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.


Talking Venice, writing and books, with two authors who live there

Gregory, Philip and yours truly outside the Terminal bar earlier this week.
Gregory Dowling and Philip Gwynne Jones in conversation.

I’ve written a good few books set in Italy but always from a slight distance. While I spend a lot of time there I’ve never made the move. So I thought it would be interesting to talk to a couple of Brits who have made their home there — and written about it. If you’re a follower of novels set in Venice you’ll know the names. Gregory Dowling is the author of the Alvise Marangon mysteries set in the 18th century, while Philip Gwynne Jones writes the contemporary Nathan Sutherland series.

We met up for a chat at the lovely little Terminal bar near the San Basilio stop earlier this week. I plonked my little audio recorder on the table and we chatted for half an hour about books and writing the city the two of them now call home. They’re a fascinating pair and half an hour scarcely does them justice. I think you’ll find a few surprises in the stories they have to tell — and a couple of local tips that will help you see more of the real Venice than most visitors, focussed on San Marco and the Rialto, ever find.

Now I’m not a professional interviewer or sound recordist (I will protest it’s my first day on the job until the cows come home). While I’ve done my best to reduce some of the background noise — water taxis, people chatting as they wander past, the inevitable suitcase wheels and at one point a woman berating her husband over the phone — this is still a live recording outside on a hot August day by the lagoon.

I hope you enjoy it as much as you’ll enjoy Gregory and Philip’s books.

PS. In case I haven’t made this sufficiently clear in the audio above… I am in no way envious.


Not one little bit.


Devil’s Fjord: A confession

Writing’s a funny old business. You never quite know what’s round the corner. At the moment that’s a new book, Devil’s Fjord, out from Severn House in hardback on February 1, a standalone mystery set in the Faroe Islands. Kind of gentle Scandi noir with a tough edge to it, I guess. Nothing like any book I’ve written before, which is no bad thing.

Readers always ask: where do stories come from? It’s often a hard question to answer. But on this occasion, not so tough. Let me explain…

Some years ago I was asked to adapt The Killing TV series into novel form. It was a highly enjoyable exercise, especially since I was given free rein to change whatever I wanted from the screen in order to make the narratives work as a book.

Successful too, so much that, after the third TV series was out and adapted to the page, my then publisher asked me if I’d like to write a fourth book with Sarah Lund, a novel from scratch, mine alone.

Now TV adaptations are contractually extremely complicated so my first question was: can we do that? Do we have the rights?

Sure, I was told. Put together a plan.

The TV series consisted of three different stories, produced years apart. The books gave me the chance to turn these into more of a deliberate trilogy about the curious character of Lund. I changed the endings of all three in ways I felt worked better as a book. All the same at the end of the third — I am trying to avoid spoilers here — it’s obvious that a fourth story could not run sequentially on from the way that concluded. So my idea was to try to explore what made Lund who she was: a strange, obsessive woman, with a difficult son and a failed marriage.

Oh, and an obsession with those jumpers too.

The jumpers came from the Faroe Islands. My idea was to write a prequel, one in which a newly-divorced Lund went there to recover with her son and found herself dragged into a local murder that made her the odd person we meet on TV.

Two months I spent on research and planning. Only to be then told: the complex hierarchy of the various rights holders in Denmark was barring the book going ahead. So we didn’t have the rights really at all.

Two months, unpaid and wasted. Well, hey. It’s only ‘author time’ and we know how much that is worth.

The thing is all the research I’d done on the Faroes rather got to me. There were, at the time, only two works of Faroese literature translated into English. I read them both. One was a rather odd historical tragedy. The other an equally strange but more entertaining and modern story of fishing folk struggling with the feudal system of the 1930s, The Old Man and His Sons. I found the latter hard to get out of my head. So gradually a story emerged from this original research for Lund: a mystery set in a remote Faroes fishing village in which two outsiders arrive seeking a peaceful retirement only to discover themselves in the midst of a brutal community torn apart by its own divisions.

I wrote the first twenty thousand words and my editor at Severn House loved it and said: yes.

Which generated the first dilemma. This was the beginning of January. The Faroes aren’t an easy place to get to at the best of times from the UK, and the weather and daylight at that time of year aren’t conducive to research, or representative of high summer, with its whale hunts, when I wanted the story to take place.

Now perhaps it’s my journalistic background but usually I’m a stickler for research. For the Costa series I moved to Rome for a while and signed up at a language college. Whether it’s Venice or Calabria (for The Savage Shore), Copenhagen with Lund or Amsterdam with Pieter Vos, I’ve always made a point of visiting pretty much everywhere I write about and trying to see it through the eyes of locals.

But you don’t have to work that way. Jules Verne wrote Around The World In Eighty Days when he’d barely set foot outside of France. Lots and lots of authors set their stories in locations they’ve never visited. That’s why we’re filed under F for Fiction. Was this the time to leap into the unknown myself?

There’s the confession. I’ve never been to the Faroes. I’d like to because it sounds a fascinating mix of wildness, northern culture and extraordinary landscapes. But this story isn’t set in the real Faroe Islands. It may use some of the real locations and practices, such as those in whale hunting. But Devil’s Fjord is a myth, a fabrication. A work of the imagination and in no way a guide book.

I invent and mangle as I see fit, ignoring, for example, the complex Faroese naming system and the fact that women do not take their husband’s surnames on marriage. I don’t want it to be ‘authentic’, whatever that means. I simply crave a riveting and unusual story, one set in a wonderful location that hovers between the real and the mythical. A place where whales die in a bloody and happy harvest on the beach, the night is illuminated by the neon strangeness of the Northern Lights, and firesides resound to the primal richness of old folk tales.

This is the world Tristan and Elsebeth Haraldsen enter looking for a peaceful paradise in which to retire. As the story opens Tristan, the District Sheriff, a part-time official required to monitor the seasonal whale hunts, is on his roof mowing the turf that stands instead of tiles. Out to sea a pod of whales has been sighted. Villagers are gathering at the harbour, anticipating a rich catch that will see some of them through the coming harsh winter. And two young brothers are arguing about what to do when the dying whales are chased ashore, there to be dispatched in the bloody waves.

As I said, a new horizon in storytelling for me. I hope you like it. I’m delighted to say the audio will be available simultaneously with print publication, narrated as usual by the wonderful Saul Reichlin who, dutiful as ever, visited the Faroese Embassy to learn how to pronounce some of the words I threw at him.

But let me emphasise again: this is fiction through and through. The real Faroe Islands are a much more peaceful place than I depict here, and quite different in many details too I’m sure.

Oh and here’s a photo of some creatures you will meet in the book: puffins. I did take this picture. But at the wonderful Bempton RSPB bird reserve in Yorkshire, though who knows? Perhaps these chaps did visit the area of Vágar where I invented the fictional fishing village of Djevulsfjord for the story.