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Getting It Right The First Time

I'm about 50,000 words into a stand-alone terrorism thriller, set in London. I've just sent the first 40,000 words to my agent for a look-see.

If all goes to plan I'll have done another 40,000 words by the end of April and it'll be done. It's at this point a lot of writers would say - "and now the hard work begins."

Well, not me. Those 90,000 words will be pretty much as good as it gets. I might catch a few typos and grammatical slips and there are always a few errors of fact no matter how much effort I put into the research. But the story itself will be pretty much ready to go to the printers.

My 12th Spider Shepherd book - Black Ops - was four months in the writing. It's a complicated book with several major plot lines.  I gave it to my editor and the notes he gave back to me were sorted in less than two days. I probably put in a total of eight hours work. It then went to a line editor and it took me a day - a good solid eight hours - to approve those changes, mainly grammatical. Then it was ready to go.  You can buy it on pre-order BY CLICKING HERE

Don't get me wrong. It wasn't easy. It was hard work, though I enjoyed every moment. But I approached it professionally. I made every paragraph count. I planned out the plot twists. I was continually giving it to friends to read and comment. That's why that first draft was pretty much the way I wanted it. And that's how it's been for my last twenty books. I deliver a first draft that is very very close to the version that appears in print. And I'll let you into a secret - most successful writers work that way, at least the ones I know. Professional writers work hard to make sure that the first draft is as close to perfection as possible.

But more and more I'm seeing advice being given which is contrary to what I and every other professional writer knows.  Just get it down on paper (even though they mean laptop most of the time) and deal with any problems later, they say. You should spend more time rewriting than you do writing, they say. It's a long, slow process turning that first draft into a publishable book, they say. Me, I don't agree. I don't think you can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. Or to be slightly cruder - no matter how much you polish a turd, it's still going to be a turd.

Actually, the guys on Mythbusters did show that you can polish a turd, but I stand by my argument that it doesn't work for novels!

My view is that you need to work hard on that first draft and make it as close to perfect as you can. Other writers disagree. One writer who believes in rushing the first draft is a guy called Tom Bale. Actually that's not his real name, his real name is David Harrison.  Not to be confused with DJ Harrison who is a successful self-publisher with titles such as Due Diligence, Proceeds Of Crime and Limited Liability featuring Detective Jenny Parker.  YOU CAN SEE THOSE BOOKS HERE

David Harrison's first novel was published under this own name and it didn't do well at all so he tried under the name Tom Bale instead. Unfortunately things haven't gone much better under Tom Bale and he was recently dropped by his publisher, Random House. Why? Putting it bluntly, Tom Bale's books just didn't sell, And these days publishers aren't prepared to build an author, they're not prepared to invest the time or money in  a writer who isn't making them a decent profit. Instead they cut their losses, which is what happened to Tom Bale and is also happening to an awful lot of mid-list authors.

Why didn't Tom Bale's books sell? I think it's a lot to do with the way he writes. He gave a recent interview where he explained how he goes about creating his books. YOU CAN READ THE TOM BALE INTERVIEW HERE

Tom Bale says he tries to write his first draft as quickly as possible -

That to me sounds like a rookie mistake. So does the fact that the rewriting takes longer than the original draft. Yes, blank screens can be daunting. But there's no point in filling it with rubbish. It's worth investing the time up front so that the first draft is almost as good as it gets. It doesn't have to be perfect, but the closer to perfection the better.

And it might well be less daunting to pull something apart and put it together again, but that's not how they build Rolls Royces, is it? Or skyscrapers. You make sure that the chassis or the foundations are perfect because if you build on a weak chassis or dodgy foundations, you're just storing up trouble for later.  Use dentistry as an analogy. You need to cap a tooth and the first thing you do is deal with the root canal. If you don't do that properly and you put the cap over the dodgy root canal, you are heading for toothache down the line.  You can't throw together a book on the basis that you'll fix it later. That's not how it works in industry and it's not how it works in the arts. DaVinci didn't finish the Mona Lisa and say to himself - that's a first draft I think I'll make her a blonde. And sculptors don't  hack off a chunk of marble and then try to stick it back on. Professional writers edit as they write. If they write a paragraph that doesn't work, they rewrite it or delete it.  I've often deleted half a day's work because I knew it wasn't right. If it's not right fix it then and there - don't leave it to be dealt with in a second or third draft.

In the same interview, Tom Bale says this -

Writing without any real outline is another rookie mistake. As is trusting your gut. Yes, you can trust your instincts when you are on your twentieth or thirtieth novel. But not when you are starting out. You might think your instincts won't let you down, but trust me, they will. To say that the unfolding of the plot is as exciting or you as the reader is a nice soundbite, but it's a recipe for disaster. And that's what's happened to Tom Bale - at the moment he has no publishing deal and he has had to find himself a new agent.

Tom Bale's lack of success doesn't stop him attacking other writers, though. Have a look at this where Tom Bale attacks bestseller Tony Parsons.

I've never understood writers who attack other writers in public - no one benefits. In Tom Bale's case it makes no sense because Tony Parsons has no idea who he is!

Writers who try to wing it are rarely successful. I've worked alongside a couple of authors who've told me that they prefer to make it up as they go along and that the book's plot will develop along the way. They talked the talk but really, they failed to walk the walk. Both would constantly write themselves into dead ends or write scenes that would meander and end up going nowhere. And they would end up writing lots of scenes of people arriving and leaving when really all they needed was the conversation that happened after they arrived and before they left.

Making it up as you go along doesn't work - unless you are totally confident in your craft.  I can do it - just about - but I've written close to forty novels.

That doesn't mean you need to know every single thing that will happen before you sit down to write. But you need to have a good idea of the plot, and the characters. I always jot down details of the characters on individual cards. Then when I am writing a scene with several characters I keep their cards close at hand to remind me who is who. I don't work with full treatments, but most writers find them helpful, and some even go as far as writing out a chapter breakdown. That's a much safer way than sitting down and winging it.  And don't listen to anyone who tells you that characters write themselves. They don't. They are your characters, you create them and they do what you tell them to. It's your book. You're the author.

It seems to me that the best guide to the quality of the advice you will get comes from the number of books the person has sold. Not the number of books they have written because there are plenty of awful authors who are churning out rubbish books in huge numbers. Look to see how many books they have sold.  So look instead for advice from writers like Stephen King, Lee Child, Val McDermid and Jefferey Deaver, who sell in their millions.

If I was offering advice to a young writer, yes I would tell them to write every day. And to read the greats. Read and learn. Write and practise. Work on your craft, because that's what it is, a craft. But once you are writing books that you plan to sell, then you have to change the way you work. It's not good enough to write on the hoof, to let the characters go where they want, to sit down at the keyboard and just write whatever comes into your head. That's not how professionals work. And what you must never, ever, do is to get to the end of a first draft and say to yourself - and others - that now the hard work begins. You should have done all the hard work before you write THE END. Anyone who tells you otherwise is giving you bad advice.

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