We love writers here, and we’re keen to learn from them. I’m absolutely delighted to say Peter May, author of the bestselling Lewis Trilogy — The third novel, The Chess Men is out now — has agreed to share with us a little about how he goes about the critical business of getting words on a page.
What’s your writing process? What comes first – plot or character?
The germ of an idea comes first. Then I work on characters, and really all story comes out of character, so the rest generally just falls into place.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
I spend four to five months developing characters and plot, and doing my research (which is really the fun bit). Then I write (in about 7 days) a very detailed synopsis, which can be up to 20,000 words long. At that point I can look at the whole, and discern where the flaws might be, and what further research is needed. My storyline then provides a safety net for me as I embark on the writing of the actual book, even although story and characters quite often evolve differently. It allows me to write quickly (something I learned to do as a journalist), and to focus on the quality of the writing. I get up at 6am and write 3000 words a day, however long that might take me. I always end my day when I reach the 3000th word, even if it is mid-sentence. That way I always know how I will begin the next day, and so I never have writers‘ block. The book is usually finished in about 7 weeks.
Who are the authors you love, and why?
As a young man the writers I most admired included Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, HE Bates and JP Donleavy. I don’t get much time these days to read for pleasure – most of my reading is for research. But the best book I’ve read recently was (much to my surprise) a Stephen King novel called 11/22/63. I am not a fan of horror or supernatural novels. This doesn’t really fall into that category. It does involve time-travel, but if you are prepared to suspend disbelief in that one respect, then King takes you on a wonderful journey through the late fifties and early sixties as the main character attempts to prevent the assassination of JFK. He is a terrific writer and a master storyteller.
That even although you believe that what you have written is great, sometimes it really isn’t, and you have to accept the judgment of an experienced and objective eye – usually your editor. So while it can often be a painful process, you have to be prepared to re-think and re-write. Nine times out of ten it will turn out better.
How do you deal with feedback?
I think people who lavish my books with praise have infinitely good judgement, and that anyone who criticises them must be a complete moron. Seriously, though, you have to be prepared to accept that everyone has different tastes, different likes and dislikes, and not everyone is going to like your work. Hard though that is, you have to learn to be philosophical. As far as direct contact from readers is concerned, I now receive thousands of emails a year and my wife and I labour very hard to try to answer them all.
How have your own experiences shaped your writing?
Entirely. Whether those experiences come from my own past, or from those things I have learned on my many research trips, my life wholly shapes the things I write about. The Lewis Trilogy is a typical example. In The Blackhouse, Fin’s relationship with Marsaili is very much based on an on- off relationship I had with a girl I met on my first day at school. In The Lewis Man, I used the experience of my father’s descent into alzheimer’s to shape the character of Marsaili’s father, Tormod. In The Chessmen, I borrowed heavily from my own experiences playing in a band during my teens and early twenties to colour the lives and experiences of the Celtic rock band “Solas”.
Give me some advice about writing…
Don’t do it if you think it will bring you money, fame or a glamorous lifestyle. Writing is hard, often unrewarding work. Most writers are driven to write by some inexplicable compulsion that must be coded into their DNA. It is a tough and often lonely road that the writer travels, so don’t even embark on it unless you, too, are driven to it.
What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…
Don’t try to write for the marketplace. Write what’s in your heart, and above all what you know about. Don’t waste time sending an unsolicited manuscript to publishers – they won’t read it. Try to find yourself an agent who believes in your work. These days publishers will only read manuscripts submitted by agents. If you can’t find either, then publish yourself. The technology makes it easy these days to produce and sell either hard copies or e-books. But be aware that the competition is fierce and that it is a full-time job just to get your book noticed.
What’s next for you?
I have another two books to write for my current contract, plus the final book in the Enzo Files series. Then…. I don’t know. A very long holiday!
The Chessmen by Peter May is published by Quercus at £7.99, and is available from Amazon here.