How To Write A Page-Turner

21st August 2013
7 min read
12th October 2020

When I was six years old, I had my first experience of self-publishing.

Kerry Wilkinson

I was in Mrs Cooper's class at St John's Primary school in Frome, Somerset and we had a project to create our own hardback books. For the cover, we pressed cut-up pieces of potato into paint and then decorated a piece of cloth. We wrapped that around some cardboard, before covering it with sticky-back plastic. I'm pretty sure that's how publishers do it nowadays.

For the actual story, Mrs Cooper wanted us to write an outline, which she would approve, and then we'd write it all up in "best".

Even at six, I was a bit of a pain in the arse. My early school reports claimed I had an "active imagination", which is teacher code for "never shuts up".

I couldn't be bothered with the whole plotting thing, so cracked out the crayons and wrote the entire story in one go.

Quite how I recall that, I have no idea. I can barely remember things I did last week. I also have no idea what my story was about and the book itself is lost to the dusts of time. Either that, or my parents' attic. I hope the dusts of time because it'll definitely be awful.

Twenty-six years later, I am the complete opposite plotting-wise, although it is something that has developed. Back in 2011, when I wrote Locked In, I didn't know what I was doing. One thing I do still have in common with my six-year-old self is that I've always wanted to learn by doing. It's why school never really suited me, even though I got decent grades. Sitting around, reading, listening and revising were just things stopping me getting stuck in. So when it came to writing Locked In, for the most part, I sketched a few notes and then went for it.

I've kept everything and this is one of the original notes from Locked In:

"– TUES Next day. Nice puff piece in paper. Profile of her by journo, etc. Maybe half-truth about her being threatened by Lapham? Looks good for force. Off hook DSI."

That's one line that I made a whole chapter. The entire plan is around 2,500 words. It seems a bit rubbish now.

Over the past two and a bit years, those outlines have been getting longer and longer to the point that I essentially write a book twice. The first time is a version that is between 10,000 and 16,000 words. It maps out everything that happens more or less chapter by chapter. By that point, there shouldn't be any plotholes, or unfinished storylines. This is the part where the real graft goes in. I never get writer's block but, occasionally, I will get stuck with a plan, trying to figure out how to make something work. This plotting process can take anywhere between a few days up to a few weeks, depending on what it is.

At first, I had post-it notes all over the place, now everything is backed up on various cloud storage drives, pen drives, Evernote and so on. I can leave notes on my mobile if something pops into my mind when I'm out and come back to it when I'm at home.

This is an outline for chapter three of a standalone crime novel of mine that Pan Macmillan are publishing in 2014:

"-3- Drive to lock-up, van inside. Everyone strips. Jason takes the clothes as they change. Into different cars - he's concerned that a couple of the others' are too souped-up. His isn't at all. Clothes too. Their suits too smart. He's dressed down. Don't stand out. He drives to a field with the bin bag. Burns. Drives back to centre. Leaves on side road, into a student pub. Can still just about get away with it. Watching. Doesn't know how to talk to people, especially girls. Thump, thump, thump of the music. Knows his limits - can drink enough to get tipsy, never too drunk. (ALWAYS leaves and come back for it. Doesn't drink and drive - stupid thing to get pulled over for. Everything comes crashing down for something silly). Bloke stumbles into him at bar, sorry mate, etc. Brushes off. Watching the life that was never his: people around his age having fun, dancing, snogging, laughing. Watching them all.

/// Realises a woman is sat next to him at bar. Purse, dress, hair. Etc. Older than him. She's gorgeous. Asks what his name is. Jason. How old are you? 24. Should he ask her age? Do men do that? She looks about 30 but he doesn't want to look at her directly. Should he ask her to dance? Buy her a drink? She holds out hand anyway. I'm Natalie. Buys him a drink. He knows he's near his limit but doesn't want to say no. She asks what he does. He: Not much. She: Is that supposed to impress a girl? He tries to smile. Doesn't know what to say.

/// End: Natalie: What's it like working for Harry Irwell?"

On its own, that note is around 300 words - and that's one chapter in a novel that has 40. The chapter itself is 2,300 words. You can see how much more in-depth the note is compared to the 2011 version. What that means is that when I write, I don't focus quite as much on the plot, more on the writing itself because the story is taken care of. I find it allows me to work a lot quicker.

Sometimes the chapter outlines end up stretching into two if there's more in it than I thought. In the paragraph above, "He drives to a field with the bin bag. Burns", became a little more significant than I planned.

The plot outline is all there but I never constrict myself. Sometimes, parts feel as if they should be longer, other times I'll think something is going to be a big scene but it ends up being a lot smaller. As many writers will tell you, the book writes itself sometimes and I still let that happen.

Occasionally, things change, too. In one of the recent Jessica Daniel books, she was supposed to discover something about a person but it didn't feel right when I got to the moment. I went back to my notes and reordered a lot of the final quarter, including rethinking the end. When I was plotting it, the story felt like it would work one way, but when I came to write it, I knew that it wouldn't. Other times, the story will come out exactly as I plotted.

The more I've written, the more this process has evolved.

This method also allows me to work on multiple things at the same time. I can plot a series of books, letting me figure out an arc for a character, rather than winging it and being left in a situation where I wish I could go back and change something in a book that is already out.

When it comes to writing, it's about knowing yourself and finding out what works. I can't sit down with a blank page and no notes because nothing will come out - but if I've put the work in previously, then it flows.

A lot of things have changed in the past 26 years, including how I plot a story - although I'd love to have a crack at writing a book in crayon again.

Writing stage