I need to be clear with whomever reads this article that I’m not a serious university student of literature, nor a lecturer. During study for my undergraduate degree, I took a unit called English 10, which I passed. So I enrolled in English 20. The focus was on Shakespeare and it took me three weeks to decide it wasn’t for me. So as you read this, know I’m someone who’s gone from writing formal research reports to creating fictional novels and is trying to explain why, how he did it and what happened. I am not setting out to present something wise. I’m just telling my story in language as simple I can muster.

I believe the area I call consolidation is one of the most important of the process. This is where the research and various drafts of the story I was writing became one I felt I could show people. That doesn’t mean to get it published. It means the story had reached a stage where it was sufficiently coherent and characters were developed well enough to attract and hold the attention of readers. I selected about three people I trusted to give me direct, unapologetic feedback.

In writing my first novel, Hiding Place, I completed the first draft in about eight weeks. So I was thinking I’d be able to publish it in a few more, but that’s not what happened. To start with, I hadn’t set my readers any specific questions so each read with a different purpose. The feedback was certainly direct and unapologetic but one focused on proofing: spelling, punctuation, repetition, and similes that might be more effective is terms of whatever I was describing. A second looked mainly at characterization, while a third tended to be more interested on the coherence and effectiveness of the plot. While each set of feedback was useful, I realized to some extent I’d wasted the time of the two people who’d either proofed or reviewed the characters. The most useful feedback in the first instance was that about the plot: the idea and theme of the story and how well, if at all, both were presented.

That feedback caused a considerable rewrite, with the characteristics or attitudes of characters altering or being made more explicit as a consequence. Chunks of the plot being changed or deleted and new passages or sections were being inserted which meant the proofing had been a waste of time.

The rewrite took somewhere around six months to complete and when I offered it to other readers, I made certain I asked each one to look at the coherence of plot in relation to the theme, and how well the characters fitted the plot and how well they were drawn.

It was only when finally had what I felt was the first draft, after about fifteen months, that I worked on proofing, which I came to realise belonged in the arena of publication (the next section in this epistle). I wasn’t that I hadn’t proofed my work, but I already knew from research writing that proofing my own work was fraught with difficulty. In that area, I’d learned to get others to proof. One issue is that in proofing my own work, I have always tended to read what I thought I’d written, rather than what I actually had. Another proofing issue is working on a computer screen. It’s far better to print off in a hard copy and proof from that. For example, proofing on a screen often tempts me to make changes as I go, which has the consequence of correcting one error but creating others.

So my rule of thumb about writing a novel is that it takes around 18 months to get it into shape. Then for me, there have always been six months or so for publication and for planning the marketing.

I say 18 months to write because my novels are not formulaic. By that, I mean they’re not novels that tend to follow a formula like those so successfully written by Arthur Hailey, Robert Goddard or J.K Rowling. Let me explain.

Hailey sets each of his novels within an industry like an airport, a hotel or a bank. But the plot and characters have considerable similarities. Goddard’s novels have a historical element and settings in provincial English towns and cities, and many twists in the plot. They usually involve a protagonist uncovering a conspiracy which has long been kept secret, by means of historical documents such as diaries or word-of-mouth accounts handed down. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are also formulaic, both in terms of plot and characters, perhaps far more than the other two writers. And I am using these authors to illustrate the term, not to be critical of writing according to a formula. How could I be critical of people who have been so successful.

So, the basic message I am conveying here is:

  • Create to the point where you believe others will find the story beguiling or interesting or challenging …
  • Give it to a few people to read critically, but be clear what you want them to look for, and what will assist you in terms of feedback. In my case, it’s always the coherence of the theme and the plot and how well the characters aid that coherence.
  • If necessary, (and it always has been for me), rewrite and find a few more readers.
  • If necessary, to it again, and then move to proofing as part of publication.