Like many people, Niall Leonard had been “loudly promising a novel for a very long time.” As a professional TV writer, something else always seemed to come up, or he’d decide his idea for a novel had narrative problems. After watching his wife, E.L. James (yes, that E.L. James), write a novel, he gave NaNoWriMo a whirl in 2011.
Forget about those narrative problems. Last November, he finished the first draft of his novel, Crusher, which has just been published by Random House.
Read on as Niall tells us about writing screenplays vs. novels, outlining stories as shopping lists, and writing for yourself.
Since you were already a successful TV screenwriter, why did you decide to do NaNoWriMo to develop your first novel, Crusher?
Writing for TV can be restrictive—you have to hit the slot length and ad breaks, ration the strong language, think of the budget—and you have to tailor your vision to the producer’s concept of what’s good and what works. If you want freedom to tell your own story your own way, you have to write a novel.
On the other hand, all that freedom can be so scary you don’t know where to start, and without a producer on your back it’s all too easy to faff around with ideas for months on end without actually writing anything. That’s where NaNoWriMo can come to the rescue. It certainly did for me.
You’ve mentioned that you were “learning, and relearning, an awful lot” during NaNoWriMo. Can you tell us more about what you learned and relearned?
All the stuff I learned and relearned was the stuff that NaNoWriMo participants are familiar with—that you should just write it now and polish it later, that a writer’s search for perfection can be self-defeating, and that waiting for a brilliant idea gets you nowhere; that you have to seize the day, and if you have a problem, to think of a quick solution and keep going; that your audience wants you to succeed, to entertain and transport them, and they’re not always as worried about holes and coincidences as you are; that the most humdrum idea written down beats the most sublime idea in your head, every time… you want me to go on?
What’s your writing process like outside of NaNoWriMo? Do you write 1,667 words a day?
I personally can’t write 16 words a day unless I know where the story is going. I know some people make it up as they go along, but I have tried that and I have always run out of steam and ended up lost and demoralized.
Before I start a project, I spend time thinking about it and what sort of story it is, sketching characters, their stories and how those stories unravel, their secrets and how those secrets are revealed. Then I write a quick, dirty outline weaving those elements together—it looks like a shopping list. When I feel that it mostly makes sense, I am ready to go. I don’t know what happens in every chapter of the story before I start, I just need to know where I want to end up.
I’ve always had that approach to writing. It helps when you are working in TV, and it helped me last November. Back then I aimed to write at least 2,000 words a day, and having a plan made that easier. Right now I’m in the planning stage for Crusher II. The only problem is I’m so busy plugging Crusher I!
After finishing NaNo, you wrote that you didn’t know if your novel was any good or not. What went into the revision to make the book good enough to sell?
I felt instinctively Crusher was solid and worked the way I’d wanted it to, and I was delighted I’d written it, but I wasn’t going to go around telling everyone it was good enough to publish. I kind of hoped it was, and planned to sit down in March, reread it and revise it, then maybe self-publish it as an ebook. But events overtook me. My wife’s publisher got hold of a copy via my agent, and they felt it was pretty much ready to go, and I certainly wasn’t going to argue.
There weren’t many big fixes to be made, although my first proofreader pointed out that the way time passed didn’t work—the way shops and schools and government offices were operating day after day. I had written ten weekdays in a row, with no weekends. That fix took some figuring out.
Also challenging to deal with were the clearances for the poetry and lyrics I had copiously quoted in the script. I knew quoting copyright stuff could be a problem, but I thought it didn’t matter because Crusher would probably never see the light of day. (The publisher, if you get one, won’t cover you if you breach anyone’s copyright—it’s your problem, not theirs.) Fortunately, once I had tracked them down, the rights holders were very helpful and generous.
As a fan of The Sopranos and The Wire, did TV shows influence Crusher, especially since it’s a “gritty thriller”?
I have thought about this and the only parallel between Crusher and The Sopranos is the figure of the rough-hewn mob boss who lives in a huge, glossy suburban mansion. I have always gone for grit and grime and dark places when I write thrillers. I wouldn’t know what else to portray. Chases on foot through luxury hotels and London’s top tourist attractions? I’ll leave that stuff to Hollywood.
We hear you’re planning to write the sequel to Crusher this year during NaNoWriMo. Will your NaNo writing strategy change for a sequel?
If it ain’t broke…
We have to ask this since you’re married to E.L. James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey. How does being married to a famous writer influence your own creativity?
For the better, I think. She was working as TV executive, and wanted to write. One day she sat down and started, and she kept going, and the more she wrote the better she got. My being a professional writer actually worked against me—I used to tell myself, well, I’ve got nothing to prove, my work is on prime time TV. And that was true. But she was the one having fun.
Don’t get me wrong, she worked really bloody hard, but what kept her going was that she loved doing it, and I envied that. I wanted to be like her, to work hard writing something for myself and have fun. And thanks to NaNoWriMo, and her pushing me into it, I did.
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