How to write a successful novel

Your official guide!

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Image courtesy of Lee Francis

I finished my postgraduate masters in Marketing at Lancaster University Management School back in August. The month before that, I had a long-gestating thriller published.

Playing with Death, co-written with Simon Scarrow, was published in hardback on 13 July to rave Amazon reviews and press which commended the book for its entertaining, dark satire and thought-provoking themes. Simon and I had a great panel session at the MCM Manchester Comic Con; the subsequent praise for our book was flattering and, honestly, surreal.

Chris Ryan labelled the fiction collaboration as a “fast, furious, twisty thriller”. According to the Irish Independent, “What starts as a gripping killer thriller morphs into a serious and frankly scary examination of the possible threats the development of AI poses for humanity”. The Peterborough Evening Telegraph have claimed that “If Stephen King had collaborated with Michael Crichton on a thriller, it might have been as good as this. It’s a grab-you-by-the-throat page-ripper”.

The seed of the story which became Playing with Death was sown by Simon around fifteen years ago. He wrote a three-page radio play called Echo, featuring the eventual villain of Playing with Death and a grisly murder.

In 2011, Simon dusted off this radio play and asked me to provide some feedback due to my background in assistant directing for TV and film (The Woman in Black, Harry Potter, Spooks). So, I had a read and thought that what the play needed was the involvement of a police force and near-future technology. Not only that, but different stories panning out through different characters: family members, for instance, who the reader might invest in. I was aware that often a big story is made up of five or six smaller but interconnected stories.

Simon and I chatted some more about this and we agreed to develop the plot together. We did so, although first as a TV series which barely left the ground; Playing with Death the novel is the result of (between us) nearly four years of hard graft. Not a quick process!

So, my first two tips for ambitious writers are as follows. Firstly, ask for constructive feedback. But also remember, if you’ve written a crime thriller ask for advice from someone who at least likes the genre, and already knows about it, rather than someone who hates reading about murders.

Secondly, if you decide to write a novel you should be in it for the long haul. Even after you get published, there are more hills to climb! Simon and I, for instance, need this first book to do well so we can start planning the sequel. Commit yourself. Writing is a solitary act so prepare yourself and set goals. Writing is like a muscle in that it only gets better if you use it. And pace yourself. A novel is around 150,000 words. That’s ten times more than the dissertation you’re not writing!

I feel we have entered a point of no return politically, socially and technologically. In the last few years, technology has had an irreversible impact on almost every feature of our lives and values, both as an incredible asset and a frightening liability, which is something of a key theme in Playing with Death. Simon’s and my characters are trying to keep up in a constantly shifting world: that premise means there was daily inspiration to be found for our story. We wanted to create a crime series that not only hinted at technological shifts, but also allowed us to explore characters as emotional human beings, easily damaged by others’ ill-planned, selfish actions. In our book, most of the characters are rounded, neither good nor bad, but somewhere in-between.

So, my third tip is to be a student of life. Be curious, look at the world around you, and ask how it makes you feel. Writing is often a reaction to what’s going on in the world. This is great because it allows you to unpack difficult feelings and contemplate the ramifications in a deeper way than in a film or article (although TV is the best it has been in years regarding long-term story arcs and characterisation). Keep an “ideas book”. Mine is overflowing, but there is a handful of key ideas to which I keep returning. Know when you have a good idea. If you keep adding new stuff to it then you’re onto something. Inspiration can come from anywhere. Run towards grey areas. Drama is about complexity, so finding the grey areas of a theme can provide your story with intrigue.

Thomas Harris, Michael Crichton (taken from us too soon) and Philip K. Dick are the main literary influences for our series. Harris for his characters and portrayal of horror in the original Hannibal Lecter trilogy; Crichton for his genius and high concepts; Dick for his obsession with multiple, unreliable realities. The TV series Black Mirror expresses a similar sense of unease through its depiction of how humans recklessly embrace technologies without fully understanding the consequences.

So, my final tip is to know what you already like, and make your intention clear to yourself. Write what you’re passionate about. I like over-the-top action, fast-paced stories and thought-provoking themes. That’s what I write. Don’t write for an imagined audience.

It is Simon’s and my hope that, thanks to an innovative writing style, and our tackling of contemporary fears and anxieties, readers will enjoy our books not only as entertainment, but also as food for thought long after the final page has been read.