Monday, 14 December 2015

How to Kill a Novel - To Plan or not to Plan?

Having spent the last couple of months focused wholeheartedly on getting my novel No Longer Safe ready for publication on February 4th, I feel ready for what’s next. The plan is to release my Trilogy - a series of three London Psychological Thrillers with Clinical Psychologist, Samantha Willerby - over the next two years.

That's mega exciting - but I crave being at the ‘other end’ of everything again – starting afresh with a new story. I’m itching to write some new material and to have a developing story on the go...

Whilst the preparation for the release of No Longer Safe has been exciting and enjoyable – it’s totally different from writing. It’s largely task oriented and involves a different part of the brain to ‘free-flowing creativity’. I want to experience that great feeling of being sucked into a storyline again, transported in time and place to somewhere altogether different and unknown. I tend to write as though I am inside an IMAX film, or a dream – a very visual and escapist experience! Hours slide by, the weather outside goes unnoticed, as I stand inside my scene on a canal boat, or a witness stand, or a sewer under the city, watching and waiting for what my lead character is going to do next. I'd love to be in that creative space, once more.

Regents' Canal - the setting in one of my novels to come...

This leads me to an issue I’ve pondered a lot recently – planning. How little or how much of the planning/plotting stage really works? For me. For you.

I wrote my first novel without any plan AT ALL! I mean absolutely zilch. That’s because it was just an experiment, a stab in the dark at writing a short story. Following Stephen King’s advice in his book, On Writing, I started with ‘an incident’, with the aim of reaching 5,000 words. But, when I reached that milestone, the story felt like it had only just begun, so I carried on. I was hooked by the possibilities of what could happen next and enthralled by the directions the story seemed to be pulling me towards. The mystery had a life-force all of its own, as though I was reading a book that already existed on some other plane. I kept going, following the story this way and that, until at around 95,000 words, it came to a close.

As you can imagine, the plot of that book did not hang together like a finely-tuned pocket watch! However, I worked on it, showed it to someone, worked on it again and submitted it. As it happens, a UK publisher offered me a modest deal the same week I landed a top UK literary agent. I chose the agent, but sadly, it was just after the financial crash and despite her efforts, we didn’t find a high-end publisher…

But by then, smitten with this writing lark, I'd started the next book. Far better planning this time, but I still made lots of changes to the initial ideas and added tons of new plot points as I went along. This book (The Evil Beneath) got me a new agent  – and that’s when things started to happen. In 2012, I got a publishing deal in France and a two-book deal in Germany with Penguin Random House, but I had no break-through in the UK. Thankfully, I couldn't stop writing and the novels since The Evil Beneath  – six more in all - were constructed in the same way: only roughly plotted, always embracing a sense of freedom. I wrote with the intention of bringing in new strands and totally rearranging ideas, if necessary, as I went along.

This year, however, I’ve found myself struggling. In order to try to land a big publisher here in the UK, I’ve spent months trying to harness some cracking ideas in a different way. To do this, I've been preparing full synopses and sharing them with top professionals to see whether the stories follow through and are punchy and original enough to compete with current bestsellers. But there's been a problem. I’ve written such detailed story outlines and extensive character studies that when I came to start the actually writing of the books, I’ve felt like I had already written them. The life had gone out of the ideas by then - and, as a result, I dropped them all.

Encouraged by the bestselling success of Girl On a Train and the general rise in readership for all my books, I decided it was time to reconsider my approach. The 'synopsis' way wasn't working. The anticipation and excitement was being sapped out of each storyline and I wasn't finishing any new novels at all. So, this time, I’ve decided to go back to the methods I've used before and plunge into the next novel, saving the synopsis until later. I’ll just have to take the risk that the flimsy structure has something going for it. Significantly, since the germs of this latest one have started to buzz around inside my head, I’ve remembered something. Something really important that had completely slipped my mind...

Once I start working on a novel for real, the story comes alive and more ideas pop up out of the woodwork. The notebooks I have scattered everywhere start filling up with 'what if' scribbles - while I’m watching TV or on the bus and spin-off ideas often wake me up during the night. When it's not already set in stone, the narrative itself generates juice as it goes along. Starting when the synopsis is all done-and-dusted upfront fails in this respect, because it doesn’t allow for the organic unfolding that takes place during the months of writing all the individual scenes and chapters. In practice, as fresh thoughts and new threads come up the story wants to bend in different directions. That's when I feel the true magic of writing. This is how my books have developed before - and that’s why, this time, I’m going back to those ‘old’ ways.

So - how much information do you need before you embark on a novel? I have a hook and an inciting incident, but I have no idea what the big twist might be at the end. I do have some ‘voices’ (I often ‘hear’ dialogue, before the plot itself starts to form), but I don’t know how the two main characters will interact (and that's exciting!). I have a very strong sense of weather, the location and context for my two main characters. I also know what the energetic drive through the story will be – the two concurrent events that will unfold to give pace and momentum to the story.

Do you need to have all the plot-points lined up one after another at this stage; the crisis points, the big twist in the second half, and the shock of the final twist at the end? Do you need to know your key characters inside out? Well – I think I know the answer. No – and it’s worked for me in the past. And if it doesn’t work this time, I’ll backtrack and rethink. But right now, what I want most is to get lost inside a chilling thriller – which will be a mystery and a gripping ride for ME, too - and I hope to see you on the other side!

No Longer Safe is released 4 February 2016 and is available for Pre-Order HERE.

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-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------              AJ Waines’ novels (so far!) are Standalones and can be read in any order:

  • Girl on a Train  a Number One Bestseller on Kindle in UK and Australia (2015)
  • The Evil Beneath went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts
  • No Longer Safe released February 2016
  • Awarded Kindle KDP Top 20 'most-read Author' in UK (2015)
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