Interview with John Bowen, Thriller and Mystery Writer

Today I’m interviewing John Bowen, an author of thrillers and mysteries who refuses to be constrained by genre. He’s one of my writing heroes as he’s a whizz at marketing and someone I always go to for advice.

Today he’s chatting to me about the writing process, and he’ll be back in a few weeks for another interview about marketing and publishing.

Tell us something about your books, including your genre and your characters and/or themes.

I’ve released four novels to date, Where the Dead Walk, a supernatural thriller/mystery, Vessel, an action thriller with elements of history and sci-fi, Death Stalks Kettle Street a sort of postmodern cozy murder mystery, and most recently, Crow’s Cottage, a sequel to Where the Dead Walk.

I’ve always read across lots of different genres and that’s how I like to write too. Since I’m self-published I have the freedom to wander, even if it does make marketing slightly trickier. Whatever the genre though, my goal is to write stories with strong characters and plots that service a theme.

What inspires you to write? Who are your favourite writers?

Writing a novel presents the opportunity to ask yourself a big question and attempt to answer it. That can be fun, interesting and challenging. 

I love writers who do that in an accessible way, where you could seemingly tear out any single a page from their books and it would make for entertaining reading. I’d certainly put my favorite authors, William Boyd, John Irving, Stephen King, Nick Hornby and Kate Atkinson in that camp.

How do you start writing? Do you have a process or do you fly by the seat of your pants?

It usually starts with a compelling situation or idea. What comes next is asking why I find it compelling. A question will often emerge, and a theme. I think identifying what your story is about, which is a different thing to what happens is vital.

In terms of having a process, I’m a planner. Investing time in planning, not just at the outset, at a macro level with an outline, but throughout, breaking things down to a micro level with scenes as they approach, always feels worth the effort in the long run.

How has your writing process changed since you started writing?

It hasn’t a great deal. I sort of wish it had. Every book still feels as difficult to write as the last, and I never feel confident I’ll be able to write the next. 

How long does it normally take you to write, and what proportion of the time is spent doing what?

A novel appears to take me between eighteen months to two and a half years to fully complete.

I usually begin with a lean outline and an ending in mind I feel will justify the journey. I’ll write a few opening chapters to see how things feel, get characters up on their feet, walking and talking, and then I’ll outline in more detail. From here, I’ll write around half the book before taking a break to see what I actually have. 

Are there structural concerns? Do my characters honestly feel like people or still characters? How is the pacing? Does the start pull the reader in and keep them engaged? Am I trusting in subtext or telling my readers what to think? Am I being economical, or is something begging to be cut? Are there practical logic issues? Do ones I’ve already encountered have credible solutions or have I been lazy and accepted a fudge to wave them away? Are my timelines correct?

The halfway point is a perfect spot to spy future problems, and solve existing ones that can prove much harder to resolve without extensive changes at the end. 

The biggest question though is ‘do I have half of a good book or half of a so-so one?’ If it’s the latter then I’d better go back and make it half a good book before I go any further. 

One or two drafts of the first half isn’t unusual. When I’m happy, I’ll outline the rest of the book in much greater detail, scene by scene. From here, the journey to a complete draft is usually easier going. Once I have one, I will refine and rewrite until I’m happy enough to bring my editor on board.

What is your favorite part of the writing process?

Without doubt, those moments when you get the ‘brilliant idea’, often a snatch of a scene, or a line of dialogue. Solving a narrative problem is always rewarding, especially when it results in something that isn’t just a fix but brings something more to the story.

Do you involve other people in your writing, as collaborators or editors? How do you make this work?

No one sees anything until I have a what feels like a near-final draft. This is what my editor gets.

I’m not greatest of technical writers, so my near-final draft is apt to give any grammar or punctuation stickler nightmares. I know there will be work required. My editor will fix these kinds of mistakes, or highlight them so I can.

That stuff is important, but mostly boils down to clarity and polish.  Perfect grammar, spelling and punctuation don’t equate to good writing, they won’t make a leaden scene come alive, turn wooden characters into vivid ones, or transform unconvincing dull dialogue into gold, improve plot, pacing, structure, character consistency… These are the things that make a story compelling, and eat time to correct if you got them wrong.

My editor’s opinions will help me identify these sorts of weak spots. Some things are subjective, and I don’t always take her advice, again being self-published that’s my prerogative, but I never ignore it unless I can defend my choice or approach.

Do you have any writing tips you’d like to share with readers?

Find your voice and have faith in it. What makes your book special is your personality, viewpoint and experiences. You are your book’s special sauce.

Thanks to John for taking the time to tell us about your writing process. You can find out more about John’s books and get a free novella at his website.

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