BestSelling Reads continue our look at the mysterious writing process—how authors create the books you love to read. This week, A.J. Llewellyn, Alan McDermott and Raine Thomas—three very different authors with very different genres, styles and methods, pull the curtain back.
My writing process? I have a motto. I live by it. It’s the only thing that works. It’s that old Nike logo: Just do it.
Writing is not about thinking about it. It’s not about whining about it. Or writing about it. It’s doing it.
I forget some days how much better I feel when I write a couple of thousand words versus the days I get bogged down with the business end of things. I keep a to-do list, which also helps.
And to be honest, sometimes whining accompanies my to-doing.
When I start a new novel, I have just the seed of an idea. For my latest work, The Sokolov Agenda, it was a British spy who was abandoned by his country and left to his fate in Russia. From there, I would write a one-page synopsis and then bullet points for the first few chapters.
Once I start writing, I change my mind. A lot. By chapter ten, the story looks nothing like the original idea I had. From that point on, I’m basically making it up as I go along. I might leave bullet points in later chapters as a reminder, but that’s it. The story just goes where it wants to.
With my current book-in-progress, I’m on chapter 20 and have prompts for the next two chapters. At some point I’ll take time away from the laptop, think about where it’s going, then add a few more bullet points. You can guarantee that by chapter 40, most of them will have been ignored.
As for characters, It’s hard to know how to paint them. When you think about it, there are millions of books out there. Any character I want to create will already have been done before. The policeman recovering from alcoholism/divorce/death of a loved one. The ex-soldier who develops PTSD/a thirst for killing.
I tend to try to make my characters as normal as possible. My spies don’t have Bond-style gadgets, my soldiers don’t hit with every bullet they fire, my policemen aren’t super sleuths who can solve a case just by looking at a discarded cigarette packet. If you make the characters believable, the reader stays in the story. Have your good guy kill a roomful of heavily armed men with a toothpick, and the reader jumps out in one of those “No way that’s gonna happen” moments. Once they lose the connection with the story, it’s almost impossible to drag them back in.
I’m what I like to call a “plantser,” a weird hybrid between a planner and a pantser (as in, writing by the seat of one’s pants). I start each book with detailed character sketches, in-depth research with lots of notetaking, and a chapter-by-chapter outline.
Once that’s all done, I sit down to write and let the characters take the wheel. Most of the time, they like to veer from that outline and make me want to bang my head against my desk…but they always seem to know where they’re going!