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How I Write

People have asked over the years how I write and I’ve replied with everything from 200 word bullet-point heavy ‘This-Is-How-I-Do-Its’, to 5000 words academic walk throughs covering initial inspiration to delivered script.

Every writer is different. A friend of mine writes 500 perfect words a day and never revises or goes back. No idea how he does it and wouldn’t want to try. Another friend is cross because she can’t get her output up from two novels a year to three. (I work seven day weeks to manage one).


All my books come out of a single image. In The Fallen Blade it was Tycho chained naked to the bulkhead of a ship. He opened his eyes and proved he wasn’t human. After that, it was a simply a case of working back to see where he’d come from and working forward to see where he was going. When writing I see the places in my head and hear the words spoken. Without that I couldn’t do it.

Deadlines are key. These can be self imposed or from a publisher but they must be there if I’m going to sit down and focus. Once imposed, the deadline will be met, or as near as damn it in case of earthquakes and fires. (A decade as a freelance journalist gave me a healthy respect for rapidly approaching brick walls.)

I have a study upstairs and a hot desk outside the kitchen but still mostly write in cafes or bars. Anonymity helps. The low level burn of nearby conversation, the lack of distractions and the availability of coffee are also useful. Trains and planes work for me, and I’m happy in airports (the side effect of a childhood on the move). Give me a six hour flight delay and I’ll give you two chapters. For one book I began writing an emotionally difficult scene on a train, got off at the destination, found a return train and finished the scene. Sometimes you have to trap yourself with your characters to stop them getting away.

I try to write 2000 words a day and every novel gets written three times. I regard writing as somewhere between a craft and a trade. It’s a learnt skill, like being an electrician. If you want to be an artist fine but that’s been you and your soul. The publisher doesn’t want to see it, your agent doesn’t want to see it, and nor does the reader. If they can see the caffeine, sweat and blind fear inherent in the writing process you’re probably doing it wrong.

Writing a book is building a house. You lay down foundations, put up walls, fix roof supports in place, tile the roof and begin to cut in wiring and plumbing before you get to plaster board and long before you get to paint. When I wrote Pashazade, the first of the Ashraf Bey crime novels, I reached the end of the first draft with the world, the characters and the events in place, without ever knowing who killed the woman found in the first scene. The hero didn’t know, the local police didn’t know and nor did I. It was only half way though the second draft it because obvious. if I don’t know why something happened first time round I’m not worried.

For The Fallen Blade a clear month went on plot, characters, and world. (Although all are on-going jobs.) After that, I allowed four months to get the events down in a 140,000 word first draft; four months to do a hard copy edit that nailed the characters; then three months on a third and final draft that included writing a couple of extra chapters.

For me, the first draft is what happens, the second is why and how the person it’s happening to reacts, the third is how they feel… In drive by style, that’s boy on bench crying, boy on bench crying because girlfriend left him, boy on bench crying because he knows exactly why his girlfriend left him, and he deserved it which makes him cry even more… That’s massively simplistic, because the scene could be nailed down to what, why and feelings on the first draft and not change (although it happens less than I’d like).

Editing is a refining process. Some chapters go and others are added. Chapter order is sometimes shuffled for a better fit. The dialogue is the last thing to be cut away. I overwrite knowing how much will be lost in the final draft.

By the end of a novel I’m dreaming the characters, or dreaming as the characters, which is even spookier. Everything I dream is typed in my sleep as I dream it. I find myself working increasingly ridiculous hours as I get towards the end. Most writers are pretty impossible to live with by this point. Mind you, most writers are pretty impossible to live with fullstop, so I’m told.

about the author

Jon Courtenay Grimwood

  1. Ganymede

    January 18, 2011
    at 4:14 pm

    A really useful post.

    As a writer still stumbling forward, trying to come to terms with my voice and developing my approach/style this is really encouraging. The perfect word path is never going to happen for me, I write in sporadic bursts of outpouring at present and am trying hard to just finish my pieces and then go back and layer them. Reading of an established author like John who has a similar approach to what I in my infinite naivety am striving for gives me a renewed sense that maybe this will actually work for me and I am not crazy for approaching my stories in this way.

  2. Jon Courtenay Grimwood

    Jon Courtenay Grimwood

    January 19, 2011
    at 6:30 am

    Ganymede, hi

    Idea of finding a perfect word path is a lovely idea and that’s mostly what it remains for me. Very occassionally a scene comes completely clear and just flows onto the screen. Mostly it’s a hacking through the undergrowth kind of life!

  3. Rachel Aaron

    Rachel Aaron

    January 20, 2011
    at 11:07 am

    This was a very interesting post for me as well, since this is very close to how I write my novels as well (though rather than do 3 clean edits, I generally write a first draft until I get hopelessly stuck, then go back to the beginning to find out how I got stuck and how to get out). I also write in coffee shops. There’s something about other people watching you to make you work harder, I think (even when they’re not actually watching).

    I am VERY happy to see you describe the writing life as “hacking through the undergrowth.” As someone who always seems to be waist deep in undergrowth, I’d thought I was doing it wrong!

    Thank you for the post, I really enjoyed it!

  4. Nicky Browne

    January 27, 2011
    at 2:54 pm

    Hi, I love to hear how other people write. I don’t do it this way, I seem to come up with a different method each book, but I fear i’m still impossible to live with!

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