I’ve been thinking about this blog post for a long time. For years and years I’ve wanted to be an author, ever since I can remember, but I never thought I’d get there. I always had a talent for writing - perhaps not grammatically (every day is a school day), but certainly the ability to “spin a yarn”. The problem was never the writing.
The problem was the story.
Indulge me for a moment while I talk about my job. It’s relevant, I promise, and speaks to the creative process more than the technical one.
For those of you that don’t know me, I own a group of companies that design and manufacture products for photographers. I've been fortunate to witness the growth of that group from an internet startup to a global leader in camera support technology.
My actual job, within the business, is to design and develop new products - something which I’m very good at. I recently addressed design students at a university and asked if artistic skills are necessary to become a designer.
Overwhelmingly, they agreed yes; you need some sort of artistic ability in order to become a designer.
Their collective resolve only faltered when I projected child-like sketches on to the screen. These are the things that I draw daily for my design and engineering teams.
What this highlighted is that there are two aspects to designing a product, just like there are two aspects to writing a novel.
Concept and Creation.
I’m awful at drawing. Truly terrible. Fortunately, my Head of Engineering, Rob, speaks fluent Danny, and he can interpret my ideas and turn them into mechanical CAD drawings. I oversee from both a mechanical and functional point of view, and from an aesthetics perspective. Just because I can’t translate what’s in my head on to paper, it doesn’t mean I can’t conceptualise a product.
The same is true with writing. I know lots of people that are beautiful writers. They have incredible skills and can make the most mundane sentence seem like the crucial moment in a Shakespeare monologue. The problem is, they have no ideas of their own. Their entire existence centres around improving other people’s work.
The true skill, when it comes to writing a novel, is the concept. If you have the ideas, you can do anything.
Until I wrote Rogue, I had tried and failed to write a novel several times. Twice, I got close and began to write. I even got a few chapters in, but on both occasions, I ended up running out of steam and gave up too easily.
That’s the one trait that rarely gets mentioned when people talk about writing books: discipline. Add a bit of determination in there, for good measure. Without discipline and determination, you’re sunk.
Before you get anywhere near that point, though, you need to have an original idea. There are blog posts all over the internet with “50 exciting tropes to adopt for your next novella” and “20 twisted story ideas” etc. I’ve read through loads, looking for inspiration or some sort of eureka moment that sends me into a writing frenzy and ends with a New York Times Number 1 bestseller, a movie deal and a ten-part documentary on my genius.
Sure, there are tropes that are recycled and regurgitated over and over. The classic 1950s Neilson trope, where an opposing force sends a man to keep tabs on an enemy tribe. His only mission; to extract information on how to overpower the tribe and divest them of their earthly riches. He ends up falling in love with the tribe, and defending them from his own people:
1990: Dances with Wolves
The stories are so closely matched that someone (with more time than me) even overdubbed Dances With Wolves with the Avatar script, just to make that point.
Think about how we can reinterpret certain tropes. Take the movie Castaway, starring Tom Hanks, where a plane crash leaves him stranded on a desert island for four years. He learns to survive and adapts to the hostile environment. Eventually, he gathers enough supplies to embark on a perilous journey across the ocean. He is rescued by a huge ship and taken home.
It might surprise you to learn of a more recent novel, with this trope, set in an entirely unfamiliar environment - space.
Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian tells the story of Mark Watney, who is presumed killed during the emergency abort of their mission on Mars, thanks to a storm that looked likely to strand all six astronauts on the red planet. He wakes up, injured, after the rocket has departed with his crew mates, alone and a hundred-million miles from home, on a planet where nothing grows. The story takes you through the survival process, from gaining communications, to farming, to setting off on a dangerous journey across the planet, to be rescued by the original crew coming back on the space station Hermes.
It’s not even close to Castaway, save for the similarities in the actual plot, but a good example of how a basic trope can be adapted to an original idea.
We intrinsically linked creative writing to imagination. If you can just generate the idea, that’s the biggest stumbling block to writing a novel.
When I wrote Rogue, I wasn’t in a great place with my mental health. The world was exiting its second lockdown phase from Covid. It was December 2020, and I was driving the kids to school. Thanks to some unusual circumstances, my school run was between four and five hours every day.
My eldest, Evie, was asleep in the front of my car, totally oblivious to anything happening around her. My youngest, George, was alert, awake and as fascinated as I was listening to BBC Radio 2. Prof. Brian Cox was on the Zoe Ball show (which was being hosted by Fern Cotton that day), and was talking about wandering planets.
These rogue planets (this is why my book is called Rogue) are untethered from any celestial body, just floating through space, totally alone, and there are trillions of them. I couldn’t get my head around it at all. My brain was in overdrive, and George was asking me complex astrophysics questions that I couldn't answer.
I pondered if rogue planets had ever crashed into each other, reminding me of movies such as Armageddon and Deep Impact.. Those two films are another great example of similar storylines evolving through different people, and being interpreted in different ways.
I had a crumb of an idea. Just a notion that I couldn’t quite shake. There are hundreds of disaster movies and novels, and the one thing they all have in common is that they end with Earth being saved, minus a few casualties.
I thought to myself; What if the Earth couldn’t be saved? How would that story play out?
And that was it. That was the kicker, and I started writing almost immediately. Now, it’s safe to say that Rogue was written by my fingers rather than my brain. I didn’t plot it out or create a storyboard. The original idea was for the book to start in The Bleeds, with Jaxon going through Compression, heading to the Bertram Ramsay, and eventually saving the day as the space station left Earth's orbit before the apocalypse..
That was all going to be in one book, but as I tapped away on my keyboard it became increasingly obvious to me that there was a story to be had, just in Compression. That, perhaps, a second book would be necessary to continue the journey after the evacuation ends.
Many novelists plot their books out, before they even attempt to write it. You can actually download software specifically designed for writers to plot timeline events for their novels. I’m sure that’s probably the best way to go about it, but it isn’t the only way.
I like to grasp an idea and get to work on it, building the world and the characters as they appear (in words) on my screen. I often get moments of inspiration as I’m writing, and ideas for sub-plots and twists as I go through. Initially, I had a set antagonist for Rogue, but as I progressed in the book, I discovered a more exciting twist by completely altering the plot. I had to go back and re-write dialogue sequences and plot routes to marry up with the new twist.
The same thing happened with Enemy. I was so sure who the antagonist was, and yet, three quarters of the way through it, I realised there was a much better antagonist sitting under the surface. I ended up rewriting earlier chapters and dialogue to make the storyline work.
I know it’s hard to swallow, that I didn’t even know who the “baddie” was in my own books, until I outed them late on in the second book. But that’s the beauty of imagination - the story can take you anywhere. Even now, I’m not actually convinced I have outed the baddie. There have already been plot-lines in both books where antagonists manipulate innocents to do terrible things. So what’s to say that hasn’t happened again? I’ll let you know when I finish Traitor!
Now, I’m not advocating for that approach. Many writers prefer to plan their books, and I know of several authors that start at the end and work backwards, building the story in reverse (which actually makes sense).
I’ve taken that very approach with my newest book Fagan. I had an awful night’s sleep a few weeks back, and my brain refused to switch off. I spend quite a lot of my day in pain, and it tends to get considerably worse at night. Just one of those things that I have to live with, and on the night in question my legs were particularly bad. My mind started doing that thing where utterly ludicrous dreams occur, that seem so real and so normal, until you look back at them later and realise how absurd they were.
I had a girlfriend once that dreamed I slept with her sister, and didn’t talk to me for a week. She didn’t even have a sister...
Back to Fagan... I had a real eureka moment with it. I told myself to write it down as soon as I got out of bed, but me being me, I totally forgot about it when I eventually got up, and only remembered the dream when I received a reminder on my phone that I was going to the theatre later that week. I can’t say why that particular show reminded me, as it’ll give away the basic premise of the book.
I immediately pinged open my laptop, and jotted down a basic plot. I started with the END and then worked backwards through the plot chronology to the beginning. Once I had a basic plot, I wrote what I call a “publisher’s synopsis”. I always have to write a synopsis to try and entice people to read the book, but with a publisher synopsis you include all of the spoilers, and major plot developments, from beginning to end, including who did it, why, how, where and when.
I then handed it to my 14-year-old daughter to read. She pulled several faces over the course of the single page synopsis. I posted about it on Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/p/CxmvvxnKV9M/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==
“That is genius, dad.” was all she said, before casually leaving the room.
Being that it’s difficult to solicit praise from either of my kids, I’m clinging on to that comment for life.
That was just a couple of weeks ago, and already I’m 10,000 words into the new book, and thoroughly excited by it. One of the core attributes you need to finish writing a book (beginning a book is easy) is the discipline I mentioned before. Most authors force themselves to write something every day, even if it’s only 500 words, and they end up deleting them tomorrow. The key is to keep going until you get to the end.
I just can’t work like that. Creativity comes in ebbs and flows, as it does with all aspects of my work. Sometimes I have inspiration and ideas just leaking out of me and there aren’t enough hours in the day to get them all on paper. Other days I file my expenses, speak to my team about new projects, create forecasts and production schedules etc, until the creative urge returns.
With writing, I can’t force it. Either my head is in the game or it isn’t. I simply cannot just tap away on my laptop if I’m not in the mood, but I do make sure that I’m working on the project in some manner. For example, I’m 10k words into Fagan, and on the one day I’ve not had the inclination or energy to write, I devoted a couple of hours into researching book covers from similar genres, and created a folder of images to refer to (I should really learn to use Pinterest!)
A few days later, I had another “blank” writing day, so instead I designed the book cover, which inspired me to write the blurb, and kick-started the writing for me again.
So that’s where I am now: 10k into a new book, having paused halfway through the third book in a series where only the first book is published, and the second is written. I’ll go back to Traitor once I’ve finished Fagan, and I may even decide to write more about the “Bertram Ramsay” in spin-off books about other residents, or perhaps explore the Rogue story from the perspective of someone left behind to die on Earth. Who knows what the future holds?
So that’s my process in a nutshell. Sorry it was so long, but it was this, or a three-hour zoom call with patent lawyers.