How I wrote The Bay/The Swell!

BRAINSTORMING

I got a two-book deal for Shiver and another psychological thriller. When the time came to write Book 2, first I brainstormed everything I wanted to write about. Writing a book is a long slog, so I wanted to feel passionate about my story. My list included strong female characters, a dangerous natural setting, secrets and lies, romance, twists and a who-do-you-trust feel.

One of my favourite quotes on writing is by Robert McKee in his amazing book Story: ‘We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us.’ Many of my favourite books are ones that take me to a new, fascinating world. Shiver takes the reader to the dangerous white world of snowy mountains and extreme sports athletes, so I got thinking about what sort of world I could write about in Book 2. As Lee Child says, readers want ‘the same yet different.’

I looked through my reading journal (I keep a careful record of every book I read and my thoughts on it – it’s so helpful!) and listed my favourite reads of 2020, 2019 and 2018 and why I liked them. This provided more guidance as to what I wanted to write.

I summarised several story ideas which I’d been forming over the last few years, discussed them with my agent, wrote 2-page outlines for a couple of them, then discussed them with my UK, American and Australian publishers, to see which they preferred and which would make the best follow-up to Shiver.

CONCEPT

The concept for The Bay/The Swell was inspired by two of my absolute favourite novels: The Beach by Alex Garland (I love the way he created a tropical paradise gone bad because of the people there) and Point Break. There are also elements of Survivor and And Then There Were None, with an Agatha Christie-esque ‘locked room’ type setting – the room being a lush national park and windswept beach.

SETTING

Setting is so important to me. As a reader, an interesting, unusual setting is often why I pick up a particular book. I love dangerous natural settings in particular. After the snowy mountain terrain of Shiver, it made sense to set my next book somewhere entirely different. I decided on a hot beach. For thrillers, it’s always nice if a place is remote with the potential to get cut off, ideally without mobile phone coverage. Australia has plenty such places and I’ve visited a few of them so it seemed logical to set my story there – and my publishers loved the idea.

CHARACTERS

I spent some time thinking about the nationalities of my characters. I wanted a multi-cultural bunch that would appeal to the publishers who’d already contracted me (UK, North America, Australia/New Zealand and Germany) and also to prospective publishers including those who’d bought Shiver. Since they’d be surfing, it made sense to pick countries that had large surfing populations.

For more ways that I develop characters, see my Insta post.

Then I sketched out a ‘character web.’ John Truby refers to character webs in his fantastic book The Anatomy of Story.

Truby advises writers to aim for as much conflict as possible between the characters to create an interesting plot. I took an A4 sheet of paper, marked my characters on (they were named A, B, C, D etc for now!) and drew lines of conflict between them until it looked like a spider’s web. For example A is B’s boyfriend, C is D’s best friend, E feels sorry for F but doesn’t trust him, B is afraid of C, D is blackmailing A. I’d show you my character web but there’d be major spoilers!

PLOTTING

I started with a basic idea of several deaths at a remote national beach, then I decided who was behind them and why. I wanted my main character to have a strong reason to investigate the deaths. Make the stakes personal, we’re often advised in craft books, so at first I thought my main character might be the brother or sister of a victim. I considered the victims being male but my agent felt it worked better with them being females.

In the movie Point Break, the main character is an undercover police officer sent to investigate a mysterious group of surfers who are suspected of being bank robbers. To solve the case, he must first win their trust and become one of them. I love how he gets so drawn into their world, he feels torn between doing his duty and his loyalty to and love for the tribe he has become a part of. I love emotional turmoil, so I incorporated a similar aspect into The Bay/The Swell. Kenna, the main character was an avid surfer until her boyfriend drowned. Now she’s forced back into the sport she quit and becomes addicted once again.

I listed the main events of my story on a sheet of paper and tried to expand them. Then I plotted them onto little squares of paper, just a sentence or two, for each scene. At first I only had about a dozen scenes but some were clearly too long for one scene so could be split into two, then I added plot complications, flashback scenes, and scenes from other characters’ perspectives. When I had about thirty scenes, I stuck them onto a giant whiteboard – the same board I planned Shiver on. I knew from analysing some of my favourite thrillers that I needed around 70-80 scenes for a typical novel (Shiver had 75) so I initially worried I didn’t have enough, but as I started writing, more ideas came to me and the story expanded nicely.

I used several colours of squares: white for the main story from the main character’s point of view, yellow for flashback scenes, green for scenes from other characters’ points of view and blue for the killer. As with Shiver, I spent a considerable amount of time shuffling them around to find the best order to maximise suspense and impact. For more detail on my whiteboard method, see my earlier post here.

The whiteboard method really helps me. I know what scenes I need to write and how they need to end, so I don’t waste time writing boring transitions between scenes where nothing much happens. Get into the scene late, and get out early, many craft books advise.

ENDING

An early draft of the story had more deaths. My agent felt it seemed unbelievable and over the top, so I cut one of the deaths. The hard thing about changes like this is it has a domino effect and in future drafts, references to this dead woman kept cropping up like an evil spirit.

By the time I came to write the climax, I didn’t know if I could pull off the ending I’d had in mind, so I brainstormed alternative endings, but my agent wasn’t keen. I discussed it with my publishers via Zoom and the verdict was the original ending was the best option, so I sat down to write it.

POINT OF VIEW

Shiver is told in the first person purely from the main female character Milla’s perspective. I wanted to try something different with The Bay/The Swell, but I loved the first-person voice and found it so much more natural to write than the third person, so I stuck with that for most of the story and added in chapters from other characters’ viewpoints, also in first person.

In an early draft there were several chapters from Sky (the leader of the tribe)’s perspective and several from Clemente (the love interest)’s point of view, but my agent felt these gave too much away, so I cut some of these and replaced them with single chapters from other characters. My publishers felt it seemed odd that a couple of the tribe members didn’t have chapters of their own, so I had to write chapters for them too, which I really struggled with, but once I’d done it, I could see how right they were. The final version has chapters from each of the tribe members – just a single chapter in most cases.

REVISIONS

After I had a finished draft, my agent read it and suggested revisions. Later, my publishers took it through multiple structural edits – six rounds in all, which seemed endless! I edit as I write, so by the time I’d finished the structural edits, it was fairly polished. It’s a time-consuming way to work, but it meant the line-edit stage was relatively fast and painless. See my earlier post on my top ten books on writing craft! These are my favourite books for the editing stage.

RESEARCH

Shiver barely needed any research, because I’d lived in the mountains as a competitive snowboarder in my early twenties. The Bay/The Swell required far more research. I’m a keen surfer and I’ve lived for twenty years near the ocean here in Australia, but I needed to research rock climbing, sea cliffs, underwater training exercises, rock running, surf photography methods and equipment, breath hold techniques, push ups vs pull ups, personal training and various surf spots in other countries including Mavericks, Pipeline, Biarritz, Cornwall, Devon and Brazil. I did a little research before I started writing and the rest as and when needed. I’m guessing each further book will require more research as I run out of familiar settings and topics!

THE LEAD UP TO PUBLICATION

Many writers start writing their next book at this stage, but I felt so burnt out after two years of the Covid pandemic, juggling my kids as a single mum with work, and the struggle I’d had to my revisions. Instead I focussed on promoting my book, doing interviews and social media, whilst trying to recover from my burnout and other health issues and catching up with my reading. I’ve read so many great books these last few months. See my Insta or Goodreads for some of my favourites!

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