After No Place Like Home came out I started thinking about what I would write next. I’ve been working on a historical novel for a few years but between drafts was writing other things and it was time for another crime novel. As much as I enjoy writing my Gardner and Freeman series, I’d enjoyed writing a standalone and wanted to do another. So I set about looking for ideas and came across a very short article about a mysterious case in America. Although there wasn’t much to it, something caught my eye and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Very quickly I came up with my own story, though it no longer had much to do with the original inspiration.
My book was set in a fictional small town in the US. I love books and films about small town America and was excited to create my own place, even going as far as drawing maps. I created a group of characters I liked and found interesting, and even though I intended the book to be a standalone, I started thinking maybe I could come back to some of these characters.
A first draft was written and, in comparison to most of my other first drafts, it was looking pretty good. I let my publisher know I’d be able to deliver the manuscript a few months later and a publication date was pencilled in. I then set about working on the second draft to iron out any issues.
I was about halfway through when things went wrong. Since starting the second draft something had been niggling at me but I had no idea what the problem was. It finally came to me in the middle of the night.
In the book, the police are investigating a series of crimes when two teenage girls come forward and claim that they are the victims of some unknown perpetrator, that terrible things have been done to them. And that was the problem. In the midst of the #MeToo movement and the cases against people like Bill Cosby, it felt wrong to write about girls who’ve made up a story in order to get attention. Critics of the real life victims often claim these women are coming forward purely for fame, and I couldn’t bear to write something which seemed to support this view.
I’d never intended for this to be part of the book, and though I don’t think we should shy away from exploring these issues, and think there’s probably a way to do so sensitively, it just didn’t feel like this was the book to do it.
Once I’d identified the problem it made me feel a bit sick and I knew I couldn’t go ahead with the book as it was. I sat for days trying to work out a way around it but couldn’t think of anything. I started to panic because I’d promised to deliver a manuscript and would now have nothing to hand over.
In the end I emailed my publisher. She was great. She understood why I was reluctant to continue and told me to do whatever I needed to do. I wasn’t sure if there was a fix, and if there was whether it would be something simple or something that would take a long time. She told me to get back to her in a few weeks and we’d decide from there if there’d be anything to publish on the planned date.
Those weeks while I tried to work it out were tricky. I couldn’t see a way out and I wondered how I’d ended up writing something I hadn’t intended, that I hadn’t seen it until it was too late. After weeks of trying, I had to admit I couldn’t fix it, certainly not in the near future, and would have to scrap the book and start again. It’s pretty demoralising to have to abandon a project after so much time and energy has been put into it, especially so far down the line. And though it’s certainly not the first book abandoned to the bottom drawer, most of the other failed attempts were things written much earlier in my career. I thought I kind of knew what I was doing by now.
Once I’d admitted defeat, I set about working on something new. There was a small (insane) part of me that wondered if I could still make my deadline. Even though I write quite quickly it was still madness to think I could come up with an idea, plan it out and write the whole thing in about a month. But this thought was in my mind as I sought out a new idea.
I scoured my notebooks looking for something that was pretty well formed already and that excited me enough that I’d be able to work non-stop for a month. I found a few ideas but couldn’t seem to develop anything enough to write a novel.
And then I remembered a screenplay that’d been sitting in my drawer for about eighteen years, since I wrote it at college. It was a crime thriller, set in New York, my first attempt at a feature length script and my first go at crime fiction, long before I started writing novels. I had no doubt the script itself was terrible (and was correct) but the premise had always stayed with me and it was one of many projects that I thought I might return to one day.
So, reluctantly, I got it out of the drawer and read through the outline and was surprised to find there was an interesting idea there. It needed more work and a few changes, but it was an almost formed idea.
I started making notes, developing the characters and expanding the plot. I added the art angle and worked out the structure, and pretty soon had a detailed outline. I was ready to go.
After my experience with the abandoned book, my confidence had been knocked. I started to think maybe I hadn’t planned that book enough in advance and maybe if I’d worked harder then I wouldn’t have ended up digging myself a hole I couldn’t get out of. With this in mind, I kept going back to the new outline again and again (and again and again), obsessively trying to make sure there was nothing that could go wrong. I’d already told the publisher I was starting anew and wouldn’t reach the original deadline, but eventually I would have to start writing instead of just planning.
In the end it worked out fine. I wrote a first draft quickly with the help of the detailed outline and the research I’d done. But, as with all my books, I like a bit of wiggle room. You can’t plan for everything, there needs to be space to see new connections and possibilities as you write. Inevitably there were a few things to iron out and changes to make in the second draft, but on the whole it was pretty smooth sailing. A relief after the last one.
And though the experience caused a lot of anxiety and made me wonder if I could still write at all, I’m glad it happened. I think The Art of Murder is a much better book than the one I’d originally planned. And though I felt like I’d lost confidence, a fellow writer told me it takes great confidence and experience to be able to see when something isn’t working and to walk away from it. I thought I’d failed as a writer but I no longer feel this way. No matter how many books I write, I will always make mistakes and hopefully learn from them. And I know that the writer I was eighteen years ago when I wrote this screenplay wouldn’t have been able to see her work wasn’t working.
I guess the big lesson is never to throw an idea away. You never know when it might become relevant again, either in its original form or as the starting point of something new. I couldn’t in good conscience publish the book I’d originally written and maybe never will, but there’s always a possibility of finding something in there one day – a character, a location, even the basic premise. So even though it’s being locked in the bottom drawer, one day I might find the key to open it again.