Well, today I wrote the final words of my current book, a technothriller called Flashback. (The final words? “Like a ghost.”) The first draft comes in at 125,410 words, which is shade over the word count I aimed for when I started the manuscript in November. It’s only the first draft, but there’s not just the satisfaction of having written the book — there is also the knowledge that the story works. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the story worked as well as it could; for that, it will take some months of editing. But the story did grip me as I wrote it (there were no moments of writers’ block, whatever that is) and if it doesn’t work on the page in its present form, that probably means some superficial rearrangement is necessary. I say ‘superficial’ rather lightly, of course. Superficial changes like ‘make this scene less intense’, ‘improve this character’s motivation’ and so on will seem progressively unsuperficial as the editing process bites.
I’ve noticed some posts over on John Barlow’s blog and Grumpy’s about the amount of time some novelists spend writing a book. In some senses, the question is a little like ‘How long does it take to build a house?’ Depends on the amount of land, your materials, and what you want to end up with. But since I’ve just finished the first draft, it might be apposite to consider how the writing process went.
Flashback began as a loose collection of ideas at the beginning of last year (around May, when I was coming to the end of Proper Job). I knew I wanted to write more about a character called Saskia Brandt, from my first novel, Déjà Vu. Spoiler alert: Saskia has traveled backwards in time to the year 2002. She has already seen herself as a middle-aged woman in the year 2023 (still following?), so she knows that, at least until the year 2023, she cannot be killed. I wondered how this would make Saskia feel. Fearless, because she can’t die? Trapped, because she understands that all her actions have been predetermined? Anyway, I had an image of Saskia climbing aboard a aircraft to ensure — for a some reason — that it would not crash. In its final form in the book, the idea is a little different, but the spirit of the idea remains. I had other flashes of ideas: Saskia is German, and I wanted to incorporate the connection that Germans feel with the forest; I wanted to have an English character lost in Germany too, perhaps to serve as a proxy of the disconnection that Saskia must feel, since she is stranded in our time.
Following a ‘research’ trip to the Bavarian National Forest in July of 2005, I read up on aircrash investigation, re-read the Grimm fairytales, and stared out of windows a great deal. Towards the end of my research, I came across an interesting aircrash in the Andes (the crash of the Star Dust). This wasn’t the first time I’d heard about that crash, having seen the excellent Horizon documentary a few years ago, but it fit perfectly into the revenge backstory. I knew, immediately, the fate of the Star Dust was — in my fictional world — connected to the crash of Saskia’s plane in 2002. That was the point I knew I had a book’s worth of story.
There were a couple of surprises along the way. The finished book didn’t turn out anything like the rough synopsis I had when I started (summarisable in a sentence). Another surprise came in the form of the nature of the book; I thought it would be a sequel to Déjà Vu, but the book is basically standalone. It actually took a little longer to write than I thought, too. I started writing on Friday 21st October 2005. Aim: Write 1000 words per day, seven days a week. My work rate was 820 a day, so I missed the target. But some days were research intensive, and I was careful to avoid those ‘brain warming up’ paragraphs that would eventually need to be removed during editing, and I treated the prose like I was writing a short story: tight, to the point, and entertaining.
So, the process of writing Flashback has been a positive one. Some of the days were long, some were dark, but there were no times when the story got hard to write; the characters were always engaging and it was never difficult to ‘fall through the hole in the paper’, to use a Stephen King phrase. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I will adjourn for a beer.