Writing Tips From S.J. Watson (and Nicole Kidman)

“I spent some time on location during the filming, and on one day there was a particularly emotional scene where Nicole Kidman’s character realises [spoiler redacted] and runs out into the pouring rain to confront Colin Firth’s character…”

Steve (SJ) Watson paints a picture that so many authors dream of, as he describes the lessons he learned from his novel, Before I Go To Sleep, being made into a film.

“I didn’t know that normal rain doesn’t show up on camera, so they use special rain machines. Ironically, they can’t use them while it’s raining, so we were waiting around getting drenched in the rain until they could shoot the scene.

“I saw Nicole, who was soaked through and freezing cold, and said ‘It’s probably not the best time to mention this, but in the book this scene is set indoors in front of a roaring log fire.’ She looked at me and just said ‘Yes, but this is more dramatic, isn’t it?’ – and I realised she was right.”

The lesson Steve drew from this is how much the location and environment can add to the impact of a scene. This is natural to screenwriters who are always thinking about the image, but in writing a novel it’s easy to focus more on the words describing what people are saying and doing. He now thinks more about the details around the action that set the atmosphere.

Before I Go to Sleep is a psychological thriller that has been translated into 40 languages, is on sale in 44 countries and has sold over 4 million copies. The author, SJ Watson, and his agent, Clare Conville, recently gave a talk at the Curtis Brown Creative course I am on. Each year they select 15 authors to take part, providing weekly sessions with well-known authors and agents to help students develop their novel ready to submit to agents.

What I’ve found remarkable is just how open and helpful everyone is when speaking to the course students. In this session Steve and Clare were genuinely keen to inspire and help us, and they gave so much detail about the genesis and publication of the book that will be useful to so many writers.

Writing the book

Like many authors, Steve had always wanted to write, but found himself on the path to a more normal career – doing a physics degree and working in the health service. He always kept writing as hobby, and an ambition.

On reaching his 40th birthday, he says he had a mini mid-life crisis, and decided he had to at least try to become a writer.

“I didn’t want to have never tried, even if I failed. So I decided I had to give it serious attention. I went part time at work – which meant my take home pay halved and my career was set back nine years – and I signed up for a writing course with Faber Academy.”

Steve says he decided to think of himself as a writer from that point onwards, even introducing himself that way when he met people. It helped him grow in confidence and commitment.

He had previously worked on other projects, but decided to start a completely new project on the course, which at first had a different title, and was written as literary fiction.

He didn’t plot the book out too much before he started writing, he just focused on getting the story down.

“You need to give yourself permission to do bad writing,” he says. “You read other people’s work and think it’s perfect, and measure your own work by it – but that’s not their first draft. For the first draft, just get the words down, and edit them later. You can’t make nothing into something, but you can make bad into good.

Through the writing process Steve had been showing it to other people and found he was getting good feedback. He began to feel it had potential.

The course finished in July, and Steve continued writing into August. But then came the end.

“I knew how it was going to end, but it always seemed a long way away. Then, I sat down one Sunday to do a few thousand words. I was writing away, and I suddenly realised ‘Oh, that’s the end!’ I thought it would do for now and I’d probably need to come back and change it later, but I didn’t - it stayed pretty much the same.”

He then put the book away until October, and didn’t think about it. Then he came back to it with a fresh mind to do an edit.

Getting an agent

Clare picks up at this point to describe how she first met Steve when she spoke at the course he was on in July, and everyone went for drinks afterwards.

“Steve pitched his book to me. I liked the idea, and said to keep in touch. For some reason most writers don’t do this. He did, and finally sent me a first draft of his novel in the following January. That’s a good time to get agents, and I read it quickly.”

So what does she look for?

“I don’t think about genre. I care about the commercial aspect but isn’t the main motivator. I’m simply motivated by great writing. The draft Steve sent showed great promise.”

But it wasn’t yet the book it needed to be.

“The first draft tried to be too literary. I thought there was a dark psychological thriller hidden inside, waiting to get out.

“We met up, and – I’m sure to Steve’s horror – I said there’s something great in here but it needs a lot of work. And we talked through what needed to be done.”

Steve found that hard, but says it was the most useful conversation he’s had about his writing. They started working together, meeting up regularly to give Steve feedback. They went through a further four drafts in this way between January and April.

Clare’s tips to other writers on approaching an agent are:

  • Write a short clear letter
  • Do homework - look into the agent’s other clients you admire. State your interest in other books they represent.
  • Focus on the quality of the manuscript. Send it only when it’s fully finished, and as good as you think you can make it on your own. Make sure the beginning really sets the book up well. Clare never reads a synopsis, and just gets straight into manuscript. She will read three chapters. If she’s enjoying it she’ll continue.

And her tips on what she’s looking for in the writing are:

  • A voice and unique point of view.
  • A great ending gets set up well in the first three chapters, check that yours does.
  • Trust the reader to figure things out. don’t explain everything in detail… it’s better to confuse than bore.
  • Don’t start with weather, looking in the mirror or people waking up.
  • Read your work aloud (or to someone else) - that will help pick up things you miss
  • Don’t make the common mistakes she tends to see:
    • most often, telling not showing.
    • people say the same thing 1.5 times
    • don’t say it would make great film in the letter.
  • But no advice is absolute - if you need to break the ‘rules’ though, you have to make it really good.

In general, Clare says, agents are getting involved earlier in the process – at courses, events and so on. They’re signing more authors via that route. The quality of the slush pile (or what she calls the Talent Pool) is much lower. They tend to receive a thousand or so unsolicited manuscripts a year, of which they may take on two or three authors. It’s better to find a way to build a relationship with an agent, rather than approach them anonymously.

Editing process

The editing process, both with the agent and the publisher, was crucial to shaping the success of this book.

“You can make suggestions,” Clare says, “But a good writer takes that and runs with it even further.”

“The main point was it needed a plot running through it. It needed to be in her eyes, showing us what it is like to be her.

“At the beginning there was lots of backstory. This was unnecessary. I also suggested the last part of book should happen in real time so it feels like its happening.

And, she says, a lot of the work was getting all the complicated storylines to work in the timeline.

“Readers have an unconscious sense of whether there’s a mistake in the plot. It needs to flow.”

Steve says: “Not doing much plotting in advance made the editing very very complicated. It got to the point where I was almost lost in the intricacies of the plot. Even late in the copy editing stage people were finding small things [that needed correcting].”

But what was toughest was the usual pain of ‘killing your darlings’. “I needed to get rid of long sections of what I thought was the ‘best writing’ - but was actually the boring bits where nothing happened.”

Getting published

Steve says the process was amazing, but de-stablising. They sent it out on a Wednesday in May to about 20 UK publishers.

In an unusual move, because of her instincts about the book, Clare also sent it to some of the 15 or so literary scouts that represent key foreign publishers.

The first offer came in the next day from a German publisher.

Steve says: “I was at a friends house having lunch and Clare phoned with the news and mentioned the amount that had been offered. I was so excited. But then she said she wanted my permission to turn down the offer. I was surprised, but agreed nervously.”

This turned out to be the right move as later 13 publishers were bidding against each other. Clare says the decision isn’t just about money, it’s also about what the publisher will do with the book

Steve says it was a very busy time: “There were emails pinging in all the time every day with updates. Then suddenly I was being asked for a paragraph about my next book and I had to think of a whole new idea too.”

The deal was done, and then a film deal was done quickly afterwards, even before the book was published.

The second book

“I wrote my first novel in state of blissful ignorance,” Steve says. “There were no agents, editors, reviewers, or readers. For my second book there was, and suddenly there were a lot of expectations of me.

“I think it was Stephen King who said ‘Write your first draft with the door closed, and the second draft with the door open.’ But it was now very difficult for me to keep that door closed. Everyone wanted to know what I was working on, how it was going, wanting me to attend or speak at events, do publicity and so on. And the thing I learned in that times was: don’t read Amazon reviews!”

But, once again, he buckled down and got the book done. Second Life is now also published, and Steve is currently working on his third novel.

In summary

This was possibly the most useful writing event I have ever been to. Both Steve and Clare were so open, and their enthusiasm for writing was so clear. I loved that both of them seemed so free of ego despite their success, and were keen to help us out on our writing journey too.

I got a lot of really practical advice from the evening, but most of all it fired me up with even more enthusiasm and determination.

It’s clear that Steve’s story is not typical of most writers, but to simply say he’s lucky would be highly unjust. He actively took big steps to put himself in luck’s path, and it paid off. He sacrificed income and career progression. He signed up to an expensive course that required a high time commitment. He came up with a good idea that clicked with people. He worked hard to get a first draft done in a short space of time. He had the talent to write. He struck up a relationship with a highly respected agent, and worked at maintaining it. Then he actively listened to feedback that must sometimes have felt like a setback, and put in the effort to rewrite and rewrite until the book was really the best it could be. He showed that having the talent is one part of the recipe, but that it also takes focus and hard work to take that talent beyond a manuscript that sits in your bottom drawer.

That’s what it takes to see your story in the bestseller charts and on the big screen, and end up getting writing advice from Nicola Kidman.

Written on March 2, 2016