Every writer has their own process when it comes to putting a novel together. Here I want to outline my method, from idea to the end of the first draft, as it actually happens…
‘Jerusalem Blind’ is the working title of the sequel to my 2015 thriller ‘Sleeper Cell’. The action starts just three days after the final scene of the first book in what will likely become a series featuring my counter-terrorism detective, Leila Reid.
In some ways, this makes the process easier than starting a completely new idea, as I already have a main character who is well established in the first novel. Some supporting cast also come through to the second novel. But it also casts hidden traps along the way. I can’t assume that everyone who reads Jerusalem will have read Sleeper Cell. So while I don’t want to rehash Leila Reid’s backstory or go over all the events that happened in the first book, I have to make sure there are enough pointers that new readers won’t be completely lost. At very least it will be necessary to outline the main plot points of the fist book in the second. Something to keep in mind…
There is nothing more exciting than a completely blank computer screen
Some writers hate a blank page, but for me there is nothing more exciting than a completely blank computer screen on which I am going to start out on an exciting twelve month journey (all told, a year is about average for the production of a full length novel for me). My first sentence is usually short – no more than a dozen words – and it never changes from one draft to the next. What I write on that blank screen is exactly what the reader will see when the book is published. It’s a superstition. It’s how I work…
This series of books are structured rather differently from my usual novels in that they consist of a large number (40+) of short chapters, and the action chops and changes between different protagonists and locations. This keeps the momentum of the novel up and keeps the reader guessing until all the strands are brought together in the final section of the work.
Remember what readers are interested in: people. And people do things.
So this first chapter is pretty much what you’ve read above, fleshed out a bit. It’s not action-with-a-hook-at-the-end. It’s all hook. It plunges the reader into the jeopardy right from the start. There’s no description, no back story, only what Reid actually experiences in her first three minutes after waking up on the plane. In other words, the action takes place in real time – three minutes is about as long as it will take the reader to read it. This makes it personal, immediate, and unsettling. Hopefully it makes the reader want to proceed into chapter two.
At the beginning of this book, Reid is being hunted by three different organisations, and the next three chapters outline the real-time positions of each. Again, they are all hook and no back story. It’s important to make the characters live immediately, and the locations as sensory as possible, as the reader has to absorb a lot of information quickly. If in chapter five the reader has to flick back to find out who the hell Michael Lawrence is, I’ve failed. He must be alive from his first appearance (although it helps that he is a main character in Sleeper Cell, most of the people we meet in the first forty pages of the book are entirely new).
I’m taking the reader on a journey, and the best way to do that is to take that same journey as I write.
By chapter five I can relax the pace a little. The ‘problem’ Reid faces (other than being in a pilotless plane!) has been strongly suggested, and it’s now time to fill the narrative out. I can refer back to the events of Sleeper Cell to show how she got into this mess, and begin to hint at who might be able to help her, who hinder her, and who is outright determined to kill her (most people!). What I don’t do yet is give any hint at how she is going to navigate her way through the minefield. And I do this by not knowing myself. I’m taking the reader on a journey, and the best way to do that is to take that same journey as I write. I know where I need her to be on the final page (probably; it may change), but not exactly how she’s going to get there.
The next installment of this post will discuss how I use back story and setting to flesh out the action, and how every thriller is really just a series of increasingly jeopardy-filled problem-and-solution scenes that lead along a path to salvation. Stay tuned!