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:


Vladimir Nikolayevhich was cuffed and hooded, but his guards had made a fatal mistake. His hands were behind him, but not attached to any part of the inner structure of the military van. A standard Russian UAZ 452 – he’d know those rickety creaks and the pungent blend of oil and diesel anywhere. The vehicle trundled towards some unknown destination where he would be interrogated, beaten some more, and then shot in the back of the head.
Three of the four men chattered as they picked up speed down a straighter road. Their second mistake. Clearly they weren’t Special Forces – Spetsnaz – like he’d been until very recently. Regular army. He’d only seen the two men who’d taken him. But now he knew there were four – one other had engaged in the banter, another had remained silent but was referred to as the butt of several bawdy jokes. The hierarchy of the men was also clear. The leader was in the front passenger seat, the silent one the driver, leaving the two musclemen in the back with him. One beside, one opposite. He waited. They’d been driving for an hour or so, initially dirt tracks, now a highway, which meant they were on the E119 to Vostok. If they turned right, he had a chance, as they would have to cross the Volga river. Then he would make his move.
If they turned left, he was a dead man.

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:

‘You have grey eyes,’ Kadinsky said, wagging a finger at Nadia. ‘Like a fucking tombstone. Who’d want to make love staring into such eyes?’ He glanced at Katya. ‘Are you sure she’s your sister?’

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?’

Nadia never knew where her answer came from, possibly revulsion against a life of prostitution, but she thought of her father, and the words slid out of her mouth. ‘I can shoot. I never miss.’

Kadinsky’s thugs laughed. He didn’t. ‘I detest exaggeration,’ he said. ‘So American.’ His mouth moved as if he was going to spit.

‘Let’s see if you can really shoot. Give her your pistol,’ he said to one of the henchmen, the one with a pockmarked face – Pox, she named him – who immediately lost his sense of humour.

She took the weapon from his outstretched hand, weighed it in her palm. An old-style Smith & Wesson. God knows why the guy had it. Most blatnye preferred semi-autos, Makarovs or the older but higher-velocity Tokarevs. She checked that it was loaded, all six bullets nestling in their chambers. She glanced at Kadinsky, thought about killing him. But the other henchman, the fat one with slicked black hair – hence, Slick – had his Glock trained on her, his lopsided leer daring her.

Kadinsky waved a hand towards Katya, five metres away. He tilted his head left and right, then settled back against the soft leather, took a gulp of whiskey, and smacked his lips. ‘The red rose in the bowl of flowers behind her left ear. Shoot it. From where you stand.’

Slick’s eyes flicked toward Katya, gauging the angles. His leer faded.

Nadia stared at her sister and the rose. Most of it was behind her head. Only one leaf of the scarlet blossom was exposed. She swallowed, then lifted the revolver, and took up a shooting stance like her father had taught her. Right arm firm, elbow not fully locked, left hand under the fist, prepared for the recoil. She had to do it before anger built and disrupted her concentration. She cocked the hammer, lined up the shot, then spoke to Katya’s serene, trusting face: ‘Love you,’ she said. Then she breathed out slowly, as if through a straw, and squeezed the trigger.

Masonry exploded behind Katya. The crack was so loud that three other men burst into the room, weapons drawn. Kadinsky waved them back as Pox peeled the revolver from Nadia’s stiff fingers. Petals fluttered to the floor amidst a plume of white powder from the impact crater in the wall. Katya sat immobile, pale, the hair on the left side of her head ruffled as if by a gust of wind. A trickle of blood oozed from her left temple, and ran down her cheek.

Katya, lips trembling, beamed at Nadia. ‘Still alive,’ she said, her voice hoarse. She touched the graze with an unsteady forefinger.

Nadia began to shake. She folded her arms, refusing to give Kadinsky the satisfaction.