|By Antonio Litterio
In the first five parts of this series, I’ve covered finding ideas, character development, planning (or not), basic three-act structure and dirty drafts. If you’ve got your first, rough draft down on paper and you’ve managed to put it aside to mellow for a while, you’ll be raring to go.
Now’s the time to tie everything together. This is where the old line “write about what you know” can be both a blessing and a curse. Inside knowledge is perfect for adding details, and that’s the problem. If you’re a mechanic writing a thriller, you’re the ideal person to give tantalising glimpses of the power of getaway cars, and the intimate luxury of limousines. Just make sure you only salt your work with facts, rather than pickle it in brine. John Grisham gives enough detail in his legal thrillers such as The Firm to fill you in and keep you reading—he’s careful not to make you feel you need a Bar exam to read his books.
What if your book is a personal memoir, and you think you don’t have technical expertise in any field? Think again. Everyone knows how it feels to be hungry, thirsty, disappointed or excited. You’re an expert in being you. Put your own personal spin on your fictional characters. Deepen their conflicts by drawing on your experience of your own feelings, and the reactions you’ve seen in other people. Use all your senses to enliven your work. The sound and feel of fresh snow crunching under your feet, the sight of clouds rushing across a March landscape in fitful spring sunshine, the fragrance and taste of fresh baking…writing is a chance to indulge your creativity, so get thinking!
Make sure you do plenty of external research to get all your technical details correct. Don’t feel you have to include everything you know, or find out—see the comment about John Grisham’s books, above. Keep some things in reserve, complete with all references, so you can answer any questions put to you by your readers. I used my memories of a recent holiday at a luxurious spa to spice up His Majesty’s Secret Passion, then double-checked everything I could.
However brilliant you are, there’ll always be someone out there who knows (or thinks they know) more than you do—even if it’s only your mum. You owe it to your readers to get everything as near-perfect as you can. As well as checking specialist facts and figures, don’t forget the little things. Unless you’re writing about an alternative universe, don’t say the date’s 30th February, or give England tropical temperatures on Christmas Day. Stranger things have happened—but not many.
Once you’ve produced a detailed second draft, take the time (and the throat sweets) read it through aloud to yourself. I use this step to produce a timeline, too, if I haven’t done one already. This makes sure everyone and everything hangs together. Make all the alterations and amendments your work needs, then repeat the reading and nit-picking as often as it takes to make your work perfect.
Then comes the moment when you find out whether your manuscript can survive in the wider world. If you have a friend you can trust to give you impartial advice, get them to read your work. A fresh pair of eyes will shine like searchlights through holes in your plot, and pick out the kind of typos and inconsistencies we all miss when we’re poring over our work. It needs distance to be able to spot these things. I type “form” instead of “from” and vice versa all the time. However careful I am about reading back and checking, my Beta reader almost always finds one that’s slipped past me.
If you think your friend will be either too kind or too harsh (it can happen!), employ a professional Beta reader. Word of mouth is the best recommendation, but there are plenty of ads in writing magazines, and online. Check them out thoroughly before you part with any money.
Once you’ve polished your book until it gleams, put it aside again for at least another week while you get on with the next important steps in the birth of a book: starting the next one and finding a market. Those topics are going to be the next parts parts in my Birth Of A Book series. To make sure you catch them, sign up to my blog clicking on the link above, or email me at christinahollis(at)hotmail.co.uk with the word “Blog” in the subject line, replacing the word “at” with @ in my address.