Thursday, 15 May 2014


Being a Writer = Personality Disorder?

Just over half of the questions I get from readers are from those wanting to know more about the writing process. These stretch from where and when do I work, to how do I plan and write my novels. So for all you aspiring novelists, or even the nosey-parkers out there, this is how it goes ;-)

I live (most of the year - it's snowed under in winter) in a tiny house up in the foothills of the French Alps. 
The house is really, really small, and very, very isolated, but the garden is huge – a mix of pine and walnut and hazelnut trees stretching down to a little river that you can hear from the house. A range of mountains rises sharply from the far side of the river and there is often snow on the peaks until late spring.
The fact that it's so isolated is actually a good thing, because there are no distractions. I'm very easily led astray, and a house with no neighbours or shops or cinemas or beaches or bars is pretty much the only place I can get any work done.
I do most of my writing in a little cabin at the bottom of the garden. When I bought the place, the cabin was a derelict shed (the house wasn’t much better), but I put a new roof on it (it leaks a bit) and insulated it (it's still a bit cold in the mornings) and put a wooden floor down (yep, it creaks) to turn it into an office. It really is my favourite place in the world to write, and though I do sometimes manage to write elsewhere, it’s always that bit harder. I sit and suck the end of my pen and stare out at the sunlight flickering through the trees. Sometimes I see a squirrel or a wild boar or, very occasionally, a deer wander across the garden. My cats (we have three) generally sleep on either side of the iMac. The Mac chucks out a bit of heat, plus the cats get stroked every time I pause for thought.
It generally takes me about nine months to write a novel from start to finish, though sometimes it flows easily and takes less, and other times it can take much much longer.
I spend the first two months plotting the scenario, which usually starts from a very simple idea, a song I heard, a foreign word, an anecdote someone tells me about a friend...
For instance, The Half-Life of Hannah started as little more than Family secrets revealed during a holiday in France.
I then take this idea and spend a few weeks staring into the middle distance. I think, So what if Hannah had a secret child? I chew this over for a while, and then think. No. That doesn't go anywhere for me. What if she was a secret lesbian? No. What if she had been in love with someone else in her youth? Hum, now I quite like that...
After a couple of days of this, I use my notes to build a very short synopsis. 
With Hannah it went something like this:

Hannah and Cliff go on holiday to France with son Luke.
Just before her wedding to Cliff, Hannah fell secretly in love with Cliff's brother James, but after a single kiss, James vanished into thin air.
She was told much later that he had died in a motorbike accident in India, but during the holiday, news comes that James is still alive.

I then take this tiny synopsis and repeatedly (there are hundreds of passes at this) flesh it out.

Pass #1
Hannah and Cliff go on holiday to France with son Luke and tearaway sister Jill, and her gay best friend, Tristan.
But during the holiday, news comes that James is still alive, and is on his way to the villa.

I continue this process until the plot for the book is "meaty" enough, i.e, I feel that it contains enough characters, locations, backstory etc. 
By this stage, it usually takes up about three pages of typed text.

I then spend a few days writing detailed character profiles. Though I don't believe in astrology at all, I often use astrology websites to look at the lists of characteristics they assign to different star signs or the Myers-Briggs list of personality types. There are some pretty good archetypes in either, and I find them to be a useful resource when it comes to deciding what my people are going to be like.
So, for example, I'll perhaps decide that Hannah's sister Jill will be a go-getting Aries who has trouble finishing what she started, angers quickly, but calms down quickly too.
I'll also think in detail about how the characters feel about each other and why, including events that may have happened between them in the past which, though they won’t figure in the book, need to exist to define that relationship.

Once I have the synopsis and the character profiles, I'm ready to create the chapter list.
This involves taking the three-page synopsis, and breaking it into chapters.
So for instance, the first line, Hannah and Cliff go on holiday to France with son Luke and tearaway sister Jill, and her gay best friend, Tristan becomes,

Chapter 1.
Hannah and Cliff are driving through France, arguing about the GPS with smart-arse son Luke in the back seat.
They have arranged to meet Hannah's sister Jill at the house, but are lost.
Tristan phones to say that he has arrived, and Cliff feels irritated that the gay guy who claims to have no sense of direction got there first.
They arrive at the house, find Tristan and Jill and her daughter Aisha, and start to relax. The house is a beautiful villa near Grasse with a pool (sadly empty) and hammocks.

Once all of the fifty or so chapters are mapped out in this way, I spend another week reading through the chapter list, adding a detail here, changing something there, and then I usually take a couple of weeks off while I pluck up the courage to actually begin writing the thing. This is always a bit of a daunting endeavour, because once I start, I know that's going to be my job every day from nine till five, Monday to Friday, for the next three or four months.

Each morning I take the next chapter description, read through it, visualise it in my head, have a cup of tea, wander around feeling hopeless for a bit, waste some time on Facebook, and then, finally, I sit down with a pen and paper and start to write. Once I have written about five pages, I stop, have a cup of tea (as you can see, there are lots of cups of tea involved) before sitting back down to type what I have just written on the Mac.
That act of writing freehand then retyping, is, I believe, essential. The first draft enables my brain to work out what's going to happen here, and the typing process reorganises all of that so that it comes out in a much better, more linear manner. So in a way, I write every chapter twice!
I usually write five hundred to a thousand words in the morning, type it up, and then do the same again in the afternoon so that I average about one thousand to one thousand five hundred words a day, though on a bad day I won't manage more than five hundred, and on a good day I have occasionally managed five thousand.

I try as hard as I can to not worry about how good my writing is during this process. I have learned, through experience, that my judgement just isn't that good. Often what I think is good isn't, or vice versa. I have found that if I start worrying about how good my writing is, I'm assuaged by doubt, and it generally becomes impossible to continue. So I don't think about it. I write, every morning, and every afternoon, Monday to Friday, until I get to The End.

Often I have a mini breakdown about halfway through because I decide that one of the characters simply wouldn't do what I had planned for him/her, and then I have to stop and change all of the remaining chapter plan before I can continue. This can involve a forced one-month break in the middle of writing the book followed by a few weeks of reworking the chapter list before carrying on.

The good thing about having done this before (Other Halves is my tenth novel) is that I don't get too panicked about such problems anymore. I know that this happens. And I know that it's not the end of the world.

Once I get to the end, I take a month's break, and then reread the whole thing from start to finish. And then, if I still think what I’ve written is worth sharing (it isn’t always) I sit down for two months of corrections, tweaks and changes before sending it out to editors and agents.

Though there are good days, when you're excited about an idea, or really pleased with your prose, it's a pretty lonely job, to be honest, and finding the motivation required to sit down, alone, day after day, for months on end and just keep at it can often feel like pulling teeth. I sometimes think I'd rather be out and about driving a little van and repairing people's telephone lines as I did in my late teens. People are always so happy to see the telephone engineer arrive...
I've heard a lot of other writers express similar doubts, and most of us struggle to explain why we write. I think it's probably some as yet undiagnosed kind of madness – a personality disorder, perhaps! Then again, seeing beautifully printed copies of your latest novel The Half-Life of Hannah in a shop window or, even better, in someone's hands on a train, or reading some five-star review on Amazon from someone you have never met is about the best buzz I know.

Publishing: Paperback 8 May 2014
ISBN10: 1 84502 719 1
ISBN13: 978 1 84502 719 3
Extent: 256 pp

“If your first love came back to offer you everything you ever dreamed of, what would you do?”

Hannah is thirty-eight and the happily married mother of eleven-year old Luke, the diamond in her world. Her marriage is reassuringly stable, and after fifteen years she has managed to push the wild dreams of youth from her mind and concentrate on the everyday satisfactions of here and now. The first half of her life hasn’t been as exciting as she had hoped, but then, she reckons, whose has?

When she succeeds in convincing husband Cliff to rent a villa in the south of France for a summer holiday with her sister Jill and gay friend Tristan, she’s expecting little more than a pleasant few weeks with her family. But they each have their own baggage – their own secrets – ready to explode on this not-so-relaxing holiday in France.

When a phone call at the villa announces the imminent arrival of a ghost from her past, the ambiance is transformed into a raging sea of jealousy as Hannah is forced to question everything she thought she knew and believed.

But is she brave enough to take the life-changing decisions her future happiness requires?

Paperback publishing 5 June 2014
ISBN10: 1 84502 764 7
ISBN13: 978 1 84502 764 3
Extent: 256 pp

About the Author

I grew up in the seaside town of Margate England with four brothers including three on the web: Matthew AlexanderGreg AlexanderSteven Alexander who are all painters as was our father, Chris.

On leaving Margate, I moved to the Midlands and then Cambridge. In 1991, in need of adventure, I headed off with a backpack finally settling in Nice France where with the exception of a brief, exciting stint in New York, I have lived ever since.

After being refused by truly every publisher in the world, I self-published my first novel 50 Reasons to Say Goodbye in 2003. Encouraged by its success, I wrote and published four sequel novels: Sottopassaggio (2005), Good Thing/Bad Thing(2006), Better Than Easy(2009) and Sleight of Hand(2010) as well as a standalone novel, 13:55 Eastern Standard Time(2007).

My self published 2011 title The Case Of The Missing Boyfriend reached #1 in Amazon’s UK chart and gained me my first proper publishing contract with Corvus-Atlantic who also republished the entire 50 Reasons series and the sequel to The Case Of The Missing Boyfriend, The French House which sold more than 200,000 copies.

My 2012 novel The Half-Life Of Hannah, though mysteriously refused for publication by Corvus, again, once self published, reached number one and sold over 275,000 copies, and the paperback rights were subsequently purchased by
Black and White Publishing.  Black and White are also publishing the Hannah sequel entitled Other Halves in both ebook and paperback, so I seem, finally, to be on a bit of a roll. Long may it last!

I also edit and contribute to the gay lit website,

I currently spend half my time in Nice, and the other half in a cabin in the French Alps where I get bored enough to actually concentrate on writing. But whenever I can, I jump on a plane or a train to London, my favourite city in the world.

Author Links

The overall giveaway on tour is a paperback copy of both books and is open Internationally. 

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2 Responses so far.

  1. Thank you for hosting Nick on tour today JB x

  2. bn100 says:

    Sounds interesting

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