Last week back in the UK I met up with a few fans who asked me about my writing process. I’m often questioned about this because people who know me also know I have a very demanding ‘day job’, one which involves around 50 hours a week and on average one international trip per week. Do I write when I travel? No. There’s no time. I’m working all the time or socialising with work colleagues.
So, when do I write?
First, I get insomnia. Or I don’t need as much sleep as other people. Or somewhere between the two. The net result is that every week or so I wake up really early (i.e. before 4am) and start writing, usually until 6 or 7am. For me this is an incredibly productive time. My mind is lucid and imaginative, and there are no distractions (no one is emailing me at that time in the morning!). I can get 4 or 5 pages done. It will of course need a lot of editing, but it’s usually workable.
At the weekends is when I write most, both Saturday and Sunday. Usually Saturday is a couple of hours early in the morning, before I do something physical like the gym or Pilates, and then maybe in the early evening. Sunday afternoon is a good time to write, and it’s nice to lock myself away for 2-4 hours and blitz on a chapter.
I never write at night. My mind isn’t focused enough.
The second question I get asked most is about how I develop the plot. Do I know the ending when I start? Do I work everything out as I go along, or is it more ‘organic’?
So, I do know the ending. Not the details, but who is left standing, and how they have changed. I’m talking about the protagonist, and/or the main three characters. I also know the hook to the next book, as I tend to write trilogies, where each book is stand alone, but there is a link and one overall arc. That’s because I grew up reading and loving trilogies. Single books are great but leave me pining for more, and endless series end up cliché-ing themselves (IMHO).
Knowing the end, I start the first few chapters just to get a sense of the characters, to push them, to find out who they really are and what makes them tick. I like prologues, but I make sure they are not info-dumps, they are mini-chapters that get the reader caring about the protagonist from the outset, and giving the stakes right up front, often on the first page. The prologues are also lean, fast and pacy, so the reader has a foretaste of what’s to come. Here’s an example from the book I’m working on now, from the very first page:
After a few chapters, I decide the overall structure. The book I’m working on now, One Way Dive, the sequel to 66 Metres, is a 4-part structure. I decide where each section is going to take place: Sebastopol, Borneo, Chernobyl, and London. This anchors the different parts in my mind, and I consider the emotional arc of the protagonist during and at the end of each section, and the major event at the juncture of each part that will draw the reader deeper into the book.
I then work on each part. The first one usually goes quickly, but the second one has to be more grounded. I need to be able to plot the next five chapters. This is my working horizon, given that I know the endgame. So, for example, this weekend I’ve been plotting chapters 14-18, on paper, working out roughly what happens, where, to whom, who is left standing, who betrays who, what it means for the plot, what remains unresolved (hence maintaining suspense), and that all important heightening of tension for the protagonist. This section is also the first time the reader meets the arch enemy, who was hinted at right at the end of 66 Metres. This guy personifies evil and threat, and it has to make a big impact both on the protagonist and the reader. So, he must do something pretty terrible, but threaten to do something even worse (for the fourth section).
All this is done on small, scrappy bits of paper in almost indecipherable (even to me) handwriting. It doesn’t matter. The fact that I write it down leaves a trace in my head, so I remember even if I can’t read my notes!
When I write, I don’t do it in a calm, relaxed fashion. I do it urgently, in a hurry, as if I can’t type fast enough, as if someone has a stopwatch and a gun to my head. This is how I write ‘page-turners’ and action scenes. The cold-eyed editing stage comes later, but the first cut must be raw and bloody. The way I do this is by waiting, building up tension in myself before I write, thinking and re-thinking scenes without typing a single word. Then when I do sit down with my laptop, it floods out of me. Usually half a chapter at a time. Breathless. Later, I’ll fill in, fill out if it is too fast, deepen, etc., but not this first draft.
Fire first, ice later.
Here’s my favourite scene from the opening of 66 Metres (on sale here), with one of Nadia’s defining moments:
Katya’s gaze dropped to the carpet. She nodded, her own eyes a deep blue, like her mother’s. Nadia had her father’s eyes. Killer’s eyes, he’d once joked, when she’d been too young to realise it was a confession.
Kadinsky swirled the ice in his whiskey tumbler with a pudgy index finger. ‘What else can you do, girl?’