Ten weeks since the publication of Never Coming Back, and the only semi-decent excuse I've been able to come up with for not blogging is that I've been really busy. (Right. You've heard that one before somewhere.) But – and I'm pretty sure this will sound familiar as well – it's true.
One of the major contributors to my lack of bloggery has been Book 5, which I've now finished. I use the word 'finished' in its loosest possible sense, of course: Book 5 is a bit of a mess, as all first drafts tend to be. It needs a really, really good sort out, it needs editing, tightening, improving, and cutting back by about 20,000 words (if nothing else goes to plan, I can always rely on The Annual Weaver Overwrite to keep me on my toes). But even so, getting to that last full stop in the very first draft is enough of a finish for now. It means the book is at least there, it's created, it exists from start to finish, even if it changes shape and identity over the next six months.
What may come as a bit of a surprise is that – even five books in – I always feel slightly amazed when I complete a novel. Not amazed at how great it is. Definitely, definitely not that. Long time readers of this page will be familiar with my tales of self-doubt, of late-night nail-chewing, of the countless times during the process where I'm (99% metaphorically) banging my head against a wall, and my amazement is certainly a product of those moments. I worry about all sorts of things with a book: mostly, whether it's actually any good, but, also – especially right at the start when all you have is a plan and a blank page – whether I've got it in me to finish another one.
I suppose a lot of that comes down to knowing my writing process so well now. I know, right at the start, that the first 20,000 words will breeze by. It's a new book, a new set of characters, new places, new stories, new twists, new turns, and I'll feed on that for a while, loving the change of pace from the last book. Then, at 20,000, the doubts will start to kick in. I know that'll happen, because it always happens. Is that as good as it could be? Is he a believable character? Would she really speak like that? YOU'LL NEVER BE ABLE TO TIE ALL THIS UP. You get the picture.
There'll be moments where I write something, and I think to myself, "You know what? That's actually not bad" – but, mostly, the doubts will come with me for the duration. Because of that, at some point further down the line – maybe between 60 and 80,000 words – I'll start to worry about everything I've written up until that point. I won't even get those, "You know what...?" moments anymore. The doubt just becomes a boat that won't turn. And yet, ironically, that's where the familiarity of the process helps: I know these feelings because I get them with every single novel – and I know that, ultimately, there's only one answer: finish the book.
I get a lot of emails from people wanting to write, asking for advice, and the one thing I always say is, finish the book. Push the doubt aside, or at least ignore it, and FINISH THE BOOK. Once it's done, you have something to work with. There's a starting point. Even if it changes beyond all recognition in the editing stage, at least you have the foundations to build something on. And that's where I am with Book 5: it's finished, I'm relieved, excited, and – yes – mildly amazed that it's finished, and now – with the help of agent and editor – it's about knocking it into shape.
I don't want to talk too much about what Book 5's story is for the moment, because there's still such a long way to go, but as I hinted at in previous blogs, it's a very different book to Never Coming Back. That was geographically and historically big in a way that would be impossible to replicate, even if I wanted to. (Which I don't.) So, this is a smaller novel in a lot of ways, more intimate and personal – but the journey for David Raker won't be any less dangerous.
Finally, talking of Raker, a huge, belated thank you to everyone who has bought Never Coming Back, and who has been so kind about it on Twitter, Facebook, in reviews, and via email – and don't forget you can download a free short story with a guest appearance from the man himself here. It also includes stories from my fellow Penguin authors Nicci French and Alastair Gunn.
So here we are.
Thirteen months on from the publication of Vanished, Never Coming Back is finally on shelves. It's with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I see it there: I'm not sure the buzz you get from finishing a book, and especially from seeing it out there in the wild, will ever pass (and, in fact, I hope it doesn't). Likewise, I suspect that feeling of trepidation won't be easily shifted either. I worry about all sorts of things with a new book. Will it sell? Will people like it? Was it the best book I could possibly have written? What could I have done differently – and better?
Those first two – Will it sell? Will people like it? – I basically have no control over, so in a way there's little point in worrying about it. (Ha! This is me talking. Of course I'll worry about it.) But was Never Coming Back the best book I could possibly have written at this point in time? I think so, yes. Could I have done something differently – or better? Maybe differently, but probably not better. That's not to say the book is perfect – I'm sure it isn't – but it's as good as it can be right now, given everything I've learnt as a writer over the last 4-5 years. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay it – if, indeed, it's alright to pay a compliment to something you've created yourself – is that I seriously doubt it's a book I could have written two or three years ago. I've talked quite a lot on this page about writing's vertical learning curve - and, in a way, this is the result of that. I'm still scaling the curve, of course, but if Never Coming Back says anything, my hope is that it speaks of ambition and scale, and my ability now to paint something bigger.
As one launches, so another continues. Book 5 has been, and continues to be, hard. In a lot of ways, it's the total opposite of Never Coming Back. That was also a testing write, but the hardest part was meshing all the elements together. The actual structure of the book – the nuts and bolts: characters, locations, narrative – were very clear to me all the way through. Book 5 is a more intimate story in some ways, and yet a harder one to pin down. My original plan hit the buffers at 20,000 words: it felt too small and too under-developed. Then, at 85,000 words I realised it had become too big, so had to scale it back, and hack a whole sub-plot out. Now I think it's about right - but, of course, it's only 70-75% done, so plans could yet change again. In fact, given past experience, I think it's probably safe to assume they will!
What's a priority - for me, at least - is that Book 5 is different to the previous books. It would be hard to recreate the events of Never Coming Back, for reasons that will become clear once you've read it, but I think it would be easy to go back to the first three books, and to seek some comfort in the fundamental building blocks of those novels. In short, it would be easy to reskin some of those places and characters, some of the twists and narrative kinks, and at the end of it, I'd probably have a half-decent novel. But readers are smart. They'd see through the facade. And, what I would also do by making that decision, is settle for something less than I hoped. For me, part of scaling that learning curve is being brave enough to make the next leap – and every book should be a leap. How much of a leap Never Coming Back is, and whether people respond to its change of direction, I guess I'll see over the coming weeks. I'm not nervous. Oh no. Not at all.
It's hard to believe that it's been three months since I last blogged. Not hard to believe in a "wow, I'm normally so regular with my blogging!" kind of way because, as regular readers of this page will be all-too-familiar with now, I'm forever apologising for the amount of time I take between blogs. No, it's hard to believe because the past three months seems to have gone so quickly. Part of that, I'm sure, is the fact that time – and I'm pretty sure this is backed up by science – passes at double the speed once you hit your mid-thirties, while the rest of it I can lay at the door of the final, final, final read-through of Never Coming Back and the tricky, as-yet-untitled Book 5.
It's always a slightly weird time when you're 'between' books. I guess, technically, an author is always 'between books' in the sense that one book is done and being edited while the other is being planned, started and shaped, but at least when I'm finished with this final read-through of my fourth book, it won't be hovering there, in the background, not quite edited, and not quite complete. I was going to add that, once the read-through is done, I don't have to worry about it anymore, but that would be a lie: I wouldn't consider myself much of a worrier – except when it comes to my books. With Never Coming Back, as with all the others, doubt is my passenger.
The consequence of having to juggle a 97% done version of my almost-released book alongside a 20% done version of my yet-to-even-have-a-title new one, is that I find it quite hard to get going on the new one. It's not that I'm particularly unclear on where it's headed (although, I'll admit, the original plan for Book 5 has already hit some teething problems), more that, in reading the final proofs for Never Coming Back, it kind of brings home what a massive gulf there is between the two books: one's just about as polished as it can be, has characters that make sense and have the right motivation, storylines that tie up, and dialogue that feels right; the other is a mess of yet-to-be-realised ideas, characters that may not even end up in the final version, and set pieces that looked good in the plan but don't necessarily stack up once you get them onto the page.
But one book is almost done, and the other has barely been started, you're probably thinking – and, of course, if I could apply any kind of logic to the situation, you'd be absolutely right. But writing isn't like filling in a spreadsheet. Or, at least, it isn't for me. Books aren't maths. They aren't some kind of unbreakable, inarguable equation that remains the same, infinitely. For me, writing is about feel. It's about intangible things coming together, at the right time, in the right place; basically, a lot of the time, it's about luck. So, when I compare Never Coming Back to the 28,000 words I've done on Book 5, I see one book that makes sense, that's come together in the way I'd hoped, and I see another that's full of holes with great swathes of it yet to have even been decided upon. That worry I mentioned earlier? This is where it comes in. Is the story as good as the last one? Are the characters as compelling? Have I got it in me to finish another book?
The reassuring thing is that I get this every single time I write a book. The first 20,000 words or so are fantastic: it's new, exciting, a chance to do new things with a new set of rules. In a way, although I feel a responsibility to readers, all bets are off. But then, once you're north of those 20,000 – like clockwork – the mood starts to change. As things don't come together in the way you expected, or characters aren't fitting in as well as they did in the plan, the doubts start to creep in. From there, you really only have two choices: you scrap everything and start again – or you power through. I've done both, but I've found that, while starting again can help, it will still bring that same doubt at the same stage and, in the end, if you want to be published, you have to finish the book. So, ultimately, it becomes about knuckling down and getting it done.
Thankfully, once the final read-through of the last book is over, it means you won't see it again to edit, ever (in my case, it's quite literally Never Coming Back), so that automatically narrows your focus, and means you can zero in on the new one without fear you'll be flipping back and forth between books and stories and characters (which can be slightly disorientating in itself). In my experience, the next 3-4 months are the most crucial of the entire, year-long process: I have the building blocks of a novel – now it's time to get into it, tear it apart, push it on, and finish it. And who knows, next time I blog, Book 5 might be most of the way to complete. Or it might not.
It's not a spreadsheet, after all.
P.S. Since the last blog, I've read:
11.22.63 by Stephen King
Proof of Heaven by Dr Eben Alexander
World War Z by Max Brooks
The Fear Index by Robert Harris
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
So, that's Book 4 done then. Actually, that's not really true. It's done in the sense that it's been through three edits with Agent and Editor, it's been through a couple of other people at Penguin too, and so far, no one has told me they hate it. In fact, quite the opposite, which is something of a relief. Whenever that first wave of approval lands, psychologically it feels like a massive, final hurdle has been negotiated, but the truth is, there's still a way to go. It's yet to go to my Copy Editor, whose eagle-eyes always manage to bring interesting and important questions to the table - but, I suppose, in terms of the actual creating, it's pretty much done. To prove as much, I've spent the last month working on Book 5, which I'll talk about in a bit.
For those who don't know, or haven't read the sample chapters at the back of Vanished, Book 4 will be called Never Coming Back. At this stage, seven months out from publication, I don't want to talk too much about the plot, and especially don't want to be drawn on the consequences of Vanished's finale, even though I'm still getting lots of emails from people asking me what it means. (Thank you, by the way, to everyone who has got in touch, here, via email, on Twitter, or on Facebook.) What I will say is that, as I've alluded to before, the new book represents a subtle change of direction for the characters of the series, and for me as a writer. I use the word 'subtle' because I don't want to worry anyone. It won't be set on a distant planet. It won't be erotic fiction. It won't be erotic fiction set on a distant planet either. (Just so we're clear.) It'll still be a thriller, it'll still, I hope, be the same mix of pace and excitement, of characters you care about and a few you'd like to see meet a sticky end. But The Dead Tracks and Vanished were both set entirely in and around London, and when I started thinking about where I wanted to go in the fourth book, I was sure of one thing, fairly early on: I needed to get out of the city.
It wasn't London's fault. London remains a huge, sprawling, brilliant place to set a thriller. It's a city with so much breadth that I feel certain I'll come back to it again, because so much of it - and, in particular, so much of its amazing history - is still to be explored in my books. But this time, I needed to try something different. If you've read the sample chapters in Vanished, you'll know the prologue is set in Las Vegas in 2007, while the two chapters after that are set in south Devon in the here and now. (Well, November 2012). The choice of locations was deliberate.
I grew up reading American crime fiction – and am, I confess, fascinated by American culture – so I've always, deep down, harboured an ambition to write something based in the States. But while the idea of it appeals, the reality has always kept me back. For me, there's a big difference between writing a crime thriller set in America, and writing an American crime thriller. American crime fiction has a special, undefinable 'feel' which sets it apart from British crime fiction (and, indeed, crime fiction from any other part of the world); not a better feel, just a different one. If Michael Connelly and Mo Hayder were asked to write the same chapter using the same characters and the same basic outline, they'd come back with two pieces that were noticeably - probably vastly - different. Both excel in their own environment, and in their ability to observe it. The British and American voice isn't the same, even if we speak the same language. Can you imagine what a Michael Connelly novel would feel like if it were set in Bristol? Would it feel British? I doubt it. When he took Harry Bosch out of L.A. to Hong Kong in Nine Dragons, that book still felt American, even while Bosch was seven thousand miles away. In the end, it doesn't come down to ability or to research, it comes down to something more natural: voice.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course. People like Lee Child and John Connolly are brilliant exponents of American crime writing and both hail from close to home. But I've read books by British writers – fantastic British writers – who've set one or more of their books in America and, for me, they've always felt British, even when the action is played out in L.A or New York, and the cast is made up of FBI agents or city cops. There's nothing wrong with that, and it didn't spoil my enjoyment of those books at all, but I think there can be minor consequences: perhaps you're never quite transported the whole way into that world, because the turn of phrase isn't quite right, and the observations don't quite ring true. So, when I decided to set part of Never Coming Back in Las Vegas, I did so with some trepidation, and with an intention to offset the effects of my… well, Britishness, immediately. My hope is that the solution has worked – and that, in not talking about it, you'll understand that it's not to do with protecting some incredibly innovative new way of writing, but simply because I'd be revealing too much plot!
What's for certain is that, after an early trip out to Vegas, oodles of research, hours spent talking to experts, and especially after reading the amazing Supercasino by Peter Earley (recommended if you're interested in the city), setting the other eighty percent of the book in a pocket of south Devon I know like the back of my hand proved to be an excellent decision. A two-hour drive down the road made research a breeze, plus the beautiful, rugged, occasionally ever-so-slightly-sinister coves, coastline and wide open spaces of the Start Bay area proved the total antithesis of Vanished's dark, enclosed Tube stations. It felt liberating and energising, and I think, in the end, it was why I look back on the writing of this book as being (largely) enjoyable. Not without its challenges, but definitely not as tough a write as Vanished, which was my absolute nemesis.
So, next, it's Book 5. It's still in its very earliest stages, still titleless, and still, in a lot of ways, yet to be properly clear in my head. A couple of months back, a few people on Twitter seemed genuinely horrified when I admitted that I don't plan in detail beyond the first 30-40% of the book. But I don't. It's just how I've always written. I have a synopsis of where I think it will go beyond that 40% mark, but plans change. Halfway into a book, the plan can seem obstructive or too obvious, and at that point I want the freedom to take it off somewhere else, not to feel guilty or worried that I'm straying from something I came up with four, or five, or six months before. That ability to invent and change direction led to things like the ending to The Dead Tracks and the secret in Sam Wren's life in Vanished. I think it keeps things fresh and exciting for me - and, most importantly, I think it keeps things fresh and exciting for you, the reader.
P.S. Since the last blog, I've read:
Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner
Whispers of the Dead by Simon Beckett
The Drop by Michael Connelly
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
… and am currently halfway through 11.22.63 by Stephen King
So, even by my own low, low standards, this blog is horrendously late. But I've come armed with the ultimate excuse. After ten months of headaches – due, in part, to bad organisation on my part (more of which later) – I finally submitted Book 4 to editor and agent on October 1st. The initial response from their first read-through has, thankfully, been positive, and that's a big relief.
But, of course, there's still a long, long way to go. The first draft isn't anywhere close to 'finished', at least in the sense of being publishable, and over the course of the next six months or so, it will continue to change and evolve. What I do have now is something to work from; the foundations of the book, with all the plotlines in place, the characters (largely) where I need them to be, and an overall sense of the story. Next, comes the crafting: it needs chopping down in terms of length, it probably needs speeding up in terms of pace, and – as you'd expect – it needs lots of polish.
Still, if you can hear a clang at this point, that's the weight continuing to drop from my shoulders, because – to be honest – there were times in which I doubted I was ever going to get to the end. Book 4 became a project that just continued to grow, even though I'd planned it out, even though I always had a destination in mind. In fact, in exactly the same way as I'd done with The Dead Tracks and Vanished, I was fairly meticulously in my planning: I wrote an 18-page synopsis of the story, always knew the direction it was headed (although, as is my MO, left some wriggle room in case I needed to take it off somewhere unexpected) and the first five months of the write went pretty much as expected. I'd tried something a bit different with Book 4, right from the off, and it seemed to give me a new lease of life. I powered through to 60,000 words relatively unhindered.
But then I realised that, although I'd stuck to the plan (ish), I'd also incorporated a lot of new elements on the fly; elements that, I believed, made the book better, but elements that all had to be resolved nonetheless. Ultimately, it meant I had more storylines to tie up than I'd initially intended, made harder by the fact that the book deals with multiple characters, sometimes in multiple timelines, and I'd never predicted – as crazy as this sounds now – how complicated that would become in terms of tying it all together. So I immediately put a call in to my editor to tell her I wasn't going to hit the 1st September deadline. Better to be safe than sorry, I thought.
Except things didn't really get any easier. I hit a key chapter at the beginning of August that took ages to get right – inexplicably so – which held up the entire book for a couple of weeks, and as I got to the three-quarters point, I realised one of the major plot strands would work better done a completely different way. Make that decision in a thriller and it all goes a bit Jenga: you pull one block out and the whole thing comes down. Instinctively, though, I knew it had to be done: it would make the book better, and the only reason not to do it was because it was hard.
So I pulled the block out.
It added about a month on, because its impact echoed throughout the whole course of the book, but in the end it was worth it. If I hadn't have done it, the book would have suffered for it – and, if nothing else, it taught me that, for a novel of this size, an 18-page plan simply isn't enough.
What I love most about writing is that it's a constant learning process. Every book has taught me something new about planning, about characters, about plot construction, and about endings. If I didn't get to the end of a novel and feel like I could correct some part of my experience the next time around, I'd genuinely be worried. The Dead Tracks taught me about pacing. In Vanished, I learnt how to balance two main characters in two parallel storylines. But Book 4, of all them – including the ten-year write that was Chasing the Dead – has probably taught me the most.
P.S. As a few of you have asked, here's what I've been reading since the last blog:
The City and the City, China Mieville
The Snowman*, Jo Nesbo
The Afrika Reich, Guy Saville
Witsec: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program, Peter Earley
The Fifth Witness, Michael Connelly.
What have you been reading? Pop any recommendations in the comments below!
*Yes, I realise I'm massively, massively late to this one.
So that took a while. <Insert traditional apology for not updating my blog regularly enough> In truth - and here comes the excuse - it's been pretty hard to find any time to do anything over the past few months, but for one (hopefully) very good reason: I've been eyes down, full steam ahead on Book 4. (Which you'll be able to read three chapters of if you're one of the lovely, lovely people who picked up Vanished during its first week on sale this week – thank you if you did!) At the moment, I'm on 77,684 words, so I'm definitely closer to the end than the beginning, even though – at times – it's not really felt like I've been making the sort of progress I'd like.
In fact, people who follow me on Twitter might remember that I trumpeted excitedly that I'd hit 70,000 words about two months ago, which immediately raises the question (in particular, I imagine, at Penguin), "only 7,684 words in TWO MONTHS - what the hell have you been doing?!" So here's my excuse list:
1. My day job.
2. I managed to put my back out somehow. (Literally, I have no idea how, meaning there's no interesting story or amusing anecdote attached to this bit, unless you find the idea of me lying, prone, on the floor of my living room watching The Hotel Inspector and Cash in the Attic for five days, amusing. You don't... Do you?)
3. Chapter 37.
4. The release of Vanished.
I can't talk much about (3) without spoiling the plot of Book 4, but it's fair to say it was pretty important – a big, pivotal moment in the novel – and it took me ages to get it right. The way I write probably doesn't help. I'm not, and probably never will be, a writer who can blitz their way through a first draft, undeterred and unaffected by mistakes or inconsistencies. As soon as I start to feel that something isn't right, I have to stop and address it. It's just the way I am. I find it impossible to move on until the chapter I'm working on is mostly how I'd want it to be (or, at this early stage, think I'd want it to be) in the final version. There are pros and cons to this approach.
The advantage is that, according to my agent and editor, my first draft is the equivalent of someone else's third or fourth draft, and that ultimately means fewer rounds of edits and a more complete manuscript from the off. The disadvantages are pretty huge, though: because I write in such a regimented fashion, and because I opt for linearity in my approach (I write chronologically, and I never leave chapters unfinished), the whole process is much, much slower and, ultimately, more stressful. Where some writers can churn out a first draft in, say, eight weeks, my first draft takes closer to eight months. Where they might not get hung up on filling out characters or addressing plot holes in their first draft, that's exactly the stuff I can't leave alone. Only being able to work on the book in the evenings is part of the problem, of course, but not the whole problem. Even if I had all day, every day to work on my books, I'm sure I'd still be facing down that same combination of lack of time and major doubt.
In the end, though, I suppose it works for me. Maybe there are better and easier ways to write books, but this is the way I know, and this is the way I'll probably always work. If I lose all my hair at 36, you'll at least know why.
I can't go without mentioning Vanished, released last Thursday. Thank you so much to everyone who has picked it up this week, who has written about it, or reviewed it, or emailed me to discuss it, or just been out there saying nice things about it. Remember, you can get in touch if you haven't already, by email, Facebook or Twitter.
I won't even apologise for taking three months to update this blog (a new low, even for me), as I'm sure, by now, you probably don't believe I mean it. The irony is, I must think about this page two or three times a week, about the things I'd like to write about and the (in theory) interesting things I might have to say. But then little things like work, parenting and thriller writing take over and I never seem to find the time. I'd like to think that, if I was writing full time (as in, writing novels – my day job in publishing means I spend quite a lot of my day writing, anyway), I'd find loads of space in my schedule for all the important, peripheral stuff like this, but I fear I'd probably end up breaking that promise too. Hopefully you'll forgive me, especially if I tell you that half of January and all of February were taken up with edits on Vanished, which is – finally – finished. Completed. Edited. Done. (Well, my part is done, at least. There's still the small matter of Penguin's crack design department locking down the look and feel of the packaging. More on that, as well as a picture, when it's completed.)
The edits on Vanished turned out to be a bit of a rollercoaster, much like the writing of the book itself. As I alluded to in the last blog, by the end of the initial editing process, and before the manuscript was typeset and returned to me as proofs, I'd got to a stage where I was finding it hard to see the wood for the trees. The Word document I was working from – a Word document that had, over the course of 2-3 months, incorporated the input of my editor, agent and copyeditor and a lot of their suggestions and (great) advice – was a bit of a mess. One person's notes were red, another's was blue, another's was green, and as with any document where you need to keep track of who's suggested what, it became over-run by tabs, footnotes and strike-throughs. The upshot was that, by the end of the process, it became hard to read the book as a story because you couldn't go more than two lines – especially in my terrible, ancient copy of Word – without a note of some description. So I was looking forward to getting the proofs back because they'd be clean, they'd be set out like the final book, and they'd bring alive the story in a way a Word document never could.
My excitement lasted about 80 pages.
It was then that it started to dawn on me that there was a small plot hole running throughout the course of the book. It was easy to miss, which was why it had been missed, and – if I'm honest – I doubt most readers would have even noticed it, or been that bothered by it. Yet it wasn't so much the plot hole that started alarm bells ringing but the relationship the plot hole had with the last 30 pages. It's obviously difficult to talk specifics without massively spoiling the story, so it's probably easier just to say its existence opened my eyes to tiny flaws in the finale of the book. Not book-ruining flaws, again – like the tiny plot hole – probably not flaws that anyone but me would even really pick up on – but flaws nonetheless. I pride myself on being pretty exhaustive during editing. I take weeks (in this case, six) just to read the proof set because I'm so petrified about mistakes creeping through. I have Mrs W reading a second set at the same time, and she'll question absolutely anything she's not 100% sure of. Between the expert Penguin copyediting team, and our homegrown operation, we're able to spot most things.
But, about 30 pages from the end, Mrs W turned to me and asked me about one of the book's major events and I knew, right there and then, that I needed to rewrite it in a pretty major way. In retrospect, I think I was probably – quietly, in a borderline state of denial – asking myself questions about that section long before she got there, and although the plot hole completely passed her by (as I suggested, above, it might), the fact that she'd brought up the point at which the plot hole and the major event intersected was enough to give me the wobbles. (Technical term.) So I quickly got on the phone to my editor, apologised profusely, and told her that I had to rewrite about 20 pages. Thankfully, by now fully used to my flapping, she told me not to worry and to do what I needed to do in order to make things work. So I set about changing it.
Maybe 20 pages doesn't sound so bad. But, at the proof stage, changes of this size are, in theory, pretty rare. Pre-release copies, printed and bound in order to be sent out to retailers and then reviewers, are drawn from the first set of proofs, so the version of Vanished which most people – outside of my house and Penguin HQ – would get to see could have been the one with the plot hole and the not-quite-right ending. You can see why I was getting a bit antsy. Luckily, the call to my editor arrived just in time (two days before the proofs were due to be printed, in fact), so disaster was averted. (I must give a very public shout-out to my endlessly patient copyeditor Caroline, and Penguin's cool-as-ice editorial manager Nick.)
There is, of course, the possibility readers will still not take to the way I've finished the book, but I, at least, know I did all I possibly could to address what issues there were. Personally, and for what it's worth, the finale works pretty well for me now. Endings, as detailed in this blog, have always been very, very important to me, which was probably why I felt the need to reshape Vanished's so much. The most difficult thing now it's all done is to get used to the idea that that's it. No more changes. No more opportunities to affect any changes. I've decided not to look at the finished PDF version of the book I've got here in my inbox – ever – just in case I spot something that I've missed.
So with Vanished done, it's back to the 40,000 words I've got already on Book 4. It's always difficult to judge how well a book is going to turn out when you're not even at the midway stage, but getting the ending right for Vanished has given me the chance to take Book 4 in an interesting new direction. Oh, and top of my priority list: watching for those plot holes.
P.S. At the same time as apologising for the lack of updates on this page, I should apologise for the lack of updates elsewhere on the site. There's a good reason. Really. I'm actually giving the site a bit of a spring-clean, and it should be ready for lift off when Vanished launches in July. (He says. Crossing his fingers.)
My original plan to pen a blog at the beginning of November, and then another just before Christmas, has – like so many of my plans – been filed away under 'Might Happen One Day'. But, as always, I have a good excuse. Two weeks ago, copyedits of Book 3, now officially titled Vanished (more of which later), dropped into my inbox, and I've pretty much been doing those the entire time. It's not that they were particularly hefty or difficult (my laser-eyed copy editor at Penguin always makes the job a lot easier), more that I always find this stage of editing the most difficult. Every change, every query, anything that shifts around, it's all colour-coded and tracked, so that – in my ancient version of Word, which I should have done away with ages ago (but didn't, principally because of nostalgia) – the manuscript starts to take on the look of a London Underground map. Blue lines. Red lines. Green lines. Basically, it's a mess, and it makes re-reading the book much harder; or, at least, it makes it much harder to judge the 'flow' of the story. For me, the books only really come alive once they're typeset proofs. When they're formatted and laid out like the real thing, you tend to get a proper idea of how the reader might judge them. All of which means there's still plenty of work to do on Vanished.
In between times, though, I'm chipping away at Book 4 and, so far – without putting the mockers on it – it's gone pretty well. I'm about 17,000 words in, like the way it's shaping up, and feel pretty confident in my plans for it. I'm hopeful that the extra breathing room I've got on this one (12 months, rather than the eight I had for Vanished) will also benefit it. Those extra four months just take the pressure off a touch. Not to say Vanished is any kind of rush job. It's not. By the time I'm done with it, I would have spent nigh-on 14 months writing, editing and polishing it. But my writing process has never just been about putting words on the page. I like getting a plan together and then giving myself (and it) time to settle. I like to be able to think about it, knock it around, and then come back and refine it. All of that takes time, and of course takes weeks out of the schedule, but it's a luxury I'll luckily get with this new one.
That said, one (relatively minor) thing that's continued to bug me since starting Book 4 is the lack of a title. I don’t generally get too wrapped up in worrying about titles in the early stages – for me, a title will come when it comes. It’ll be something that feels right for the story, something that reflects the themes of the book. Chasing the Dead came late – only, really, once it was signed by Penguin. (Before it was Chasing the Dead, it was called something else entirely, but neither myself or my editor were ever one hundred percent sure about its original title, which is why it changed. Chasing the Dead, however, reflected perfectly what the plot of the first book was about, and – in many ways – summed up what would be at the heart of all the Raker books to follow.) The Dead Tracks, on the other hand, was there from the very beginning, even before I’d got any words on the page. It came out of my research, out of my thinking about where a good place to set a thriller would be. Sometimes I wonder whether it might have contributed to the relative simplicity of the write (long term readers of this page will know that, of the three books I’ve finished so far, The Dead Tracks was by far the easiest to complete): maybe having a title, and giving it a name, allowed it to take shape and develop more easily in some vague, difficult-to-quantify way.
The fact that Book 3 (as mentioned earlier, now officially (re)titled Vanished) was such a difficult write certainly plays into that theory, because the title for Vanished came even later in the day than Chasing the Dead did. As readers who finished The Dead Tracks will know, it was originally called The Last Exit (but even that wasn’t the first title it had – before that it was called The Line), but I think, eventually, myself, my editor and my agent, as well as the team at Penguin, felt we needed something more direct, that required less intepretation once it was out there on shelves. So we ended up with Vanished. I think the decision paid off: the cover for the third Raker book really looks the part and the image and title tie in brilliantly. (And you can get a sneak peek at the cover – or, at least, some of it – on the newly jazzed-up front page by clicking here.)
All of which is a long way of saying I still haven't got a title for Book 4. So far, happily, I'm disproving my own theory about a book being more difficult to write without a name in place – but there is, of course, a long way to go yet. As I alluded to, I'm not worried about it – there's more immediate, pressing things to chew my nails about in these early stages – but I do think there's a grain of truth in there somewhere; that having a title in place is oddly comforting, perhaps only because, of all the many, important boxes you have to tick during the building of a thriller, without a title, there's no book and no reader. Still, for now, it can wait. Because nothing can spoil the next few weeks of Book 4, boatloads of mince pies and teaching the extended Weaver family a lesson they won't forget on the Xbox.
Happy reading – and happy Christmas!
In August, Family Weaver and I disappeared to south Devon for a week, and as it hammered down with rain most days, I took the opportunity to whittle away at my To Read pile. I don't tend to challenge myself too much on holidays – in fact, the less challenged I am, the better – so I took four books I was pretty sure would A) keep me entertained, and B) keep me turning the pages. They were, in the order I read them: The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth; Written in Bone by Simon Beckett; and The Reversal and Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly. As anyone who keeps half an eye on my Twitter/Facebook will know, I read The Odessa File mainly because my knowledge of classic Forsyth is embarrassing, I read Written in Bone because I absolutely loved Chemistry of Death, and anything by Michael Connelly I buy automatically – without even reading the blurb – having read his books since The Black Ice caught my eye as a teenager. They all had one thing in common, obviously, and that was the fact they were thrillers. But, after finishing the last of them – Nine Dragons, which in a maverick twist, I read after follow-up, The Reversal – I realised they were also similar in another way: to varying degrees, and despite seriously enjoying all four, I was left a little unsatisfied by how they ended.
In truth, I was probably less hard on The Odessa File on the basis that it was very of its time, written at a point in history when the thriller perhaps followed a different rule set – one not so concerned with The Big Twist. But what happened in the others – the wonderful intensity of Written in Bone, and then the left field nature of its reveal; the brilliant courtroom drama of The Reversal suddenly ending in a hail of bullets; and the brave, slick and different (for Connelly) Nine Dragons, where the entire motivation for the book is explained away in a couple of unconvincing paragraphs – got me thinking about good endings, bad endings, what made them one or the other, and what sort of impression a bad one leaves the reader with.
So… what sort of impression does it leave you with? Does it colour the whole experience? Or do you, if you've enjoyed the rest of it, forgive it its moment of weakness? As a reader, I'm probably somewhere in the middle. I'm unlikely to forget the bits a book does really well, but at the same time, when I recall it days, weeks and months after, it'll inevitably be that great book with that okay ending. Ultimately, the end – the twist, the showdown, the resolution – is why most of us stick with a book, and as it's the last breath the novel takes, your final memory of it before it goes back on the shelf, the end has to be killer.
You can probably see where this is going. Having just finished a hefty edit on Book 3, and been informed by my editor we're pretty much there now, I've been spending time trying to get some distance on it. Specifically, since getting back from Devon in August, I've been thinking about the ending. In previous blog posts, I've talked about how writing thrillers is basically one, big lie: you're always trying to second guess the reader, so you're always trying to invent some new, ingenious form of deception in order to send them off in a direction they weren't expecting. The reality, of course – and I discovered this quite quickly after publication of Chasing the Dead and The Dead Tracks – is that you can fool a lot of people, but you can't fool everybody. So then the challenge becomes a more difficult one: how do you invent an ending that will fool everybody? The only way you can really do that is by pulling something out of left field, a character or an event that you never once flagged up during the approach. You get your surprise that way – but I don't believe it's a surprise that will make the reader happy.
In the end, as I mulled over Book 3's denouement, I decided that, if some people got a sense of where it was going, or saw the reveal before it happened, I'd have to live with that. I like to think both my first two books, in different ways, surprised the reader (and, I hope, rewarded them for seeing the novels through), and, over the past few weeks, as I at first started worrying about it, and then kind of came to accept that it might be to the detriment of the story to spend too long dreaming up extra impossible-to-guess surprises (if those things even exist), I realised my ending was fine. In a lot of ways, it doesn't really matter if it pulls the rug out from under you (although I hope it does!). What matters is that readers leave the book feeling like it delivered on what came before; that the twist makes sense, that the motivation is sound, that the plot all gets resolved.
Currently, it looks like Book 3 will probably be released next summer, so this time next year I'll find out how the ending sits with readers. (I've already got fingers crossed.) Until then, I'm going to be busy on Book 4. The synopsis I'm working from is a little rough around the edges, needs some clarity added and some polish applied. But, ironically, what it needs most – because I haven't figured it out yet – is an ending.
Someone once said to me that it takes a surprising amount of discipline to blog regularly. At the time, I thought they were either taking the mickey, or utterly insane. I mean, seriously, how hard could it be? Well, actually... really quite hard. Turns out it's pretty easy to blog but pretty hard to do it regularly, at least in my case. So, it's best I don't break with tradition here: sorry that it's taken me two months to get around to this. I know, I know. My apologies aren't worth the blog post they're written on. Irony is, I don't even have a really good excuse this time. Last time I blogged I had just finished Book 3 and was fried. This time, I'm between books – sort of; I'm actually editing Book 3 with my agent and editor at the moment (more of which later) – but it's not like I haven't had time to get this page updated.
I guess the truth of the matter is that I've really enjoyed this down time after finishing Book 3 in May. The third Raker novel was a challenge in a way the other books weren't. With Chasing the Dead, it was the challenge of getting it published, of rewriting it and rewriting it even though no one was interested and the rejection letters were piling up. With The Dead Tracks, it was more about handling the pressure. I'm not sure I struggled at any stage writing it – certainly not in the way I might have feared – but I felt a pressure to surpass Chasing, to deliver a bigger, more ambitious novel, and to do something markedly different in terms of the plot.
With Book 3, it was about delivering something better again but, more than that, it was about delivering a manuscript in a shorter time period and from a synopsis I hadn't spent quite as much time with. It was fully developed in the way a synopsis has to be before I can proceed with the writing of the actual book, but I hadn't lived with it in the same way as The Dead Tracks. As I've detailed in previous posts, I was carrying the ideas around for the second book from before Chasing the Dead even got me an agent, but the third came together much quicker. I put a synopsis together in July 2010, signed a contract with Penguin for Books 3 and 4 in the August, and began writing it in September. By Christmas, I was only 150 pages in, and those first 150 pages I'd scrapped and rewritten four times over. If you're putting a book out every year, this is the kind of timescale you work towards, and I knew that from the beginning - it was never the timescale that got in the way, not the story (which, I felt, was pretty strong), not the characters (many of whom were already established in The Dead Tracks), not really anything other than the fact that when I hit some bumps in the road – tiny things like how to get Character A to Point B, or how Character C might react to Situation D – I seemed to stop. Completely stop. Those tiny bumps passed almost unnoticed when I was writing The Dead Tracks, but they got big on Book 3, and the more time I wasted trying to tackle them, the more panicked I got about hitting my deadline. By January, I'd only staggered as far as page 200 – well under halfway in the overall story – and my original submission deadline was the first week in April. By February, it became pretty clear to me that I was never going to hit that deadline, so I asked my editor for an extra month. Graciously, she gave it to me, and it was only March time that things finally started to click into place. Why? I'm not entirely sure – but in the same way the tiny problems had become bigger problems in the early stages, by the end I was whipping through at top speed for no good reason I could see. It was the same story I'd always had. The same characters. Everything was headed in the same direction. But what had been excruciatingly painful to start with seemed really quite easy at the end. Even so, by the time I submitted, I was a bit of a wreck. The challenge of Book 3 was, and still is to some extent, a mighty one.
And so here we are, at the end of July, and I'm working on the fifth edit of Book 3 with my agent and editor. The major bone of contention has been the word count which – in a delicious dose of irony not lost on me – is massively over. Yep, you heard right. A book I struggled to get finished comes in about 20,000 words too long. Er, how did that happen? I have no real idea, but the net result is that we have to hack into it. My editor has suggested some areas that need looking at. My agent had suggested some others. Both sets of suggestions, in their own way, are quite painful as they involve sections of the book I've sweated blood and tears over – almost literally this time round – and have grown quite attached to. But, when I step back and try to see the novel as a reader will see it, I can see they're necessary. So over the coming weeks, I will be getting the scissors out, and we'll see where it takes us. (Given that, sickeningly, agent and editor are almost always right, I'm pretty sure it'll take us somewhere better.)
The period since May hasn't been completely dedicated to catching up on the TV and movies I'd missed during my Book 3-induced captivity, though. I've also been laying down some groundwork for the next book too. I've got some ideas down on paper already, but have mostly been busy on the research side of things, reading, travelling around and chatting to a few very interesting people. It's very, very early days on Book 4 yet (it won't even go on sale until space year 2013) but I can feel already that it's going to be a good deal different to what's come before, and hopefully surprising too. Surprising in good way, of course, rather than surprising like an unexpected gas bill landing on your doormat. Whatever happens, I'm sure it'll be a challenge, just like the others. But hopefully the challenge this time will be making it brilliant, rather than just trying to get it done.
Author of the David Raker novels