After a long career as a television scriptwriter my first crime thriller, The Informant, was published in 2014. This was joined the following year by a second novel, The Mourner, and now I’m about to bring out my third, The Killer. And, even though I’m no longer a debut author, as publication creeps closer I’m starting to get a little neurotic.
The reason? Changing careers late in the day is rather nerve-racking. Okay, I tell myself – you’re still a professional writer, it says so on your tax return and your passport. I spend my days in a small room, light filtering through slatted blinds, staring at a blank screen.
But as a scriptwriter I remained in my room, or at least in the background, leaving it to directors and actors to sell my stories to the audience. Now I’m required to step forward and speak up for myself. And like many novelists this doesn’t come naturally.
My publishers have initiated me into the world of social media – I’m on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – and I have come to enjoy these distractions.
The visual image has always been a way into the story for me, which is why I gravitated towards screenwriting. But what people tend to forget is the other side of the screenwriting coin, which is structure.
When you’re writing for an audience with a remote in one hand, a cup of tea in the other and too many channels to choose from, there’s no room for indulgence. The story grips them or they’re gone.
When you mention structure people often think plot. But for me structure begins with character. It’s the desires, needs and internal conflicts of a character that dictate how they’ll react to any given situation.
In The Informant my main character is Kaz Phelps, a young woman released from prison on licence but caught between a brother, who wants to draw her back into a life of crime and the police, who want to turn her into an informant against him.
The Mourner carried her through the murder of her lover and a mismatched partnership with ex-cop Nicci Armstrong to find the truth.
The Killer is about how she stays alive and stays out of jail and it completes the trilogy.
But whatever the main character or protagonist is trying to achieve, that has to interact with the desire lines of all the other characters. I learnt the importance of this from working with actors. Even the walk-on parts must have a need, a goal that they’re pursuing, or they just look like cardboard cut-outs.
A web of character arcs sparking and firing off one another is my starting point and from that the story grows organically.
So in a way writing a novel is different but not so different, my underlying approach to constructing the narrative has remained the same. You’d think this might help the nerves, but it doesn’t.