PERFECT BONES is published today by A J Waines. I invited Alison onto my blog to answer a few questions about her writing processes.
Hi Alison, what is your best writing habit?
Hi Mel. This may sound odd, but I never leave my desk at the end of the day with something – a scene, a chapter etc – completed. I will always make in-roads into the next stage of a project, so I can hit the ground running the following day. For instance, if I’m at plotting stage, then I’ll write bullet points about what I think might come next. If I’m writing a first draft, I’ll leave jotted notes about the next scene ready to be filled out. I never come back to that dreaded blank page!
What is your first draft process?
I usually like to find a hook first. In The Evil Beneath, I distinctly remember where I was when I suddenly thought of the initial idea. It hit me on a stroll around Mayfair, when I was chatting to my sister about something completely different: What if you found a body in the water and the dead woman was wearing your own clothes? Bam!
Once I have the hook, I think about what could be the main thrust of the story, what is going to help it hang together. In my next book, Perfect Bones, psychologist Dr Samantha Willerby is given seven days by the police to get a description of a killer from a sole witness – a young art student, who has been rendered mute by the trauma. With her professional skills stretched to the limit and the clock ticking, Sam strives to track down the killer – the police operation helps to define stages in the plot.
I like to get a title early on. It helps to ground the book (even if it’s changed later) and creates a strange illusion that somehow the book already exists (albeit on another plane). Then I sketch out the plot-points – pretty much a list of bullet points outlining key scenes that will drive the plot forward. Getting them in the best order is always tricky for me. I’m always thinking about conflict and jeopardy and what will make the reader turn those pages. I like a three-act structure, aiming to get big reveals or twists in the right places!
Sometimes character’s voices come really easily (like the little girl, Clara, in Dark Place to Hide.) She’s seven years old and I could distinctly see her and hear how she spoke, so I was able to write from that place with an easy flow. At other times I have to work hard to fill out a character, but I can only write in their voice once I feel they ‘come alive’ in my head.
For the first draft, I then simply do what Stephen King advises and ‘get the story down’, not worrying too much about detail (I put gaps where I need to do some research or find something precise, such as the model of a car or how fast a narrowboat can travel). Detail and atmosphere can be ramped up, later.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? And if not, what prompted you?
I seem to be in the minority, in that I didn’t ever consciously hanker after being a writer. But now, in later life, I realise it’s been there in some form or other all my life. It’s also the thing I feel happiest doing. I’d always dismissed the idea of writing a novel, because I thought it was too complicated and difficult. To me, authors were incredible beings, out of my league – (plus I failed my English Literature GCSE at school, which made me steer clear of creative writing in my future studies). I’d just never considered it.
When I was burnt out with psychotherapy (see below), I was at a loss as to what to do. I read Stephen King’s book On Writing and had a go at a short story. Only I didn’t stop when I got to 5,000 words. I kept going…and in the end, I had a finished novel that (sort of) hung together. Encouraged by my brother-in-law, I sent it out to a few agents and managed to get representation. That’s when everything started!
I hope my failure at my English exam shows that you can write at any age and from whatever background you’ve had, as long as you read a lot and understand how good writers put stories together.
Tell me about your writing journey.
I trained to be a musician at first and played the cello professionally for a while, after university. I faffed around doing admin for a bit, then I qualified to be a psychotherapist and had a couple of self-help books published. Alongside that, I ran classes on self-esteem and wrote around twenty motivational features for Slimming World magazine.
In my counselling work, I was intrigued by the exact words people used to talk about themselves. I often used art therapy, working with images and metaphors to help people explore their inner lives. I’m fascinated by secrets and lies, the masks we wear and the things we keep hidden from others – a lot of that stems from my therapy work. As a result, I love writing psychological thrillers!
After fifteen years, I closed my therapy practice and needed to find something else. Strangely, it was my first editor (an old school friend) who reminded me that I used to fill exercise books with Enid Blyton-style stories when I was about nine years old! I’d completely forgotten. But it made me see that there had indeed been a thread linked to ‘words’ right through my life. Writing mystery/thrillers was like coming home, somehow.
If you were starting right now, what would be the one piece of advice you wish you had known beforehand (and why?)
I’m going to give three, if that’s okay?
Things change very fast and there are no certainties:
I remember being totally gobsmacked when the agent who represented Val McDermid and Minette Walters took me on in 2010! I thought I’d made it. Far from it! When my thriller didn’t secure me a publisher, that agency dropped me. I was completely gutted. I had no idea that could happen! Back to square one.
Plan ahead and don’t expect an easy ride:
In the past, authors who got a publisher used to be ‘in for life’, but these days so many bestselling writers are getting new books turned down and having to look elsewhere or change genre. Markets get saturated and at one point an agent told me publishers were no longer looking for psychological thrillers!
Being a writer isn’t just about writing books!:
Publishers used to have more money for marketing – big ads on the side of a bus, the Underground, Sunday magazines etc. Now only an elite few find this level of support. Much of the publicity and promotion has to come from the author themselves if their books are to stay afloat. This means being prepared to put a lot of time into social media, blogging, Q&As, advertising, Facebook groups, giveaways etc. An active online presence seems far more valuable now, whereas in the past, book signings, library talks, festivals etc were the accepted ways of sustaining an author presence.
AJ Waines is a number one bestselling author, topping the entire UK and Australian Kindle Charts in two consecutive years, with Girl on a Train.Following fifteen years as a psychotherapist, the author is now a full-time novelist with publishing deals in UK, France, Germany, Norway, Hungary and Canada (audio books).
Her fourth psychological thriller, No Longer Safe, sold over 30,000 copies in the first month, in thirteen countries.AJ Waines has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The Timesand has been ranked a Top 10 UK author on Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing).