Saturday, April 28, 2018

Should I Be Looking In, Or Out, Of The Box?

Should I Be Looking In, or Out, of the Box?

by Helen Hollick

Anyone who thinks that writing a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, is as easy as pie has clearly never written an entire book right through to ‘the end’. Some of it is easy. Sometimes it seems easy, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of actually getting a book to that final publication stage the big question ‘why on earth am I doing this?’ can hang heavy in the mind.

Putting it simply, creating a novel (or a non-fiction book, but I’m sticking to novels for this article) is hard work. No, it isn’t merely sitting at a cosy desk tapping away at a keyboard, the words flowing freely from the mind, down through the arms and fingers and appearing ‘Hey Presto’ on the screen in front of you. Writing means getting a story written so that it is a readable, enjoyable, entertaining, gripping, page-turner of a read. Without any (or actually, all) of those your book will not get beyond being a tiny piece of plankton floating around in the vast ocean that is the literary world. Well, for all practical purposes as far as writers are concerned, the vast ocean that is Amazon. The on-line book store, not the river.

Apart from the actual writing there is the re-write, and the next re-write. Then several edits and probably a couple more re-writes. Then trying to find an agent, or giving up on that deciding to go self-published or ‘indie’. Which will include finding a good cover designer, and avoiding all the pitfalls that can drown an indie writer. Oh, and did I mention the importance of editing?

Eventually, hopefully, you will end up with a cracker of a novel which receives dozens of fantastic reviews and sells better than hot cakes. (Authors excel at day-dreaming.)

That all sounds do-able!’ Do I hear you say?

It is. That is what writing is all about, and there are professional editors, and critiquers, and designers, and publishers (traditional mainstream or assisted-self-publishing) out there, all eager to help you. (For a fee, of course.)

But there is a but. A big one.

To write a good novel you need an idea. A plot. You need the characters to people that plot, to think up who they are, what they do, why they do it and what happens to them while they are doing it. So you need a box. A story box in which to store all the ideas pouring into your mind. It can be a mind box, a little compartment in your brain where you stash your ideas. Or a spreadsheet, or a word.doc where you jot down your thoughts. It can be a big box or a little box, a wooden box, a cardboard box… a blue box, a red box… lots of ‘little boxes all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look the same’ (who remembers that song from 1962?)

And that thinking can be easy. Or it can be the, ‘Here I get stuck’ bit, especially if you want to write a series, like I am doing for my Sea Witch Voyages. So then, if you are stuck, you need to think outside of the box, don’t you?

The Sea Witch Voyages are nautical adventures for adults, with a touch of fantasy. Think the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Entertaining fun, with a drop-dead gorgeous pirate for a lead character. Mine is Captain Jesamiah Acorne, with Tiola, a white witch, as his girlfriend. Jesamiah is Jack Sparrow, Jack Aubrey, Horatio Hornblower, Indiana Jones, Richard Sharpe and James Bond all rolled into one.

My tagline is, ‘Trouble follows Jesamiah Acorne like a ship’s wake.’

Everything for writing the first novel, Sea Witch, came to me as if by magic. Plot, characters, situations – I wrote the first full draft in just under three months. I had no idea, at that point, that this was going to be the first of a series, but I had so much fun writing it, and I had totally fallen in love with Jesamiah, that I had to write another adventure about him. So Pirate Code followed which was harder to write because I found the prospect somewhat daunting – I needed to write a coherent, continuity-correct novel, and ensure that it was as exciting as the previous one. I think I managed it.

The third, Bring It Close was easier as it centred around that dastardly pirate, Blackbeard, so my basic plot was dictated by the events of history. Ripples In the Sand was the fourth, and the fifth, On the Account, introduced a new character for me to fall for, Maha'dun. As my Jesamiah says, ‘He is the most irritating, annoying, confusing, inconsistent, loyal, courageous idiot I know.’ We (Jesamiah and me, and hopefully, more than a few fans) love him because he is all those things.

Now I am working on the sixth, Gallows Wake. Well, I use the term ‘working on’ somewhat loosely. ‘Thinking about’ is probably more accurate. No spoilers, but Jesamiah will be in trouble again, this time with a few old enemies and the British Royal Navy. How Maha'dun appears in it you will have to wait to find out, after all, Jesamiah believes that he was shot dead at the end of On the Account...

But I am finding Gallows Wake a toughie to get started. I have a rough plan, a sort of nautical chart with the starting point marked on it along with the eventual destination and various places during the voyage to drop anchor, but that clichéd ‘think outside the box’ business is bugging me. ‘Thinking outside the box’ is often given as a tip to help struggling writers. It means to approach a plot, an idea, that next novel, in an innovative manner. To think of what is going to happen to your characters in a way you would not have thought of before. So it means ‘think of clichéd situations in a way that is no longer clichéd.’ Or so I am told.

And there’s the rub. I think up my rough idea, I ‘chat’ to Jesamiah as I write and the ideas just come. From where, I know not. I’m convinced that he whispers them to me. (I am not alone, most writers know for a fact that their characters exist as real people in an alternative dimension.) My problem is, Jesamiah has gone off and fallen asleep somewhere. Probably in or under a cardboard box.

When I am writing I don’t think inside the box, I don’t think outside of the box. Actually, I don’t know where the darn box is, or even whether I want a box.

As I am writing about a pirate, and I need him to stop messing about and get back here to start some work, what I really need is a bottle of rum to lure him in…

Now there’s a novelty – think outside the bottle

Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, she wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era she became a ‘USA Today’ bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown.) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. She has written non-fiction about pirates and smugglers in fact and fiction, due to be published in January 2019

Amazon Author Page (Universal Link)

Twitter: @HelenHollick

Images via Pixabay


  1. Many people want to write a book but find it harder then they thought but such is life

  2. Thank you Heidi for inviting me onto your blog - unfortunately I wasn't aware you'd published it - hence my late response, so sorry!