Tag Archives: plot

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Linda Huber

Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

Our next writer to be influenced by her day job is Linda Huber. My thanks to Linda for so willingly sharing her experiences with us. It’s so interesting to hear how everyone’s professional lives have prepared them for a life of writing. 

Vic x


I’ve had two significant day jobs in my life, and both have hugely influenced my writing. As a starry-eyed youngster in Glasgow, I began training to become a physiotherapist, which was the best job ever for many years. I worked in hospitals at first, gaining practical knowledge of wards and intensive care units, as well as departments like X-Ray and Outpatients, and I came across a vast and colourful collection of different healthcare professionals. A few years later, I moved to Switzerland, where I worked in clinics and schools for disabled babies and children. Little did I know back then that I’d become a published writer, and put large chunks of my work experience into firstly my psychological suspense novels, and now my feel-good novellas.

Medical ‘stuff’ so often comes up in crime fiction. A murder? Enter the police doctor. A mysterious illness? Call the GP. An attack? The characters find themselves in hospital. In two of my novels – Ward Zero and Death Wish – medical staff and conditions are directly involved in the plot, and I was able to put my hospital know-how to good use.

A Lake in Switzerland - High Resolution

After over a decade of physiotherapy, I turned my attention to having babies, and took time out from the day job. It was during these years that I began writing seriously, magazine stories first, and then novels. Unfortunately, a back injury meant that physiotherapy was no longer an option when the time came to return to the working life. An English speaker in lovely Switzerland, I retrained as a language teacher – and realised how little I knew about the grammar of my native language. Speaking a language perfectly doesn’t help when you have to teach people about defining and non-defining relative clauses, or conditional structures. But when you do know all the grammar stuff that makes people’s eyes glaze over when you talk about it, it’s enormously helpful to your writing career. My proofreader complained once I didn’t leave her enough to correct. Mind you, I still make mistakes. There was once a stationary shop that should have been a stationery shop. A typo, of course…

Today, I teach one day a week, and the rest of the time is for writing. With my Lakeside Hotel novellas (written under my pen name Melinda Huber), I can use all my various work experiences. The main character Stacy is a reluctant nurse from England who ends up working in a Swiss spa, helping guests with minor illnesses and injuries, as well as coping with life in a foreign country and learning a new language. She faces the same frustration I once did at her lack of ability to communicate swiftly. In all, my books wouldn’t be what they are if I hadn’t had my day jobs. Even some of the drama I went through in my ‘third’ job – being a mother – comes in useful to Stacy, when head lice appear in the hotel!

Melinda Huber is the feel-good pen name of psychological suspense writer Linda Huber – she’s hiding in plain sight! You can find Linda on Facebook, Twitter (as Linda Huber and Melinda Huber) and on her website. Download ‘A Lake in Switzerland’ here.



Getting to Know You: Judy Penz Sheluk

International Bestselling Author, Judy Penz Sheluk has kindly given us some of her time today. Judy’s debut mystery novel, ‘The Hanged Man’s Noose‘, the first in the ‘Glass Dolphin Mystery’ series, was published in July 2015. The sequel, ‘A Hole In One‘, was released on the 1st of March.

Skeletons in the Attic‘, Judy’s second novel, and the first in her ‘Marketville Mystery’ series, was first published in August 2016 and re-released in December 2017. ‘Past & Present’, the sequel, is scheduled for early 2019.

In her less mysterious pursuits, Judy works as a freelance writer and editor. In addition to all of that, Judy is also a member of a number of crime writing collectives and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves as Director and Regional Representative for Toronto/Southern Ontario.

As you can see, Judy is a very busy lady and I’m really grateful that she’s taken the time to chat with us. 

Vic x


Tell us about your books.
I write two amateur sleuth mystery series. The first is the Glass Dolphin Mysteries; the Glass Dolphin is an antiques shop on historic Main Street in the fictional town of Lount’s Landing. The main characters are Arabella Carpenter, owner of the shop, Emily Garland, a journalist, and Levon Larroquette, ex-husband (and occasionally more) to Arabella. Let’s just say they have a complicated relationship. The first book in the series is The Hanged Man’s Noose (which happens to be the name of a pub; Lount’s Landing is named after a real life Canadian politician, Samuel Lount, who was hanged for treason in the nineteenth century). It’s available in e-book, paperback, and audiobook. The sequel, A Hole in One, has just been released in e-book and trade paperback. Audio will follow later this year.


The other series is the Marketville Mysteries. The first book in the series is Skeletons in the Attic, told in first person by Calamity (Callie) Barnstable. Callie inherits a house from her late father on the condition she moves into the house (which she did not know existed) while investigating who murdered her mother thirty years before. It’s available in e-book, trade paperback and audiobook. The sequel, Past & Present, should be released in early 2019.

Both my series are published by Barking Rain Press.


What inspired them?
The premise behind Noose is that a greedy developer comes to a small town with plans to build a mega-box store, thereby threatening the livelihoods of the local indie shops. We see that sort of thing happen all the time. I merely took that premise and said, “What if someone was willing to kill to stop it?”

The premise behind Skeletons came to me when my husband and I were waiting in our lawyer’s office. He was delayed in court and we were there to redo our wills. In fact, opening scenes are directly culled from that experience. Let that be your takeaway: everything that happens to an author may well end up in one of their books.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Life. I keep a notebook in my purse, and I’m also jotting down things I’ve seen or overheard. But I also have this wicked imagination. For example, this past summer, I was golfing and the houses along the perimeter of the course were having their roofs done. And I heard the pop-pop of the pneumatic nailers, and I said to my golf buddies, “You know, someone could get shot and everyone would just think it was the roofer.” They did look at me as though I was a bit odd!

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
I love Arabella Carpenter, the irascible owner of the Glass Dolphin. I even included her in a cameo role in Skeletons in the Attic, the first book in my Marketville series. Arabella’s motto is “authenticity matters” and she lives by that, even when it comes at a high personal cost. I admire that about her.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Definitely a pantser. I’ve tried plotting but it just doesn’t work for me. That said, I’m planning to write a non-fiction work, and that will have to be outlined in detail. With fiction, I just let the story go where it wants to go.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
Absolutely. Reading is the best teacher. I try to read 30+ books a year. Most are mystery or suspense, but I’ll also read mainstream fiction and I enjoy short story collections. I’m a huge fan of a number of authors, most recently Fiona Barton, who I think is absolutely brilliant.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
I always quote Agatha Christie when I’m asked this: “There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.”

What can readers expect from your books?
I refer to them as amateur sleuth with an edge. There is the requisite small town, no overt sex, violence or bad language, but there’s also no cats, crafts or cookie recipes. People tell me the plots are more complicated than a typical cozy, and I do have a lot of characters, but they all play a part. They’re not just there for window dressing.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Make time to write every day. You can’t edit a blank page. And write what you’d like to read, not what you think will sell. By the time you’ve written the next great vampire book, the vampire craze will be long over. Start your own craze.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
Of course I like it best when the words flow like maple syrup, but even when they don’t I’m reminded of Erica Jong, who wrote: “When I sit down at my writing desk, time seems to vanish. I think it’s a wonderful way to spend one’s life.”

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Always. I’m currently working on the third book of the Glass Dolphin series, and a standalone mystery/suspense. And I have a couple of short story ideas I’m mulling over. And the non-fiction work I’m researching. I try to write every day, even if I only have a few minutes, even if it’s Christmas, New Year’s Day or my birthday. It doesn’t always work out that way!

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
The day I signed my first book contract for The Hanged Man’s Noose. I’d faced the usual rejection from agents and publishers, but I wasn’t giving up. The email came in on July 1, 2014, which happens to be Canada Day. My husband and I popped open a bottle of champagne and danced on our back deck. The book came out July 2015.

Where can we find you?
My website where I write about the writing life, interview other authors, write the occasional book review, and I also have a series called New Release Mondays where I include a brief summary of a new book. Most are mysteries or suspense, but not always, and most of the authors are not well known, but deserve to be better known.

I’m also part of two multi-author blogs: Pens, Paws and Claws and The Stiletto Gang

I’m also on Facebook, and Twitter and Pinterest. 

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Martyn Taylor

Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

Martyn Taylor, a member of Elementary Writers, is with us today to talk about how his day job has affected his writing. 

Vic x

For Wild Wolf copy

Are we authors or writers?  No, we are liars.  Our stories did not happen.  Our characters live only in our imaginations.  Even the most meticulous historical author only presents a cartoon because it is impossible to know the entirety of the actuality.

Crime writers deal with liars.  Bad guys do not care they are lying.  Good guys have problems with truth.  Why?  We all lie every day, although accepting consequences ranging from the disapproval of a loved one to being taken to a place of execution and hanged by the neck until we are dead.  Fiction is the art of good lying, which means knowing the motivation of our liars.

Cover1 (1)

I have had two occupations that brought me into contact with chronic liars.  As a portfolio manager in the City I was daily invited to pay more for what was on offer than it was worth.  Because I was dealing for clients I had no personal stake in the transaction and so could buy their bill of goods because – as Danny De Vito put it – it was ‘other people’s money’.  These barrow boys with their red braces and Oxbridge degrees worked in an institution that still has a motto ‘My Word is My Bond’, but – as has been so often shown – these guys never signed a contract they didn’t have five ways from Friday of slithering out from under if things went wrong.  Their motto, as expressed by a stock broker who took me to lunch, was ‘If God didn’t mean them to be sheared he wouldn’t have made them sheep’.  ‘Them’ being those outside the gilded circle, you and me.

These liars do not know they are lying.  The difference between them and someone trying the Nigerian scam online is that the scammers know they are lying.  Presenting these liars in fiction is almost impossible because of the corrosive universality of their lying and the fact that the finance industry is so ‘valuable’ that the liars buy off our gate keepers with pocket change.  We accept their edifice of lies as normality.  They may have problems selling me their Ponzi schemes but, yes, I did have PPI.

As an investigator of motor thefts and accidents I was daily confronted by those stalwarts of crime fiction, unreliable witnesses, people recounting what they believe they witnessed rather than what actually happened.  Four ‘independent’ witnesses will give you at least six plausible versions of events and believe they are telling the truth.

Some, however, lied outright, mostly for simple financial gain.  Knowing them was relatively easy:  they began by saying ‘To tell the truth…’

Others had murkier motivations.  They could not allow themselves to be overtaken by a woman, or possibly have caused loss to someone of a different race, creed or colour.  With them the HL Mencken question was as important as it is in fiction.  ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’  It is insufficient to be convenient or demanded by the plot.  Our antagonists must be as fully motivated as our protagonists.  We expect fiction to illuminate life rather than reflect it.  Everyday lying is as banal, captivating and convincing as flat soda.  Nobody expects life to make sense.  Everyone demands that fiction does.

Which is why we must lie better in our fiction than we do in real life.

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Paul Gitsham

Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we’ll talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

Following on from Linda MacDonald’s insight into how teaching A Level Psychology contributed to her debut novel, we have another teacher on the blog to talk about how teaching has inspired him to write a series of crime novels.

My thanks to the lovely – and very busy – Paul Gitsham for taking the time to write about his day job. To find out more about the DCI Warren Jones series,  go to Facebook, Twitter or Paul’s website

Paul’s will be the final blog in the Don’t Quit the Day Job series for 2017 because December, as always, will be taken up with daily guests reviewing their year. Don’t Quit the Day Job will start again in January 2018.

Vic x

“You know, if you bury her body under the new school hall, no one will ever find her, Sir.”

This was not a helpful plot idea from one of my students, rather the response of another pupil to his classmate’s question “are trees alive?”, asked precisely three weeks before the class were due to sit their biology GCSE.

Fortunately, the question appeared to be little more than a random synaptic misfiring – probably caused by stress – and the frantically blushing pupil went on to do very well.

If I tell someone at a literary festival that I am a school teacher (often in response to the question, ‘why don’t you write more quickly?’ or ‘can’t you take the afternoon off to arrive at a more reasonable hour?’), they naturally assume that I teach English. That I am a former biologist and now teach science seems to bemuse many people.

Yet I find that although teaching full time eats into my writing time, it also feeds into what I write. For example, DCI Warren Jones is happily married to Susan, a – you guessed it! – secondary school biology teacher. She even supplies the odd crucial insight – thus allowing me to vicariously fulfil my own fantasies…

The first person we meet in my debut novel, The Last Straw, is Tom Spencer – who just happened to be sitting opposite me, marking coursework, as I dreamt up that book. By contrast, the laid-back, portly, pony-tailed Crime Scene Manager Andy Harrison, who appears in all of my books, is the polar opposite of his namesake, another former colleague. A number of workmates have given me explicit permission to either kill them off or name a serial killer after them. If nothing else, the people I work with or teach are a useful source of interesting names and personality quirks.

It was also through school that I met my forensic science contact. Lee ran workshops for our science and engineering club, but his day job is that of a crime scene investigator for Essex police. An endless source of dark and blackly humorous war stories, he’s given me countless ideas and advice.

Like all writers, I am a trivia magpie and nowhere is a better source of random information than a science classroom. For example, did you know that deer stand still in the glare of headlights because they interpret the lights as eyes, but are confused by the lack of legs? Thanks to eleven year old Francis for that fact – look out for it in book 2, No Smoke Without Fire. I’ve also spent ten years teaching about diabetes and blood glucose regulation – a key plot device in Silent as the Grave. An A Level practical investigation into how blood is identified at a crime scene triggered a lovely little sub-plot in an upcoming novel.

Writing this article has really made me consider the impact that teaching and being a teacher has had upon my writing. And so, for the foreseeable future at least, I have no plans to give up the day job entirely.

Review: ‘Robbing the Dead’ by Tana Collins

A small Scottish university town is in thrown into chaos following a grizzly murder and a targeted bombing. Rumours abound of a terrorist plot which may or may not be linked to the disappearance of a soldier and lecturer.

DCI Jim Carruthers, having recently moved back to Castletown to get over his marriage break-up, finds himself dropped into the middle of a seemingly ever-expanding investigation.

In order to stop the violence and solve the crime, Carruthers must work with DS Andrea Fletcher – who has her own problems – to catch the perpetrators. However, the appearance of Jim’s old enemy, terror expert McGhee, adds further complications to the investigation.

Robbing the Dead poses many interesting questions particularly in our ever-changing world. Recent events – Brexit, the attack on London last week and the death of Martin McGuinness – added so much depth to this story.

There are lots of narrative strands to keep the reader interested and

Tana Collins has created two really compelling characters in Carruthers and Fletcher and there is plenty of potential for them to appear in more books.

Vic x

Guest Post: David McCaffrey on Beat Sheets

I’ve already started arranging the next Noir at the Bar NE. It may not be until February but we have more than half of the performers booked. One of those readers is David McCaffrey who has been very complimentary about Noir at the Bar.

David has very kindly taken time out of his busy schedule to chat to us about beat sheets. My thanks go to David for sharing his wisdom – see you in February. 

Vic x

Guest Post: David McCaffrey on Beat Sheets

Christopher Vogler wrote a book called ‘The Writers Journey‘, a writing textbook that focuses on the theory that most stories can be boiled down to a series of narrative structures and character archetypes. Basically he says that every story told has been told before and that every fictional story consists of the same components.

I explored this once in my blog where I discussed the writing process, but the gist of it is this –

1.) The hero is introduced in his/her ORDINARY WORLD
3.) The hero is reluctant at first. (REFUSAL OF THE CALL.)
4.) The hero is encouraged by the Wise Old Man or Woman. (MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.)
5.) The hero passes the first threshold.  (CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.)
6.) The hero encounters tests and helpers. (TESTS, ALLIES, ENEMIES.)
7.)  The hero reaches the innermost cave.  (APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE.)
8.) The hero endures the supreme ORDEAL.
9.) The hero seizes the sword. (SEIZING THE SWORD, REWARD)

Every story can be structured around the above, not always in the same order, not always every element, but they are there in one form or another.

In line with these components, it is important that you plug variables into your story before you start writing for one simple reason: so you don’t back yourself into a corner.

It’s really easy to begin writing a story off the top of your head or with the most basic of narratives and think that you can just string all the various plot points together.  And some authors can do this (the talented John Nicholson being one of them), but many need a structure, an outline of the aforementioned variables in order to understand where their story starts, begins and ends. This outline can prevent you ending up somewhere inescapable.

For me, writers block is not having the research in which to frame and support your story. I learnt right at the beginning that research is key, especially for the kinds of novels I write as they are mostly psychological thrillers that require an element of philosophy and detail to make them believable.

In line with this, you need something that is high concept, meaning it can be described in one or two words.

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” This tells you exactly what ‘Jaws 2 is about in one sentence.

“His crimes – unspeakable. His death – inevitable. His suffering – just beginning.”

My debut novel ‘Hellbound had the above tagline and in only a few words gives you an idea of what the book is about.

Once you have your idea and concept, it needs to be backed up by that most important of elements – research. You need to be steeped in your subject matter in order to sell your concept realistically. If your story outline is a skeleton, your research adds flesh to its bones. It fleshes out the whole idea so you begin to see what it will truly look like once complete.

Then we get to what I was taught is the most important element of writing, at least for me – having a beat sheet.

Once I have the above in place, I write a beat sheet that consists of bullet points with key elements of each chapter in a very simplified form acting as my map. Bestselling author Steve Alten once said that a beat sheet was like lining up dominoes, so that if you push over the first one it will travel right to the end meaning that if the beat sheet is tight then your story will have every element in place before you start putting one word on paper.

It’s better to get your beat sheet right before you start then begin writing and realise that you have a character who disappeared inexplicably halfway through the story or a massive plot hole you hadn’t considered.

Not having those dominoes lined up can result in you becoming frustrated and potentially lost in your own writing process.

Granted, a beat sheet can also be classed as an outline and many authors hate writing outlines because it requires all the underlying planning to have been done to answer all the difficult questions about your story. But with your research you would have the answers to those questions and the rest is a piece of cake.

Your beat sheet doesn’t have to be detailed. It can be one or two words – sex, Joseph dies, Maggie drives to work… as long as you know what it means, that’s enough.

The beat sheet stops you having to confront the most horrific of questions – what shall I write next?

Your research and a tight beat sheet can prevent this most awful of writing circumstances. With it, you will always know where you are in your story, what happens next, what will further the dramatic tension etc.

And because they are just bullet points, if something is moving too slow or there is too much action in a particular scene, you can simply move the bullet points around until you are happy and the beat sheet is tight again.

The beat sheet not only tells you what the scene is, it tells you why it’s there in the first place. And for me, the best thing of all is with a beat sheet you are simply going into those bullet points and just fleshing them out, adding narrative around them because the framework is already there.

You might veer off as you go as different story beats come to mind or naturally develop with the story. This is the beauty of using a beat sheet: they leave you free to explore and flesh out the narrative that drives the story forward. As long as you end you where you intended at the very beginning, it isn’t as important how you get there – the story will take care of itself.

Make the beat sheet clear and simple. Remember, this is your document. You’re not trying to sell the story to anyone else, you’re just trying to get your head around the story as a whole.

Besides, it’s always nice after you’ve written a three hundred page novel to look back and see that it just started out as a forty bullet point piece of A4. You would probably struggle in reverse if asked to summarise your story in forty bullet points, but it goes to show that as Christopher Vogler believed, every story can be boiled down to key elements.

And we thought we all had original ideas!!!

Guest Post: Chris Ord on ‘The First Novel?’

In my job as a copy editor, many manuscripts are sent to me for critical evaluation. Few have left me as impressed as ‘Becoming‘ by Chris Ord. Chris approached me earlier this year and I had the pleasure of reading his debut novel prior to its release. 

Becoming‘ is now available to download or buy in physical form and, although it’s a YA novel, it really is one that I’d happily recommend for adults too. Chris is here to talk to us about his experience as a first time novelist and share some of the lessons he’s learned. Thanks for taking the time to appear on the blog, Chris – I can’t wait to read your next novel.

Vic x


The first novel?
By Chris Ord


On September 23rd 2016 I published my first novel ‘Becoming’. It feels strange, almost surreal typing that, as only a year ago my words were filled with nothing more than intent. Now they fizz with the excitement of achievement, the realisation of something I have wanted to do all my life. There are mixed emotions though. There is pride and satisfaction, but apprehension too. Now the book is out I appreciate I’m revealing my creation to others – friends, relatives, and strangers. I’m exposing a bit of my soul. Now is the time for judgement and thick skin. I loved writing ‘Becoming’ and if others love it too that is a bonus. I wanted to write a story that I would enjoy reading, one that engages and entertains, but also challenges and provokes. If I achieve any combination of these I’ll be happy.

Except I have a confession, ‘Becoming’ isn’t my first novel. It’s the first I have published. I have another buried in my hard drive, seen only by the handful that ever will. I took a long time to write that novel, about twenty five years. Twenty four and a half of those I was gathering thoughts and intention. I called it research and planning. In truth, I was dithering. I had lots of ideas, some I wrote down, most I didn’t and forgot. There was one that kept coming back, and I decided there must be a reason so it had to be the story.

Chris Ord

I reached the age of forty five and two family bereavements forced reflection and an existential crisis. Loss and grief made me realise I had to take chances before it was too late. So I gave up my full-time job in August 2015 to write. The years of planning were over. The moment was now. I was going to write that book. It was a risk, but I knew it was time to do what I love.

Most of the advice I read was to write what you know. This reassured me, as I needed all the structure and safety I could get. I was stepping into the unknown, trying to find an approach that would work, a method that would hold my hand. Writing from personal experience made perfect sense.

I developed my characters and my hero, someone whose story I had wanted to tell. I had a scenario. It was loose at first, but I was fine with that as I wanted the story to unfold and develop. I was looking to keep the process exciting and fresh, and I figured the more I made a storyboard before I began, the more barriers I was putting in my way. I know some writers like to plot their stories from the start, and I suspect with some types of novels it is essential. I don’t. Each to their own, as you have to find what works for you. I wanted to get the words down and see where they would take me.

I gave myself a minimum daily target of 1,000 words which I stuck to and often exceeded. The first draft flowed and the writing was fun. It was like a series of puzzles, and I love problem-solving. I had tough days, and scrapped a lot of words, but I kept going, spurred on by the growing sense of achievement. It was exciting and motivating to see the words mount and the story develop. I was disciplined, and above all else I would say that is the key quality you need to finish a novel. I suspect there are many great unfinished novels that would be completed with more structure and discipline. Page after page created my new world. Every day I would escape there and build, moulding and reshaping, bringing new characters to life, and getting rid of others. It was an exhilarating journey, and finally, the day came, I completed the first draft and was overcome with joy and relief. I had done it. I had written a novel, or at least a rough, unfinished first draft of a novel.

I asked myself – what do I do now? We all have someone who reads our work first. It has to be someone you trust, but who won’t sugarcoat the feedback. The early drafts are the beginning, but far from the end, and you need a first editor to tell you what does and doesn’t work and why. Eventually you will need a good copy-editor to look at a draft you’re happy with. External, professional input is vital, as no matter how good you think your work is it can be better and there are things you will miss. Before my draft ever got that far I wanted to give it to someone else for the first judgement.

I read somewhere you should never give your work to anyone you share Christmas dinner with. In my case we share a bed. Some would urge caution at giving your unfinished work to your wife. They may tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to. Thankfully, Julie doesn’t sweeten her feedback. She’s an English graduate, well-read, a teacher and, more importantly I trust and value her opinion. She’s honest, usually more than I would like. I used the term brutal to describe her comments, but she prefers honest and constructive.

I gave my wife a polished draft of my debut convinced she would love it. She was impressed, enjoyed it, and there were many things she admired about the novel. I was relieved. The quality of the writing was much higher than she’d expected, and I recall the phrase ‘it does read like a proper book’. My excitement was short-lived though. It was good, and there was a lot to build on, but it wasn’t there yet. It didn’t work. The characters and writing were strong, but the story was flimsy, too weak. This stung me, so I read it again, determined to convince myself she was wrong. She was right, as always. Her candour and constructive criticisms helped me realise where the faults lay in the book. I had followed the advice and written what I knew, but it was too personal, and though the characters were strong I had been so desperate to capture them that I had wrapped their relationship around a dull plot. It read more like a screenplay than a novel, and there was too much dialogue and not enough action. I had tried to use the characters as a vehicle for my ideas and it felt contrived. In sum, it was a valiant first attempt, but it wasn’t good enough, at least not yet. I could do better.

This realisation was a blow. I had put months of my life into this, and the excitement of completion had convinced me that this was the one. Yet time and reflection away from the draft, along with some objective feedback left me with a big decision. Did I persevere with the draft and make it better? Could I rewrite it, make it more literary and less cinematic? How could I improve the story-line and make it more dramatic and compelling? Failing all of that, should I put it to one side, learn from the experience, move on and write something else? I guess these are the questions writers ask all the time, or at least should.

This was a learning process and though I hadn’t succeeded with this novel, at least I knew where I had gone wrong. I had followed the advice and written what I knew, but for me this reassuring structure had been a constraint. For the ‘known’ I had drawn on the autobiographical too much, taken personal experiences and woven a shaky plot around them. Sometimes this works. In my case it didn’t. My desire was to bring particular characters to life, but in doing so I had overlooked a critical element of all good writing, the story. Of course, characters are important, but readers love a good narrative. More importantly, I hadn’t written a book I would want to read, I had written one I thought I should write. I had played safe and sometimes safe is dull.

I made a bold decision, set the manuscript to one side, buried it in a cyber vault. I decided to start again, write another, something different, based around a wild and imaginary scenario and setting. I focused on the story and let my imagination run free. This novel would not be about what I knew, but would be one that I would love to read. I kept my structure of determination and daily discipline, and allowed things to develop and unfold. This was the journey that led to ‘Becoming’, my second novel, but the first I am happy with, and have published. The failed first attempt was very important though. Without the failure and the lessons taken from it, ‘Becoming’ might never have been written.

What have I learned from my experience of writing my first novel? Discipline and humility are two of the most important qualities you need to be a writer. Being honest, even brutal, with yourself may be the next. Criticism of your writing will hurt, but being critical from draft one will save you more pain in the long term. Trust the opinion of someone who will be frank with you about your work. Don’t let ego or excitement overcome common sense and critical judgement. Give yourself plenty of time between edits, as it is good to look at something again with fresh eyes. At times it is important to admit to yourself that something doesn’t work. The first novel you complete may not be the first you should let the world see. Readers are often strangers who owe you nothing. If your first attempt makes the grade I applaud you, but there’s no shame in burying it. Keep it though, as it may come in useful in the future, and some of it will be good enough to steal. We learn from every writing experience, especially the ones that don’t turn out as we had hoped. We need the courage to move on and be better, but also to never give up.