Just Keep Writing: No Turning Back by Sam Blake
“Writing your first book you have the luxury of time” is something that crime author Catherine Ryan Howard is always saying, and it’s not until you’re under contract that you realise how true that is.
I started writing in 1999 when my husband went sailing across the Atlantic for 8 weeks and I had an idea for a book. That first book was truly horrendous – but obviously I thought it was amazing. I knew I was going to write a bestseller. All that stuff that gurus and positive thinkers say about visualisation and making your dreams come true? There’s definitely something in it. I did write a bestseller, but it wasn’t that book, and it didn’t actually hit the shelves until 2016, fifteen years later, bringing new meaning to the phrase ‘overnight success’.
But during that fifteen years (and four unpublished books, and goodness only knows how many partials that ran out of steam at 30k words), not a single word was wasted. Writing is a bit like football – I stole this brilliant analogy from ER Murray although I think she tells it better – everyone learns to play football, spending their weekends playing in the park with jumpers as goal posts, but that doesn’t mean they can trot out for AC Milan in the morning. To do that you need a lot of hard graft and dedication, and hours of training. Writing is just the same – I’ve got a good degree, I’m an avid reader, but learning the craft was vital to success. There is a stack of techniques that you need to master in order to deliver a story to your reader, and crucially, you only find your own voice through writing. The best advice I was ever given was by my fabulous friend Sarah Webb ‘just keep writing’.
So, going back to the luxury of time – you’ve got it with your first book; you’ve got all the time in the world to get it right. Polish and redraft and make it beautiful. But once you finish it and start sending it out, you need to keep going. I’ll never forget the day that my agent, Simon Trewin, called with the news that he’d had an offer for my book – then called The Dressmaker. But it wasn’t just an offer for that book, it was an offer for a series of Cat Connolly books – a three book deal with Bonnier in London. Gadzooks, dreams do come true.
Because that first book, the book that became Little Bones was fairly polished – I’d taken a long time writing it – there wasn’t a huge amount of editing to do. As soon as it was finished I turned my attention to book 2. I had about 30k words of a partial written (nothing wasted!) that became, with some serious work and about a 30% rewrite of the first draft, In Deep Water. Most of the rewrite was about Point of View – I have characters who just want to keep sticking their noses in and my then editor Joel Richardson wanted more from Cat’s POV (and he was dead right)
So In Deep Water is in production, but then we come to book 3. Which did have a title, No Turning Back, but no actual words.
I’d been thinking about it a lot over the summer as I was rewriting In Deep Water, I had mind maps and partial plans, character names and lots of scribblings on yellow legal pads. By January I had to get started, to get the ramblings onto paper, but I still didn’t have a proper story. I did however have half an idea that my deadline for the first draft was in April (it never occurred to me to actually check the contract to find out what the date actually was).
I knew an important part of the story was about the Dark Web, I wanted to explore how technology can let intruders into our homes, often without us realising it; and I wanted to explore relationships and what makes people act the way they do. I had some characters – Olivier and his brother and I had Tom and Lauren, but I what didn’t know was just how hugely other people’s stories were going to impact them, and all the secrets that would be revealed.
By the beginning of February I still hadn’t started properly. I wasn’t completely sure where I was going with the story but I had the end scene in my head – I knew I wanted No Turning Back to finish in London in a particular place that I love. But I was starting to get worried, I needed to crack this. I did some events last year in the UK with an incredible author Alex Marwood – she says she ‘writes the stuff’ to find her way into the story – sometimes that stuff is 40k words that never makes it into the book. I needed to write the stuff to find my way in.
It worked, I was heading in the right direction. I’d got 70k words written of a 100k word book when Katherine Armstrong my editor got in touch (in April) to see how I was getting on: “You know your deadline is tomorrow?” Once I’d picked myself up off the floor, I said I had a bit still to finish, she wanted to know when I could have it done. “Two weeks?” I said.
There’s nothing like setting yourself an absolutely unreal deadline to get your skates on. The bit I’d forgotten in that conversation was that I was launching In Deep Water during those two weeks…But it turns out that it is possible to write 30k words in 9 days if you focus (and don’t do any washing and order lots of pizza).
I was two weeks late but I had the timeline, sort of, and geography worked out, and mainly what happened. That’s what first drafts are for. Most of it changed in the second draft.
No Turning Back was an exhilarating write and I hope is an exhilarating read – there are twists and turns that I only discovered as I went along. I had an idea of the secrets that would come out in this book, but I wanted to explore that goes on behind closed doors – because everyone secrets don’t they, even perfect families?
Writing a series is like sitting down in a wine bar with a gang of old friends, catching up on what they’ve been doing while you’ve been away, getting all the news and gossip. You know them so well, but you also know their secrets and what they are really thinking, what they haven’t told each other – yet. But you can’t assume that your reader has met these people before, it’s vital that you make the introductions and establish who everyone is so they can catch up – they may never read the other books in the series.
SO much has happened to Cat and O’Rourke by the time we meet them again at the start of No Turning Back, but one crucial thing – for Cat at least – hasn’t happened yet….
(c) Sam Blake
Sam Blake is a pseudonym for Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, the founder of The Inkwell Group publishing consultancy and the hugely popular national writing resources website Writing.ie. She is Ireland’s leading literary scout who has assisted many award winning and bestselling authors to publication. Vanessa has been writing fiction since her husband set sail across the Atlantic for eight weeks and she had an idea for a book.
About No Turning Back:
Even perfect families have secrets . . .
Orla and Conor Quinn are the perfect power couple: smart, successful and glamorous. But then the unthinkable happens. Their only son, Tom, is the victim of a deliberate hit-and-run.
Detective Garda Cathy Connolly has just left Tom’s parents when she is called to the discovery of another body, this time in Dillon’s Park, not far from where Tom Quinn was found. What led shy student Lauren O’Reilly to apparently take her own life? She was a friend of Tom’s and they both died on the same night – are their deaths connected and if so, how?
As Cathy delves deeper, she uncovers links to the Dark Web and a catalogue of cold cases, realising that those involved each have their own reasons for hiding things from the police. But events are about to get a lot more frightening . . .
Check out other articles by Sam Blake: