People who know more than me say that writers fall into two camps: (1) the planners who work out all the details of their books in advance; they write detailed plans and outlines of each chapter and know the ending of the book before they put their first word on the page and (2) the pantsers who write by the seat of their pants and let the book develop as it will.
I fall fairly solidly in the pantser category. I have read books by self-avowed planners and tend to find them a bit sterile and predictable. Frequently these writers fall into the camp of those who also believe that you must write x thousand words a day no matter what.
In my humble opinion the planner/write lots every day is the road to average writing.
My approach is more difficult but I think (and hope) it provides better results. When I am writing a book, I have a good idea of what is the main thrust of the book and what are the pertinent themes. For example, in Junkie I knew that Cal would be a drug addicted ex-cop who had to solve the murder of his best friend while struggling with his addiction and his relationship with his daughter, but that was about it. I had no idea who the killer was and didn’t have any idea of how his relationship with Sam and Ellie would develop; I didn’t have any idea of how he was connected to Roy. Those things developed as I wrote.
My guiding rule is to make sure that there is tension on every page and that every chapter ends with a question. As I write, I try to paint Cal into difficult positions and then try to solve them in the subsequent chapters. Some of the best plot twists have developed that way.
I discovered the ‘tension on every page’ approach from the excellent books of Don Maas, the New York writer and literary agent and husband to my wonderful first editor Lisa Rector-Maas. Don believes that every book—mystery, thriller, memoir or romance—must have tension on every page, a tension that drives the reader forward to the next page. I aspire to create tension in every word that I write. This means that I often obsess over the structure of a sentence, struggle to find the exact words to express how my characters feel and write myself into corners. One of my favourite things to do is the change my mind at the last moment. For example, when I have decided how a chapter will end, I often make a snap decision to end it the opposite way to how I was planning.
A good example is with Three. In Three, I know who the killer is; I decided right from the beginning of the book (in complete contrast to Junkie or Oboe.) But I got a bit stuck, so I started a chapter in which Cal comes into contact with three other characters but I had no idea how the interactions would go—I just wrote, allowing the characters to behave as they would without any expectations. The result was that the next half dozen chapters pretty much wrote themselves and I believe that the book is better for the fact that I wrote that chapter without any expectations or plans.
I have a love/hate relationship with writing. when it’s working it’s blissful; when it’s not it is hell on wheels.
I hope this answers the questions my readers have asked. If not please feel free to email me with your questions and comments.