Guest Post: William Shaw On Writing

In this tiny part of the internet we like to get between the ears of novelists.

We absolutely love doing The Intel Interviews because it gives us a sense of how writers sit down and, well, write – and it’s different every single time. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Take a look down the sidebar – down, down, thats it, there, you got it – and you’ll see there are a million ways to write a book.

So I’m very pleased to say that William Shaw is contributing a guest post on how to expect the unexpected when writing. As you know, we reviewed Shaw’s second Breen and Tozer novel,  A House on Knives, earlier in the week – scroll down, a bit further, that’s it – and by crikey, I believe we liked it a lot.

Here’s William’s experience on how to catch literary lightning in a bottle and, at the same time, keep writing fun:

William Shaw

William Shaw © Ellen Shaw

Whatever you do, write a plan before you start on a thriller. That’s what they say.

It seems to be the right way to do it. Plots are complex. You need to control them, so the reasoning goes. “Plan your novel thoroughly in advance” comes the advice from all quarters. Why wouldn’t you use a map when setting out on a difficult journey?

A successful thriller writer friend once was struggling with a particularly complex book a couple of years ago, he showed me his outline for the novel. It was about twenty pages long, each page divided into five or six columns.

“It’s fantastic,” I said.

Just looking at it made me feel ill. Carefully outlined, there were scenes, descriptions, character lists, plot points, mood notes and estimated word lengths. The whole thing was practically a novel in itself. It was forensic in detail and the end result was destined to be a chart-topping best seller.

A House Of KnivesAnd I was intimidated by its thoroughness, because the truth is, I don’t plan. I’ve tried, honestly I have. But every time I do I tear up my plan and write something else.

For the first Breen and Tozer book, A Song from Dead Lips, there was no plan. In fact, I hadn’t even planned on a book. I simply started writing the first scene and then a second, and before I knew it, one of the characters was a detective. Up to a third of the way through, I had no idea who had killed the victim. Really. It was as much of a surprise to me, as hopefully, it will be to you.

I was slightly more disciplined when I came to the second; A House of Knives. I had written a one page précis for my editor. I knew who had done it, at least. But again, but beyond that, there was no actual twenty-page plan.

I’m currently finishing the third in the series. Determined to be more like my successful friend I wrote a long plan this time; three pages, at least. But as I near the end of the book, I have to admit, what I’ve ended out writing bears little resemblance to those pages.

There is a reason for this.

For a start, thrillers have to surprise. That’s part of their job description. And if they surprise the writer, I think that’s a start.

But it’s something else too. Despite all the screeds of advice you’ll hear about writing, there is no right way to write a book. Michael Crichton hit a mind-boggling 10,000 words a day. Graham Greene managed about 600. Tom Wolfe? A paltry 135. Some write first thing in the morning; others late at night. Some people edit as they go along. Others leave all that to the end. Everybody does it differently.

Planning works for some. I start asking colleagues about how they write. Michael Ridpath, whose Traitor’s Gate received lavish praise last year, tells me, (entirely disengenuously) that he isn’t clever enough to think of brilliant situations, “So I plan a lot.”

Likewise, Peter May, whose superb Lewis Trilogy I’m currently reading, says he has to have a clear idea of structures and characters before he starts. Why? His background was TV, he says. “So I imported the techniques. If I know the story, I write better.”

A Song From Dead LipsBut this doesn’t work for everybody. Stephen King famously shies away from the process of plotting. He just writes. “I distrust plot for two reasons,” he wrote in On Writing. “First, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”

It’s the second reason in particular that I like. Any writer I know soon becomes aware of the strange unconscious process of writing. You find a character suddenly says something totally unexpected. A minor event suddenly takes on a major significance.

For me, that’s the real fun of writing. In A Song from Dead Lips, my character Sergeant Cathal Breen suddenly abandoned his investigation to climb a tree catch a cat that was stuck in the branches. Why? At the time, I had no idea. None at all. He wasn’t doing what I wanted him to. But I realised, as I typed, that it was useful to give him the broken wrist he had from falling from that tree, because it made him more dependent on the brash young WPC Helen Tozer who had been assigned to him. I certainly hadn’t planned it; but I really liked what I’d written. Months later, my US editor liked the tree incident so much too, he made me expand it.

A House Of Knives has just come out in hardback and ebook, and the first in the series, A Song From Dead Lips is now out in paperback.

It’s the age old writing divide, isn’t it – there are plotters and there are pantsers. So how do you guys sit down to write stories? Do you write notebooks full of notes before you start, or pin up a complicated graph over your desk, or do you sit and wait for what Stephen King famously calls ‘the boys in the basement?’


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