Writing ‘Jerusalem Blind’, Part 1

plane.jpgEvery 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…

So, what mental kit do I set out on this journey with? I’m not a plotter. I don’t do character notes. Everything I need is in my head – not as a complete novel in the way that Mozart is said to have had a complete symphony in his head before he picked up his pencil, but I know my characters, I know my setting and I’m confident that if I let the story unfold naturally it will maintain internal consistency. Of course, this is the reason why my second draft takes almost as long as my first (of which more in a later post). The most I will do at this stage is take a sheet of A4 paper and write the initial impetus for the story at the top and the desired outcome at the bottom. Between the two I might add plot pointers for essential movements as I go along, but never in advance of actually starting the writing process. We’ve got to get from A to B, but how? Don’t know – my characters will tell me a lot as I write, and inconsistencies can be ironed out in the second draft.

So, I know where Leila Reid starts. She’s on a private jet. The cabin is empty… and so is the cockpit. She can’t read the instruments, has only ever flown a Cessna, and all she can see below her is desert. She has no idea how she got there.

As starting points go, this is quite detailed by virtue of the fact that I (and most readers) already know a lot about our heroine. The opening idea for Sleeper Cell was simply a bomb in a London hotel. I had written the first chapter before I even knew who the heroine was!

I try to avoid having to do much research as I write as I like to write fast. This helps to keep up a breathless pace right from the start. Write fast and it ‘reads’ fast, even after it’s been hammered about in the second and edited drafts. At least, that’s the theory. We all have our quirks and superstitions!

I spent most of January doing the technical research for the book – I knew where it was set, some of the principal plot points and what kinds of backgrounds I was going to have to create, at least for the opening third of the book. Beyond that, I’ll have to see what’s necessary when I get there! I have schematics for the particular jet in question (although it is never named), and I know enough about how they fly to be able to get one on the ground – albeit in a state that it would never fly again. That’s all I need – Reid can’t fly either, so I only know what she knows. I know where she’s going to land and although I’ve never been there, I’ve spent time in deserts and I’ve got satellite photos and maps of the real location. That should be enough. If not, I’m going on holiday…

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.

If I’m writing a more expansive first chapter (see, for example, Run (2013) or GM (2014)), I might include more description, but it’s kept to a minimum. A lot of writers early in their journey to becoming proficient include too much irrelevant detail. We don’t need to know what the weather is doing (unless it has a direct bearing on the action); we don’t need a description of the room, what the man next to her in bed looks like, what kind of coffee they drink, her school record, any of that shit that slows the narrative down. Remember what readers are interested in: people. And people do things. You can show a lot more about a character by having her act than just sit there like a model in a renaissance painting. Cut the crap and get on with it!

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.

My schedule is 1,000 words a day, although often I’ll write more in the early stages of a book. The novel will be 90,000 words in first draft, to be cut in later revisions to about 75,000. So that’s three months for the first draft (unless I have to go to Israel to do a bit more research!).

Now, the exciting part. A blank screen awaits…

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!


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