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How to write a thriller, from someone who just published their debut novel

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Author Nina D. Campbell’s debut thriller Daughters of Eve (published by Allen & Unwin) hits shelves today—so we thought we’d ask her to share some wisdom about getting those thorny character arcs and gasp-worthy plot twists onto the page.

There are as many ways to write as there are writers, but most of us sit somewhere on a spectrum between plotters, who work out the story before they start writing, and ‘pantsers’, who plunge into a story empty-handed and write by the seat of their pants.

Plotters usually plan the storyline for a book before they start writing. James Patterson’s outlines are famously detailed and often more than twenty pages long. Australia’s own Candice Fox is a pantser but she has to plot when she collaborates with Patterson on their joint novels. She says moments of inspiration can still hijack their story and steer it in a different direction.

Liane Moriarty, Jane Caro, JP Pomare and Stephen King are all pantsers. JP Pomare, author of spine-chilling novels like Call Me Evie and The Last Guests, believes his plots are hard to predict precisely because he doesn’t know how they end until he gets there.

Between these two extremes are thousands of writers who’ve found their own way to weave the magic of their imaginations onto the page. Deb Oswald, author of The Family Doctor, will break her first draft down, capturing each beat of the story on a note card so she can lay them out and rearrange them, to see how the story might flow differently.

Me, I’m a pantser. Stories come to me in fits and starts so I might not write for a few weeks, maybe a few months, then I’ll feel it like a tug in my gut – a pull back to the blank page, or to a story that’s part finished.

It was like that with Daughters of Eve. It was 2017 and #metoo was losing momentum until a particularly nasty domestic murder put it back on the front page. I felt that pull back to the page but couldn’t decide which of the three novels I was editing to work on.

Then it came to me, this voice in my head. I opened a new document and started typing, my fingers dancing over the keyboard so quickly I couldn’t be sure if my fingers were following the voice or if I was reading the story straight off the page.

It took seven weeks to write the first draft. Most of the time I had no idea where I was going or what would happen next. For me, writing is like that Kierkegaard quote “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

It wasn’t until I had that first draft that I really understood what I’d been trying to say. The novel grew in depth and complexity through editing, but even in that space, I trust my fingers and the voice in my head.

Nina’s debut novel, Daughters of Eve, is out today.

When writing like that, my life and the world I’m building on the page come in and out of focus. I’ll dream the book, find myself writing passages in my head when I’m on the bus or walking the dog. The characters are as real as my friends and family, and their lives feel as real and intense as my own.

Still, sometimes the voice in my head pauses and my fingers hang over the home keys like limp fish. Those times used to scare me, but they don’t anymore. I’ve learned to trust that sometimes a break can be important, like taking a deep breath before you dive deep into a pool. That the voice will come back, my fingers will find their rhythm again, and the story will find its own way to finish.

I know that’s not very helpful. I was asked how you write a thriller, and I’ve told you I’m virtually taking dictation. So, here are some tips I’ve learned along the way, little nuggets of wisdom I’ve collected from other writers. If they fit – use them – if they don’t—feel free to ignore.

The most important thing you can do as a writer is to read. Read widely and often. Words, and the way writer’s wield them, will slip into your unconscious and slide around until they start to form the sentences that only you can write.

Daydream whenever you can. Let your mind wander and when it’s ready, let it start serving up words and sentences that reflect those dreams. Let the pleasure of playing with words and stories fill you up till you’re overflowing. That’s the time to start writing.

That’s when you start writing. Write short stories, or poems or fan fiction. Write anything that feels good and fun and playful. When the worlds you build and the stories you play with grow big enough, a novel might come – but there’s no need to push yourself.

When you’re ready to write – find the way that works best for you. Do it in short bursts on the bus, hire a holiday house all on your own for a week.  Don’t let the shiny words of other authors tell you how to write. Find your own way to the page.

Now you’re writing, Margaret Attwood’s golden rule is DON’T BE BORING. If you’re bored writing it why would your readers feel any different?

Finish what you’re writing. The next story is always shinier than the one you’re working on because first drafts are almost always awful. That’s what they’re for. You’re telling the self the story for the first time, and it will definitely need work. When editing Daughters of Eve, I wrote 40,000 new words and deleted 10,000. You can’t edit a blank page, but you can polish an imperfect one.

And finally, write something you want to read, because trust me, if you’re lucky enough to be published, you will read that book more times than you thought possible!

Daughters of Eve is released today, 29 March. Find it here


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