We are thrilled to welcome Ed McDonald, author of Blackwing to the Gollancz Blog. Ed McDonald’s debut novel, Blackwing is the gritty tale of Galharrow and his Blackwings. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long dead sorcerer’s legacy . . . So begins one of the most exciting fantasy novels you’ll read this year. You can read the opening chapter here.
Join Ed as he discusses writing, his writing process, world building, spreadsheets and shares advice for how to get started.
The Writing Process
One of the first things that I learned about being a ‘published author’ was that writing is much more sociable than you think. It turns out that there are a bunch of other people just like you who not only love to write, but who love to talk about writing.
The first thing that you talk about with other authors? Where is Craig and how can we pursuance Craig to buy drinks on the company account.
The second thing that you talk about with other authors? Writing processes. How you do it. Why you do it. How long it takes. Where you do it. Music or quiet? At home or in the coffee shop? Late night or in between feeding the baby?
I don’t necessarily believe in writing tips other than “enjoy writing your book.” But I do like hearing about other people’s processes, so for what it’s worth, this is mine.
Where do I start?
Emotion. All of my greatest reading experiences have been ones that have left me feeling moved in some way that I didn’t before. David Gemmell’s Legend made me feel like I wanted to fight for something – to die for something, and not for any gain, just for principle. Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy made me achingly sad. And those feelings stay with you. And what I’ve always wanted to do with my writing is to give other people that moment of emotion.
I generally know who my protagonist is before I begin. They arrive in my head more or less fully formed, although they may change and develop in terms of background and traits during the writing. So I come up with a scene that will allow my character to display the type of emotion that the reader is intended to feel. I know the dramatic climax – or at least I know what emotion it’s going to evoke. And what I always want to evoke is desperate heroism.
I don’t really do any. This isn’t very efficient, but it’s not really how I like to do things. I kind of have a feel for what needs to happen in the middle to get to the end point but it won’t necessarily be more detailed than “there’s a war, they have to go on a journey, there’s a monster.” All my best ideas come to me mid-sentence as I’m writing, so nothing that I plan would be likely to make it past contact with the enemy anyway.
I do all my world building as I’m going along. As a former role player, I’ve designed many worlds, countries, towns and castles. But for writing novels I always found that I’d simply ignore what I’d designed and do what felt right at the time. So now, I don’t do any.
I write the start. I try to come up with a scene that I think is cool. It doesn’t have to have action, but it has to have stakes of some kind. It needs to set up the entire rest of the book. It’s worth noting though that the first chapter will often be cut later on, or completely changed. Writing Blackwing I wrote four different versions of the first chapter. If you’re an aspiring debut writer, then I can’t overemphasise the importance of making chapter one the best chapter in the book. But come back to it later, don’t worry about it to begin with – just use it as a springboard to get started from.
For me, the construction of the book – and the planning – happens during the first draft. This is a hugely inefficient process and I do not recommend it to anybody, but I don’t think that I’d be able to do it a different way. Once I’ve written about 40% of the book, usually I’ll have worked out what some of the core themes are going to be. Characters will be invented on the fly, monsters, plot hooks, locations, everything. They might end up changing a lot, and some won’t make the final cut. So at 40%, I usually need to go back and start over, cutting ideas that have become dead-ends and adding in foreshadowing and details that will be necessary later.
This ‘go back and change’ is a constant process that then has to keep occurring. I then get on with writing the rest.
By about 75% I have most of the themes, characters, locations and ideas down. This necessitates going back and changing things about again. However, once I’m this far, I tend to just ignore the urge to edit and instead plough on through to finish. Writing the end is very easy.
Because what I write are essentially thrillers, the plot strands and the amount of foreshadowing required are very complex. During the first 70% of the book, everything that happens in the last 30% needs to be set up. Moreover, it needs to be done in a way that means that the reader doesn’t see it coming (but that they’ll remember when the big reveal happens). But it’s not just foreshadowing; the story also needs to be pacey. Every chapter should leave the reader wanting more, and there’s no room for scenes where we sit around dreaming into the distance. That’s not the kind of book that I like to write, although I might enjoy reading one, once in a while.
I draw up a spreadsheet at this stage and identify what happens in each chapter and what category the chapter falls into. The categories are Character Building, Pace, Action, and Plot. Each chapter needs to involve at least two of those. In other words, it’s not ok to have a chapter that is pure Action if the action doesn’t directly affect the direction of the plot, grow the characters, or add pace. Similarly, a scene where the plot advances through a conversation but there’s no Character Building, Pace or Action is going to be dreary to read. So, I check each chapter, make sure it’s doing its job, and look down the spreadsheet to see whether they are nicely spaced. I can’t have four sequential chapters of Character Building and Action without any Plot, for instance.
Making Stuff Fun
As a general rule, I tend to think “If I think it’s fun, put it in.” That’s how all of my best ideas come about, really. I think “Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were neon signs?” And then they become part of the world, and that idea leads me to the next idea, then to the next and the next. When I started writing Blackwing, I intended it to follow a very strict 14th century technology with medieval German sounding names. In the end it’s all gone kind of powder-punk, multicultural, cowboy-frontier, madness-land and is nothing like my original concept. I’d go so far as to say that almost nothing of my original idea made it into Blackwing, because I just had ideas that were more fun as I went along.
Making Stuff Make Sense
This is the hardest part. I once couldn’t sleep for three days as I tried to solve a plot issue. My plots aren’t simple and they require hefty organising and reworking.
Read It Like A Book
Once it’s looking like a complete draft, it’s time to read it on my e-reader. I find that it’s a very different experience reading something as a book rather than as a Work in Progress. I notice what’s fun, interesting, making sense and so on much more readily that way.
This can necessitate some major changes. Just this week I decided that chapters 3 and 4 of theWiP were bad. They got cut. A new location, new character, a different plot arc got introduced. I found that I didn’t like a character that I was supposed to like – all of her scenes need changing to spark her up a bit. I don’t feel precious about old words; I take some kind of sadistic glee in hacking out whole pages or chapters at a time.
Spit and Polish
When it’s finally there, it’s what I think of as the spit and polish edit. This involves looking at each chapter and beautifying it – checking the metaphors and similes, looking at each paragraph and line to see whether I can improve on them. It’s laborious, but it’s worth it.
And there. We’re done. Off it goes to an editor.
Until I scream “No it’s not done yet, give it baaaaaack!”