Take a Glimpse into the Life of Crimewriter Tim Ellis
So, here’s the thing! I was reading an article in Writer’s Magazine about Bernard Cornwell’s day, one of my favourite authors. So, I thought if Bernard can do it, so can I. My day usually begins about 5am, but I don’t beat myself up if I have a lie in now and again. The dogs (four of them) look at me as if I’m a sandwich short of a picnic. Three of them get up, go out and then go back to bed. They’re more normal than me – ain’t that the truth?
I make my coffee – always been a coffee drinker, but I don’t mind the odd cup of tea if the whim takes me – and switch my laptop on (a Dell Ultrabook XPS13). I work off a miniature 8GB Verbatim memory stick. All of my writing is on there, but I do back-ups onto another memory stick, which I keep separately. And, of course, most of my writing is in numerous places online anyway! Then I get stuck in by checking my emails, my sales, my rankings, my facebook page and I’m off. Whatever the project is I get stuck in. The whole purpose of getting up at this ridiculous hour of the day is to work in peace and quiet with an uncluttered mind. If you’re going to procrastinate (or feed the monkeys) then you may as well go back to bed.
So, how did I get into writing? Well, I look back over my life and see the milestones that lead me here. As a teenager I wrote poetry, and that has continued. I was editor of a magazine called “The Gopher” in my early Army days. I used to play in the regional Scrabble championships, construct crosswords for fun, and read everything that I could lay my hands on. And then, one day about six years ago, after I’d read a book on Caesar by Conn Iggulden, I decided I could do that, so I wrote Warrior: Path of Desitiny. Since then, I’ve written twenty novels – mostly crime.
I sit in the living room in my leather recliner chair. I have got a shed, but I’m not keen on spiders, and there’s no electricity in there. Now that I’m 60 years old, my wife says I can write where I want to – so I do. There’s only the two of us now – the son having finally got a life of his own – about bloody time I often say! So, life doesn’t get in the way of what I want to do much anymore. I started writing a while back when I was still teaching. The more I wrote, the less I wanted to teach. Then, four yeas ago I had a heart attack and survived. It was a good excuse to retire – so I did. I suppose I’m a writer now, and I don’t think there’s a retirement age for writers – they just get recycled through charity shops (Ha, ha! There wasn’t a joke for ‘old writers never die . . .’, so I just made that up). Maybe I should start writing humour! Hecklers can kiss my ballpoint pen!
It’s just 7am, and I’ve been doing a lot of administrative tasks since 5am relating to my latest police procedural bestseller The Terror at Grisly Park (Quigg 5), which I published on Monday. Yeah, being a writer means doing loads of rubbish that isn’t actually writing, which is probably a good job because otherwise my brain would turn to mush if I tried to write all day. So, I like to intersperse my writing with frequent trips to the kitchen to make drinks/snacks/chocolate, the odd tweet/retweet, reading the news/sports on Yahoo, and so on.
My days are mostly the same because I don’t want to do anything much except write. At about 8:45am I go for my shower, and then take the dogs for their first walk. Gives me a chance to think through what I’m writing and what I’m going to write next. I have a target word-count of 1,000-words a day, but again I don’t subject myself to self-flagellation if I don’t make it. Most days I achieve a lot more, but I work on a larger target of 10,000-words a week, 40,000-words a month, and a finished 80,000-word book in two months, which is what I’ve been achieving for a while now. Being old, wrinkly, crotchety and forgetful has its advantages.
After I’ve walked the dog I generally get back to writing for a couple of hours. At midday I have my lunch and watch something I’ve recorded on Sky+ for an hour, and then I have a siesta for an hour or two. I get up again and start writing. At around 3pm I take the dogs for their second walk, and then write some more. At 5.15pm I put my laptop down and watch Pointless (big fan Alexander and Richard), watch the news and then do a bit more work until about 8pm and then I call it a day and watch some TV. Most of my writing gets done between 5 – 8am when there are no distractions.
There’s lots of talk about planning, chapter outlines and a dozen other ways to write. Each to his own. When I’m writing police procedurals I like to have a title, the names of my lead character(s) and a location before I start – this means I own it. It’s mine. That’s it really. I then begin writing and go where the characters take me. I have a notebook by my chair, and I keep notes of what I’ve got to include in the future. I write in scenes, and I try to make each scene as interesting as I can. I suppose you can relate it to: Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves. If you’ve got your scenes right the book should be good – build it a brick at a time . . . Well, as long as you’ve got a plot, a story, interesting characters, conflict, and all the other things you’re meant to have in a book.
The wife got up. I grunted at her a few times – she’s happy. Had a shower, walked and fed the dogs – they’re happy. Made a coffee and had a couple of pieces of toast – I’m happy. Back to writing. You know, I had a quick look at rules for writers – there’s a whole bunch of them that people have come up with from Diane Athill (who?), through George Orwell to Jeanette Winterson (who?). Anyway, I thought I’d let you know some of the ones I abide by:
- 1. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue (Elmore Leonard). Although sometimes I break this rule, but not much. I try to use actions, body language, or speech indiosyncracies to indicate who’s speaking,
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” (Elmore Leonard). I very rarely use adverbs (or “ly” words). Adverbs are telling – I prefer to show through actions and body language.
- I don’t use “suddenly”.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters (Elmore Leonard). I’m a bit in the middle with this one. I do give some description, but not too much.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip (Elmore Leonard). Yes, I’m one of the readers that skip, and I keep this in mind while I’m writing.
- Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue (Helen Dunmore). Yes, I tend to do this. I go to bed, and between the light and the dark, my characters show me where they’re going and what they’re going to be doing next.
- A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk Helen Dunmore). While I’m walking the dogs, problems often get solved. If your instinct is saying it doesn’t work, your instinct is probably right – change it. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you it doesn’t work.
- Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key. I agree. Get up, get writing. Do it every day – rain or shine. No excuses – just do it.
- Use layering. When I re-read that one time I think about: The five senses, the descriptions, the dialogue, the emotions and feelings, body language, conflict, actions, the pace, active/passive, and long/short sentences.
- Also, I keep it simple, I make sure there’s lots of “white space” i.e. I use a lot of dialogue. I like reading dialogue. I tend to skip over chunks of description when I’m reading.
Some of the rules I break with wild abandon:
- Keep your exclamation marks under control (Elmore Leonard). No, I tend to use a few more than 3 per 100,000-words!
- Read it out loud. I can already hear it in my head, so I tend not to read my work out loud. Although the wife has caught me muttering to myself on occasion.
- Cut. What I write is usually the finished product. There’s nothing to cut generally because my writing is minimilastic anyway. I re-read what I’ve written, make some minor changes, etc., send it off to the proofreader. Make some more minor changes.
- Avoid using a thesaurus. I use the online version whenever I lose a word, or I need a definition. My memory isn’t what it was, and Statins make it worse, so I break this rule when I need to.
- Cut out the metaphors and similes (Esther Freud). No, I break this rule regularly. Metaphors and similies are like old friends.
Well, I think that’s about it. A life in the day of Tim Ellis.