Louise Phillips' Secret - Taking It One Word At A Time...

During my first creative writing class the facilitator said she envied us the things we didn’t know. In the context of the conversation it meant being unaware of the full dictates of prose or essential guidelines of storytelling, including rules that need to be understood, irrespective of whether you choose to use them or not.

At the time, I vaguely understood what she meant. I was writing from an innate sense of rhythm and my inner grasp of storytelling, most likely picked up from reading ferociously as a child. I didn’t understand guidelines, other than those which were as instinctive to me as breathing, and most probably acquired without the knowledge that I was learning anything.

For the most part, I still prefer that subtle acquisition of knowledge, the kind that sneaks up on you after months of writing, and you wonder at the end of it, if your writing is any better. The truth is, you never know, but the heart tells you writing will always change you.

THE GAME CHANGER is my fourth psychological crime thriller, and roughly speaking the books equate to around 440,000 words. You could certainly double that figure, allowing for the mental editing process before your agent/publisher gets a look in. But what have I learned after writing nearly a million words in four years?

With the first book, RED RIBBONS, I started with three essential elements, characters, premise and a self-imposed deadline. After that, for the most part, I wrote blind. In other words, (when I wasn’t panicking) I allowed my subconscious mind to have a free reign. I didn’t know how the story would unfold, nor, despite having an idea of the premise, was I wholeheartedly sure what the underlying theme would be. Even when I typed the words ‘the end’, nothing was fully cast in stone.

For me, it was a very good way to write a novel, and my self-imposed deadline, meant that at the end of it, I had a first draft. After that, there were lots of rewrites, including plotting myself out of a number of cul-de-sacs and hours of pacing the floor reading chunks out loud until the rhythm flowed. Nevertheless, I must have done something right. The first agent and publisher it was sent to, wanted to publish it. There, I thought, now I am a writer – brilliant! It was even better when it hit the Irish Bestseller List in the first week of its release and was nominated for the Best Irish Crime Novel of 2012.

But here’s the deal. My publishing contract was for two books, the second to be delivered within six months. I told myself, all I had to do was write another one – easy? That’s when the real panic set in. I have now learned that the panic will stay with me forever. If you’re a writer, being in a state of insecurity is part of the process. Another part is simply doing it.  With a deadline, I had to write. Was the first draft pretty? Of course not, but it did have two things, a story I was excited about and a beginning, middle and an end. I had already worked out on RED RIBBONS that I needed the latter, and I most probably knew that it was good to be excited about it too. However, while writing THE DOLL’S HOUSE, more than any deadline, being excited about the story drove me through the doubts. This novel went on to win the Best Irish Crime Novel of 2013.

At this point, you might think that all was well with my writing world. I had written that elusive second novel. If you can do it once, you can do it twice and so on…..Ahem, hold it there. What if I didn’t have another story? What if after any number of mountain walks and heaven knows what else, nothing arrived.

I told myself again, insecurity and panic were part of the madness, along with all the other things I’d surmised after writing two novels. I reiterated to myself, (as if I needed convincing) that it all starts with characters and premise, people and situation, and of course, a concept that I was itching to get working on.  I had no need to worry about a deadline, because I had already been given a contract for another two novels – not one deadline, but two!

I told myself to calm down. I recited Stephen King’s words when he was asked how he wrote and he replied, one word at a time. That’s when I had another light bulb moment. All of it was a process, and guess what, I had one. After writing two published novels, I knew each of them started with one word. Not only that, they existed outside of the earlier driving forces mentioned, because the process existed, the one where I made the conscious decision to turn up every day and write. I had a routine. I wrote early mornings.  Some days the writing would be good, and some days, it would be awful. Sometimes the words slapped me in the face like an enemy, and other times, a sentence would feel like its own piece of magic. The next lesson was ramming home loud and clear, first drafts are ugly beasts, but you have to trust the process. It’s the process that makes you grab those bad sentences by the neck and lose track of time as you wrestle until your editorial/writing soulmate stops roaring at you from the page, and breathes calmly again.

The third novel, LAST KISS, dealt with nature versus nurture. It also had a clever concept. The concept came first, and the meat and bones of it, came second. This time, I wrote the synopsis before I wrote the story. It was 2,000 words long, and even though I never looked at it until after I finished the first draft, it felt like something solid, a roadmap I could use or ignore, but a living thing all the same. The novel was a pure pleasure to write. As for the read, it was dark, mysterious and edgy, and a rollercoaster ride, or at least, that’s what most of the reviewers had to say.

Having had so much success with writing a synopsis, I decided to apply this method to the first draft of THE GAME CHANGER. Sadly, although it was helpful to get the story off the ground, it also stifled it. In the end, I needed to do a complete rework of the story. That meant ignoring my family and friends for the guts of a year. Thankfully, they have forgiven me. I have no clear reason why a particular method worked on one novel and not another, or why the creative juices felt freer with the first synopsis than the second, but I did discover through trial and error that what works for one story, doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s not simply a question of working out what process works best for you, it’s also, what works best for the story. And yes, we are back to the insecurity and panic again, but that is also where the magic happens. Have I learned things along the way – most certainly! Do I enter the realms of writing my next novel with more knowledge than the first – again a resounding YES! Will it be a great story? I hope so. Or at least it will be as good as it can be at this stage of my writing journey. I will work damn hard at it. I will write every day.  I will write about something that excites me and I will learn about characters that I have yet to meet. I may think I’m writing about one thing and discover there are infinitely more possibilities, but most importantly, I will write one word at a time, knowing there are always things to learn, and every story will have its own mystery and magic.