Thursday, May 6, 2010

How I write a thriller

Timothy Hallinan, author of the Poke Rafferty series, has an excellent blog, in which he often looks at the process of writing. A couple of months ago he sent out a request for submissions from novelists on how they planned their books: did they plot rigidly in advance, or did they wing it, or a mix of the two, and if so what mix? He has called the series ‘Plotting vs Pantsing’ and it has so far featured some very thought-provoking essays from, among others, Rachel Brady, Stephen Jay Schwarz, Bill Crider, Rebecca Cantrell and Jamie Freveletti. I also contributed a short essay, and you can read it at Tim’s blog here, or below, where I’ve reproduced it.

Get there

I’ve written two novels and am now writing my third, and each time it’s been different, but generally speaking I’m a ‘pantser’, ie I write by the seat of my pants. I usually write a synopsis that takes me through each chapter, but I don’t go into too much detail and it changes a lot as I go along. Writing the novel is my outline. I wrote my first book in a more linear way, and got into problems as a result. Now I start by writing tons of notes, ideas, fragments of scenes, snatches of dialogue, and when I’ve built up a large body of words, 40,000 or so, the structure starts to solidify.

At this point I tend to lose a lot of material as I realize that some scenes weren’t as exciting plot developments as I thought they would be, or simply don’t fit with other developments that I prefer. That can be frustrating, but I console myself with the thought that if I had prepared a very detailed plot outline in advance I’d have made the same or similar mistakes, but with heavier consequences: I usually cut material that is still only partially formed, so it’s less of a sacrifice. One of the reasons I don’t write very detailed outlines is because I’m worried I’ll change my mind later. Something might seem perfect right now but in three months I might wake up in the middle of the night with the realization that it’s completely wrong. Or perhaps not even wrong: perhaps I’ll just be bored of the idea by then.

I want to write the kind of books I like to read, and they involve suspense. I’m writing a trilogy in the first person, and my character is a secret agent in trouble: so to a certain extent I also have to be in trouble. I like twists, but I find they’re often most effective if, like my narrator, I don’t see them coming. I want to know my protagonist, inside and out, but then to throw him into impossible situations and see how he gets out of them. I find plotting out too much in advance can suck the spontaneity and intensity from my writing, and I value both of those features above most others.

That said, I usually have a few plot points or scenes I want to include going in. With my first novel, Free Agent, I knew before I started writing that it would be set in the Biafran War and told from the perspective of a double agent. I also knew roughly how it began and ended, and had an idea of what kind of novel I wanted it to be. I nearly wrote ‘clear idea’, but it wasn’t really clear. It was strong. Just as you can wake with a very vague or even no memory of the dream you just had, but nevertheless have a very powerful sense of the mood of it, I had known in my gut what I wanted to write. I can articulate it now as, roughly, something that had the following elements and tones:

Spy thriller
Set in the late 60s
Cold War tensions to the fore
In Africa – feel the heat and the culture
Suspenseful action scenes that can match Bourne and Bond
But also character studies that are more like Greene or le Carré
So no silly gadgets or explosions
Dark, gritty and bleak
Conflicted and trapped first-person narrator
Laconic humour laced in
Real Cold War and espionage history integrated and revealed
Real history of this forgotten civil war
Unusual love story/obsession

Along with a few specific plot and character ideas and sense-memories from my childhood in Nigeria, I carried most of the above with me the whole time I wrote Free Agent – without ever writing them down as I just have. But when my drafts were nowhere near reaching the above, my instincts pushed me to make it happen. I felt that as long as I kept writing I would be able to fill in all the gaps and make the impression I had of the novel a reality.

With my second and third books, I wrote down a lot more about what kind of novels I wanted them to be before I started writing. But I still wanted to keep something of the feel I was looking for unarticulated, held back in my subconscious. With the second, Free Country, my thoughts about setting changed early on, which entailed a lot more research. But in each case I’ve had clear ideas about the beginning and end, some strong impressions of the tone of the books, of the mood of my protagonist and what’s at stake for him and those around him.

My methodology changed somewhat between writing my first and second novels: it became less structured. I wrote Free Agent in the evenings and weekends, handing in new chapters to a writing group as I went along. I wrote my second as a full-time author in a year. I was naturally worried that it wouldn’t be as good as my first, which took me seven years to write (albeit with a full-time job and no external deadline). So I attacked the second in a very different way: I thought a lot and researched a lot, then worked out a very rough synopsis and started writing, 1,000 words a day, throwing anything and everything down. It helped that I felt I had succeeded in my goals with Free Agent. Not only had it been accepted by a publisher, who had then shown faith in me by buying the next two books in the trilogy, but I felt that I had written the book I had wanted to. So I had a lot more faith in myself that I would get where I wanted, eventually. This helped when I became blocked or encountered problems.

Not having a very detailed outline means you will encounter problems, but I don’t think you can necessarily work your way out of them with outlines. At least, I don’t think I can. I think in drafting a novel it may be that there comes a point where structure, character and plot are almost irrelevant, or rather that they are no longer concrete or tangible to the writer. You can prepare very carefully and research and plot everything out, but at some point your instinct comes into play. For want of a better word, you feel the book. You realise what it needs, what it’s missing, and you set to work giving it that. You’re not really thinking about why a certain idea or scene or even line will make sense. You just feel that it will. Sometimes I can be blocked for weeks, and wish I had been more organized at the outset and had done a ‘proper’ outline of the book, scene by scene. But then I can make enormous strides in minutes, changing the book with very radical decisions that months earlier I would have been terrified of making, but which now, somehow, I know will work. This isn’t something you can put on index cards. It’s about living the book, with all its problems and setbacks. Index cards and detailed outlining work fantastically well for some writers, but they’re not for me, and there’s no shame in it. All writers are working around a group of ideas until they manage to craft a piece they are proud of and prepared to send out into the world – it doesn’t really matter how we get there, as long as we do.


  1. Great read. I can only imagine it must be a weird world to live in (in your head) when you are writing about Paul Dark. It must seem so real as you are absorbed in the story. Bring on Free Country, I cant wait.

  2. Thanks, Nicholas. Yes, it is quite strange living with Paul Dark. He's in my head wherever I go, and most of the time when writing I can quite easily imagine what it is he would say, if not think or do, in any given situation. The more absorbed I get, the better it is, I think - but it means I'm often miles away. :)

    Hope you enjoy Free Country!