In a few days time I’m heading to Ted Hughes’ old house, Lumb Bank, in Hebden Bridge, to teach an Arvon Foundation course on how to write a literary thriller, with fellow author, Adam LeBor. I’m looking forward to meeting guest author, Felica Yap, who wrote, Yesterday, as well as returning to the wilds of Yorkshire where I grew up.
Most of what one can learn about writing a thriller will apply to any kind of fiction – character, plot, setting, dialogue, language, style and voice are, of course, vitally important. But what is critical in a thriller is information: who knows what, and when and where and how did they or will they find it out? The key is to think about what is going to happen next. If you set up a question in the first few pages, finding out the answer is what will keep readers turning the pages.
Think of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which begins:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
Immediately this raises small questions: what is Manderley? Who is telling us this story? Why aren’t they at Manderley anymore? What is so special about Manderley that our unknown narrator dreams about this place? And then quickly we’re introduced to the larger questions: who was the first Mrs de Winter? What was she was like? What happened to her – and what will happen to our protagonist? These questions are what keep us reading.
The two main ways the writer can heighten this sense of anticipation is through the structure of the novel, and via suspense. The structure of the novel is essentially about presenting information in a particular order. For example, in a psychological thriller, moving the second most thrilling or exciting moment in the story to the prologue can create anticipation because we know that something bad is going to happen, yet in the first few pages, that terrible deed has not yet occurred.
Another example of how structure can lead to anticipation is through the withholding of information, by delaying telling the reader the answer to a question: leaving a scene early, just before the information is about to be revealed, is one way to do this. The resulting cliff hanger will hopefully make the reader want to find out what happens next. Think of Harry Potter: The Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling. When the Dursleys are hiding on a boat at sea and someone beats down the door and steps inside, we’re on tenterhooks – and this is where the chapter ends.
Of course, endless cliff hangers could well become annoying, so another way of delaying answering the question is by complicating the story. This can be done by adding more information and greater levels of complexity – through a sub-plot, for instance, or by switching the Point Of View to another character.
Suspense, in contrast, is about who knows what at which point. Do the characters know, or only one of them? Does the reader know the secret but the characters do not? For instance, in My Mother’s Secret, the main protagonist, Emma Taylor, knows the secret, and her daughter, Stella, is trying to discover it. The reader finds out the secret about half-way through the novel, but the daughter does not – which is dramatic irony – and, I hope, has readers swiftly turning the pages, hoping against hope that Stella doesn’t do anything too foolish to jeopardise everyone’s safety….
I write, ‘My mother has a secret.’
If you’re interested in writing novels but missed signing up to my Arvon course, do ask me about assessing your manuscript or work-in-progress.
I’ve just returned to working for charity,First Story, this month. First Story’s aim is to change young people’s lives through writing, particularly those who might be disadvantaged socio-economically, and/or suffer from a lack of confidence. I had my first creative writing workshop with the school I’ll be Writer in Residence for last week. Before I met the group of students I’ll be working with, I was wondering what to tell them. I want to inspire them to be writers, as well as to give them the confidence to flourish, but I’m not sure that I personally feel like a teacher, or even know that creative writing can be taught. In spite of having published twelve books, I don’t have any qualifications in teaching and I have none in English past the age of 15.
So what I said was:
I am your space: I am your space in which to think about and practise the craft of writing.
I am your permission: I give you permission to be writers.
I’m never going to say to a single one of these young people that they are rubbish, that they cannot do it, that they need to demonstrate proficiency in key aspects of the curriculum, pass an exam or sit a test. I hope that having the time, space and permission to ‘have a go’ will help them blossom, both now and in the future.
Finally, I said:
I am your coach.
In most subjects taught in schools today, the educational model we follow is that you attend classes, practise, learn, graduate and then make your way on your own. But in sport, the model is that you are never, ever done. Everyone needs a coach. Even the greatest football player or Olympic athlete needs a coach. There isn’t a fool-proof path to become a premier league player, nor to win a gold medal at the Olympics. What players do is that they learn, they practice and they are coached. It is a never-ending process of attempting to improve under the guidance and tutelage of a person who has your back. The way to become a great cyclist, gymnast, football player or even a writer is with help. It is not, as someone tweeted at me recently, about reading a few articles online and doing it by yourself.
As Atul Gwande, surgeon and author of Checklist, says, ‘Coaches are on to something profoundly important…They build on your skills and address your weaknesses.’ Gwande, who is seen as being top of his field in general and endocrine surgery, hired a coach, thinking that this fellow surgeon, would have little to teach him. After the first session, the coach had made pages of notes on how Gwande could become a better surgeon. Two years later, Gwande’s techniques had indeed radically improved.
For me personally, I’ve benefitted greatly for the coaching I’ve received from my agent, Robert Dinsdale, my many editors over the years, and my writing buddies. In my role as a Royal Literary Fellow, I frequently receive training and coaching from other fellows. I still believe that I could benefit from more help and dedicated coaching for my thriller writing. (Any volunteers?!) As Gwande says, ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you’re going to be that really matters.’
Book blogger and health journalist, Victoria Goldman, asked me to tell her what my essential writing toolkit is for her blog, Off-the-Shelf Books. Here goes:
Our exciting news is that we’re renovating a house in rural Somerset. In the meantime, we’ve downsized so I no longer have an office, but a desk in the corner of an open-plan room. I look out over a small, but beautiful green garden that backs onto an urban nature reserve. Jays and blue tits peep through the window. I can’t think if there’s any clutter, and I like to have a flower or two next to me. I work on an Apple Mac and a laptop. This has revolutionised my life: because everything is in the cloud, I can pick up my laptop and go, without having to check it’s saved, and I no longer have that awful realisation that I’ve spent hours working on the wrong document.
I love having different notebooks with lovely covers. I have one for ideas, one for quotes and overheard snippets of conversations and a working one, with what I need to do next. It helps me keep track of where I am – for instance, My Mother’s Secret is just about to be published out, but I’m still talking to readers about my previous thrillers, Bone by Bone and The Stolen Child, whilst editing the fourth one, The Anniversary. I find writing long-hand is a good way of generating ideas too, although I actually type my novels straight onto the computer.
Writing is incredibly sedentary, so I need to move! I get up before anyone else and do an hour to an hour and a half of the Tracy Anderson Method. Tracy is a trainer in the states; I stream her classes, which are a combination of light weights and dance cardio. At the weekends I run or go mountain biking. I love walking. One of the characters in My Mother’s Secret lives in the Lake District, so it was a great excuse to head up there for ‘research’. I find walking helps with creativity and general resetting of one’s mental equilibrium.
Coffee and chocolate
I start my writing day with black coffee and 80% dark chocolate. I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic coffee roaster, Extract, at the bottom of our road and I buy their organic espresso, which tastes of hazelnuts and cocoa. Apparently.
I light a candle when I start working. I like scents that are quite sharp when I’m concentrating: my favourite is St Eval’s Rosemary and Bay; and then soothing, like Sandalwood, when I want to unwind. I love being surrounded by greenery so I fill the house with lots of plants.
I get through that mid-afternoon slump with a protein shake, usually made of fruit and vegetables, non-dairy milk and protein powder. I normally add spinach; this one also has raspberries and coconut milk.
Since we’re all in one room, there’s quite a lot of ‘negotiation’ about who gets to watch downhill mountain bike racing, How to Train your Dragon, or have some peace and quiet to write their novel. I spend quite a lot of time wearing headphones and pretending I can’t hear anyone speaking to me. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts when I’m doing chores; I’m a big fan of The Story Gridpodcast and book, which is by editor Shawn Coyne and is aimed at helping writers and editors improve.
My daughter and I love baking: this is a cake that I made for one of my sister’s for her birthday. It’s a great way to relax and a slice of cake feels like a nice treat after a week of writing several thousand words and drinking spinach smoothies!
This is a blog post I wrote on the importance of setting for The Asian Writer, and I thought would be most appropriate as I’ve just got back from a quick trip to the Lake District, where My Mother’s Secret is partly set.
There’s a thin band of cream silhouetting the cranes that hover over the half-built office blocks in the city centre. I head home, below an arc of houses that will be bright as jewels when the sun comes up. At this time of the day, it’s beautiful; the river is still, and seagulls fall above it, like flecks of confetti.
I love Bristol, where I live, as anyone who’s read my first thriller, Bone by Bone, might be able to guess! For my third,My Mother’s Secret, I’ve returned to Bristol as a location, but also placed another character – Lizzie Bradshaw – in Leeds and the Lake District. The settings in my novels are extremely important to me, but I’m certain a well-drawn location enhances any book. Can you imagine Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children without the blooming buzzing confusion of Delhi, or Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney without the smell of money and crack-hustle of New York?
A detailed backdrop in fiction helps create a tangible world for one’s characters, as well as being a tool the writer can use to heighten tension or thicken the atmosphere. My main character, Emma Taylor, lives in a leafy suburb of Bristol: Long Ashton. The ‘world’ this woman inhabits tells us a lot about who we think she is: middle class, comfortably off, the kind of person who shops in M&S for a treat and takes her youngest daughter to ballet lessons. It seems calm, safe, secure. Emma, though, is tense and anxious: she’s hiding a secret from everyone she knows, so Long Ashton appears the perfect place for her. Similarly, her job as a baker makes us believe she’s in a cosy, comforting cafe, filled with the scent of bubbling yeast and buttery croissants. When the reader discovers the bakery is actually in a tunnel beneath a train station, it might, perhaps, start ringing alarm bells. In contrast, Belle Isle in Leeds city centre, where Lizzie Bradshaw works, really is a dark and dangerous place.
A couple of boys around thirteen, but already taller than her, were hanging about on the street corner, and there was another group of young men in the centre of the housing estate, smoking and swigging from cans. She could hear the wind, boxed in by the flats, moaning round the corners. Chocolate wrappers and newspapers rustled across the ground, and a Staffordshire terrier tied to a bench with rope growled at her through bared teeth.
Stella, Emma’s fourteen-year-old daughter, is determined to discover what her mother’s secret is. She’s a spiky, book-obsessed girl, and constantly reads Jane Eyre to make herself feel less anxious. Many of the Bristol scenes take place at Tyntesfield, a gothic mansion near Long Ashton.
William Gibbs’ collection of curiosities is stacked up and draped in sheets, but my torch picks out a few that haven’t been covered up: a glass dome with tiny, stuffed hummingbirds, the smooth carapace of an ostrich eggshell, a jade-green ammonite. This would be the perfect place for someone to stalk us. There are so many hiding places.
The architecture and the claustrophobia of the rooms mirror both Stella’s gothic obsession, and the escalating tension in Emma’s life. The suburbs and the city centre are densely populated: as Emma says, ‘I like being surrounded by people – it feels safe;’ Lizzie, who lives in a remote village in the Lake District, feels safe precisely because there is no one around. She tells DI Simon Duffield, ‘You can walk for miles and never see a soul. Please, let me go home. I’ll be safe there.’ But, of course, in a thriller, nowhere is safe and the places we feel most secure are often the most dangerous.
The editor of The Asian Writer interviewed me for her new podcast. I was her first guest! It’s here if you’d like to listen:
My seven-year-old daughter is teaching me how to plot. She’s drawn a story mountain for me, which shows the start, build up, climax, solution and the end (she’s obviously inherited her ability to spell from her mother). She’s broken down the key elements of a story she’s writing to demonstrate how it works.
It’s about a girl called Jasmine whose horse is stolen. Jasmine follows hoof prints in the mud, and discovers a broken robot in a ditch with ‘Dr Evil’ stamped on it. With the help of her friend, Summer, they mend Tim the robot, and he leads them to Dr Evil’s house. Dr Evil has enslaved a group of robots and they’ve been collecting prize animal specimens from around the world on his behalf. The girls free the robots and they help them release all the pets.
Obviously, it needs more work, but if I hothouse my daughter a bit more, she might keep me in prosecco in my dotage! But actually, the story mountain is a pretty good way of thinking about plot (in fact, I do ‘plot’ my stories on a graph before I start writing, although I know that sounds completely nerdy!).
Even at such a young age, my daughter, pretty much like every kid can do, has captured the key ingredients for a story: a beginning, a middle and an end. Plus there’s a hero – Jasmine, and a villain – Dr Evil. Her story also features some other essential characters: the friend and mentor (Summer); villains who become friends (the robots); victims (the animals, especially the horse, Faye) and a mentor figure (the mother, Sanjida, who is a vet and in the final scene checks that Faye is unhurt). Faye is the symbol of ‘desire’ in the story that motivates the characters: both Jasmine and Dr Evil want Faye, albeit for different reasons. The story also has some other essential elements: an inciting incident, a crisis and a climax – more on these shortly.
What I think every story needs are at least three acts corresponding to the beginning, the middle and the end (although, you can of course have multiple acts). In the beginning section, you need an inciting incident: this is the event that forces our protagonist to act – or decide not to act– but is what starts your story. Think of Nick Dunne in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn finding his front door open, his living room turned upside down, and discovering that his wife, Amy, is missing. We immediately think: What has happened to her? What will he do?
This is followed (in the middle section) by what editor, Shawn Coyne terms, progressive complications for the protagonist, where he or she faces increasing as well as different difficulties (not several of the same type of difficulties). And boy, in Gone Girl, do Nick and Amy get put through the ringer in terms of the difficulties they face, from the police, to the press, to ex-boyfriends, thieving friends and Amy’s insane quiz…
There is then a crisis, which is often described as the worst point for the protagonist; it’s a seemingly inescapable predicament or insurmountable dilemma. In the final act, there’s a climax, which could either be a showdown with the antagonist or could be internal – the main character battles with his or her internal predicament. If the inciting incident is – what will happen?, the climax is the unexpected but inevitable result of the opening event – this is what happens.
The ending is the resolution, which ties up loose ends and lets us see how the dust is going to settle. Fairy tales and children’s stories often begin, Once upon a time, and end, happily ever after. And although readers tend to want a story to finish on an emotionally satisfying note, an open, unhappy and/or uncertain ending can also provide closure, even without the happy ever after.
I’m giving a talk on plot at Novel Nights on Wednesday 23 Many. This is a wonderful monthly event, organised by writer, Grace Palmer, in Bristol. A writer talks about an aspect of their work, and local authors and aspiring writers read short extracts from their work-in-progress, all over a glass or two of wine.
If you happen to be in Bristol, do come along – the details are here. The full story, about how to plot, will be on the blog on Sunday 27 May.
In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview, inspired by a story my daughter wrote for me when she was four. Like most kids, she fascinated by dinosaurs and pirates. Now, if I could come up with a movie concept – Jurassic Park meets Pirates of the Caribbean – I’d be minted.
The wonderful writer and the editor of the Asian Writer, Farhana Shaikh, interviewed me for her new podcast, Dear Writer. She had some lovely, sensitive questions and we discussed writing from fear, why I write thrillers, the link between nature and creativity and being British Asian.
And here’s a short interview with me talking about My Mother’s Secret.
Happy Earth Day! Today, we’re celebrating our extraordinary planet, and trying to end plastic pollution.
In a month I’ll be heading to one of my favourite places on earth, Langdale, in the Lake District, to go hiking and to talk about My Mother’s Secret in the Sticklebarn, a National Trust pub! I can’t imagine a more perfect combination: walking, wilderness, writing, reading, meeting old friends and new, and a cosy pub. Did I mention that my talk is in a pub? Oh, and the Sticklebarn brews it’s own gin and vodka!! (You can find the details here).
One of the settings for My Mother’s Secret is Elterwater, near Langdale. I’ve been going for a few years and staying in the fantastic Elterwater Hostel. You can read more about my experience here, if you’re interested. So when I was wondering where my character, Lizzie Bradshaw, and her husband, Paul, could live, it seemed like a no-brainer. I imagined Paul working as a National Trust warden out on the Langdale Pikes (a spectacular set of mountains), and as a part-time barman in Sticklebarn. Obviously that meant I had to keep returning for further ‘research’!
The metal frame of their thirty-year-old backpack creaked as Paul adjusted the straps. She ran through their names in her mind: Pavey Ark, Thunacar Knott, Pike of Stickle, Loft Crag, Harrison Stickle – the five Langdale Pikes. If they even managed a couple of these hills, they’d be doing well.
They’d taken the path directly behind the back of the Sticklebarn pub, where Paul worked part-time at the weekends, past the gold blaze of larches in Raven Crag, and now they were heading along the ridge, with Dungeon Ghyll roaring below them.
I’ll be writing about using setting and location in fiction for the The Asian Writer, so do look out for that post.
I’ve written before about the joy of hiking for writing as I believe walking can help one be more creative. I’m not alone; many writers, from William Wordsworth to Charles Dickens, used walking to help them think about their work.
Recently, I came across some research by behaviour and learning psychologist, Marily Oppezzo, from Stanford University, on how walking can help trigger new ideas. Marily has run several studies on movement and creativity, but in one, she asked people to brainstorm how an everyday object, say a key, could be used creatively. The definition of creativity she used was that it had to be novel and appropriate, in other words, no one has come up with that idea before, but also, appropriate for the situation (so, we all know keys open locks – so another use for a key that is unusual but fitting). The people doing the test either sat down or they walked on a treadmill in a windowless room.
What her team found was that the people on the treadmill came up with twice as many ideas! As a result of her research, she’s come up with a few tips: she says to decide on a topic you want to brainstorm first, then go for a walk, think of as many ideas as you can, and jot them down at the time (either take a notebook or record them in your phone).
This is also how I work: I put a writing problem into my subconscious, and then later, I’ll go for a walk, take it out and turn it about. Big hikes with company are fantastic in a different way. I won’t necessarily be able to concentrate on knotty problems on the way up Thunacar Knott, but I will return refreshed and reinvigorated by the walk, the wildlife and my inspiring friend; ready to crack on with the next novel!
I do hope to see you in the Sticklebarn pub for a chat about writing, walking and, maybe, gin!
I’d love you to come to my book launch party if you can make it! It’s 7 p.m. Friday 11 May at Waterstones, Bristol. There’ll be readings from My Mother’s Secret, and since the lead character, Emma Taylor, is a baker, it’s only right and proper that we should have plenty of cake! There will also be fizz, beer and soft drinks to wash it down! It’s a free event, but do RSVP so we know how much cake to bake!
I will also be discussing plot at Novel Nights on 23 May at 7.30 p.m. and reading in one of the locations featured in the novel – Sticklebarn, Langdale in the Lake District on 26 May. Please check my Events page for details.
If you’re interested in finding out a bit more about what inspired me, have a look at this mini video, or take a look at In Conversation with…
We’re coming up to the Easter holidays. My family had a lovely tradition when we were growing up: my mum would hide a book instead of a chocolate Easter egg for me…although I think there’d be a rebellion if I tried to do that in our house! I hope you enjoy some time to read over the holidays. Do let me know what you’re reading and what you think of these suggestions. Chocolate optional.
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
So here I am, upside down in a woman…
So begins Nutshell, narrated by a foetus who sounds like an erudite, arrogant, aristocrat. Nearly full term, and fuelled by podcasts and Sancerre, our exceptionally young man is concerned because his mother and her lover are about to do something terrible to his father.
Now I’m certain…they’re planning a dreadful event. Should it go wrong, I’ve heard them say, their lives will be ruined.
A combination of psychological thriller, treatise on modern malaise, ode to poetry and homage to Hamlet, this could be insufferable, but manages, instead to be wry, poignant, gripping as well as wonderfully written.
The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
A domestic noir inspired by Hitchcock’s Rear View Window: psychologist Anna Fox has suffered some kind of trauma, which has left her agoraphobic and confined to her house in New York. She and her husband are separated, and he currently has their daughter, Olivia, with him. Anna spends her days playing chess online, counselling fellow agoraphobics and spying on her neighbours.
Some nights I haunt her room like a ghost. Some days I stand in the doorway, watch the slow traffic of dust motes in the sun. Some weeks I don’t visit the fourth floor at all, and it starts to melt into memory, like the feel of rain on my skin.
New neighbours move in who seem to be a mirror of the family she’s lost: a husband, wife and their teenage son. Then one day, Anna sees something terrible happen in their house but thanks to Anna’s cornucopia of medication, and merlot as medicine, no one believes her.
The ash tree cowers, the limestone glowers, dark and damp. I remember dropping a glass onto the patio once; it burst like a bubble, merlot flaring across the ground and flooding the veins of the stone work, dark and bloody, crawling towards my feet.
This is a beautifully written book, which starts gently before the stomach-clenching, jaw-dropping twists begin. The characters are brilliantly realised, the guilt, the fear and the claustrophobia are palpable.
Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
It’s 1792 and Europe is rocked by political violence whilst in Bristol there is a property boom, that will, as we know now, collapse barely a year later when war breaks out between England and France. Birdcage Walk is a psychological and historical thriller about Lizzie Fawkes, daughter of radical feminist, Julia Fawkes, who marries property developer, John Diner Tredevant. I loved the historical details, particularly as the novel is set in Bristol, where I have spent most of my adult life.
We gazed out at the plunge of the Gorge. From here we could not see the river crawling in its bed, but saw the dark curve of the trees on the other side. The forest was so thick that I never wanted to enter it. It seemed as if anything might live within it.
Although the backdrop of the novel is political and social, the characters are incredibly realistic, at its heart, it’s about the love between mother and daughter, and how Diner is threatened, not only by their relationship, but by Lizzie’s independent and questioning nature.
My irritation melted. No one, I thought suddenly, would ever look at me like that, except for Mammie, because to her every good thing, every moment of happiness that came to me meant more than if it came to herself.
We learn early on what manner of man Diner is; his desire to control and suppress Lizzie is claustrophobic. This is a beautifully written novel, laced with dread, and shot through with emotional depth and compassion.
Birdcage Walk is the last book Dunmore wrote before she died. She finished it before she realised how seriously ill she was, but it’s possible she knew subconsciously that she was failing, for this novel is suffused with darkness and loss. As she herself wrote, ‘The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel.’
Shetland based on Anne Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez detective novels: gripping, touching and emotionally raw; and thriller, McMafia, a taut, family-based drama, of one man’s road to ruin, inspired by Misha Glenny’s non-fiction account of international crime.
Story Grid Podcast based on Shawn Coyne’s book on how to develop one’s craft as a writer; with aspiring novelist, Tim Grahl. An absolute must-read/listen if you want to be a fantastic fiction writer!
Six weeks to go until My Mother’s Secret comes out! For an author waiting to see how her book will be received, this is a tense phase to be in!
For anyone interested in how the process works, once the book is finished, edited, copy edited, proof read and type-set with a draft cover design, an ‘uncorrected bound proof’ is created. It’s nearly the final version, but the cover might be tweaked slightly, and there could still be errors that we’ve all missed. The proofs are then sent out to magazine journalists and authors kind enough to say they’ll do their level best to read it before it goes off to the printers.
So far, I’ve had some amazingly kind comments from my fellow writers. Thank you!!
The next step is that early copies will be sent out to bloggers, who are really the most important people. They are readers who, in their own free time and without being paid, will read and post reviews of books on their websites. Waiting to hear back from them is even more nerve-wracking!
In the meantime, here’s what some of my favourite authors are saying about My Mother’s Secret:
This gripping story about families and secrets takes the meaning of ‘deception’ to a new level.
Jane Corry, author of My Husband’s Wife and Blood Sisters
A well written story that is so compelling you have no choice but to race through it to uncover the secrets. Twisty, tense and chilling until the very last page. Brilliant!
Sam Carrington,author of Saving Sophie, Bad Sister and One Little Lie coming in July
Sanjida has nailed it again. A claustrophobic, unpredictable thriller that I couldn’t get enough of. You’ll be holding your breath until the last page
Jack Jordan,author ofMy Girl and Anything for Her. A Woman Scorned and Before Her Eyes coming soon
And more from LV Hay, Luana Lewis and Peter Swanson…
I hope that’s whetted your appetite! If so, the kindest thing you can do for an author (apart from give them wine and chocolate), is to buy their book and post a short review on Amazon, Audible and Goodreads. It’ll keep them in coffee and Hobnobs. Thank you!
Happy Mother’s Day! This blog is dedicated to those very special women in our lives, without whom, we would not exist.
My first thriller, Bone by Bone, is about that unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters. It features Laura, her mother, Vanessa, and Laura’s daughter, Autumn. Now that my third psychological thriller is coming soon, I’ve realised that all three of my thrillers feature mothers and daughters.
I wrote ablog about mothers and daughters when Bone by Bone came out, and included this passage in it:
The bond between mothers and their children, particularly their daughters, is usually the strongest one that exists in human beings. Mothers shape their daughters, but daughters often rebel against being moulded. I was interested in exploring this tight and intimate bond; how some women raise their daughters to be like them, and their daughters then reject their values, but in doing so, may make mistakes of their own with their daughters – a tale familiar to some of us!
As Oscar Wilde so glibly said,
All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.
What I was interested in exploring in my latest thriller, My Mother’s Secret, is how that bond keeps loosening and tightening as the child grows older. Emma Taylor’s oldest daughter, Stella, is now fourteen. Like most teenagers, she needs to be loved and cared for, but she pushes back against her parents, particularly her mother, in her desire to become independent. Stella and her little sister, Ava, are in a more extreme situation than many young people, as their parents are paranoid about their safety. For example, when Jack, their father, works in his office at the bottom of the garden, he sets the burglar alarm on the house so the children can’t leave without setting it off. I’ll let you judge whether the Taylors are fruitcakes or pretty sensible and how wise or damaging their behaviour is to their children!
Those chilling words seared in my heart: if you give evidence against me,
I will kill you . . . I will hunt down your family and I will kill them . . . I am nothing if not a man of my word.
Obviously, in a thriller, what could happen to an child provides some of the tension the story requires, and this is what I’ve been playing with: how do you protect a child who is at risk, when you can’t tell her what the threat is, and she’s perfectly capable of operating independently and making decisions that are not in her best interests?
My voice bounces around the old stone walls, and the echoes make me even more scared. I’m crying properly now. How could he just go and leave me? The pain drowns out my shame. I take out my phone, but there’s no signal here. I’m starting to feel really frightened. I’m on my own in the dark, and no one knows where I am.
In real life, how much do we really know about what children and young people are thinking and doing? And by not knowing every last detail, are we neglecting our duty of care, or are we giving them the freedom to grow, make their own mistakes and become responsible adults?
So here’s to mother’s, who have the toughest job on the planet!
Did you know that many publishers won’t read past the first few lines of your manuscript? Harsh but true. Agents may read a page or two. And let’s be honest, if you’re browsing in a bookshop, what makes you pick up a book, and then buy it? For me, and I suspect most other people, what propels me into purchasing a book is if a) I have read and liked the author’s other books; b) someone I respect has recommended it to me; c) the cover looks good (this is 70% of the reason why books get picked up); d) the blurb sounds interesting and intriguing and then e) when I read the first few lines, I know almost instantly whether this book will be for me.
Obviously, there are a whole host of other reasons at play that you may or may not be consciously aware of: for instance, has the publisher been promoting this book (if so, you may have already seen subliminal images and read endorsements by famous authors); has the publisher paid the bookseller to place this particular book on a prominent table or are they paying a supermarket to stock it in prime position; does the author have a name that allows them to be shelved in a good location (and not the bottom shelf at the back of the store)?
In the past, when there was less competition, authors didn’t have to nail their audience in the first two or three sentences and could ease into the story and begin with things like the weather (apparently some agents will chuck your work straight into the slush pile if you start like that now!). However, many classics are notable for their fantastic, and now famous opening lines:
The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like… and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
All of which is quite daunting when one is writing a novel! It’s actually pretty daunting whatever one is writing, and you’re facing a blank computer screen or piece of paper. My solution is not to start at the beginning (and my suggestion to any students and aspiring writers!). I generally have an idea about what should go in the first chapter or the prologue, but to stop myself having jitters, procrastinating or becoming overly angsty, I don’t start there.
My third thriller, My Mother’s Secret, will be out in two months, on 3 May. I started writing it in October 2016 and I finished the first draft in March 2017, which is when I wrote the prologue. Here’s my first line, written last:
‘Did you know my name means God?’
A year on, and I’ve just completed the first draft of my fourth thriller and this time, I did start at the beginning. I heard the central character’s voice speaking in my head and I wrote down those first two lines straight away:
As far as I know it happened like this. Obviously, I wasn’t there when it mattered.
Let me know what you think! Do you begin at the beginning?
Today is World Book Day! To celebrate I’m going to talk to the children in Year 3 at Sefton Park School, in Bristol, about villains! Seems like a suitable topic for seven year olds! Actually, though, it’s a pretty critical topic for any writer.
So why do you need a villain? Well, without a baddie, basically, your story lacks drama. There will be no uncertainty, excitement or tension. An antagonist can provide conflict, which will help create this drama. The antagonist will also elevate your protagonist, the central character in your story, by stretching him or her because they’ll need to grow, change, and summon deep inner resources to defeat the villain – as long as your baddie is a worthy opponent.
However, an antagonist need not be a person: if you’re writing a supernatural or horror story then your villain could be a creature or a ghost or a wizard. But in other genres, your villain could be a force, a concept, a trait or a psychological state. For instance, in 1984 the antagonist is ‘the Party’, the human (or inhuman) face of ‘Big Brother’. In spy thrillers, there is often a conspiracy or a government cover up; in LA Confidential, the hero is battling his own alcoholism; in Sense of an Ending, the opponent, seems to be Vanessa, but it’s actually the anti-hero, Tony’s, own character flaws; in Solar it’s global warming.
My two tips on creating a decent villain are first, have empathy. Get inside your baddie’s head. Almost no one thinks they’re doing the wrong thing or that they’re immoral – everyone can justify their actions.
And secondly, the villain isn’t always who you think it is. Check out my thrillers – in all three, Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child and My Mother’s Secret – the bad guy isn’t who you think it is.
For more on villains and for some writing exercises, please sign up to theArvon Foundation’s newsletter and look for my writing tips on Antagonistic Antagonists.
Well, I start the day with a large black coffee and some dark chocolate!
Writing a novel feels like being an ultra marathon runner. It’s going to be a gruelling slog to reach 80 – 100,000 words and I will be unable to pause, to breathe properly, to take in the view until then; I know I’ll have to keep going, unsure if I’m going to make it, or make it in time. And then, when I cross the finish line, I’ll be doubled over, sucking in air, celebrating how far I’ve come, before, – quick breath – I’ll start the first full read through, and the edits.
So I begin my writing day by reading through what I wrote the day before, and I end my day by making notes on what I’m going to write, so I don’t waste time trying to get in the zone.
I write a book a year – for the thriller that’s just about to come out, My Mother’s Secret, that meant 2,500 words a day, for three days a week during school hours. If I didn’t hit my word count, the walk to school to pick up my daughter would be filled with figures – I’d calculate that tomorrow, I’d need to write 3,500 words, and if I didn’t hit that word count, the day after would be… tricky!
Before I begin a novel, I spend a couple of months plotting my novel, scene by scene, until I have an outline of between 6 and 10,000 words. Even if some scenes are pretty sketchy – Scene 52: Stella and Adam getting closer.
And I’m going to come back to this and talk more about plot in the future…
The full answer to this question has been recorded by the Royal Literary Fund and will be available shortly. In the meantime, I’ve recorded other podcasts for the RLF, and there are many, many wonderful writers you might like to listen to via iTunes or their website.
The short answer, is because I have to! I’d write if I was shut in an attic at the top of a dark castle – but I also want to be read. I don’t just write for myself. I want someone out there to read what I’ve written, to see what I’ve seen in my mind, to experience what I felt, to be immersed in another world and other lives…
F Scott Fitzgerald wrote,
‘You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.’
I believe I have something to say. And I want to share it.
Stephen King said,
‘Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends.’
But actually I do want all those things! More than anything else though, I agree with him when he wrote,
‘[Writing is] about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting happy.’
And in the end, that’s true. I write to make myself happy.
The full answer to this question has been recorded by the Royal Literary Fund and will be available shortly. In the meantime, I’ve recorded other podcasts for the RLF, and there are many, many wonderful writers you might like to listen to via iTunes or their website.
I’ve just come back from being on panels at three literary festivals and talking to authors published by Silverwood Books. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind mini tour, juggling childcare (Asian Literary Festival combined with dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum), meeting old friends (my chemistry teacher at the Ilkley Literature Festival) and logistics (candles, camping chairs, no toilets!) at Bristol Festival of Literature where I was reading from my thrillers in a cave beneath the city centre!
I thought I’d share with you the five writing tips that I shared with my fellow writers at these events.
1. Never give up! Remember the story about Enid Blyton papering her study walls with rejection letters? It is HARD to get a novel published. It takes determination, perseverance, humility, self-belief and stamina, as well as a hefty dose of luck. Just keep going!
2. Keep going. If you do get a novel published – celebrate for all you’re worth – but don’t think that just because you’re a Published Author, it’s always going to be easy, straight-forward and lead to repeated book deals, champagne at publisher’s parties and that MGM will be beating a path to your door. Each book has to be as good if not better than the one before.
3. Have empathy. For yourself and your long-suffering family, of course, but mainly for your characters, and especially your villain. No one (well, almost no one) thinks they’re doing the wrong thing. We can all justify most of our actions most of the time. So get in your characters’ heads and see the world as they see it, particularly the person who is the antagonist in your plot.
4. Write. Preferably every day. You know those people who tell you they’ve got a novel inside them? Uh huh. I’ve got a violin concerto inside me. I’ve never picked up a violin, but I know it’s in there. Practise. You need at least 10,000 words under your belt before some of them are any good. Remember those overnight successes you read about? Most of them took a decade to be an overnight success.
5. Publicise yourself. Even if you have a book deal with a major, mainstream publisher, your editor will still expect you to do some publicity. Writers are often introverts so if you don’t like, you know, reading your work out loud to complete strangers, networking in bars where you know no one, or shouting about how great you are, do what you can in whatever form is most comfortable for you. Don’t want to organise a book launch? Have a Facebook one instead.
Bonus tip: Keep learning. Talk to other writers, join a writer’s group, do an online masterclass, read books about your craft and read. Just read. Anything and everything.
I love this Tedx Talk by Nathan Filer: How to write an award-winning best-selling first novel (in seven easy steps).
HOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE II – If writing dialogue set right now in the real world is difficult, writing historical dialogue is even harder. Surprising as it sounds, you don’t want absolute accuracy. The deeper into the past you go, the less likely it is that anyone living today actually knows how anyone spoke and the chances are, we wouldn’t understand them anyway.
What you do want is readable dialogue that carries information, advances the plot, indicates relationships, conveys character, mood AND is authentic. My fourth novel, Sugar Island, is set around 1860 on an island off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, where my English protagonist, Emily Harris, has been forced to live by her American husband on a slave plantation. Emily is based on the real life actress, Fanny Kemble, who wrote a diary of her experience on St Simons Island.
Jesse: So, what are we going to do with them? Are we just gonna grow a magic beanstalk? Huh? Climb it and escape?
Walter: We are going to process them into ricin.
Jesse: Rice ’n Beans?
Walter: Ricin. It’s an extremely effective poison.
Dialogue is something that many writers struggle with. If you sit in a cafe and transcribe a conversation you’ll see that people don’t talk the way they do in books and films. They are not eloquent, they have accents or dialects, they use slang, jargon; their speech is repetitive, circular, they stick in redundant words like like, you know, I mean; frequently they don’t say what they mean or what they truly want to say. Quite often they’re not listening but waiting for a gap in the conversation to speak or are simply talking over the other person. Equally, you don’t want to write dialogue that’s stilted or reads as if it has been written down, rather than spoken but you do want to capture the essence of how a particular character speaks. It’s tricky! Continue reading →