As Many as it Takes

It’s taken an ungodly length of time, but I finally finished the second full draft of my current work in progress. Yay!

This probably begs the question, how many drafts should there be? Here’s my answer, in best Tevye the Milkman fashion:

I don’t know.

As many as it takes, I guess.

Every writer takes their own unique approach to producing a final draft that is as close to perfection as they can get. Some aim for perfection with their first draft, and make only minimal changes with their one or two rewrites. I should be such a perfectionist. Ha! I’d never get anything finished.

Others write huge first drafts running several hundreds of thousands of words, then, with each subsequent version, winnow away the dross. There are hundreds of other variants, and there is value in each. You experiment, find what works for you, and just be glad you’ve got a system that results in a novel.

My own process is to dither with a tentative idea, some notes, a few landmarks, and then a rough first draft. This is usually fairly short, around 60-70,000 words. I tweak this, adding bits, new scenes, more notes, sometimes pictures, timelines, character studies, and indecipherable charts. I sometimes call this my second draft, but it’s more like my 1.1 version.

Then comes the real, the crucial second draft. This is where I start back at the beginning and go through the manuscript line by line, sorting out the theme and developing the characters. The landmarks shift, some become more pronounced and others are eliminated. Some scenes will remain as they are right to the final draft, or with only minor modifications. There may be many changes at the novel evolves, but the basic edifice is there.

Regular readers of this blog will know that in addition to writing, I also paint. As a visual artist, I like to build a picture starting with a lightly drawn sketch. This becomes more detailed, more pronounced as I go, with the pencil sketch turning into an ink drawing, then a painted study, until eventually I end up with a painting that comes as close as I can get to my vision. Many artists follow similar approaches. Not claiming any comparison, you understand, but here’s one of Georges Seurat’s sixty-odd sketches that he produced in preparation for his “Sunday on La Grande Jatte”:

Study for

Study for “La Grande Jatte”1884/1885
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Seurat visited the park over a period of six months, at various times of day, as he worked on the painting. This is the finished work of art:

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte -- 1884

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 18841884 -86
Art Institute of Chicago

It’s a magnificent work of art, and if you get a chance to see it in the Art Institute in Chicago, do yourself a favour. You really cannot appreciate its magnificence by looking at reproductions. But my point is, like visual artists, writers need to explore different aspects of their work in progress over long periods; need to take the work through draft after draft, as many times as necessary, until you feel it is the best it can be.

You take the novel through a draft, you make it the absolute best you can, and then you let it breathe. That’s all. Let it sit there and just be, because being is a wondrous thing. One day in a couple of months or so you’ll realise that the time has come for you to get back to work, and it will be waiting for you.

When I say the draft is the the best you can make it, understand I’m not talking about achieving perfection. This is just a draft, not the final copy. You may need to make note about things to research, or figure out some flaw with the timeline. Perhaps as the draft evolves you realise that the ending doesn’t match the beginning. That’s OK. That’s what drafts are for. You make notes of these things so you can go back and fix them. With your next draft.

When Seurat ended up with his sixty-odd sketches of La Grande Jatte, at some point he had to sit down and sift through them all. Some, he probably discarded. This one was drawn in the evening, and he had decided he didn’t want an evening painting. That one had too few people, and he wanted his park well populated. He sorted and selected, and the pieces that fit his final vision went into the final painting. So, with your various drafts and notes, you will eventually come to the day when you realise that some parts of the work do not fit. You’ll need to take the scissors and cut, maybe a lot. In one of my previous novels, I realised the story was heading in a wrong direction and with a gulp, lots of tears and screaming, and even more vodka, I cut 30,000 words. The novel was the better for it, but oh, it hurt. I still have the scars.

Sometimes you will be very deep in the novel before you realise what isn’t working and can identify the sections that have to go. It’s not easy. Believe me, it’s not easy, but if it means a stronger work at the end of it, it’s worth the pain and tears.

You won’t be able to see these problems if you’re too close, so stepping away from the manuscript after each draft will allow you to clear your head. Readers you trust, who will look over the manuscript and give you their feedback, are also invaluable, but, ultimately, it’s your call.

Each draft teaches you something new about your novel. It also teaches you something about you as a writer. No matter how much you’ve written before, there’s something new to learn. After all, you haven’t written this book before.

Many years ago, there was a TV series called Fame. It began with a voice over. Debbie Allen as the dance teacher telling her wannabe students,

You’ve got big dreams, you want fame? Well, fame costs, and right here’s where you start paying. In sweat.

Writers are more interested in producing works of excellence than in achieving fame, though some want that as well, but we sweat too, don’t think we don’t. More, we bleed. With every draft with leave a fresh trail of blood and tears.

How many drafts to write a novel? As many as it takes.


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Thor Bridge Beyond the Canon

The newest Sherlock Holmes anthology for Belanger Books is steaming ahead in the form of Sherlock Holmes: Adventures Beyond the Canon. Publisher Derrick Belanger is posting interviews with contributing authors on the kickstarter site. Today, I want to share with you the link to my own interview.

The premise of this book is to take a story that appears in the Holmes canon and write a sequel or expansion of it. I chose The Problem of Thor Bridge. A thorny puzzle in which the wife of a wealthy man is found shot to death on the bridge, no weapon is at hand, and all the evidence points to the governess, a woman with whom the husband is infatuated. Holmes, as usual, triumphs, and proves the governess did not kill the woman.

It’s a tricky little mystery and one that I’ve always found particularly fiendish. I was delighted to be able to contribute a little to the tale, and, in doing so, perhaps encourage the reader to think about the characters and the neat little puzzle Dr Doyle constructed.

You’ll find more about the anthology and my own story here at the kickstarter site:

Adventures Beyond the Canon

Related image

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Too Much, Not Enough

It’s been an odd sort of week with too many projects on the go and not enough inspiration.

Generally, once I’m in the middle of a piece, I just have to follow the momentum and keep going to the end. Of course, from time to time, the momentum carries me right into a brick wall and… ouch! Can you see the bruises? Can you?

So now I have a headache, a bump on my nose, and no clue what to do next.

My own fault for having too many things going on at once.

Don’t get me wrong, I like having a lot of things happening at once. If you have several projects in process at one time, if you get stuck with one you just move on to the next. I adhere to the philosophy of Isaac Asimov:

When I feel difficulty coming on, I switch to another book I’m writing. When I get back to the problem, my unconscious has solved it.

Curiously, with work that has to be done by deadline, this blog for instance, I somehow manage to get the job done, and on time. It’s not necessarily the stuff of Shakespeare, but, then again, who wants to read a Shakespearean blog every week? If blogging be the food of love, read on? Perhaps not.

Where I run into difficulties is when I start over-writing stuff. Over-egging the pudding, if you like. Or over-working the painting. Every art form has its own variation for the same thing. You didn’t stop soon enough. Sometimes a blog is your subconscious’s way of screaming at you, LEAVE IT ALONE, YOU MORON!

So, yeah, there’s that.

Having several different projects on the go can help you spread your tendency to nitpick over a wide range and, perhaps, curb your tendency to spoil a piece by over-working it.

Why do we overwork things? Usually because we have no ideas and so we stick with something we’ve already written. It’s the literary equivalent of staying in the shallow end of the swimming pool. We don’t want to venture into deeper waters because, well, it’s scary out there.

water splash photo

Photo by Bohemian_Heart Tanusree on

Working the same paragraph or chapter over and over is safe, even comforting. We can stagger down the stairs at the end of the writing session and tell our friends what a grueling day’s work we put in. It’s even true. We don’t realise that we’re lying to ourselves. We’re not working in the proper sense, any more than a farmer is when he keeps digging the same hole (is that even possible?), rather than tilling the entire field.

So, broaden your horizon. Have a few projects on the go at a time, and make a little progress at a time with each. Spending your days toiling on the same chapter for the next twenty years is just crazy-making, and there are enough crazy people in the world.

You know?

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Where Does the Money Go?

2017 was a banner year in the world of publishing. In the UK, income was up 5% to £5.7 billion. Yes, that’s billion, with a B, according to a report cited by Publishers Weekly. The report goes on to add that “British publishing is the number one exporter of books in the world and export income rose a further 8% to £3.4 billion in 2017, and now accounts for 60% of total revenues.”

One might assume that the creative oil that keeps this machine chugging along, the author, might similarly see their own wallets expand. One might assume such a thing, but one would be oh, so wrong.

According to a report published by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), median earnings for professional writers have plummeted by 42% since 2005 to under £10,500 a year… Women fare worse,”  they add, “earning 75% of what their male counterparts do, a 3% drop since 2013 when the last ALCS survey was conducted.”

Based on a standard 35-hour week, the average full-time writer earns only £5.73 per hour, £2 less than the UK minimum wage for those over 25. As a result, the number of professional writers whose income comes solely from writing has plummeted to just 13%, down from 40% in 2005. (See The Guardian June 27 2018)

The problem isn’t confined to the UK. In February, 2017, it emerged that Irish writer Donal Ryan, winner of The Guardian First Book Award and Dublin Book Festival’s Irish Book of the Decade, in addition to being longlisted for the Booker and shortlisted for the Impac Dublin Literary Award, had to return to his civil servant job because he couldn’t support himself by writing alone. Despite his undoubted success, he reckoned he was earning roughly 40c per book, which was certainly not enough to sustain him and his family.

“ I thought Donal Ryan was incredibly brave to come out and lay out the realities of being a writer – because the public often has a very skewed view,” said author David Gaughran. “But I would like to talk about the publisher in this scenario. I’ve no issue at all with Lilliput Press, I actually like them a lot, but the system as a whole needs to be examined.

“Everyone in the publishing chain claims to be broke. Publishers always say this is a low margin business. Agents have greater and greater trouble placing books. Booksellers, of course, are constantly feeling the pinch. But publishing as a whole is huge, generating $125bn in global sales every year. Where does all that money go? Why are authors paid so poorly? Contracts are terrible across the board – the system is designed that way. But it can change and it has to change.” Do Irish Writers Get Paid Enough?

According to the most recent figures released by the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency (2010) found that over half the writers consulted (58.7 per cent) earned less than €5,000 from writing-related income in the years from 2008-09. In fact, 27.9 per cent of respondents reported that they earned less than €500 a year.

Earlier this week, author Joanne Harris (Chocolat), wrote a blog in which she decried the policy of Women’s Weekly new owners TI Media which has not only further eroded payments to their writers, but has also instituted contracts which henceforth buy all rights. ALL. RIGHTS. Ms Harris says, in part:

And now, here’s a giant media corporation offering only £100 per story, and demanding all rights, including moral copyright. That means that if they then sell the story to someone else, the author doesn’t even have the right to have their own name shown on the piece.

This is a completely unfair and exploitative deal, and in most other EU countries, wouldn’t even be allowed. But as we prepare to leave the EU, companies like TI Media are preparing to close in, hoping to snaffle whatever they can from authors already facing a dramatic cut in earnings.

In real terms, it means that, as an author, you’d be giving up all the valuable rights to your work, forever, including the right to have your name on the project, for no more than the initial sum of £100 (or whatever you’re left with after income tax). That means:

If TI Media ever decided to sell those rights to make a multi-million-pound grossing movie, you’d get nothing. Not even your name on the credits.

If TI Media ever decided to syndicate your piece to all its other magazines (and it has many, including Marie Claire, NME and Country Life), you’d get nothing.

If you ever wanted to use your story in a collection of your short stories, you wouldn’t be allowed to. It would belong to TI Media.


The Society of Authors lists several reasons for the sharp and gut-clenching decline in authors’ salaries:

The causes of the recent drop in authors’ earnings are complex and varied. The demise of the net book agreement, the growth of Amazon and a market that is increasingly skewed towards commercial bestsellers have transformed the landscape for writers, as has the increasing desire from the larger publishers to deliver high profits to shareholders. In some areas such as literary fiction both sales and real terms prices have fallen, and consumers have become accustomed to buying books at high discounts. Most authors have seen their advances diminish.

Calls for Action to Boost Authors Income

There is also a trend of publishers signing celebrity authors, paying them vast sums, and sending them on lavish publicity tours. No doubt celebrities are used to such things. In the meantime, mere wordsmith authors on the breadline have to do with loyal readerships and great reviews. These are fabulous, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t pay the rent.

It seems strange that an industry can be so dismissive of its source of revenue. Perhaps it feels that writers are a dime a dozen. Perhaps we are. Good writers, though? What are we to make of the fact that prize winning authors, authors with a strong fan base and a unique voice are treated with… well, I’ll say disdain, though contempt seems closer the mark.

I don’t mean all publishers, of course. Many are supportive of their authors and do right by them. However, it does seem that those who see writers as something other than a commodity, but rather talent to be nurtured, are rare and precious. Nor does the problem lie solely with publishing houses.

Recently, a famous Irish writer tweeted that a large organisation had approached him with a request that he write an article for them, a few thousand words. “It won’t take you long.” Payment? Goodwill and exposure. He told them to piss off.

What can you do?

Well, if you’re a writer, you can read your contracts carefully and stop working for nothing. You’re entitled to be paid. You can join writers’ unions, support your peers, and educate new writers about the importance of taking a professional stance in the literary world. You can refuse to give up your rights. If you spent time creating a story, you deserve to keep the credit for it. Why would you give that away?

If you’re a publisher, or a vendor in a position to offer work to a writer, you can stop suggesting the poor slob work “for the exposure.” Listen, pal, do you work for exposure? I thought not. As Harlan Ellison famously screamed, PAY THE WRITER! (See the link to the video below for his full diatribe.)

And if you’re a reader, pay for the books. Yes, getting books out of the library counts. It may be a pittance, but at least the writer is getting something for the months or years they spent crafting the fiction you’re enjoying. You can also refuse to support publishers who exploit writers through appalling contracts.

The cost of blindly letting conglomerates run roughshod over writers means an erosion of the creative spirit. Yes, dedicated writers will still write, but at what cost? If an author has to balance a full-time career with writing, you can bet the number of books she produces will be considerably fewer, and then we all lose.

Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison: Pay the Writer

Harlan Ellison, Pay the Writer:



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Sherlock Holmes: Adventures Beyond the Canon

Sherlock Holmes himself would have us believe that, once a case was finished, it – or the people involved – never crossed his mind again. “A client is to me a mere unit,” he once told Watson, “a factor in a problem.” And yet, in a career spanning multiple decades and thousands of cases, he must have occasionally re-crossed paths with previous clients – and the occasional villain as well!!!

Find out "What happened next?" in 29 incredible stories from today's top Sherlock Holmes authors!

Find out “What happened next?” in 29 incredible stories from today’s top Sherlock Holmes authors!

This new anthology, with twenty-nine brand new stories spread over three volumes, reveals some of those sequel investigations. There are stories ranging from Holmes’s early days in Montague Street, through the legendary Baker Street years, and well into his retirement. We meet former clients with new problems, and former adversaries too. Sometimes we find that the published Canonical version of a story was only the beginning, while other tales in this collection reveal what was really going on during the original narratives.

Join us as we return to Baker Street and discover more authentic adventures of Sherlock Holmes, described by the estimable Dr. Watson as “the best and wisest . . . whom I have ever known.”

I had a lot of fun writing my own “what happened next” tale for this collection, but no, no spoilers. You’ll have to wait and see.

Here’s the link to the Kickstarter site if you want further information, or to support the project. Rest assured, the stories and the offers available, should prove irresistible to all fans of Sherlock Holmes.

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Time for a Tune Up

On Saturday I went to the Irish Writers’ Centre and spent the day at a fiction writing workshop.

Irish Writers Centre

I know how lucky I am to have the opportunity to have such an amazing resource just a few kilometers away. There are classes, programmes, and events available year-round, and something for writers at any skill level, or even no skill level at all.

The event I attended, Propel: A Guide to Creating Your Fiction, was led by four established fiction writers. Arlene Hunt, author of ten novels; June Caldwell, a journalist and short story writer; Danny Denton and Mia Gallagher who are both novelists and short story writers.

The event was fun and informative. I always enjoy hanging out with other writers and hearing about their experiences. It’s fascinating to see how similar our experiences are and, sometimes, to see how much we’ve learned. Nor were all the attendees beginners; there was a wide range of experiences, with well-established novelists and short story writers present, too.

Some nuggets I picked up:

Arlene Hunt talked about ‘The Jesus Principle’: Writers who get to 33,000 words of a novel and stop dead. (Jesus died aged 33, she explained.) Because they can’t figure out how to move forward, they keep going back to the beginning and tinkering. Been there. Done that. Have the tee-shirt.

Starting is easy. Finishing is hard.

Give yourself timelines to stay the course.

Treat writing as a job and write five days a week.

Don’t spell out everything. Let the reader connect the dots.

From June Caldwell about the short story: There are many ways to put yourself into the text. Make yourself a character in your fiction.

Write from a bizarre point of view, a toaster or a robot, for instance.

She quoted Claire Keegan, “Every paragraph contains action.”

Every character must have a purpose.

You must know who is telling the story and why.

Danny Denton, speaking about writing a novel, suggested writers should learn to ‘demystify the process.’

Write regularly.

Find what works for you, but a lot of writers find it’s best to write in the morning and edit in the evening.

Remember, plot is the consequence of your character’s actions.

Finally, from Mia Gallagher, the stages of writing a book:

  1. Mulling / musing, unfocused.
  2. Generating source ideas, filling notebooks.
  3. Produce a bad first draft.
  4. Read, analyse said bad first draft.
  5. Second draft.
  6. Further drafts.

Final words of advise: “Take your time and do something meaningful.” Amen, sister.

In other news, Publisher’s Weekly has printed a very good review of ‘The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories, Part IX’ which contained my own tale, The Fairy Hills Horror and, happily, said tale received special mention. You’ll find the review here.

A new Holmes anthology is in the works and I’m happy to say I have a story included. Adventures Beyond the Canon looks at what happened after the canonical story ended. More information here.

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The Detective and the Writer: Introducing Amy Thomas

Amy Thomas is the author of a series of Irene Adler (The Woman) and Sherlock Holmes novels titled, The Detective and the WomanThe Detective The Woman and the Winking Tree, and The Detective The Woman and the Silent Hive. Her trilogy is being released in a hardcover edition in advance of her latest Holmes novel this September. She is also one of the Baker Street Babes — don’t worry, she’ll explain that herself shortly.

 Recently, I had a chance to get to know Amy a little better. Here’s what she had to say:

It’s great to meet you, Amy. Tell us a little about yourself.

 Thanks for having me! I’m a knitter, reader, and avid music fan. I proofread and edit professionally, in addition to writing. One of my main clients is a court reporter, and I proofread a lot of legal transcription. Not only is it interesting, but hopefully it also hones my ability to write effectively in the crime/mystery genre.

Wow, we have a lot in common. I hardly know where to begin. Let’s stick to the subject at hand, though. You share my fascination with the enigma that is Sherlock Holmes. How did you first discover him, and what keeps you coming back?

I started reading Sherlock Holmes, the original stories by Doyle, at nine or so. I was intrigued by the strange and sometimes grotesque world of stories like The Speckled Band. Once I got a little older, a friend introduced me to Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series, and I became aware of the wider world of pastiches and homage novels.

As an adult, I continue to be captivated by how much life is contained in brief stories, how much truth about human nature and the richness of friendship. I go back to both the Canon and subsequent works, and I continue to learn more.

Well said. What, for you, is the biggest challenge in writing a Sherlock Holmes novel?

I think it’s the voice. Most of my works are not in Watson’s voice because I think it’s extraordinarily difficult to capture well. I often write from Irene Adler’s first person perspective, and I’m always trying to hone things like expression and wording to capture both the uniqueness of who she is as a person and the fact that she is a woman of a certain time. Similarly, I want Holmes and Watson to “feel” like themselves, but not be mired down in too many Doylean tropes just for the sake of using them.

Period pieces always present challenges to keep the characters historically faithful but not so over-the-top into tropes that they cease to seem human. It’s an ongoing process to get better.

Like so many other Holmes’ fans, myself included, you are drawn to the women of the canon. Do you have a favourite among them? If so, who, and why? 

I appreciate many for different reasons, but I continue to be intrigued by both Mrs. Hudson and Mary Morstan. These intelligent women are around the periphery for a huge amount of the Canon, and I would love to know all they’re seeing and thinking.

Of course, Irene Adler intrigues me enough that I’ve written a series about her. Some of the more lurid sorts of things writers come up with are not the angles that sticks out to me. I admire her as a smart, self-directed woman trying to survive and go after the life she wants.

Have you been tempted to explore writing other types of fiction? If so, what?

I have. I’m currently about halfway through a fantasy. It’s a novel-length re-telling of the Grimm fairy tale Allerleirauh.

Wow, that sounds amazing. And you also have a new novel due out at the end of the year. What can you tell us about it?

Before the new book comes out, the first three books in the series will be released in a hardcover edition. These books tell the story of Holmes and Adler meeting again after the events of A Scandal in Bohemia and forming a friendship that leads to occasionally partnering to solve cases. One takes place in London, one on the Sussex Downs, and the first in the towns of early Florida, populated by characters like Thomas Edison.

The new book will take Holmes and Adler back to Florida, to the islands, to investigate a mystery involving pirate treasure and organized crime.

 You are one of the ‘Baker Street Babes’. Care to elaborate on what that means?

The Baker Street Babes are an international, all-female, Sherlock Holmes podcast. We cover everything from film, TV, and books, to anything else Holmesian. We have been featured in the London Olympics coverage, Cake Boss, shortlisted for a Shorty Award, and we have recently published a book called Femme Friday that celebrates women of the Holmes Canon and adaptations. We’re proud to continue producing episodes that celebrate the female geek perspective and highlight all areas of Sherlockian culture both old and new.

 Who are your heroes, fictional or otherwise?

Sherlock Holmes is certainly high on the list. He’s a hero who isn’t always heroic, he doesn’t usually fit in, and he’s certainly not perfect. However, he uses his mind and abilities to accomplish amazing things. He’s an inspiration to all of us who feel like misfits, a reminder that the world needs our unique gifts.

Another one of my heroes is Dorothy Sayers, the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, who also happened to be a Christian, a Sherlockian, and a feminist, all of which I am. Sayers wasn’t a traditional woman of her time, and she contended with being a very intellectual square peg in a time when women were expected to be quiet and fit in. In many ways, she lived a difficult life, but I admire her courage as a theologian and mystery writer, and I aspire to be even half as brilliant a writer as she was some day.

It was great fun getting to know you a little better, Amy. Any woman who is a fan of the Great Detective and the redoubtable DL Sayers is very cool, in my opinion. Best of luck with the release of the trilogy and the new book.

If you would like to know more about Amy Thomas’s work, check out her website hereGirl Meets Sherlock

You can also find the kickstarter for the hard cover release of her Irene Adler trilogy here.

Project image for The Detective and The Woman - Sherlock Holmes & Irene Adler

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