How I Write A Book: The Big Idea

I’m back from my second trip to New York in the space of a month – this one was for Book Expo America; the best place to catch up on my shenanigans is the ‘Book Expo NYC’ highlight on my Instagram account – and while it was the Most Amazing Fun Ever, by the end of it I was itching to get back to my desk. This was partly because being elbows deep in the book world for a week, discovering new reads and making new writer friends and talking about ideas and processes and story, was like getting a concentrated dose of motivation and inspiration. But it was mostly because of the distant drum of growing panic.

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Me, at Book Expo America: a study in nonchalance

Well, not panic exactly. At least, not yet. But The Deadline of Doom approaches. Book 4 Draft 1 is due on the 1st September or 12 weeks from now, give or take. That would be loads of time if all I was doing between then and now was writing and watching Love Island. (Don’t judge me. If you’re a writer, observing human behaviour via reality TV can be a goldmine.) But I’ll be doing that and taking a screenwriting course, teaching a week-long writing workshop at West Cork Literary Festival, hopping over to Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, giving a plotting seminar at a writing retreat in Lake Annecy (!) and, hopefully in there somewhere, sitting on a beach for a week. Plus my new book, Rewind, comes out on September 3rd in the States and September 5th here, so I absolutely cannot be late.

So what I thought I’d do is procrastinate by writing a series of blog posts about this part of the process, idea to completed first draft. Today’s instalment is the first and it’s all about The Big Idea.

Before we begin, a disclaimer. This is just what I do. This is what works for me. There’s only one right way to write a novel and that’s whatever way works for you. So if you disagree with any of this, that’s fine. You don’t have to do it. Take what you think is useful and leave the rest. Also bear in mind: what I’m really talking about here is writing commercial fiction, which tends to be more plot-driven and high-concept than, say, literary fiction. (And if you don’t know me and you’re saying, ‘Who is she, anyway?’ you can catch up with my bio at this link.)

THE BIG IDEA

Before I write a word of my book, I need to feel 100% confident that this is the right one – and I need to be excited about it. I know this because that was not the case with my second novel, The Liar’s Girl, and although that all worked out okay in the end (um, more than okay, hello Edgar Best Novel nomination!), I could’ve done without the 18+ months of feeling like I didn’t have my homework done and then delivering the Worst First Draft In History a year late. Plus all the crying wasted a lot of mascara, and that sh*t isn’t cheap.

And it was the case with Rewind, the book that’s coming in September, which (a) I really enjoyed writing, (b) delivered on time – ahem, basically, but what’s a fortnight between friends, eh? and (c) is getting the best reaction I’ve ever got to a novel so far. It’s also my personal favourite, or at least it will be until I finish this first draft, because I’m even more excited about the idea for Book 4. So I’ve learned the hard way: this is the right way for me.

Not to get out my sweeping-statements brush, but I feel like a very common problem among writers who are struggling to finish their first book – or who have finished it and are struggling to sell it – is that they just dove in and started writing without really thinking about the idea at the centre of it.

Take a moment to think about what your idea has to do, if your goal is to get this book published and into the hands of readers:

  • Sustain you for approx. 100,000 words. Not only does it have to generate all that plot and forward motion, but it has to pull you back to the desk day after day after day for months, maybe years, even on the days when, like, Netflix releases the new season of The Crown
  • Grab the attention of an agent. When my agent took me on, she told me she gets 5,000 submissions a year and, on average, only takes on 3 new writers. And that was at a small, boutique-style agency – the ratio in a typical situation is probably much, much worse
  • Convince an editor that your book is worth publishing, that it’s worth investing money in because it’s going to sell
  • Convince everyone else (sales, marketing, etc.) at the acquisitions meeting that that editor takes it to of the same thing, so they say, ‘Yes!’
  • Be strong enough to be one of the books that the sales agent pitches when they only have one meeting to pitch all the books to booksellers, supermarkets, etc.
  • Be strong enough to be one of the books that the booksellers, buyers, etc. at that meeting think will appeal to their customers, so they order it in
  • Be the book that a customer picks up – potentially in a bookshop stocked with 1000s of titles – and hands over hard-earned cash to pay for because they believe it’s going to be a great read
  • and loads of other stuff but let’s not depress ourselves totally.

Yes, I know: BIG NERVOUS GULP. It seems so daunting and potentially impossible. But it’s not. Not with the right idea. Some books you hear the premise and you just instantly think, I need to read that. For me in recent months that has applied to books like Adrian McKinty’s The Chain, The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary and Elevator Pitch by Linwood Barclay. (I’ve linked to their Amazon pages so you can read their descriptions.) Think about the last book that made you think I need to read that. Which book was it? And why did you think that?

Now, I know what some of you are thinking, while you groan and roll your eyes. Isn’t this  – ugh, yuck – writing to market? Isn’t this selling out? Isn’t this chasing trends? No. What we’re doing here is creating the book we want to read but can’t find on the shelf – forever my starting point – while trying to increase the chances of it getting on a shelf by being mindful of the road ahead and what it’s going to take to get to the end of it. If you just want to retreat to your turret and write your magnum opus sustained by candlelight and charcoal, marketplace be damned, fine. You do you. But I don’t have time to work like that and I don’t enjoy it. Like I said: this is just what I do, what works for me.

Also: it’s not all about the idea. I would hope that’s obvious. You have to write a bloody good book, well. But here’s the heartbreaker: most of the people involved in deciding the fate of your book will probably only read the whole thing after they’ve made their decision, right down to the reader who buys it, because unless they’re a shoplifter or there’s a really comfy chair in the bookshop, they’ll only read it after they get home. You have to convince them it’s a good book before they crack the spine. So the idea is the workhorse. It needs to be able to pull its weight.

Anatomy of a Big Idea

The idea for Rewind had to be bloody good because The Liar’s Girl had made me question my career choice – yes, the not-done-homework feeling was that bad – and because I was out of contract. Rewind was the idea that was going to have to convince two publishers, my UK one and my USA one, that they should sign me up for more books. So, like, no pressure…

*looks to camera*

The idea for Rewind came in two parts. The first was in a hotel room in Villefranche near Nice, France, where I was staying with my friend Andrea. We were scrolling through our phones in companionable silence when she said, ‘Did you see what PostSecret posted today?’ and then she showed me it. PostSecret is best described as a project where people write their deepest, darkest secrets on postcards and then mail them to a man named Frank Warren, anonymously, who puts them online, in books, exhibitions, etc. You can see some of them here. This secret was a picture of a bedroom and the secret was I trade hidden sex cam footage with other AirBnB hosts.

BOOM.

About 1.5 seconds later, I thought to myself, what if you were doing that and you got more than you bargained for? What if you captured a murder? What would you do? What could you do, without revealing your own criminality? 

I was instantly excited about this idea and knew it was The (Next) One. I could feel it. But it wasn’t enough. I needed more. I needed a little pixie dust that would turn the idea from interesting to irresistible, at least in the eyes of the decision makers. I started thinking not about plot, but about structure… What could I do to really make this book exciting, not just for readers but for me too, while I was writing it? It’s a book about something caught on camera… A tape… You watch a tape—

BOOM PART II.

I would structure the book like a videotape. You start “watching” in the middle, then you turn the page to find a ‘rewind’ symbol and you go back, then after that chapter there’s a ‘fast-forward’ symbol, skipping you forward, and at other times you might ‘pause’ or just let it ‘play’. You’re “watching” it all unfold out of order and it’s only when you get to the end that you know everything, you’ve “seen” the whole story and can finally put together the shocking truth. Time stamps orientate the reader and the story is simple enough to follow but complex enough to satisfy.

And so, Rewind was born.

The Jacket Copy

The next thing to do was to write a little mini-synopsis or blurb, essentially the text that would go on the back of the book when/if it was published. I have always done this first because it helps me see how much of a story I have. The answer is always not enough so I tinker with it until I feel like I’ve got the bones of the story. This may take days or weeks and there’s often several iterations. My aim is always ‘good enough for now’, meaning I know at this early stage it can’t be perfect, but I don’t want to half-arse anything. I want to show my agent, editor, etc. that I know what I’m doing with this book and I want to convince them that it’s going to be a good one.

This is what the jacket copy for Rewind looked like at this stage. Bear in mind, it is NOT the copy that will actually appear on the back of the book, although it still (mostly!) applies to the finished story. This was just something I wrote for me and the best ideas always come in the writing of the book, so things change.

YOU’RE THE ONLY WITNESS TO A MURDER. BUT YOU SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN LOOKING.

A man is secretly recording a sleeping woman via a hidden camera when something unexpected happens: on screen, a hooded figure emerges from the shadows to attack the sleeping woman and then he destroys the lens. What has the hooded man done? Why has he done it? And how could he have possibly known that that camera was there?

REWIND

As soon as Natalie arrives in the wintry isolation of Shanamore, she starts wishing she hadn’t come at all. Something isn’t quite right with the young manager, Andrew, and the cottages’ overbearing caretaker, Richard, turns out to be the local creep. And who is the woman she’s seen in Andrew’s cottage but whose presence he denies? She wants to leave, but she can’t. She’s come here to search for something and she hasn’t found it yet…

FASTFORWARD

In Dublin, entertainment reporter Audrey is tasked with covering the disappearance of Natalie O’Connor, the woman behind a popular lifestyle blog. Sensing an opportunity to graduate from stories about D-list celebrity cellulite and Twitter spats, she digs deep – and finds evidence that the perfect life Natalie chronicled online was a lie.

PLAY

Seanie Flynn knows Andrew from way back and only Seanie knows the truth Andrew hides from everyone else. This time around, he won’t let him get away with it. This time around, things are different – because Seanie is Shanamore’s Garda Sergeant.

This is a story about a murder caught on camera. When it begins, you, the reader, have already missed the start. To get the full picture you must go back, you must rewind the tape. Later you’ll skip forward and, at other points, you’ll just let it play. You’ll watch these events out of order but by ‘The End’ you’ll have the whole story. You’ll know what happened here.

Try not to look away…

So that’s it for The Big Idea stage of the process. Join me at an unspecified date in the future when I’ll be procrastinating more writing about the next step (for me), writing a synopsis.

If you want to know more about my process and you can get to Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, for a day in September, come join us The Inspiration Project. Tickets are on sale now!

In other news, I still cannot believe how many blurbs have come in for Rewind. Crime writers are so the loveliest, despite the fact that we kill people for a living. You can read all the early praise – and *whispers* pre-order – here.

(This blog post is 2,366 words. You can see why I struggle to make deadlines, can’t you?!)

Comments are closed because the internet is a toxic waste dump but if you have any questions or comment, tweet me @cathryanhoward or pop your Q into the Contact form and I will try to answer them in the next post in the series.