Is your creative approach to writing each novel the same or does it vary?
I often get asked whether I plan out my plot in advance before I start writing. Urgh, the dreaded P word, I think! I hate plotting. Absolutely hate it!
There are some authors who won’t type a single letter until they’ve got every inch of their plot structure finely tuned in advance. Some authors know their characters intimately before they begin writing, down to what they just had for breakfast. And I wish I could be like that, I really do. I think it could make my job a whole lot easier. But I’m definitely a fly by the seat of my knickers kind of girl! If I get too hung up spending a lot of time plotting in advance, I tend to lose my creativity. I start thinking about it too much and get nowhere. I think I must suffer from some kind of plot dyslexia, because as soon as I pull out a pad and pen and start trying to come up with vast plot notes, the words swim in front of my face in a blur and my brain turns to mush. Is there such a thing as plot-o-phobia?
But unfortunately, plotting is a necessary evil if you want to write a novel. Without a plot, it’s just words on the paper. Your plot should encompass all sorts of things: goals of the characters, conflict, crises, turning points, climax, resolution. And everything you write should advance the plot, although I personally think when writing comedy, you can get away with a few extras in there!
When I wrote my debut romantic comedy, Fourteen Days Later, I didn’t have a clue about any kind of plot, or characters, or structure. All I knew was that my heroine had to do a fourteen-day life-changing challenge, where she completed a new task every day. I knew my ending, but I didn’t have a clue what happened anywhere else. Hmm…slight problem, I hear you say! Well, yes, but as soon as I started tapping out the words on the keyboard it all developed naturally. My characters invented their own plot as they went along.
So far, so good, but what about the next novel? Surely this must’ve been some bizarre fluke, and I’d have to actually think of a plot in advance for the next one. Well, yes and no. My second novel was a comedy mystery. Because of the mystery element, I did need to know a few things before I started. Otherwise how would I weave in all the clues? So this time I did actually write an eency weency plot before I started. It was about three lines for each chapter of things I needed to happen. That was it, though, and I still didn’t have hardly any of my “clues” in there. But again, it all seemed to come together as I wrote it. Creative or crazy? I’m not sure which.
With my third novel, I was getting really stressed trying to plot. I read about different techniques like the Snowflake method and using index cards or graphs, even plotting software, but the plot-dyslexia was kicking in big time! Robert McKee’s Story is an excellent book, by the way, for plotting. (It’s for screenplays but works just as well for novels). But none of it helped me in writing a plot in advance. I wrote a few lines for the first two chapters and after that, nada! So once again, I just started to write and my characters invented their own story. The voices in my head just tell me to do things.
My fourth novel was also a mystery, so again I thought I’d need to at least write some lines of plot to allow for my clues. And this time I did it! Hurrah, I wrote out my plot in advance, doing a storyboard of a paragraph per chapter of things I needed to include. In a lot of ways it was easier to write in this way, but that was the only time I’ve ever managed it.
In my world (which is sometimes scary!) my plot advances on its own, with one scene logically following on from the next. I’m very much character driven. And what works for one author won’t work for another. Even what works for one novel won’t always work for another. However you choose to write a novel or story is very personal. Who knows whether I’ll finally get to write an advanced detailed plot for another novel. Watch this space and I’ll let you know!
What do you normally begin with?
I usually have a single line idea. For example, with The Disappeared it was that Nicole’s husband died in a plane crash in Africa, but ten months later she receives a letter that could only have come from him. So what happened to him out there? Sometimes I can think of an idea and start on it the next week. Sometimes it has to fester for a year or so to be mixed with another idea.
Name some things that has helped your craft as a writer.
Reading. For me, it’s the number one thing that’s helped me understand the craft, to see what I think works or doesn’t work, to understand a writer’s voice that I’m a fan of, and to hone my skills. Then you have to write, write, write! Even if it’s a project that’s never going to be published, it’s all about practice and learning, like anything in life. Also passion is important. If you believe in something so strongly, it will shine through in what you do and motivate you to carry on.
What are the most challenging aspects of writing?
Every single word! Because one word leads to another and another, which eventually becomes a story (hopefully!). Because I’m not a plotter I can’t relax with my work in progress until I have a first draft and I know for sure I’ve got a story to work with.
How do you incorporate pacing in your books?
Chapter length, sentence and paragraph structure, and using multiple points of view are all methods I use to increase or decrease pacing.
How would you define a Psychological thriller?
A story that messes with your head or emphasises the psychological and emotional states of the character(s). I love psychological thrillers with unreliable narrators, where their motivations or emotions are questionable or you don’t know who to trust.
What motivated you to write about them?
With The Disappeared it was a documentary I watched, but, unfortunately, I can’t tell you the name now as it will give away the whole story in advance! But I do mention it in my author note at the end of the novel.
When I’m writing I see the scenes playing out in my head, exactly like watching a film. Often they’re accompanied by actors who I think my characters are like or would portray them perfectly. One movie that was also a backdrop in my mind as I was writing this novel was Blood Diamond. And, yes, Leonardo DiCaprio also featured in there, too, who I admire, not just because he’s a hugely talented actor, but because of his work with The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation that does amazing things for both wildlife and the environment.
Most of my thrillers are inspired by real life events, and research for The Disappearedincluded reading hundreds of online articles from NGOs, government organisations, humanitarian groups, and investigative journalists. I also read many books on the subjects covered in the novel. When I’m writing, I have notes everywhere—snippets of dialogue, character traits and names, statistics, one sentence reminders of things I need to include, and much more. This book was no different, and I had about a hundred pieces of A4 paper filled with the stuff that I had to, somehow, turn into something readable. Fingers crossed readers will experience something that’s both thrilling and exciting, but also authentic and sympathetic to the subject matter.
In the Disappeared, how did get to know your characters?
I don’t know much about my characters at the beginning of the novel (unless I’m using repeat characters from other books). They always evolve as I’m writing the story.
Who is Nicole Palmer and what motivates her?
She’s an ordinary woman who’s become unexpectedly widowed. A primary school teacher who believes her husband died in a plane crash in Africa ten months before. But she’s also stronger than she thinks, independent, brave, with a fierce motivation to find out what really did happen to her husband when she realises not everything is as it seems. And she’s about to be tested to the limit.
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