8 minutes to read
It may be a cliché, but bestselling writer Elizabeth Haynes doesn’t care: she has bought a writing shed. The bestselling author of Into the Darkest Corner and Revenge of the Tides wanted a shed after seeing one owned by fellow crime writer Julia Crouch. ‘I saw it and thought: I’m having one of them,’ she says pointing through a sunlit sitting room window to the part of the garden where it will be.
Haynes and Crouch, however, have more than sheds in common: both are successful graduates of National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo to the cognoscenti – and used the internet-based 30-day writing challenge to write novels that have gone on to be bestsellers.
I wrote my first full-length book thanks to NaNoWriMo.
‘I wrote my first full-length book thanks to NaNoWriMo,’ Haynes explains over tea and cake – for me, not her, she’s on Lighter Life, she says. We are in the sitting room of her modern semi in rural north Kent. It feels cosy and familiar, very different to the dark, vicious world of her imagination. The only hint of that is a long bookshelf along one wall, which is crammed with crime novels, many with broken and bruised spines.
She started using NaNoWriMo in 2005 and completed two manuscripts before hitting pay dirt with Into The Darkest Corner (Myriad Editions), her 2011 bestselling début. The writing challenge enabled her to make the leap from short fiction to something more sustained. ‘I think with our busy lives it’s easy to see writing as a self-indulgent hobby; with careers, families and other demands on our time it’s hard to justify spending time writing just for fun. NaNoWriMo gives you a reason to do just that,’ she explains of why she used it.
As with her unpublished NaNoWriMo novels, Into The Darkest Corner began with the germ of an idea and a couple of ‘nebulous’ characters. ‘I’m very careful not to over-think the plot before I start.’ In this case the idea was domestic abuse. She sounds surprised as she recalls: ‘I thought there is a possibility that I could do something with this as I had a beginning, middle and end that I liked.’
It’s hard to justify spending time writing just for fun. NaNoWriMo gives you a reason to do just that.
And what a beginning! A blood-spattered scene sees a woman bludgeoned to death in a ditch. From there Haynes unfolds the story of Catherine, whose meticulous planning had enabled her to escape an abusive relationship. But a phone call reveals her suffering is not behind her. What follows is a plot that twists into a gripping and believable climax that works as genre crime thriller and, thanks to its intelligent portrayal of domestic violence, book group staple.
Given its success, it may be surprising that a multi-million pound imprint wasn’t behind it. Instead it was in the vanguard of a new fiction list from tiny Brighton-based independent Myriad Editions. As a result it was not supported by the advertising clout usually associated with bestselling crime débuts. It didn’t matter: readers loved it, quickly loading it with five star reviews on Amazon UK. Within a short time the book had received over 600 reviews, almost 500 of which awarded five stars – it has now reached 700 out of 900. Amazon recognized its quality by naming it the 2011 Book of the Year.
Key to the novel’s success, says blogger and book prize judge Rhian Davies, is Haynes’s voice. ‘I think her distinct and unique appeal lies in her voice,’ Davies explains. ‘It’s like having your best friend sitting next to you telling you a story.’ Victoria Blunden, Haynes’s editor at Myriad, agrees the author’s knack for creating sympathetic female leads is at the heart of her success. ‘Elizabeth has a knack for creating strong female characters that the reader cares about, and building tension so that the pages turn themselves.’
Originally sent the manuscript with a view to providing feedback, Blunden recalls that even at early draft stage it was obvious the book had potential: ‘The pace of Elizabeth’s storytelling, and the way she’d used the structure of the book to fuel the drama, were completely captivating, and she’d handled her subject matter – the terrifyingly real depiction of an abusive relationship and the attempt to live with the aftermath of trauma – with real sensitivity.’
I explore the characters and unravel the plot by re-writing, rather than planning it out in the first place.
The quality of this early draft reflects what Haynes sees as both the strengths and weaknesses of NaNoWriMo. While writing is quick, she finds the editing process ‘tortuous’. ‘I know of several non-NaNoWriMo authors who complete manuscripts slowly, over a year or more, and then only need to do maybe two drafts with some copy editing to finish off.’ Not so Haynes. ‘I end up writing several drafts, each time exploring the story further – and this takes about a year. I explore the characters and unravel the plot by re-writing, rather than planning it out in the first place.’
The strength of the ‘get it on the page at any cost’ approach is that you relinquish editorial control, letting the words flow in order to meet the daily target. Summing up a struggle faced by most writers – including this one – she adds: ‘Before I tried NaNoWriMo, all my attempts at writing were brief because sooner or later it would feel pointless or I would run out of steam.’
I find the best ideas come to me when I’m writing fast.
NaNoWriMo liberates Haynes, enabling her to write from her Id, unhindered by self-criticism. ‘I find the best ideas come to me when I’m writing fast and don’t have time to say “that’s silly” or “that won’t work” – I just do it, knowing that if it falls flat, I can take things in a different direction when I’m editing.’ She adds: ‘By sacrificing quality over quantity – after all, it’s only about the word count – your creativity is liberated and you write without worrying about anything else.’
Risk-taking with plot is not the only beneficiary from this unfettered method of writing a first draft. Haynes is adamant her leads have strong voices because she does not ‘over-think’ her characters at this stage. ‘It takes a few days or a week of writing for things to gain momentum, and then I find the voices of the people I’ve created become clearer. That’s when it really gets exciting.’
I suspect her continued use of NaNoWriMo is also about not over-thinking the reception of each new book now she is tied into a five-book deal with Sphere. She admits as much when she tells me using the site for Revenge of the Tide, her second published novel, was ‘very different’. The greatest pressure with the book came during editing. By then her début was accelerating up the charts. ‘I suddenly realized that I had an awful lot to live up to,’ she recalls, pulling a face of mock fear, followed by a warm smile.
The novel, though different in character to her début, retains her trademark believable female lead, flawed in character and judgment. ‘I was anxious to make Genevieve quite different to Catherine,’ she says of Tide’s narrator. That is an understatement: Genevieve supplements her wages from a job in marketing by working weekends as a pole dancer. A less than reliable narrator, she is all ambition and no insight, which means the story unfolds at a seductive pace as she becomes enmeshed in a world that operates on the fringes of criminality and exploitation.
For Genevieve money is everything, it buys her the life she desires (in this case one refurbishing a barge on which she can live without ties). Haynes subtly creates a character more complex than might be expected in a genre thriller, one who is fearless, but also remarkably naive – she goes from selling financial products to selling her body with the blithe rapaciousness of a reality show contestant who disrobes for Nuts. As Genevieve narrates, it is easy to believe the ethical creep that leads her from a bit of a laugh on a Friday night to consorting with gangland figures better avoided.
For both books, Haynes drew on her experience as a police analyst for Kent Constabulary. The day job involves analyzing crime patterns. Finding links – geographical and temporal – and patterns of crime helps detectives crack cases and commanders direct resources. It also provides her with an intimate knowledge of crime, though she emphasizes her novels are fiction.
‘It’s more subtle than that,’ she says of how the job helps her write. Into the Darkest Corner was inspired by reports of domestic abuse she read for work. ‘I was very struck by how I had probably had a stereotype of the kind of woman or couple who would be involved in domestic abuse. I had that perception thrown out of the water. There are lots of reasons why women and men stay in abusive relationships. They are not always the most obvious ones.’ It is a neat summary of what happens to Catherine.
I still have to pinch myself that I am writing and published and have five books that I can write.
With Revenge of the Tides she used her understanding of organized crime. The actuality of the novel came from first hand research of pole dancing, including a weekly class. ‘The warm up nearly killed me.’ We are both laughing: I’m trying to imagine Haynes – more WI than Spearmint Rhino – writhing round a pole.
She also met women who worked in the industry. An active listener, she quickly recognized the disconnect between the excuses women use for taking the job – to pay university fees or buy homes – and their inability to escape it once they have bought their dream. ‘It’s very difficult to give up that kind of money, even if they don’t want to go back to it.’ There is a note of sadness in her voice: not judgment, but sympathy for freedom compromised by money. ‘To leave and feel sad about going back means there has to be an element in your mind that says this is not a career choice.’
Haynes has been luckier. Next February Myriad publishes her third novel, Human Remains, written during NaNoWriMo 2011. It will be, she promises, ‘really grim and dark’. ‘It is another standalone, but all three fit together nicely as psychological thrillers.’ After that she is tied into a five novel deal with Sphere in the UK and HarperCollins in the US.
The first of the series is a reworking of her second NaNoWriMo novel, and sounds experimental in a good way. ‘I intend to use an awful lot of source text: witness statements; forensic reports; emails. The idea is that the reader has the same access to source documents that the investigators have and can solve it along with them.’ She pauses when I ask how it feels to be one of NaNoWriMo’s most successful graduates? ‘I still have to pinch myself that I am writing and published and have five books that I can write,’ she replies. ‘I mean where can it go from there? It’s amazing.’
Elizabeth Haynes’s Guide to NaNoWriMo
- NaNoWriMo gives you the ultimate deadline pressure
- It is a tremendous motivational boost by writing alongside hundreds of thousands of other people, all around the world, with an element of competition as well as support
- It has motivational tools there to keep you going – discussion boards which allow you to pose plot problems, ask research questions (someone out there is bound to be an expert in whichever random situation your character has found herself)
- Participants organise impromptu ‘sprints’ through social media in which you write for an agreed period of time, say 10 minutes, and then compare word counts
- It’s great for meeting other writers in your local area. I now have some great writing friends I can meet with all year round
- It’s fun writing at speed, allowing your characters to do unexpected things and setting yourself seemingly impossible writing challenges
- If you’ve ever had the urge to write a novel, but never had the time; or if you thought it was pointless doing it because the likelihood of publication is so small, then NaNoWriMo is for you.
UPDATE: Elizabeth Haynes’s latest book Never Alone is out now.
Find more NaNoWriMo advice in issue 3 of Publishing Talk Magazine.