Niall Leonard

by , Thursday September 13, 2012
Niall Leonard

Niall Leonard, author of Crusher, which we have used as stimulus for our crime writing competition, gives some tips on writing to a tight deadline. 


Thanks to a frankly-too-frank blog on my website, it has become common knowledge that I wrote my first published novel, Crusher, in a month, and now people are asking me how I did it.  Well, as the Irish saying has it, if I was heading there I wouldn’t start from here.  Proper writers work steadily, every day, applying the seat of their pants to the seat of their chair (except of course for the ones who write standing up, like Hemingway and Virginia Woolf used to.)

A lot of us, however, lack that discipline.  We stare out the window pretending we’re thinking, or surf the net pretending to do research.  For slackers like us there’s NaNoWriMo, the international novel-writing sprint where participants write 1667 words each day for the thirty days of November.  Everyone who gets to 50,000 words wins, and the prize is, you get to go around at Christmas telling your friends you’ve written a novel.  And these days of course you can even publish it yourself, as an e-book – the hard part is getting it noticed.  (A Twitter petition to ‘ban this sick filth now’ is always a good start.)

But first you have to write the book.  You really want to do it in a month?  Fine – here are a few suggestions:

Give yourself a deadline.  Face it, many of us fritter our working hours away because we think we have all the time in the world, and that a solution to that annoying hole in the plot will spontaneously appear next week.  NaNoWriMo provides encouragement and advice, but most importantly it provides a deadline.  With a deadline you can’t afford to wait for inspiration; you have to focus on the challenges of your story, to fix them – somehow, anyhow – and keep going.   Afterwards, if people want to call your work inspired, let ‘em.  They don’t need to know the truth.

Set yourself a daily target wordcount, and every day exceed it. On good days you’ll exceed it by lots, on bad days you’ll just scrape through.

Start with a fertile story seed. If you’re hanging out here at Movellas chances are you already have a granary-full. Choose an idea that excites you, intrigues you, and offers a million possibilities – you don’t have to use them all. The seed for Crusher was a conversation with a friend who complained she couldn’t find any books for her seventeen-year-old son, because he wasn’t into sci-fi or fantasy.  I immediately thought, what about a gritty, contemporary story of a 17-year-old detective?  

To build your story, ask questions. I had to ask, who is this kid?  What happened to his parents?  Suppose he was from a single parent family, raised by his dad – where’s his mother gone? And what happens to his Dad?  Well, he’s murdered, of course… but why?  What if there turned out to be half a dozen possible motives? What might they have been? The questions and the answers make up your story.  

Plan ahead.  I have never started a project where I didn’t know what happened in the end.  (Well, I have, but I’ve never finished one.) I have rarely known exactly how I’ll get there – that’s where the fun is for me.  The outline doesn’t have to be detailed; I just need to know roughly what happens next, and to make sure all the questions I’ve asked myself eventually get answered.  Some people don’t plan, they just dive right in and keep writing till they find their story, then throw away the bits they don’t need.  If you want to do that, fine – but it sounds like a lot of wasted work to me, and we only have 30 days.

Keep it simple.  I’m not saying ‘write what you know’ because few of us (thankfully) have lives that make interesting reading. But if you want to write fast, avoid subject matter that will require a lot of deep research.    For Crusher I used parts of London that I knew well, and did a few days’ net-surfing in advance on some terrifying real-life characters from the London underworld.  The Internet is a wonderful resource, but focus on finding only as much as you need to make the story work, and come home.  Don’t be tempted to wander off on endless fishing expeditions, and never mistake research for actual writing.  

Use detail.  Specifics make a story real.  Smells, sounds, textures, fleeting impressions, memories and associations – immediate, trivial things can fire a reader’s imagination more effectively than grandiose prose and epic scenery.

Don’t be afraid to wing it.  If you come across a hole in the story or don’t know how or why your character travels from A to B, make something up and move on.   You’ll be amazed how often the first thing that comes into your head is the best answer.  If it isn’t, you can always come back later and try to fix it – but you can’t fix it if you haven’t written it.  And sometimes you don’t have to: Raymond Chandler left holes in his storylines that hardly anyone even noticed.  

Tie off your loose ends.  Don’t leave ‘em dangling – it all helps your word count.  Even better, tie the unconnected threads together and see what happens.  I tried that in Crusher and what came out of it shocked even me.  

Write for yourself.  Don’t show off, don’t try to impress anyone, and screw posterity.  Entertain yourself, surprise yourself, and enjoy it – even the grim bits. If you enjoy your story, there’s a good chance your reader will too.  

Stop Procrastinating.  The next NaNoWriMo takes place this November.  What are you waiting for?  And if you’re reading this in December, don’t wait for next year’s NaNoWriMo – what are you doing in January?   


Niall Leonard

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