From a pastime to being a full-time writer
Andrea Carter tinkered over her first novel for 15 years. She now writes a first draft in 12 weeks
Andrea Carter: Discipline is essential if you are to produce a book a year, not just the discipline to sit at your desk every day but the will to keep going forward, which can sometimes be harder
By 2012 I’d been working on my novel Treacherous Strand for 12 years. It still wasn’t finished. It wasn’t that I was a perfectionist: I had no notions of grandeur, no plans to be the next Booker Prize winner. I was working as a solicitor in Inishowen and I wrote at night when I couldn’t sleep, or when I was lonely and needed company. There was no imperative to finish it, no publisher or agent waiting on a manuscript. It was something for me alone.
And so, I wrote sporadically, tinkering with scenes and characters, then leaving it alone for months on end before returning with no memory of plot or character, having to re-read what I had written in its entirety before picking up the threads again.
In 2006, I moved to Dublin to practise as a barrister, taking my raggedy draft with me. Somehow it was longlisted for the Novel Fair at the Irish Writers Centre, in 2012 (or at least the first 10,000 words were), and it was only then that I finally decided to leave it alone. Starting a second novel was a huge turning point for me. Whitewater Church took a year and a half to write and gained me a London agent and London publisher. It became Death at Whitewater Church (because my publishers wanted a title that was obviously a crime novel) and was published in 2015, followed in 2016 by a reworked Treacherous Strand.
I was offered a second contract. But this time I did not have one already written and a second waiting in the wings. I was going to have to write a book a year, from scratch!
That year I was offered a second contract for two further books, to be delivered in April 2017 and April 2018. But this time I did not have one already written and a second waiting in the wings. I was going to have to write a book a year, from scratch! Not only that but I knew now that I would also be dealing with structural edits, copy edits and proofs on one book while writing the next. I realised I would have to dramatically change my writing process if I was to meet my deadlines.
The first thing I did was accept that if I was lucky enough to be writing full time, for a while at least (I’d taken leave of absence from the Bar), I would have to approach it as such. The crime writer, Sue Grafton, has said that her writing is inspired on no more than one or two days a month, but since she doesn’t know which two it’s going to be she must sit at her desk the other 28. “If you don’t do it every day of your life, you are not present when the good moments come along.” I adopted Grafton’s approach and treated my writing like a job.
Next, I borrowed the great Ian Rankin’s crime file. Rankin keeps a folder in which he squirrels away ideas: scraps of paper, newspapers, articles etc, which he keeps until it’s time to start his next novel. A nugget of an idea is all I need to begin.
I write my first draft quickly. There is real joy in this phase of writing; I don’t plot or plan my books so the story is unfolding for me as it does for the reader. It’s as if I’m reading my own book. I won’t spout any nonsense about the writer being the conduit and having no control over what he/she writes – it’s hard work – but it does seem to come together. Every morning, when I sit at the laptop, the next scene seems obvious. But for the first draft especially, total engagement is important. I need to write every day. If I pull back (not to put too fine a point on it), I lose the plot! I can now write a first draft in 12 weeks.
Discipline is essential if you are to produce a book a year, not just the discipline to sit at your desk every day but the will to keep going forward, which can sometimes be harder. Avoiding the temptation to tinker with what you have already written and closing your mind to doubts so you can rocket through your first draft can be a challenge. Of course, there is a comfort in writing a book that is part of a series: you re-enter the world you’ve created and shake hands with your characters again. I’ve found particular pleasure in doing so while writing my new novel, The Well of Ice.
After three months I have a first draft. It is ragged and rough, with lousy grammar and punctuation, gaping plot holes and characters whose names change half-way through. Often, I don’t know who the killer is; the ending has a list of two or three possibilities with motives and question marks. Sometimes it is the second or third draft before I know for certain what feels right.
When I have finished my first draft I put it away for a week. It is when I come back to it that the real hard slog begins: fixing the plot, fleshing out characters and setting, perfecting dialogue. Trips to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig and Donegal (where all the novels are set) help, intense periods of complete immersion where I move from bed to desk to kitchen to desk to bed.
I complete many drafts before the book is sent to my agent and publisher. And I know that there will be many more before publication, which I will work on while beginning my next book.
I feel incredibly privileged to be published for a third time, But I’ve learned that writing is moving forward. When I look back, I realise that the real turning point for me was finally to leave Treacherous Strand alone and move on to that second book. I am certain that if I had not done so, I would never have been published. And I certainly wouldn’t have been capable of writing to deadline. My advice? If you want to be published, write that second book!
The Well of Ice, the third book in the Inishowen Mysteries series, was published by Constable last week