after his one and only success, Honeyman’s life is in tatters. His wife committed suicide, his daughter hasn’t spoken to him in years, and his books don’t sell. He’s sequestered himself in his wreck of a retreat on an island in Venice, desperate to find the inspiration that will revive his career. 

But Tom Honeyman is not alone. 

An unseen stranger tells Honeyman he got it wrong all those years ago. And he has just four days to uncover the real murderer. 

Tom Honeyman is no longer writing for his livelihood. He’s writing for his life.

This is a fast-moving story that moves between the present in Venice and the past in New York as Honeyman tries to reconstruct a story that will keep him alive. It’s a taut, exciting listen, but one that’s about people too, about family, and about how difficult it can be to bury a lie, however much you want.

I’m lucky as ever with Audible to have some fantastic talent on board for the tale. In this case not one but two award-winning performers, both of whom have got Audies and lots more besides to their credit.

Jonathan Davis, right, is acclaimed narrator of over 5oo audiobooks, and an Audible Narrator Hall of Fame inductee. He’s got an amazing range of audio titles under his belt, including a whole line of Star Wars books.

Ramón de Ocampo is an Audie winner too, and a regular on TV with Notorious, Guidance, 12 Monkeys, The West Wing, Medium, Killer Instinct, Sons of Anarchy, and Major Crimes, as well as memorable GUEST STARRING roles, most recently on: HAWAII 5-0, NCIS: New OrleansCSI: Cyber, the PlayerCastle, Bones, CSI, NCIS, and Gang Related.

Jonathan takes the role of the harassed Tom, trying to unpick the secrets of the past against a fast-ticking clock, and some other characters too. Ramón is his mysterious nemesis, hiding out of sight but never out of mind.

It was a blast to write and I gather Jonathan and Ramón had quite a time recording in the Audible studios in Newark too. Hope you enjoy my latest excursion into the fast-growing world of audio…

Costa Events

Nic Costa’s return — see you in Rome, January 22

It’s almost twenty years since I first flew off to Rome to start work on what’s turned out to be the longest-running series of my career, the Nic Costa books.

Now they’re getting a new lease of life in some sparkling editions for the first two books, A Season for the Dead and The Villa of Mysteries from Black Thorn which appear in January.

And what better place to launch them than Rome itself? You’ll find me talking and signing there at the Anglo American Book Store, 6pm, Wednesday January 22. It’s a casual event — no booking needed. Just turn up at Via della Vite, 102, near the Spanish Steps.

It’s a real pleasure to be returning to Anglo American too. When I moved to Rome to research the first Costa book I lived not far away — and used the book store as my go-to place for all the reference works I so badly needed at the time. It’s wonderful such a great book shop is still around and continuing to serve the English language reader in Rome.

The talk will be in English by the way but everyone’s welcome. Hope I can see some of you in the Eternal City in January.