Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: A.J. Waines
Tell us about yourself.
AJ Waines has sold over 150,000 books worldwide and topped the UK and Australian Kindle Charts in 2015 with her number one bestseller, Girl on a Train. She was a psychotherapist for fifteen years, during which time she worked with ex-offenders from high-security institutions, gaining a rare insight into criminal and abnormal psychology. She is now a full-time novelist with publishing deals in France, Germany (Random House) and USA (audiobooks).
Her fourth novel, No Longer Safe, sold over 30,000 copies in the first month in ten countries worldwide. In 2015, she was featured in The Wall Street Journal and The Times and was ranked in the Top 20 UK authors on Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). AJ Waines lives in Southampton, UK, with her husband.
How long does your first draft take you?
My very first novel, in 2009, took about twelve months, because I had no idea what I was doing! I’d never written fiction before and it was meant to be a short story, but I was so excited by the storyline, I just carried on… My latest book, No Longer Safe, took eight weeks, but it’s always followed by lots of rewriting and editing. As a rule, I’d say they take between about eight to sixteen weeks, but I need to know some key plot points before I start.
Where do you most like to do your writing?
In my study at home on a full-sized computer. I’m not very good with a laptop and couldn’t possibility work in a café, although I wish I could, because I’ve become quite reclusive! I have to be on my own, without any music or distractions. Luckily, my husband goes off to work so my cat and I have the place to ourselves. In the summer, I work in the garden sometimes, but it has to be quiet. I tend to hide away working on a book and end up not leaving the house for days at a time!
Do you ever get writer's block? How do you tackle it?
I’ve only had this once, recently, when I couldn’t get excited about any fresh ideas for the next book. As a therapist, I’ve worked with a number of blocked creative people, so I have to sit down with my ‘Writing Journal’ and ask some key questions about what’s going wrong. I can’t get started on a book unless I feel really excited about the key ideas, so I usually ask myself questions such as: What kind of character would I like to spend the next few months with? Where would I like to spend the next few months in my head? I usually look at jacket blurbs of psychological thrillers I’ve enjoyed reading and explore what it was that pulled me towards them. I then play around with possibilities and ‘what ifs’. I write in a very visual way, it’s like watching a film unfolding inside my head, so once I can see everything in full-colour it’s time to get started.
Once I get going, I seem to be fine as long as I have faith in the storyline. I always focus on ‘getting the story down’, not
worrying about how good it sounds. I leave an ‘X’ if I can’t find the right word or I need some research. I never leave my desk at the end of a chapter or scene – I always put at least a few buzz words about what is coming next, so I can slip into the story straight away the next day. I aim for a fairly low word-count (1,000 a day), so that I always achieve it! My Writing Journal is always handy to reflect on what’s going wrong if the story grinds to a halt.
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
I wrote two self-help books first (in 2002 and 2004) and got a publisher for those with my very first submission, but that’s almost unheard of in fiction! With novels, it’s much harder, but I think I’ve been very lucky. I hadn’t even written short stories before as an adult and my first stab at writing, in 2009, was a novel. It actually started as a short-story, but I just kept going!
During the following year, I had an offer from a small publisher and a very prestigious agent in the same week. I chose the agent and although that book didn’t find a bigger publisher, I’d written two more by then and I was on my way!
With those next two books, I had a pre-empt in France and a two-book deal in Germany (Random House), which is very unusual, before getting published in the home country. I didn’t plan it like that, it just happened. I’m known as a hybrid author, because I have traditional deals abroad and have published my books in the UK, independently.
What's the best writing tip you've ever been given, and how has it influenced you?
‘Get the story down’. It is advised by Stephen King in his book, On Writing, and it’s the single most useful piece of advice I’ve ever heard about writing. I come back to it with every book. It reminds me not to mess around with details or to try to make it sound good – just get the bones of the thriller on paper.
What book do you wish you had written?
Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. It’s a very intense slow-burn about obsession, jealousy and betrayal, from the viewpoint of a lonely spinster who finds out her fellow teacher at the school - the young, vivacious woman she’s fixated on - is having an affair with a pupil. It’s a superb psychological thriller.
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
As a former psychotherapist, I’ve been privileged to work with a broad range of people, from celebrity names on television to ex-offenders from Broadmoor. I’m interested in many aspects of psychology and unusual disorders often creep into my novels! In No Longer Safe, all the main characters have psychological ‘issues’! Some of these are clear from the start, other ‘defects’ start to emerge as the story progresses. Like most of us, the fictional characters try to hide their behaviours and coping strategies, so the reader comes up against lies, secrets and deception. In No Longer Safe, no one is who they appear to be…
What scene in your latest book did you most enjoy writing?
I love trying to create atmosphere in my books. No Longer Safe is set in a remote rundown cottage in the Scottish Highlands and the weather plays a big part in the story. I loved writing the scenes evoking the nature of snow; the changes in sound and light, and the way snow can hide certain things and reveal others (such as footprints or tyre tracks). This can create amazing tension in a story – there’s rising panic in the scenes where the characters think something is safely hidden only to find a thaw is on the way…
What's the best and worst thing about being an author?
The best thing is being able to do what I love all day. I love the fact that you don’t have to make the writing perfect first time; you can reflect on it, go back, tweak it, cut it, add to it – I relish that ‘crafting’ and developing part of the process.
The worst thing is the instability of it: the continual ups and downs, promises and let downs, sniff of success followed by rejection – it’s very unpredictable and I’m not very good at dealing with uncertainty! Writing seems to be a massive roller-coaster ride with great surges forward followed by terrible disappointments, but all in all, it is the most challenging and rewarding activity I’ve ever done.
Describe your current work in progress in five words...
Chilling. Disturbing. Enigmatic. Moving. Unpredictable.