YA author, and as it happens my daughter, Lili Wilkinson has tagged me for this writers’ blog tour. She can write novels while simultaneously doing a PhD and, as she likes to say, “gestating a tiny human”. I wish I could do that. (Work on more than one thing at once, I mean. I don’t want to do a PhD, and I am way to old for pregnancy!) Despite many years of practice, writing still doesn’t come easy for me. As a result, I’m just working on one project.
What am I working on?
Now, here’s my first problem. I have been working on a book since early February. I’ve written about 21,ooo words. But I don’t like talking about books while I’m writing them. It’s my own personal superstition. If I go on about it too much, it could be the first book that I never finish. It could be the one for which I can’t solve all the problems that come up as I write. I might jinx it and never find that as yet unknown ingredient that is missing.
There’s another issue with this book (which I will call my WiP, short for Work in Progress). Recently my publisher said, “Don’t mention the book on social media just yet, Carole. Let’s wait a while.” (I had already mentioned it at several school visits, but I didn’t tell her that!) So you’ll have to bear with me while I talk about a book, without actually mentioning what it’s about.
My WiP is non-fiction. Usually I find non-fiction a relief after a novel. For a start, my non-fiction books are shorter, and it’s good not to have to make everything up all the time. But this one’s different. The topic is … topical, sometimes controversial. It’s a lot different to writing about a dead person (as I did in Black Snake and Alexander the Great) or a past event (like Fromelles, the story of a World War I battle). That doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying writing it.
How does my work differ from others in my genre?
Now I come to think about it, I don’t know what the genre is, other than non-fiction. I suppose it’s part historical non-fiction, part current affairs. As for all my non-fiction, I tell the story, keeping to the essential facts, but compared to a book for adults on the topic, it’s abbreviated. It’s not that I leave anything out — I can’t do that. I have to tell the history as it is, but I focus on the bits that I think will be of interest to young people.
Why do I write what I do?
I love research. I like nothing more than the detective work of seeking out information. My non-fiction topics are never things that I am already knowledgeable about. I like to find stuff out. I read lots on the topic, but, for some reason, I always have questions that have not been answered in any of the books I’ve read. (What did Ned’s mum think of her son? Where were the French during this battle?) I enjoy finding the answers to those questions. I also like finding the connections between the raw facts that turn a list of events into a story.
I write fiction as well (Shadow Sister, 5th book in the Dragonkeeper series is my latest novel), but I’ve never written a novel that hasn’t involved research. For me, research is always part of writing a book.
How does my writing process work?
I have to confess I don’t usually choose the subject for my non-fiction books. So far, it has been my publisher that has suggested the topics. Sometimes, my reaction is along the lines of, “Huh? World War I? Me?” But in every case, I have become engrossed in the story once I’ve scratched the surface.
A non-fiction project starts with lots of reading. I begin with a book aimed at a general, non-expert audience. I get the gist. Then I peruse the bibliography of that book and pick other books I think I should read. I take notes. Lots of them. This process continues. Each book leads me to more books. What usually happens is I get deeper into the topic, concern myself with smaller detail, things that intrigue me. I chase down journal articles and academic papers. I might only find a line or two in them that are useful for my WiP, but gradually I am moving towards knowledge of my topic.
I use the internet a lot, but stick to authoritative websites, and even then, most of the time I also look for published sources to verify what I’ve read online.
I draw up a rough plan, always with a view to telling a story. And then I make a start on the writing. With my current WiP I haven’t been able to achieve anything like the 1000 words a day I aim for when writing fiction. I’ve been aiming for 500 words, and not reaching it very often. Every day leads to more reading. Some days I’ve been in front of the computer before 7 am, still there at 6 pm (with a break for lunch and to walk the dog), and I still only achieve a couple of hundred words.
I am now mostly over the worst bit, which is writing the zero draft. That’s no different to writing an early draft for fiction. The mantra is “Get it down. Don’t worry about the words yet. Get the structure right first”. I am now rereading and editing, which is a much more enjoyable task. I write all over it, change things around, add and subtract, do more research. Today, after being pretty happy with the draft at the beginning of the week, I am now preparing to tear up the first chapter and totally rewrite it. Perhaps tomorrow, it will all seem okay again.
Just like with fiction, I’m trying to weave the threads of the story so that I end up with a neat and intricate braid — not a knotted and untidy pigtail (terrible metaphor). I’ll repeat this process possibly five times before I’m ready to call it a first draft. Then it’s off to my publisher. When I get it back, I find out if my structure is working. I don’t mind if it isn’t, as long as she’s got some suggestions as to how to fix it! There’ll be a lot more work to be done. There always is. Then the process is repeated for a second and a third draft. That all sounds like a long way off at the moment.
Don’t forget to check Lili’s blog and the other great writers who have contributed to this blog tour. I’ll be posting about my WiP as soon as I’m allowed. For now, I’m going to hand you over to three of my black dog books colleagues and friends.
Sue Lawson prolific author, best known for her moving stories of wounded teens.
Karen Tayleur writer, editor (and currently student) who can write funny or scary depending on her mood.
Corinne Fenton writer of evocative picture books with historical themes.