We love writers here, and we love finding out what goes on in their crimey heads. Stepping up to give us The Intel this week is author and journalist Tim Adler.
Tim’s the author of the non-fiction books The House Of Redgrave and Hollywood And The Mob, about the Mafia’s relationship with the movie industry. He’s written for the FT, The Times and the Telegraph, and he’s the former London Editor of the US Entertainment website Deadline Hollywood.
However, Tim’s now focusing his writing talents on fiction, and his debut psychological thriller Slow Bleed went to No.1 in the Amazon Kindle psychological thriller chart.
Tell us about Slow Bleed — what’s it about?
Slow Bleed follows a woman surgeon on the hunt for a female patient who has kidnapped her son – except everybody believes the kidnapper is dead. It’s a chase story that asks the question, “How far would you go to get back the one person you loved?” I suppose the Hollywood pitch would be ‘Flightplan set in a hospital’ (a 2005 Jodie Foster movie about a woman whose daughter seemingly disappears during a transatlantic flight).
Where did the inspiration for it come from?
For me, the purpose of writing thrillers is asking yourself the question, what is it I’m most afraid of? When I was writing Slow Bleed, the answer was, what if one of my children disappeared? How would I cope? What would I do? The beauty of the question is that it keeps changing as you get older. The fear at the heart of the book I’m currently planning is ‘What if the person you loved most in the world killed themselves right in front of you?’
In a funny way Slow Bleed is also my version of the TV show Lost; I liked the idea of the mysterious island. Just as its follow-up, Surrogate – currently out to publishers — is my version of one of those early nineties ‘From Hell’ psycho-thrillers, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Fatal Attraction. In my version a childless couple invite a surrogate mother into their home with unexpected and terrifying consequences.
What’s your writing process? What comes first – plot or character?
I’m sorry to say that for Slow Bleed the answer is very much plot driven; this is a nonstop chase thriller so plotting was important. I have read a lot of scriptwriting books, and the best of them is Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, which has a really handy cheat sheet as to how to develop a story. I figured that a story is a story, whatever the medium. As the story develops, of course it becomes something else. However my new one is much more character driven and, I hope, more sui generis. The important thing is to keep surprising the reader. That’s what storytelling is about: surprising the reader.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
Well, I have a day job so the important thing is to carve out an hour a day and keep pushing the story forward. It doesn’t matter if you write three words or 500. There aren’t any prizes for rushing something. I mean, you don’t rush a casserole in the oven, it takes time. As my shorthand teacher used to say, the secret to mastering something is little and often.
Who are the authors or you love, and why?
Ernest Hemingway is both a paragon and a danger – his deceptively simple sentences are easy to imitate and difficult to pull off. I’m a huge fan of another American writer Raymond Carver, whose short story So Much Water So Close to Home has to be one of the best crime stories ever written. And, while we’re on an American kick, Norman Mailer’s 1964 account of a fatal boxing match remains, to my mind, probably the greatest piece of descriptive prose ever written.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
That it’s so hard to make any money at it (laughs). I’ve had three nonfiction books published so far and each time one was published, I thought my life was going to change. With my last one especially, a family biography of the Redgrave family, I expected that, given the reviews, publishers would offer me work. Of course nothing happened. The author John Mortimer said that a book has the shelf life of a pint of milk and he was right. So I’ve come to think of it being more like a cabinet maker, trying to make something sturdy. With my thrillers, it’s more like being an expert shot – one day I hope to hit a bull’s-eye.
How do you deal with feedback?
Asking non-writers for feedback is hopeless. People just nod and say, ‘I thought it was very good.’ But when you ask, what was wrong with it, they just look blank. Recently I was introduced to the children’s writer Rohan Gavin, whose new book Knightley & Son has just been published by Bloomsbury, and that was a joy; we spent an hour-and-a-half working through the plot of my new one.
Dealing with rejection is hard. My teenage son is a songwriter and composer, and I tell him that the difference between a professional and amateur artist is the ability to absorb rejection but keep pushing on.
How have your own experiences shaped your writing?
Everything in Slow Bleed is heavily autobiographical. All the settings and characters are places that I’ve either been to or composites of people I have known. When you look at writers like Hemingway or Scott Fitzgerald, really they’re just transcribing their experience. I suppose the real reason why I wanted to write Slow Bleed was to work through my feelings about getting divorced.
Give me some advice about writing…
Hollywood has something it calls “high concept” – a simple original idea you can hang the rest of the story from. Often it takes the form of ‘what if?’ What if you lived in the world where no more children were being born? Children of Men.
Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls has a brilliant concept: a time-travelling serial killer is hunted down by one of his victims. Coming up with a simple, original idea is hard.
What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…
You can save yourself a lot of time trying to get an agent by going into your local library and making a list of agents who represent books similar to yours. They will be thanked somewhere in the acknowledgements.
What made you take the self-publishing route?
I’m not sure there is much difference between self-publishing and regular publishing any more. With my latest nonfiction book The House of Redgrave, which The Sunday Times called “compulsively readable” and The Daily Telegraph gave 5*s to, in addition to writing the book I also sourced photographs, wrote captions, worked on the jacket blurb and even came up with the idea for the jacket design. My girlfriend’s mother is what they call an “artisan perfumer” which means that everything is handcrafted and bottled in small runs. I prefer to think of this as ‘artisanal publishing.’
Of course, it would be great if one of the big houses got behind my career, but I suspect they reserve their marketing firepower for a handful of titles each season, whether it’s a Before I Go To Sleep or Gone Girl.
What’s next for you?
As I said, the follow-up to Slow Bleed is currently out to publishers. We’ve already had one offer. Now I’m planning my third thriller about a woman who photographs the moment of her husband’s death, only to realise that everybody in the photo is somehow involved in his murder. We’re pitching it as a Murder On the Orient Express for the Instagram generation.
What I really want to write though is what I call a ‘discombobulation’ thriller; you know, a kind of what-the-hell is going on story. Without wishing to be pretentious, the reveal is often a metaphor for what is reality now. So in Truman Show the answer was reality TV or in the movie Jacob’s Ladder, which was set in the sixties, the answer was drugs. My favourite though has to be the film The Game where the answer was ‘it’s all a game’ – which is kind of a timeless metaphor, don’t you think?
You can check out Tim’s psychological thriller Slow Bleed right here.