No Plan's Land.
It turns out that I’m not very reliable when it comes to blogging, something you’ve probably already figured out for yourself based on how often I’ve posted to this page over the past 12 months. It’s always a combination of things that seems to stop me. The main reason is that I only tend to post when I think I have something interesting to say, and my lack of blogging clearly suggests I’m a particularly uninteresting person; the other is that, for ten months a year, I’m working on a book, and when that happens, it becomes hard to think about any other piece of writing except that. For me, a novel can very quickly become all-consuming.
Now, though, I’m two weeks on from having submitted the latest David Raker novel to my agent and editor (number 10 in the series, which is hard to believe), and while I chew my nails and tap my feet nervously, wondering what they’ll make of it, I’ve been catching up on things like going outside and enjoying fresh air. (It turns out fresh air is really nice, by the way.) I’ve also just finished reading an interview that Lee Child did with Marie-Claire, in which he talks about his writing process. It’s well worth a read, actually, especially if you’re an aspiring writer (and even if you’re not), as he talks very honestly and typically lucidly about the fantasy of being an author versus the reality of it, but what particularly caught my attention was the section in which he talks about his approach to a novel.
Specifically, the section in which he described his planning process – or lack there of.
For a long time now, I’ve often wondered whether my own writing process could be streamlined somehow. Every book is different, of course, because every book presents (or should present, if you’re doing it right) a different set of challenges. How do you realistically explain the disappearance of a man on the Tube when the Tube is one of the most surveilled transportation networks in the world? (Vanished) How do you combine two storylines set in two totally different places, five thousand miles apart? (Never Coming Back) How do you advance the plot of a book whose protagonist has no memory of who he is or where he came from? (I Am Missing) How can Derryn still be alive? (You Were Gone) I picked those four books as examples because their central questions were probably the most difficult to answer and so those books, in turn, became the most difficult (and stressful) to write. And then, after all the crying into my keyboard I did over them, I remember thinking exactly the same thing every time (“I should definitely try planning out the next one to make my life easier,”) and, hilariously – because I’m either stubborn, or stupid, or have a memory like a goldfish – doing absolutely nothing different. I never planned any of those books –– and I've failed to plan any of the books I've written in the Raker series.
And it’s because I agree with what Lee Child says in that interview 100%. (And I’ve said as much on this page in the past.) Writing isn’t as fun when you know what’s going to happen. You don’t think like a reader when you have notes all over the walls, or an Excel spreadsheet to hand. You can’t react. You can’t surprise as easily. You can’t let your novels grow organically, or allow characters to take on a life of their own and become something bigger than you imagined. If I’d stuck to the original idea I’d had for Colm Healy, he would never have been more than a side character in The Dead Tracks. Instead, he’s grown to be a major part of the series, and a huge part of who David Raker is too, because the minute I introduced him, the second he interacted with Raker on the page, I wanted him to be more than he was.
This is, in no way, an effort to disparage writers who plan meticulously. Writers need to stick to the methods that work best for them, and there are hundreds of amazing authors who plan their books meticulously. But it was weirdly comforting to know that I wasn’t alone in never planning. It was weirdly comforting to know that even the world’s biggest authors approach a book the same way as I do. (Stephen King also professes to be a non-planner.) It was comforting to see that their reasons were the same as my reasons too. The lack of a plan can make the construction of a novel incredibly difficult, it can make it a little manic too (maybe more than a little, actually), but in the end, it’s given me some genuine “Hallelujah!” moments: occasions when I’ve come up with a twist, or an about-turn, or an elegant plot solution right there on the spot that I didn’t see coming until I was there, writing it. And, more often than not, those are the moments that readers tend to cite when they contact me.
Oh, and if you’re interested in getting a taster of what the new David Raker novel is all about, don’t forget to sign up to my newsletter – the latest one has a sample from the (reliably non-planned and reliably slightly stressful) David Raker 10 in it.
P.S. Since the last blog, I've read:
Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of 70s and 80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix
The Last Days of Detroit: The Life and Death of an American Giant by Mark Binelli
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
The Late Show by Michael Connelly
The Restless Dead by Simon Beckett
Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolas Obregon
Believe Me by JP Delaney
Ghettoside: A True History of Murder in America by Jill Leovy
The Killing Season: A Summer Inside an LAPD Homicide Division by Miles Corwin
Sins as Scarlet by Nicolas Obregon
I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
The Last by Hanna Jameson
Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly
Saga Volumes 1-8 by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Author of the David Raker novels