How do I write a book?

One of the things my readers often want to know is how I write a book. It’s not an easy question to answer – Somerset Maugham once said there were only three rules to writing, but unfortunately nobody knew what they were – but I’ll give it my best shot.

I usually start my mysteries by coming up with a motive for a murder. This can be very difficult, because all the straightforward motives – murder for money, murder for jealous etc – have already been grabbed and milked dry by other mystery writers, decades ago. Having come up with what I think is an original motive – it probably isn’t, by the way, given how many mysteries have been written since Edgar Allen Poe invented the detective story, but at least it’s original to me – I start work. I already have an ending – though this original ending will be modified so much during the writing of the book that it will be virtually unrecognisable in the final manuscript – but, in terms of plot, that’s about it.

If I’m writing a series novel, the next step is already taken care of. I already have my location – Whitebridge – and my main characters – DCI Monika Paniatowski and her team – but what am I going to do with them?

I write an opening scene which I hope will set the atmosphere and create the context. My main characters don’t appear in this scene, since until the murder takes place – or is discovered – they have no role to play. Once the murder has occurred, the characters swing into action.

By now, I have some plot pointers. If the murderer is motivated mainly by anger, then I will – playing fair by my readers – have to show his anger (and it must be the right kind of anger) at some point in the plot. This, I think, is one of the most important aspects of the book, because for me, the ideal reader reaction at the end of the book is not, ‘I never thought it was him,’ but ‘Of course it was him – why didn’t I see it before?’

So, we’re under way. And now something really interesting happens – the characters start to take over, and sometimes, looking at what I’ve just written, I’ll think, ‘I never thought she’d do that, but I can quite see why she did.’ Even stranger is that I’ll write a paragraph or a page with no idea why I did it, and yet sixty or eighty pages on, I’ll see precisely how that paragraph fits in, and realise that if I hadn’t written it already, I’d have to write it now.

When I’ve finished the first draft, I walk around in semi-trance. But at least it’s finished, I tell myself – and not it’s not just finished, it’s perfect, it’s everything I wanted to achieve. And guess what – when I come to read it again, usually a week later, I can’t believe that I could have ever have produced such a botched job.

The second draft is better, and after the third or the fourth I have fine-tuned it enough to have produced something I would not be ashamed to offer to my readers.

And then I realise that I am only five months from my next deadline, and the whole process starts again.

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