I’ve never been much of a planner. At the start of every book I’ve ever written – WHAT REMAINS is my sixth; my seventh is almost (almost) done – I’ve set out with the best intentions to write a clear, detailed synopsis, to know exactly where it is my novel is headed in order to avoid the pitfalls of dead ends, over-writing, and characters that seemed good in my head (but aren’t on the page). That’s not to mention the countless other headaches that come from letting a 120,000-word book develop organically. Whenever I finish a novel, I always promise myself I’ll be more efficient and better prepared next time, because it’s so mentally exhausting not working to a plan. But, in the end, I never learn the lesson. Except for one, 12-page synopsis I wrote for my second book, THE DEAD TRACKS, I’ve never outlined anything, even to a vague degree.
I suppose part of the reason is that I don’t find the planning aspect of writing at all enjoyable. To me, it’s the most boring kind of grind, the equivalent of sitting in front of an Excel spreadsheet and having to figure out what goes in what column, and how it all adds up. Another, more important reason is that, across almost seven books, I feel some of the best work I’ve done has come out of letting the book dictate the direction it should go in – I think it has created better characters, stronger scenes and more dynamic plotting, because all of the decisions I take come about as a response to the direction the book is travelling in at the time. (And, often, those same character and scenes, those same plot decisions, are the ones readers seem to respond best too as well.)
During the course of THE DEAD TRACKS, my series character David Raker – a missing persons investigator – has a conversation with one of my other series regulars, a cop (now ex¬-cop) called Colm Healy. Healy tells Raker about a case that got away from him, the murder of twin girls and their mother, and how the impact of that – his failure to solve it – rippled through to his career and to his family life. By the time WHAT REMAINS begins, Healy is at the lowest possible ebb – divorced, estranged from his kids, jobless and homeless. He’s living in a shelter. It’s a spectacular deterioration, and the only thing that matters to him now, the one favour he asks of Raker, is to help him find the man who killed that family. Healy sees it as something that needs to be put to bed – it’s not just a shot at redemption for him, it’s a chapter that needs to be closed before he can think about moving forwards.
None of that, from Healy himself, through to that initial conversation he has with Raker in that second book, through to the way his life falls apart across the three subsequent stories – VANISHED, NEVER COMING BACK and FALL FROM GRACE – was ever planned out. Not a single line of it. It’s probably the starkest example of how working like this can play out across a series – you start with a two-page conversation that you wrote on the fly, and was never going to be anything more than background colour in one book, and then four years later it forms the basis for an entire novel.
Every writer approaches their work differently, of course, so I’m not for a minute suggesting that my way of working is better. In fact, at times, it feels like a terribly worrying, ultra-stressful form of madness. But there’s an upside: you can never quite predict where things are headed. Without a plan, I never knew where Raker and Healy would end up; never knew, even after introducing Healy, whether he would survive more than just that one appearance in THE DEAD TRACKS. He did, of course, and grew to become a huge part of the Raker novels, but I’m pretty sure there’s no way I could have plotted his course with an outline. Essentially, I got to find out about him, and about Raker as well, in the best way possible: just like a reader would.
What Remains by Tim Weaver is published by Penguin