When you’re an author, life events, good or bad, often make it into your writing. They can even inspire a whole novel.
Three years ago, I was surfing at my local beach when my board smashed me hard in the side of the head. I felt myself starting to black out, but fought it, because I was in deep water and feared I would drown. I clung tightly to my surfboard and made it in to the beach lying on my board. Apart from a growing egg-sized lump on my head, I didn’t feel too bad.
But that afternoon, as I sat at home with an ice pack, I noticed strange gaps in my vision. I rushed to a local optician who freaked out and said my retina was detaching. So I rushed to Emergency, but it turned out my retina was merely loose. If a retina comes detached, emergency surgery is needed to save your vision but if it’s just loose, there’s nothing they can do, and once loose it will always be loose. To my relief, my vision soon returned to normal, apart from a few strange floaters.
But the next day my brain started to scramble. It was the weirdest feeling. Time seemed to slow and I realised I struggling to form thoughts. I headed back to Emergency for a CT scan. The doctor diagnosed delayed concussion and wanted to keep me in hospital but I’m a single mum of two young kids, so he reluctantly allowed me to go home, with strict instructions to rest. I also had to get a rota of kind friends to phone me at two hourly intervals through that first night, to check I could wake up.
Apart from relief, my main reaction was annoyance. “How long until I can surf again?”
It’s the same every time I injure myself. I imagine it’s the same for anyone who loves a sport.
The doctor looked at me like I was mad and told me: 14 days.
I waited 14 days. Then, feeling guilty and reckless and selfish, I went surfing again on day 15. I was cautious, knowing another head injury could be serious.
I was supposed to be writing my next book but I didn’t have the concentration to even read. My concentration took months to improve and I had to train myself to avoid distractions. I still struggle to multi-task. I can’t listen to music while I read or drive, and loud noises and bright light bother me more than they used to.
A few months later, just as I thought I was in the clear, I went for a deep-sand run and completely lost the vision in one eye. Maybe my brain overheated or got too shaken around. I rushed back to Emergency thinking my retina had detached, but it was apparently a brain issue not an eye issue and my retina was still merely loose. My vision returned a few hours later but I still have occasional vision issues.
I’ve done myself a fair bit of damage over the years, from the sports I’ve done, but this is my most serious injury to date. Naturally the accident inspired the book I was writing. Sport is good for you, they tell us. But my accident made me question this. What if (like me) the sports you enjoy are dangerous ones that smash you up?😅Is surfing good for me or is it an unhealthy, dangerous addiction? That got me thinking about where my limit would be – and where that limit might be for other people. How far might someone go to pursue their addiction? What price might they pay to continue surfing?
Then I began thinking about the different ways sports can damage us: the physical and mental trauma that accidents can cause. In The Bay / The Swell, a group of young keen surfers have claimed a remote Australian beach as their own. Surfing and other sports have damaged them in different ways, but they will do whatever it takes to keep surfing.
KENNA lost the love of her life in a surfing accident. MIKKI’s addiction to surfing has torn her from family and friends. JACK lives in constant pain from his accident. VICTOR has PTSD from his accident. RYAN uses surfing as a means to opt out of real life.
I love damaged characters. Trap them together and who knows what they might do?
The Bay is out in paperback in the UK on 25 May 2023. It’s out in paperback in North America on 18 July 2023, titled The Swell.
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.
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 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.
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!
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 posthere.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I was chatting with thriller author J A Andrews on Twitter about how our book titles have changed. All four of his novels changed titles. And both of mine! Titles are so important, yet so tricky to get right. The title is the first thing potential readers see of our books, so ideally we need something catchy, memorable and unique which hints at the story and what genre it is. When I pitched my new thriller THE BAY to my agent and publishers, I called it: THE TRIBE or SURF TRIBE. They didn’t like it. They thought ‘The Tribe’ sounded like a science fiction book and ‘Surf Tribe’ was too niche – it would only appeal to surfers. I brainstormed alternative titles with my agent and publishers. Ideas included ON THE BEACH, THE SHORE, UNDERCURRENT, THE RIP and DARE. In the end, my UK team went for THE BAY. But my American publishers felt it wouldn’t suit their market. Books sometimes do have different titles in different countries, as obviously each country has a slightly different market and publishers want to pick the best possible title for their market. In the US, surfing is seen as glamorous and sexy, my publisher explained, so they wanted to highlight that aspect. They came up with THE SWELL, which I love.
My debut novel changed title too! It was called THE ICEBREAKER when I submitted it, after the warm-up game the characters play at the reunion. My agent, Kate Burke at Blake Friedmann, felt it wasn’t strong enough. Plus ‘icebreaker’ is a type of ship that sails in icy waters! Kate came up with SHIVER at 4am one morning and I will always be grateful to her for that! There are already several other novels with the title ‘Shiver’ but there’s no copyright on book titles so it didn’t matter.
As SHIVER gets translated into different languages, I’m always fascinated to see what title they give it. Sometimes its a direct translation of ‘Shiver’ such as ‘Tremblor’ for my Spanish edition. Sometimes it’s totally different. In Germany, the title is FROST GRAB which means ‘icy tomb.’ The Czech edition is ‘Mraz Pod Cuzi’ which means ‘frost under the skin.’
If, like me, you struggle with titles, my advice would be: don’t fret! You just need a good-enough working title for now. Down the line, your agent and/or publisher might well change it.
Some writers don’t plan their novels. Lee Child, for example, just starts writing without knowing how the story will end. Other writers, like Jane Harper, plan in great detail.
I plan but not in huge detail and my plan changes as I write. I use ‘The Post-It Method’ after hearing other writers describe how it helped them.
My whiteboard is 5-foot high. Some writers use actual Post-It Notes, but I use scraps of paper with magnets to stick them to the board because it’s hot here in Queensland and I need my windows open. The sea breeze would blow Post-its away! Using non-sticky paper also makes it easier to shuffle them around and play with the order.
Each scrap of paper represents a scene. I write 1-3 sentences per scene: the main events, characters, and maybe the setting and/or the time of day. Sometimes I just write bullet points. Both my published novels have around 75 scenes. I’ve analysed a few of my favourite thriller novels and they mostly seem to have around 70-80 scenes.
As you can see, I’m really messy! Most of these scene cards have been written and rewritten MANY times! So I just scribble.
I never used to plan my novels. I have four or five unpublished novels, all unfinished and unsubmitted because I got in a mess with the storyline.
My debut thriller SHIVER was the first novel I planned. I spent one month planning and wrote it in six months. The scraps of paper provided a map of the story and made life so much easier! I couldn’t have written SHIVER without planning. The story has a dual timeline and the order of events and reveals is crucial to the story. I spent hours – days! – shuffling scraps of paper around but it was time well spent. I used two colours of paper, one for each timeline. The story is all told from the main character, Milla’s point of view. I like to end scenes on cliff-hangers (or surprises or reveals) where possible, to keep the reader gripped, so I write these onto the bottom of each and highlight them.
I used the same method to plan THE BAY but it took WAY longer, partly due to the drama of Covid school closures, my divorce, and my head injury from a surfing accident, but also the pressure of my deadline, which zapped my creativity and made me panic! I spent several months planning and once I began writing I went down lots of dead ends and had to revise the plan, but the method still helped.
THE BAY is mostly told from Kenna’s point of view, but there are single chapters from each of the other main characters. I used white paper for Kenna, yellow for the other characters, blue for the killer’s point of view, and green for flashback scenes. This gave me a clear picture of how the different viewpoints were spread out.
I wrote a large ‘S’ on scenes that showed surfing, ‘A’ on action scenes, ‘T’ on scary bits of the thriller plot, and drew a heart on scenes that furthered the romance sub-plot. I didn’t want the surfing or romantic scenes too close together, and I wanted more scary bits in the last third.
When I finish the initial planning stage, I usually start off with around 30 scenes and panic that I don’t have enough plot. Then I start writing and expand some scenes into two or more, add in flashback scenes, and more plot complications develop.
The Post-its Method is particularly helpful with thrillers and crime fiction, in my opinion, and other novels with complicated plots, dual timelines or complicated structures, because it makes it easy to experiment with the order of events.
I’m so glad I found this method of planning, otherwise I might never have finished writing either of my novels!
Here are some of my favourite books on writing. I’ve arranged the shelf above in order of how much I like them (L-R), though some of the ones I talk about below are missing because one of my best writer friends has borrowed them. (Yes, that’s you, JODIE!!)
Story by Robert McKee is a must-read for every story writer. It’s full of inspirational and thought-provoking quotes about story, and I love how it dissects classic movies to explain how and why they work their magic. QUOTE: “We go to the moviestoentera new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality.”
I’m a massive fan of John Truby. He’s a story genius! I found his book Anatomy of Story SO helpful even though it’s heavy reading. He places a strong focus on the main character having a moral weakness which drives the plot. I’d heard about this from other writing books, but hadn’t implemented it much in my own writing until I read his book. Milla Anderson, the protagonist in my thriller Shiver, is hypercompetitive. In the ’10 years ago’ timeline, she’s a professional snowboarder competing at halfpipe. Her desire to defeat her rivals drives the story. Her competitive behaviour causes the predicament she finds herself in, in the present day. Deciding Milla’s weakness from the start had a magical effect: my story almost seemed to write itself. I particularly love listening to Truby talk about story. He has some brilliant videos available to watch free on YouTube. Here’s the video where he talks about his book Anatomy of Story.
Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham was eye-opening for me because it taught me, amongst other things, to think in scenes, not chapters, and to start scenes late and end them early, ideally on cliffhangers, for maximum narrative drive.
Into The Woods by John Yorke is a fascinating explanation of how stories work, as well as a critique on many other books on story.
I’m also a massive fan of US literary agent Donald Maass. His book The Emotional Craft of Fiction blew my mind when I read it a few years ago. I’ve reread it a few times since and still only feel I can apply a fraction of his advice. The book focuses on the psychology of the reader and what they experience, and details what writers can do to give their work more emotional impact. QUOTE: “Readers fundamentally want to feel something, not about your story but about themselves… They want to anticipate, guess, think, and judge… They want to feel like they’ve been through something. They want to connect with your characters and live their fictional experience.“ I love the idea that what matters most of all to a reader is how the words make them feel. His book on Writing the Breakout Novel is great when starting off a new project, for evaluating your premise.
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is a short, accessible and entertaining read with some nuggets of gold. It’s written for screenwriters but the principles apply just as much novelists. Many writers swear by Blake Snyder’s ‘Beat Sheet’ for plotting a story.
These are my favourite books for the editing stage. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is full of straight-talking advice. Read it and forever after you’ll hear in your head his no-nonsense advice about what to cut and what isn’t good enough.
Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, is written by a pair of highly experienced fiction editors. It’s particularly good for pointers on how to tighten your writing. The first time I read it, I immediately slashed twenty percent off the manuscript I was working on.
Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us by Jessica Page Morrell looks at common pitfalls of querying writers and it’s another extremely helpful read. I plan to reread these three books after finishing each new project, to keep the advice fresh in my mind.