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Out of Focus


I am an orderly person, organised, conscious of time, early to meetings, and I keep copious notes in various notebooks. When it comes to writing, however, it all goes a little bit blurry. Not the act of writing – that’s fine and progresses along at a steady pace. No, it’s the deciding what to write that sends my mind spinning out of focus.

The first draft of Degrees of Darkness is so old it was written on an Amstrad PCW 9256. As soon as I got my first PC I rewrote the entire novel from memory, without once referring to the original. I guess it was my version of pruning back. Either way, it was developed as a stand-alone, and stand-alone it has thus far remained. But that was the first full novel I’d ever written, so it lived inside me for quite some time before I wrote the first word.

Now, when it comes to Bad to the Bone, the first to feature DI Jimmy Bliss from the Peterborough Major Crimes team based at Thorpe Wood police station, it never crossed my mind to write a follow-up. Not until I signed my first publishing deal, part of which insisted I deliver a sequel. That became The Scent of Guilt, but it also meant re-writing a bit of its predecessor so as to untie one or two strands previously neatly knotted and finished with the flourish of a bow.

When I signed that initial contract, I was working on Scream Blue Murder – another very different book, an action-adventure thriller and the third book I had written as a stand-alone. Only with this one, by the time I was two-thirds in, I knew I wanted to continue the story of Mike Lynch and Terry Cochran. In fact, I wrote the first chapter of Cold Winter Sun before the final chapter of SBM. I did so against my publisher’s advice, and in truth the books haven’t sold terribly well, but despite this I still have high hopes of writing a third and final book in the Mike & Terry trilogy. I have just the story for it standing by, as it goes.

Close to the end of writing book #4 in the Bliss series, The Reach of Shadows, I was tinkering with a story called Fifteen Coffins which I really liked. Originally I regarded it as a vehicle for the final Mike & Terry instalment, but ultimately I didn’t see them working this one. Given its setting is northern California, I even considered bring in the LA cop, Robbie Newman, from The Scent of Guilt, and giving her a crack at it. Possibly even with Bliss if I could persuade him to take a holiday out there. That didn’t feel quite right, yet it was worth the thought because the one thing that did stick with me from that solitary brainstorming session was to have a female as my main character. I liked that idea so much I started writing her. It was a challenge, taking me out of my comfort zone again, so what’s not to like?

Yet while I was still tinkering around the edges of that idea, a true and open case from small town USA took my fancy, and an idea bloomed for a full-on, pacey version of the Bliss procedural. Pretty much the whole thing came to me and I just went straight into it and left Fifteen Coffins on the sidelines. So I got The Death of Justice written, the submission was accepted, and I knew I had FC to return to. The trouble was, by now another project was calling me. Crime, but much, much darker, maybe even darker than Degrees of Darkness, a blacker shade of black pulled from one of those dank, dark, and dreary chambers of the imagination in which ideas live. I wrote an opening chapter for it which gave me goosebumps. Hair rose on the back of my neck. I wanted to write it. I was going to write it. But I couldn’t quite find its voice, and as Fifteen Coffins was partially started, I opted to continue with that instead.

A couple of chapters before the end of FC I started to have that ‘what if..?’ thought. I don’t like to refer to it as the dreaded what if..? thought, but that is sometimes how it feels. Because by now I’m looking at Fifteen Coffins, which was absolutely, certainly, categorically, unquestionably, and indisputably going to be a one-off, a one-time only stand-alone. Only this time I got to thinking, ‘But what if it isn’t right to put an end to this character’s work. What if there’s another story, and another after that.’ So I sat down with my BIG BOOK OF IDEAS opened up to a blank page, and within a few minutes an idea for a story popped into my head, an idea with threads to unwind, with enough legs to carry it through. The moment I was done exploring that idea, I turned a page and just kept on writing until I had another story sketched out. It was only a few paragraphs, but it was the basis of a third book in a series I’d had no intention of writing less than thirty minutes earlier. Later that same night, Bliss #6 came from nowhere following a news feature on TV which ran right while I was sitting there thinking of these other books.

So here is where I am: editing Fifteen Coffins, now with a view to leaving the ending open so that a sequel looks not just possible but likely; getting ready to write Bliss #6 and enjoy being back with those characters, and even spending time with the new ones who inevitably show up in a new case; I have two storylines lined up to follow Fifteen Coffins without yet having a deal for the novel they are supposed to follow; there is also Bliss’s sixth outing to continue with; my dark crime thriller is just three chapters old and begging me to be let out to play; and all the while in the background I hear Mike Lynch and Terry Cochran coughing into their fists in order to draw my attention.

It's mad. It’s crazily unfocussed. And it’s me when it comes to deciding what to write next. But I know what will happen. I will think it through, I will arrive at a firm decision based on logic and sound reasoning. After which I will ignore the outcome and go with what my gut instinct tells me to do at the time. It’s not infallible methodology, but it is the closest I will come to removing the blurred edges of my reasoning.