I write a crime series featuring bipolar FBI agent, Ren Bryce. Each book has been written because of a central crime that has inspired me, but the same theme runs through the series: consequences. Killing Ways, my latest book, is the fifth in the series, and features the fallout of all kinds of actions, but deals particularly dramatically with the impact of violence. There is no end point with a violent act – it reverberates. I’m horrified by what people can do to other people; I’m drawn to the psychology of the criminal mind, the motivation, the rationalisation, that chilling absence of emotion that you see in many killers. I’m a very feeling, emotional person, so watching police interrogations or interview of killers, mesmerises me: how can somebody be that cold, that depraved? And in Killing Ways I answer that question, I show how someone can reach that point.
But the exploration of consequences extends to the choices made by all the characters. So much can happen in those powerful life moments: the loss of love; the revelation of secrets; the decision to walk away from something; the decision to stay. Crime novels have amped-up emotions and high stakes, people on the edge, people with conflicting motivations and goals. And that’s what drama is all about – conflict and what arises from it. That’s where my focus is always drawn.
Writing a series gives you automatic starting points with each novel – whether it’s a development in a character’s working life or in their personal life. The next step is to decide how many months after the previous book the sequel takes place. The book I’m currently writing is the as-yet-untitled sequel to Killing Ways, and it starts six months afterward. Some dust has settled. I chose that gap for many reasons, but a huge part of it was that if I started it a week or even a month later, it would have been encumbered by the natural follow-on from the very dramatic finale of Killing Ways.
When you write a series, there are certain things that you have to write early on in each book – to remind your existing readers, and to enlighten new ones. These included the intro to each character, a description of the building/office, a brief, lowdown on the previous investigation with as few spoilers as possible or – ideally – none.
I love writing a series, because I get to return to the characters I love, and know so well. I enjoy moving them forward, I know how each one will react to each situation they’re placed in. Each voice is unique, and it’s effortless to go back and forth between them.
And, along with the recurring characters, I get to introduce new ones to pit against them. I get to sit back and watch what happens. And I genuinely feel like I’m watching, not actually creating it. It’s quite surreal.
I use timelines to keep track of the plot. They’re usually made up of seven A4 pages, landscape, each detailing ten chapters. Under the chapter number, I write two or three lines on each scene. I write them only for me to read, so they’re written in my own language, and may make no sense to anyone else.
The prologue of Killing Ways features a young woman on a remote rural road who comes across an elderly woman in a state of extreme neglect, a woman who has clearly been maltreated, abused, tortured and chained up. We cut to a loner stoner driving his pickup nearby, thinking about HuFuKi, the violent video game he’s been playing. He stops when he sees the women.
In my timeline, that would be summed up as Prologue – Amanda Petrie meets neglected lady; Kurt Vine thinks about HuFuKi; Kurt Vine stops; crash at Medical Center – lady says she’s done something bad. For Chapter One, it would be: Ren hungover; Ren & Everett interview Jonathan Briar; Ren & Everett ask Briar re landfill site; Briar goes nuts.
As you can see, I usually write the names of the main characters featured in each scene, so I can quickly scan who’s where, or when I move the scenes around, it all stays clear.
I need this because I don’t write chronologically; I write the type of scene I’m inspired to write at any given time. It could happen that I write a series of scenes in one thread, like, in Killing Ways, I wrote three of the arguments between Ren and her boss in a row, even though they’re spread out throughout the book.
I’m often guided by dialogue, so most scenes kick off with me writing a couple of lines of dialogue, and going from there. I might write only a few descriptive lines, but go back on a different day to expand on them. Sometimes, I’ve spent an entire day writing only descriptions. I’m very visual, so I’m right there in the room with the characters, everything is vivid, so the images stay with me; that makes it easy to go back and elaborate later, keeping me in the zone of pushing forward with the action through dialogue.
I’ve tried to write a different way, by moving steadily from one scene to the next, but it doesn’t work for me – it feels tedious. I enjoy harnessing the sparks of inspiration as they arise; they’re a huge part of the rush for me. Sometimes, I’ll write just a short scene descriptor and come back later to write the scene. I love having a collection of empty files that I can look forward to filling.
The software I use is the brilliant Scrivener – it’s so writer-friendly. I have no affiliation with the company, but I have a lot of love for it! Scrivener is such a customisable piece of software. I would venture it suits all kind of approaches to writing. For me, it’s works so well for many reasons, but mainly because I can see to the left of the page I’m writing on, not only an entire list of my numbered chapters, but also the titles of individual scenes. So, taking an example from Killing Ways again, I might have a list of chapters one to ten, separate files, one underneath the other, then below that, five individual – titled – scenes that I know have to fit into one of the first ten chapters. Say, I’ve written a scene with the title “Ren & Everett in club, hammered” – it’s right there, very easy to go into, cut, then paste into whatever chapter I feel it needs to be in.
Ultimately, you have to write, create, structure, streamline, in a way that feels natural for you. It’s such a personal mission, only you can do it, and any conventions that feel limiting, have to be thrown out.
Every writer has to find their own way, and love that way.
(c) Alex Barclay
About Killing Ways
Dark times lie ahead for Special Agent Ren Bryce and the Rocky Mountains Safe Streets Task Force in the heart-stopping new thriller from the bestselling author of DARKHOUSE and BLOOD LOSS.
In her most shocking case yet, FBI Special Agent Ren Bryce takes on a depraved serial killer fueled by a warped sense of justice.
A master of evasion, each life he takes ramps up Ren’s obsession with finding him. Then one victim changes everything and brings Ren face to face with a detective whose life was destroyed by the same pursuit.
Together, can they defeat this monster? Or will he take them both down?
Killing Ways is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here.