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My top tips for writing a 'can't put down thriller'

My first book was released nearly three years ago now and since then I've sold well over 200,000 copies (thank you everyone who's bought them!). In just a few weeks my fifth book - The Red Cobra - will be out there for all the world to read (I can't wait!), with more in the pipeline. A question I still get asked regularly is how do I actually go about writing a book? It’s a question I’m sure if I wound back the clock ten years I’d have been keen to hear the answer too as well. The thought of constructing a novel that’s 100,000 words long is not just daunting, but seemingly impossible to many people, yet many do accomplish this feat, and I’m sure each and every writer has their own unique way of crafting a story.

So how do I do it? I’ll put it really simply; I write one word at a time until the book is finished...

Ok, so of course there’s a bit more to it than that, so here are some of my top tips:

1) Just get stuck in!

I say if you spend less time worrying about process and more time actually getting your fingers dancing across the keyboard, you’re already on the right track. For me, writing breeds plot and once I’m in a groove ideas and actions and locations and characters seem to flow. I’m sure not everyone is the same but for me there’s not substitute for actually just getting stuck in and starting to write. I’ve drafted seven books now, and will soon be starting my eighth, and I certainly feel like I’m getting into quite a regimented writing process now. What I absolutely don’t do is start off by thinking out and analysing a fully formed plot with all the twists and turns and with detailed character profiles etc etc. I know a lot of writers do this, creating story maps and the like, but it just doesn't suit me at all. Coming back to that original question (how do you actually go about writing a book?), I think the thing that a lot of non-writers struggle with is that concept of visualising a whole plot in the first place. So I don’t. I just get an idea (it could be the opening scene or it could be the central character or it could be the main plot theme), and I just run with it and slowly flesh the plot and characters as I’m writing. Yes that might seem strange and you could say it’s leaving a lot to chance, but I think as long as I have an understanding of where I’m trying to get to (the BIG plot twist is usually one that I think you have to know early on), then often the rest just seems to fall into place quite naturally.

2) Setting goals

Some writers hate this idea, but for me, it keeps me focused and there’s no better feeling than setting a goal and then beating it! So I regularly set myself a target of when I want that draft written by, when I want the editing completed, when I want to publish even. Without goals and targets there’s just too much scope to drift. When I’m drafting I set myself a word target of 4,000 a day, which, unless I have a complete brain freeze (which does happen every so often!), I generally find is easily achievable. Given that when I set out I’m aiming to hit 80,000 words for that first draft, you can see that it really doesn’t take me that long - generally 4-6 weeks, depending on how many non-writing days get in the way (usually involving looking after the kids!). I also find that splitting the book down into these daily chunks takes away that daunting prospect of actually writing a full length novel. As long as I know what I want to write that day (which is usually just two or three chapters) then I’m happy and generally relaxed, even if I have no idea what’s coming in two or three day’s time.

3) Killer endings

Those first two tips deal with the process of writing itself, but what about the thrilling part? What I’ve always set out to do is write books that people want to devour in one sitting, and to do that you need hooks. I think of this in three parts; i) the early hook that gets readers interested in the first place, ii) that big twist at the end that no-one (or very few people hopefully!) saw coming, and iii) perhaps most importantly is the stuff that comes in the 40 or 50 chapters in between! It’s not possible in all cases, but what I try to do is make as many chapters end with either a twist, a revelation or at least an element of intrigue, to make the reader want to carry on. Just ending a chapter with ‘and then they all went to bed for a good night’s sleep,’ doesn’t really cut it in this genre!

4) Conflict

Probably the biggest single concept for fiction in the crime/thriller genre is conflict. Conflict should seep through every page and ooze through every characters’ pours. You don’t have to go overboard and make every element of conflict world changing, because conflict can be a relatively simple concept, but every character needs this, whether it’s internal or external, past, present or future, personal or professional.

5) Write what you know

One of the most well-worn cliches about writing, but there is some truth to this. Ok, so my Enemy series books were about a black-ops assassin who was a trained killing machine. I can reveal that I have never had such training and have never killed another human being before. But, I do feel I know the thriller genre sufficient to write about it because of all the books I’ve read and the films I’ve enjoyed over the years. And my books do still have a lot of areas in them that come from my own experiences; the most obvious being locations, but also without doubt the characters and their traits. I think for me, the key is that you should stick to writing in a genre and in a style that feels natural for you, rather than trying to force yourself to write something for the sake of it. Many people say I should write about financial crime because of my past job as fraud investigator, but for some reason I hate that idea! (Maybe because that was a real job!). Others try to copycat a particular style, or try to fit into a genre that is hugely popular, but in which they have little real world interest, just for the potential commercial upside. Kudos if they make it work, but I’d much rather just write what feels comfortable to me - a book that I’d like to read myself, basically.

This blog post was originally written for Victoria Goldman's Off The Shelf book blog, as part of the Dark Fragments blog tour. You can see the original post, and others, on Victoria's blog by clicking here.

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